After watching Sophia use her dress to clean the oatmeal off her chops for the 9 billionth time while a perfectly good napkin, pristine with neglect lay at the side of her plate I told her:
“Sophia, I am going to pin a sign on your dress reminding you to PLEASE USE YOUR NAPKIN. It’s just gross. Look you have oatmeal sticking to the bottom of your dress. There’s milk in that, if we don’t wash it out it’s going to start to smell.
“No, mommy. It’s not. It’s just a little oatmeal. And here, I rubbed it off, see?” There was
“I want you to start using your napkin to wipe your face.”
“OKAY!” she said, exasperated.
But later, when she dribbled toothpaste out of the corner of her mouth, she used her sleeve to sop it up.
“Sophia! Please don’t wipe your face with your shirt. Now you have an oatmeal AND a toothpaste stain.” She was beginning to look like a ragamuffin, and we had to leave for school.”
“SORRY!” Sophia screamed back, sounding anything but sorry, and reached for the towel I had laid out, wiping her already-clean mouth.
I took a deep cleansing breath.
Before Sophia was born, someone gave me an album of children’s music, The Bottle Let Me Down. It was full of funny, silly, sometimes irreverent songs, like “Funky Butt” and “I’m My Own Grandpa.” But there was one tune on the album that I simply didn’t get: “Don’t Wipe Your Face on Your Shirt” by the Cornell Hurd Band.
Dad? What is it that we do that really makes you crazy?
Well, I’m glad you asked. Now, you boys know that I give you guys a lot of room in this family. But there’s one thing, just one thing, that absolutely drives me nuts.
Look out! He’s going to sing!
Daddy’s from the do-your-own-thing generation,
No I’m not afraid of mud, or grime or dirt
But you boys must understand, there’s a line drawn in the sand,
Don’t wipe your face on your shirt!
“Of all the things to freak out about, this is what makes this guy crazy? His kids wiping their faces on their shirts?” I said to Kevin, with all the incredulity of someone who is not-yet-a-parent. Kevin was in full agreement. Aside from thinking that the song was kind of gross in general, e.g., You can eat that tub of lard but when you thrown up in the yard, don’t wipe your face on your shirt, he didn’t recognize wiping one’s face on one’s shirt to be an issue of song-worthy proportions.
Now, five years later, I understand what all the exasperated singing is about. This face-wiping thing really is a problem. It moves a parent to artistic expression of the deep frustration that arises from having a child who will not use a napkin. At least it does in my household.
Of course, I have to ask myself, why do I care? What’s it to me if she has a thin line of snot snaking down her sleeve, like the opalescent trail of a slug?
Well, for one, I have to look at it.
And others have to look at it too. I have to admit—I worry about what people will think when my daughter shows up at school, a friend’s house, a special event wearing a three-course meal. I suppose it wouldn’t drive me quite so crazy if we kept this entre-nous (and given that Sophie doesn’t stay in any one outfit for more than a couple of hours, I needn’t be all that concerned—if I don’t like what she’s wearing, the one thing I can count on—she’ll change). But I do want my child to appear somewhat kempt in public.
So, imagine my great joy and surprise when, this weekend, after dribbling some milk from her cereal down her chin, Sophie reached for her napkin and sopped it up.
I cheered! “You did it! You remembered to use your napkin!” I cried.
“I don’t want you to hang a sign on me mommy.” Sophie explained. The corners of her mouth turned down. “All the kids at school will laugh at me!”
What am I, Mommy Dearest? I didn’t mean for her to bear a scarlet letter screaming the sin of wiping her face on her shirt. I was sick of nagging her. It was an intervention born of the recognition that what I was doing wasn’t working. I had more of an only-during-mealtimes-in-the-home, “employees must wash hands” kind of vision. In truth, I thought it would be funny—something that we could laugh about. A gentle, but concrete reminder to change her behavior until it became an automatic habit. Turns out, the fear of humiliation she built up in her mind was a much more effective teacher.
I felt a little guilty about this. But when she got up from the breakfast table today tidy and grime-free, her napkin crumbled alongside her bowl, smeared with the detritus of the morning meal, I felt satisfied. Whatever I did in my fit of exasperation, worked.