Exhibition Parenting: Why I Ratchet It Up When My Wifes AroundJoel Stein
I am a very good parent. But when my wife walks in the room, I am an amazing parent.
As soon as I hear her walking toward Laszlo and me while I’m watching him, I stop reading my emails, slip the phone into my pocket, and grab a toy train and make it say hilarious train things. By the time Cassandra has entered the room, Laszlo is giggling. If she goes to a room that is within hearing range of us, I will, without complaint, answer up to seven levels of our three-year-old’s “why” questions, which often ends with the sentence, “Molecules are collections of atoms.”
I will enforce rules I’m not even sure we have, like eating in the living room or something I think you have to do in France, like greeting adults formally, since Cassandra is on month eight of reading Bringing Up Bébé. That book is either denser than Finnegan’s Wake or she is secretly slipping US Weekly‘s inside the covers.
Partly, I act this way for the same reason I turned off Facebook when my boss walked by. I don’t want to get a disapproving look or enter a conversation about my permissive parenting style. I don’t know who came up with the phrase “permissive parenting” but I thank them, since it is such a nicer way to say “lazy.” I believe I’ve heard Cassandra say, “Letting him run around the restaurant is the kind of permissive parenting that don’t help Laszlo learn limits.” It makes me sound soft-hearted instead of just eager to eat my entrée.
Partly, I bump up my parenting when Cassandra’s around because her presence reminds me to be a good parent. The way her presence reminds me to be a good husband. And a considerate roommate. And a showered person.
But I also become Superdad when Cassandra’s around because I am extremely competitive. Even with my wife. Even about parenting. A small part of me wishes we had two children and each of us got to be in totally charge of one. The winner, obviously, would be determined by the one whose kid got into the college that was ranked higher on the US News and World Reports list.
This does mean I actually do important parenting things, like setting limits or teaching Laszlo how to read. It means, simply, that I look like I’m working really hard at fatherhood. I don’t allow any TV. Instead there’s wild dancing, wrestling, pillow fighting and furniture climbing. In fact, Laszlo is never in as much danger as when I’m exhibition parenting.
I also ratchet up my parenting around Cassandra for the same reason Sam Walton spent a day a month doing a random job at a Walmart: He wasn’t just learning about his operation; he was also motivating employees. If Cassandra sees me reading long books and throwing a ball with Laszlo, maybe she’ll do it too. And then I won’t have to.
The problem is that Cassandra is never impressed. That’s because she spends so much more time with Laszlo that nothing I can do can equal that. Which, I’m pretty sure, is really why I superdad. When I see her I remember that she is bonding with him more, that she’s seeing him grow up more, that he depends on her more. And if I just parent harder, faster, more intensely, it might somehow be equal.
I know it won’t be. But I wish I could at least trick Cassandra into thinking it was.
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