Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Spooky pretzels

Or, being a three-year-old means never having to admit you weren't always at war with Oceania...

"I want to go trick or treating!"

Mrs. Exile and I look at each other in panic as we pull out of the parking lot of the daycare center. Up until this very moment the two of us were under the distinct impression that Baby Exile did not want to go trick or treating, because the idea of it scared the living hell out of her, or at least had frightened her every time we'd brought it up over the past month in an attempt to see if she was interested in giving it a try this year.

"Maybe we can go trick or treating for Halloween," we'd say encouragingly, only to watch our daughter take a half-step back from us, her eyes wide with horror. In fact, Baby Exile seemed so freaked out at the prospect of roaming costumed gangs in search of candy that we scuttled our plans to brave the Halloween festivities in Salem this past weekend (maybe next year!) and ratcheted down our itinerary for last night to a viewing of The Nightmare Before Christmas and maybe handing out treats to anyone brave enough to clamber up to our second-floor apartment.

We figured that the Halloween party at daycare would be sufficient for this year, and scheduled the afternoon and evening accordingly -- a perfectly rational course of action that was in danger of collapsing like a rotten jack-o-lantern as my wife and I were completely blindsided by our daughter's 11th-hour reversal.

"Uh, are you sure about that?" I ask Baby Exile nervously.

"But I thought you said you didn't want to go..." my wife says, mostly out of disbelief.

"I want to get trick or treating!"

Crap. Peer pressure is a marvelous thing -- sometimes it gets your finicky toddler to try eating green beans at dinner, sometimes it gives her the idea that pointing her finger at people and saying "bang" is jolly good fun. Baby Exile has gotten a lot out of her three years at the daycare center, both good and bad, and she definitely wouldn't be where she is intellectually or socially without the time she's spent there. I suppose we're decent enough parents, but we know we can't hold a candle to our daughter's teachers and the almighty peer group.

Well, it looks like a day of everyone dressing up in costume and talking up the big night has completely changed Baby Exile's mind about the scariness of Halloween, and now we don't know what to do. It's kind of late, her outfit is no longer ready for prime time, and we still have a half hour in the car before we even get home anyhow -- more than enough time for Mrs. Exile and I to feel embarassment at being unprepared for this eventuality. This is the moment all of those books and videos never prepare you for, the moment when you feel like a bonafide Failure as a Parent (tm).

Whereas just a year ago you could fudge your way through the turning of the seasons without provoking any resentful recriminations about everything you didn't do (of course they never remember the stuff you did do!), now you become acutely aware of the fact that your little one has certain expectations which are growing increasingly independent of your own. And while you try to find a plausible-sounding reason why the enjoyment of the simple childhood joys inevitably seem to be stifled by your own shortcomings as a parent, all you can focus on when it happens is the disappointment you feel at having "cheated" your offspring of a Precious Memory that you'll never get back.

Then your daughter asks for her Spooky Pretzels. Yes, the same Spooky Pretels from her Halloween goody bag that she ripped into with glee and nibbled upon before deciding that she wanted to unwrap and lick every single piece of candy that she'd gotten from her party at daycare instead. Yes, none other than the Spooky Pretzels that you had asked your daughter more than ten times whether it was okay to eat or not, since she didn't seem all that interested in them anymore and hey, you're hungry. Yes, those Spooky Pretzels -- the ones that no sooner have you polished off than she's asking for again, all of a sudden, in an angry and accusatory tone, as if you hadn't just spent the past five minutes getting her explicit and unconditional endorsement of your eating them.

That's when I realize with a laugh that I'm not a bad parent at all, just the parent of a three-year-old. And that right now it's all Spooky Pretzels to her. Sometimes we're going to read her correctly, and sometimes we're going to second-guess ourselves into the absolutely wrong course of action. But that's okay. At least we're trying. For every Precious Memory we miss, we get a hundred others right, and the nice thing is that she doesn't really understand the difference between the two anyway quite yet. So we put her costume back on, walk around the various rooms of our apartment pretending to trick or treat, and settle in to watch Jack Skellington.

Next year we'll all go trick or treating. I'm already looking forward to it...

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