Courtney T. Ball

What I Learned from Slobbery Shirts

When my oldest daughter was a little girl, she had this super gross habit of chewing on her clothes and hair. I know some of you can relate to this, because I’ve seen other kids do the same thing. You know the signs: ends of sleeves chewed to the point of disintegration, hair crusty with dried slobber, big round wrinkly wet spots on the fronts of t-shirts. And of course, none of it smells good. It stinks of stale saliva.

I used to get so annoyed at my daughter for this disgusting compulsive behavior. It didn’t matter. Thirty seconds after I told her to stop, she was right back at it. It drove me crazy!

What made it even worse was that I knew for a fact she had gotten this bad habit from me. I was a shirt-chewer when I was a little boy. I remember how much I liked the taste of my clothes, the squishy feeling of the wet material as I gnawed on it. It made me happy, and I couldn’t figure out why it bothered my parents so much.

And then, one day, I don’t remember when or why, I stopped. I just grew out of it, I guess. The same thing happened to my daughter at some point. She is about to turn fourteen, and I am happy to say that all her clothes have been drool-free for many years.

Sometimes, I look at my kids and I can just see, These kids are me! That’s my facial expression. That’s my sense of humor. That’s the way I walk. That’s my love for music. 

If it’s a bad habit, I try to pass it off as my wife’s. That’s her stubbornness. That’s her temper. There goes my daughter, tuning me out just like my wife. It doesn’t work, though. In the end, I have to admit that they got the good and the bad from both of us.

I try to remember that when I’m frustrated with my kids. For example, when I ask my younger daughter to transition to whatever activity is next before she’s ready, she sometimes reacts with stomping and screaming. If I can remain calm and objective, I understand where she’s coming from. Just like her, I hate it when people tell me what to do or make me live by their schedule. Likewise, when my older daughter picks up a book and forgets everything else she’s supposed to be doing, I can relate to that. I do the exact same thing.

I try to remember these things as a parent, but usually I don’t. Most of the time, especially in the heat of a contentious moment, I am a complete hypocrite and can’t understand why my daughters don’t just behave the way I want them to. “So what if you don’t want to finish what you’re doing? We should have been out the door five minutes ago!” Or, “I don’t care how interesting that book is, you went into your room to get socks and you never came back!” Exasperated, I commence with my own fit of stomping and screaming.

I wish I could be a more patient person. I wish I could hold on to this wise, empathetic understanding I have of my children when I’m calm and actually carry it into those tense situations of conflict more often. Sometimes I do! Every once in a while, I’ll look back at a situation that could have gone into full meltdown and think, Wow, man! I really handled that well! I’m an awesome dad!

That’s not usually how it goes, though. Most of the time it’s a very predictable cycle of events, after which I ask myself, Why is parenting such hard work? Am I ever going to get good at it?

So, what have I learned from all this? Just one thing, really. I learned that eventually, it will all be over. One day, your kids stop chewing their shirts. Another time, you’ll discover that somehow they learned to handle unwanted surprises without stomping and screaming every time. And finally, after years of toil and struggle, you’ll realize that they actually got most of what you tried to teach them.

And then one day, they’ll be gone, out of your house, and after about a month of partying, you’ll think, What I wouldn’t give to see one more chewed up shirt.

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Courtney Ball

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