The Surprising Thing That Happened When I Parented Someone Else’s Child?

Kids in tubpic

When other people’s children are in my care I treat them like they’re mine.

I didn’t used to do this, but I’ve had kids for 11 years now, so I’m battle tested.

I bear the scars of having my children variously poop in my hands and barf in my mouth. After that, I feel entitled to my parent chops.

I have a dear friend whose son went through a Dennis The Menace phase.

It lasted three to five years, and he’s still redolent of the water-soaked toilet paper grenades he launched onto the ceiling in my master bathroom when I babysat him one day.

Walking into that bathroom to see my ceiling literally drowning in globs of two-ply Charmin was our Battle of Jericho, because he’d already run through the house knocking a bunch of stuff over.

I grasped him by his seven-year old wrist, marched him to my desk in my master bedroom and sat him down. I hunkered down on eye level with him.

“Look me in the eye,” I said.

His innocent blue eyes looked at the top of my head, my right shoulder, the floor and perhaps down my blouse.

I squinted at him a la Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and repeated my order in what can only be described as The Voice Of The Devil Inside Linda Blair In The Exorcist.

I was well matched. He stared directly into my eyes as if to say, “Bring it, Bitch!”

“You will sit here, and you will not move until you finish your homework,” I commanded.

“Okay,” said he blithely, almost mocking me.

“Where is your homework?” I queried, feigning indifference to my lack of preparation in meting out justice.

“In my backpack.”

“Where’s your backpack?”

At this juncture he feigned mutism. His pupils shrinking to the pinpoint of a number 2 pencil. He began to turn blue.

I wasn’t buying it. Very much. I couldn’t let him see me sweat.

Even if I wondered whether he might have some kind of stress-related breathing disorder that I might’ve triggered with my bad-assery from which he wouldn’t die, but could potentially get brain degradation from and live the rest of his life in a wheelchair sipping pureed spinach through a straw.

I called his bluff and went in search of his backpack.

I heard a creak from his chair, “Move and I’ll put your ass in solitary!” I shrieked.

Well. Maybe what I said was he couldn’t have any Ben & Jerry’s cherry swirl if he moved. Solitary/cherry swirl. One or the other.

I found his homework. Brought it back to him and folded clean clothes on my bed as he bent over his work.

Initially, I watched him the way the Feds would monitor a Mafia stoolie before giving his testimony against the Capos.

But, after a moment I realized, looking at the back of his studious head still fraught with toddler curls, that he was only seven.

A baby really.

His parents were in the process of divorcing. I can’t speak to the father, but his mother was doing everything in her power to earn a degree through which she would earn a job in order to support herself and her child.

They were in the trenches.

“Finished,” he said. Neatly stacking his papers.

“I don’t mean to pry and you don’t have to answer, but I was wondering how you’re doing with your mom and dad divorcing?”

He seemed to consider this for a moment. “I’m fine,” he said resolutely.

I felt like maybe I was out of bounds, but wanted to finish my thought. 

“My parents divorced when I was two,” I said. “It was a really tough time. But after a while it got better. The first year was the hardest. And the funny thing is that now they’re actually very good friends.”

It was hard to tell if my words were helpful, unnecessary or annoying.

“Should we go razor scootering now?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied crisply.

“Listen, I’m sorry I got mad at you. But when you’re here, I’m going to treat you the way I treat my own kids. Because I respect you and see you as a person, and I want to have an honest relationship with you.”

I received no response to this olive branch at all, but felt I’d said my piece and we spent the rest of that day in relative detente.

After that, I saw Dennis the Menace frequently at school and made a point of saying hello and even hugging him if the opportunity arose.

Oddly, he accepted my embraces more readily than my own children did.

But since I have daughters, and Dennis is a boy, we didn’t have a repeat of that memorable play date for two years.

I invited Dennis and his mom to a potluck at my home.

They came and she brought a delicious papaya salad.

My daughters weren’t very interested in playing with Dennis. He got a bit restless after an hour or two of this and appeared at my left shoulder as I discussed the merits of Pinot Noir versus Meritage with an adult.

“I’m bored,” he informed me.

“The girls won’t play with you?”

“Their games are boring.”

“What do you want to do?”

“Can we go for a walk?”

There were 20 people at the potluck. I looked around. They were all engaged in conversation. They didn’t need me.

So, I went on a walk with Dennis. It was the first time we’d been alone since that conversation two years earlier.

Dennis’ dad is a commercial real estate agent, so Dennis knew the square footage and asking price of every house for sale on our block.

He knew what it would actually sell for and if it were a tear-down or a reno. He is 9 and it was an education for me.

As we headed back to the house, I availed myself of the opportunity to speak to him intimately of his current circumstances.

I didn’t know if it was appropriate, but I remembered how isolated I felt as a child of divorce lo those many years ago.

“How are things between your parents?” I asked.

He stopped talking and seemed to consider this for a moment. “Pretty good, ” he said.

“Oh, I’m so happy for you. You have two wonderful parents, and because of that, it may get easier and easier as the years go by. I was a child of divorce …”

“Yes, I remember. I feel like you do, that things are getting better.”

“Oh, good,” I said.

We walked a few more minutes in silence. Not an awkward silence, but a companionable one.

And I felt grateful for the privilege of treating him like he was my own child for a day two years ago.

Turns out when you make an effort with someone else’s kid you end up loving them.

7 thoughts on “The Surprising Thing That Happened When I Parented Someone Else’s Child?”

  1. If another parent trusts me enough to leave their child in my care, what else would I do except parent them as if they were my own? And vice versa, I am only going to leave my son with someone whose parenting I am comfortable with. If they’re in your care, your rules apply!

  2. I am not a mother, however I am an experienced auntie, and mothering children in my care/in my sphere comes really naturally. I normally won’t do a full-blown yell, or insert my own personal rules (whenever they come to be in existence, my children will not be allowed to play with toy weapons of any kind), but I will reprimand when necessary and not feel awkward or guilty about it. Kids need discipline.

  3. I loved this. I am a full supporter of “If your kid is in my care, then I treat him/her as one of my own”. I have a very good friend, whose child is a 9 year old steam roller. He has her so scared of him, and she NEVER cracks down on him. There have been several instances of friends who no longer will have them over to play or socialize with because he is such a PITA. He found out pretty quick that he cannot pull shenanigans at my house, or out with me, since I call him on it, and he will be doing push ups, or timeout, or whatever my kids have to do for the particular crime. I make sure that when it is done and over with that I take a minute to remind him that I love him, and love having him around, that he is a great friend to my boys, but that I expect the same behavior from him as my own kids. I have gotten some pretty nice death glares, but when I ask him to do something, or tell him to stop, he does so. His poor mom keeps asking me what it is that I do. (example, we took him with us to every away game that our boys had for football, carpooling. One day, his mom called me to tell me that he would not be coming with us, since he was acting up. I told her to remind him of how much we enjoyed him coming with us, and that it would be a real shame for him to miss out on the fun because he couldn’t mind her. About 20 minutes later, she called me back to tell me that he had apologized for his bad behavior, and done the chores she needed taken care of before the game.) Kids need boundaries, and to know that the adults in their lives will hold them to that! You did a wonderful thing for that little boy, and he knows he has an adult he can trust!

  4. Oh Shannon,
    This made me tear up. You are a blessing. I loved what you did. I loved what you wrote. I love YOU! My husband has terminal cancer right now and I know that my kids are getting more from my mom friends than me at the moment. I feel guilty about it every day…but reading this reminded me that my gal pals are there for me as much as I am for them.
    Thanks for sharing.

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