How I Read My Kids the Riot Act

October 13, 2016 § 3 Comments

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane SmithI’m not going to sugar coat it. The transition back to school has been rough for our family. I have never been so happy to see a month wrap up as I was when October dawned—and even then the grumpiness of September continued to encroach on us. Maybe it’s the sheer exhaustion of starting at a new school, of having to make new friends and navigate new expectations. Maybe it’s because we had a particularly lovely summer of togetherness. Maybe it’s because my kids are lazy little lie-abouts who, if left to their own devices, would probably never leave the house.

I’m not debating the legitimacy of their grumpiness.

All I know is that, for five weeks, my kids got into the car at 3:30pm, answered “Good!” when I asked them how their day was, and then proceeded to complain about absolutely everything. “The grapes in my lunch were mushy!” “The sleeves of this shirt are too long!” “My bug bites are killing me!” “It’s too hot in this car!” “It’s freezing in this car!” “You can’t make me go to the park. I hate the park!” And then they’d turn on each other, shoving and bickering and yelling until I started to wonder if the only way out of this nightmare was to drive off the road.

I had just had the previous seven hours to myself—seven glorious hours to put my life in order, to bask in a quiet house, to have adult conversations and maybe even get a leg up on dinner. By all accounts, I should have been well fortified.

But, as every parent in the pick-up line knows, re-entry into parenting can be brutal.

I tried empathy. I tried indifference. I tried losing my sh$%. Nothing helped. Three weeks in, I told a friend, “Our house is in a State of Crisis.”

No one could see the good in anyone or anything.

Desperate times call for desperate measures—or, at least, a loosening of the pocket book—and so the first thing I did was to join Audible and start purchasing reams of audio books. Now, when the kids get into the car, I give them a big smile, tell them how happy I am to see them, and then—before they have a chance to open their mouths—I hit play. Their bodies immediately relax. They stare quietly out the window. Occasionally, they cast conspiratorial looks at one another and erupt into giggles (I had forgotten how funny the canine narrator of the Bunnicula books can be). By the time we arrive at home or at tennis or at the playground, we are once again capable of calm, constructive conversation. Check.

The second game-changing strategy I employed was to land on a metaphor—this with the help of Jory John and Lane Smith, whose new picture book, Penguin Problems (Ages 4-8), is now officially our family’s Misanthropic Mascot.

Penguin Problems stars an Antarctic penguin who suffers from an affliction of general grumpiness. Absolutely nothing pleases him: not himself, not his habitat, not the other penguins.

It’s too early to get up. His beak is cold. All the other penguins are squawking in his ears. The sun’s too bright, the ocean’s too salty, and there is so. much. snow. “What is it with this place?”

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

He doesn’t like waddling. He looks silly when he waddles. Waddling is the worst.

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

What’s even worse is that he looks the same as everyone else. And everyone else looks exactly like him.

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

There are eye rolls. There is sarcasm. There is snarky banter that anyone familiar with Jory John will relish (grumpiness is, after all, a Jory John forte: remember Goodnight, Already!?).

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

Oh, you guys, it’s funny. It’s so funny. It’s funny, because—for one brief hallelujah moment—it’s NOT OUR KIDS TALKING LIKE THIS. Because our kids are snuggled up against us. Or, in our case, quietly eating oatmeal with their eyes fixed on the book (“I found a character whom you might relate to,” I began the other morning at breakfast, as I pulled out my new purchase and started reading.).

“I have so many problems!” yells the misanthropic penguin. “And nobody even cares!”

“Hahahaha,” my nine year old roared. “He sounds just like Emily and me!” Yup, I thought. Yup, that’s right. My plan is working.

Enter a wise walrus (the tortoise of the South Pole, if you will). This Dalai-walrus is a stranger, not initially a welcome sight to our penguin, but he goes on to deliver a full-page soliloquy to our friend on the merits of an Attitude Adjustment.

I sense that today has been difficult, but lo! Look around you, Penguin. Have you noticed the way the mountains are reflected in the ocean like a painting?…here me now, my new friend: I wouldn’t trade my life for any other, and I am quite sure you wouldn’t, either. I am certain that when you think about it, you’ll realize that you are exactly where you need to be.

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

(Side question: can we all hold hands and agree to start using the word “lo” in our daily discourse?)

Though our black and white friend doesn’t recognize it at first, the walrus’ sentiment has just the right blend of empathy and butt-kicking to reset his outlook (“Maybe that walrus has a point. After all, I do love the mountains.”). May I also mention that it’s exactly the sort of speech that I need my kids to hear every so often? Much better coming from a walrus in a funny book than from me.

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

It’s not just the text that draws us into this book. There’s something compelling (and crazy cute) about the art. The palette of the book is black and white and grey (think dirty snow), with touches of muted blue and yellow and orange. By all accounts, it is lackluster.

Or is it?

Because the wide eyes of Penguin exude the same sweet befuddlement that I sometimes catch in the eyes of my own children. The icy blue of the mountains looks almost sugary sweet. The snow seems powdery soft.

"Penguin Problems" by Jory John & Lane Smith

In fact, the more we look at these pictures, the more we start to see beyond the grey and the grump. This is the power, not only of a rosier outlook, but also of the veteran Lane Smith, whose talent has always lain in infusing seemingly simple layouts with surprising textures and shapes and expressions that keep us coming back again and again (remember Grandpa Green?).

So now, when my children are stuck in a downward spiral, when they wake up on the wrong side of the bed and come into my room to announce that they are not getting dressed and they are not going to school and they are not interested in a hug so don’t even think about it, I say with a gleam in my eyes, “Do you have penguin problems?” They roll their eyes but they also chuckle. And then they walk away and open their dresser drawers.

And our day starts (or ends) just a little more peacefully.

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§ 3 Responses to How I Read My Kids the Riot Act

  • page says:

    Wonderful approach to universal parenting/life issues! Plan to incorporate “penguin problems” into our family’s lexicon immediately.

  • Kathryn Long says:

    Smile. You’re just too clever! I woke up a penguin this morning! Need the Dalai-walrus, too funny!

  • schultzfam says:

    You do know September was trying to kill us, right? 🙂 I can’t wait until the library gets this one so I can read it to my own penguin! Great post. PS, the library has audiobooks–not nearly as many as Audible of course, but worth checking before you buy.

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