Childrenfreude: Why I Take Pleasure in Other Parents' Pain - and You Should, Too!

Filed under: Gay Parenting, Opinions, Home Base

My daughter, Diva, and I were at a friend's house for a playdate and Rose, her buddy, was in fine form. Just before we got there, Rose's mom had given her one explicit instruction: Stay out of the hair care products in the bathroom, which Rose had been treating like playthings.

Naturally, Rose disappeared with Diva the instant we arrived, returning moments later to show that they had frozen their tresses into sticky Aquanet sculptures. This set the tone for a day which included explicit disobedience, tantrum-throwing, a bold-face lie or two and weeping when criticized for any of the above.

I have to admit my immediate reaction was this: Oh, thank God! My daughter's not the only one! Indeed, the whole thing warmed my heart with what I'll call childrenfreude: the secret pleasure of watching bad kids happen to good parents.

Let me be clear: I'm not usually one who gloats in the face of another's pain. Yes, if a real jerk gets his comeuppance, I might feel a little twinge of satisfaction. And, if a politician who has made hay decrying the existence of my family is caught with his pants literally down, I'll think he deserves all the mockery he gets. Yet, even then, I feel badly for his poor family, forced to endure his shame, as well.

On this playdate, I truly sympathized with Rose's mom, who was clearly stunned by her daughter's behavior. Like any other kid, Rose can be willful and grumpy by spells, but most of the time she listens to her parents, does her part to help with her two younger sisters and is a joy to be around. This saucy, downright confrontational Rose was new, partly the product of a weekend spent with older cousins whose independence she wanted to mimic.

But her actions also reflected her age: Between 5 and 6, a lot of kids end up questioning why it is that they have to follow so many seemingly arbitrary rules on command.

Seeing my friend confront this exaggerated version of her daughter was encouraging to me because I'd lately witnessed so many similar scenes in my own house. Diva -- a girl mostly good about sharing her toys, playing with others and listening to her dads -- has been going through spells of behavior that can only be described as bratty.

She'll look us in the eyes and say, "I won't ever do that. You can't make me." She's gotten eye-rolling down to a science and has added little raspberry sounds of disgust to the routine. Some days, the shrieking chorus to every song is "Bad Papa!" or "Bad Daddy!" It's maddening enough at home; when such stunts happen in public, I worry my head might explode.

I admit, as a gay dad, there's an added pressure to these moments. Because my family configuration is so rare, and so many people are happy to use our existence as proof of their beliefs (for good or ill), every public success or failure takes on added meaning. And no one -- gay or straight -- likes to parent under a microscope.

That's why I couldn't stop smiling at Rose's house. It's not that I didn't feel my friend's pain, but that I understood it so exactly. And, as the parent whose child was not acting up in the moment, I could better see Rose's behaviors for what they were: irritating and obviously crafted to get a response, but completely transient.

From my safe remove, I could see that these meltdowns weren't the end of the world -- they just felt that way to the mom who had to endure them.

I think we parents all need to witness each other's worst days just to get through our own. For me, it's not really so much pleasure as relief in knowing that no matter what insane-making thing my child does, I'm not the first to live through it.

In future playdates between Rose and Diva, there will be ample opportunities for Diva to show off her she-demon side. And when Rose's mom can't help but laugh, I promise not to hold it against her.

David Valdes Greenwood has written about marriage and parenting for the Boston Globe and in his first book "Homo Domesticus: Notes from a Same-Sex Marriage." The author of three nonfiction books and the creator of the blog "Diva Has Two Daddies," he also finds time to be a kindergarten room parent and Barbie pretend play expert. Read his blog on Red Room.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.