Tabula Rasa

With twelve kids to raise, my parents were able to provide clothing, food, a Catholic school education, and a big house. It was a nearly insurmountable task for them to get us these necessities. Other things, like lessons about hygiene, were a low priority. Since we were only allowed one shower or bath a week on Saturday to save on the cost of hot water, we were a foul-smelling group.

Our parents forgot to tell us to change our underwear every day and, since kids need to be taught to do this, we’d wear the same pair the entire week. And on the seventh day, we'd forfeit the stained, skid-marked messes to the laundry pile in the corner of our rooms. They’d land gently on top of the knee-high, blue socks we were required to wear at school. These socks were worn for a week straight, as well. They would reek of beef broth and Doritos and the crunchy fabric at the toes would give our feet callouses. With so little time to cover the basics, we kids were left to try and figure out much of life's lessons on our own. 

I, for instance, had no concept of germs when I was a child. If I drank water from a cup, I would place it back in the cupboard without washing it. In my mind, I was doing the right thing. Above the kitchen sink, my dad had placed a sign that read "less work for mother." By putting the cup back in the cupboard, I was doing my part to follow this command by making less work for my mom since I believed she only cleaned dishes to get the food debris off of the plates. If I was drinking a colorless liquid, then this process was useless; they were as clean as they were before I drank from them. I put one glass back every day of my childhood. I was inadvertently committing germ warfare against everyone else in my house.

It's hard for us parents to grasp the depth of our kids' idiocy fully. We take for granted the lessons that have to be taught to children because we have to teach them EVERYTHING, from how to properly wipe their butts to why they shouldn't lick every doorknob they come across. I wasn't aware that I even had to teach Darla that it wasn't ok to climb on top of a stranger's car and dance. Darla was genuinely surprised when I pulled her off the car and informed her that climbing on car roofs was A. dangerous and B. disrespectful. She hasn't jumped on top of a car since that day. 

Other battles are harder won. Some I have been teaching Darla and Jude since they were two years old; despite this, they always seem like they're hearing these lessons for the first time. Here are some of my kids' top blindspots:

1. Wash your hands: Every time my kids leave the bathroom, I have to ask whether they washed their hand. Most times, they slap their foreheads and go back to do it. Sometimes, Jude will argue that he doesn't have to wash his hands since he washed them before he went into the bathroom.  I try to explain to them how germs work. I remind them of the stomach flu they had and how they may not have experienced that if they washed their hands better. In these moments, they seem to absorb the information. Five minutes later, they're back to picking their butts and sticking their hands in their mouths.

Once I convince them to wash their hands, I struggle to get them to use soap. Once I get them to use soap, I have to remind them to wet their hands first. Once their hands are wet, they're reaching for the paper towels, forgetting entirely about the soap.  

2. Drink water: I feel like I'm spinning plates when it comes to getting my kids to drink water; every time I got it under control, their water drinking falls off. Somedays, I feel like I'm setting a great example. I resolve to get my kids to drink eight glasses of water in a day. I purchase new water bottles to inspire them to drink even when we're away from home. I fill it with cold water and ice cubes. I encourage them every ten minutes to drink. Two hours later, the water is room temperature and the new water bottle is sitting somewhere in the park, which I don't realize until I'm in the car leaving the park. By the end of the day, the kids are dehydrated and guzzling water at bedtime, ensuring that they will pee the bed. 

3: Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze: I first started teaching this to Darla when she was two. I figured that she'd be a master of elbow coughing within a few months. I was not going to have that kid who walked through a museum, spreading her germs liberally without giving a courteous cough into her sleeve. I'd seen kids who let out wet, barking coughs through wide-opened mouths before I had kids and it would always make me shiver. 

I was delusional. Four years later, Darla, and now Jude, still cough and sneeze into the air without making any movement towards their elbow. The glares from childless people still haunt me. 

4: Blow your nose: My kids' sniffle and I hand them tissues. They either refuse them or wipe their noses without blowing them. They continue to sniffle. There's nothing I can do to fix this.

5: Don't pick your nose or your crotch (especially when in public): I walk down the street with my kids, who are a few feet ahead of me. Everything seems fine until I catch up with them, which is when I see that Darla is knuckle-deep in her nose while Jude is furiously scratching his crotch. I push both their hands to their sides and they immediately put them back where they were. This moment is when I decide I have to take them home since they're not civilized enough to be brought out into the public. 

And for every one of these lessons that I hope will someday sink in, I can understand their struggles against them. I remember being in their shoes when I was learning these rules. There were many times when I was a kid that I distinctly remember not washing my hands after peeing. I drank more soda than water. I picked my nose gratuitously until second grade until, one day, a classmate caught me. I was surprised to learn that covering my nose with one hand and picking it with the other, which was a technique I was proud of, hadn't camouflaged my actions.

As an adult, I sometimes think life would be more comfortable if I hadn't learned these lessons. It would be nice to not have to wash my hands so much. Also, I now just feel guilty that I don't drink enough water until bedtime. Sometimes, sniffling is easier than getting up and finding a tissue. The way my kids live their lives seem so much easier in the short term and it's tempting to follow their example, but my conscience won't let me.

This is true unless I stop paying attention for a minute and forget my own rules. Just as I finished writing this, while I helped Jude clean his room, I kicked up some dust and immediately sneezed. It was a loud, boisterous sneeze, which I failed to cover. Jude quickly jumped on my mistake since pointing out the faults in his parents is more delicious than ice cream for him.

"Mommy," he said with shock. "You didn't cover your mouth. You need to pull up your shirt and sneeze into your shirt or else you're going to get germs everywhere."

"You're right," I said. "I forgot. Thank you for reminding me."

With that, the circle is complete. The student has become the master.