Small Wonders: On letting your kids be themselves

March 18, 2011|By Patrick Caneday

One of the most valuable parenting lessons I learned came before I was even a parent. It had nothing to do with diapers, puberty or college funds. It had everything to do with macaroni and cheese.

I was single, childless and naturally wise beyond my years (of course). Left at my sister's home one day with approximately 23 of her children — seriously, we lost count in 1995 — I was asked to make lunch for the unruly brood. With but one box of the ubiquitous Kraft Mac & Cheese in the cupboard, I set out to artistically supplement its contents in order to feed the battalion.

Some extra bowtie, rigatoni and penne pasta, copious amounts of sharp cheddar, a smattering of broccoli florets — the perfect way to get them to eat their vegetables, I surmised. Gruyere, heavy whipping cream, just a rumor of cayenne and a delicately placed sprig of parsley. Voila! What kid could resist?


At this point, I hope every parent reading this is rolling with laughter. Because my sister sure was when she saw what I’d made, and what her ungrateful mob refused to eat. Fit for a five-star restaurant; unfit for a 5- year-old.

With the years and my own offspring came some clarity. In this experience is just about everything you need to know about parenting. Everything, except maybe how to make every human interaction perfectly fair between bickering siblings.

More than a mundane meal of supernaturally glowing orange, it offers us insights into ourselves. And life. If you look hard enough.

Really, really hard.

The Expectations. None of us sets out to feed our children processed foods devoid of nutrients. We all strive to find healthy alternatives to Cheetos, Oreos and Otter Pops. We want the best, inside and out, for our children and become parents with that goal in mind.

But it happens. Somewhere along the frustrating and arduous road that is parenthood, we break. Maybe it happened at a friend's house, a child whose parents care less about their children than you do yours. Maybe it was Grandma — disrespectful, conniving Grandma — who happily feeds her grandchildren rock candy for breakfast to revenge all you put her through. Or you, one day when you simply have no gas left in the tank of resistance.

But they will eventually eat Kraft Mac & Cheese.

They'll be mad at you at first, believing you've denied them this manna from heaven. But once they've tried it, they believe this is the only form of macaroni and cheese in the world. And there is no going back.

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