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WHO'S THE BOSS?

Since there are more people outside the world's prisons than within them, I guess it's safe to assume that most child-rearing methods work, no matter how nutty they seem. But sometimes you wonder--like when you spend three days playing host to house guests from the What, Me Worry? School of...
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Since there are more people outside the world's prisons than within them, I guess it's safe to assume that most child-rearing methods work, no matter how nutty they seem. But sometimes you wonder--like when you spend three days playing host to house guests from the What, Me Worry? School of Parenting.

Our visitors included my very best friend from high school, who has remained my best friend for 26 years. I have no qualms about discussing his cribside manner with unflinching candor because 1) ours is a friendship built on a firm bedrock of honesty, where praise and criticism have equal value, and 2) he lives out of state and will never see this column.

I hope.
You see, there are certain areas of honesty that can destroy the sturdiest of friendships, and this one tops the list. Even Ma Barker no doubt considered herself a model parent, and God help the well-intentioned, bigmouthed friend who insinuated anything to the contrary.

So just in case my pal is reading this, rest assured that I am referring to another best, out-of-state high school friend of 26 years--Bob of Zimbabwe.

Bob and his wife Bobbi (her real name) have a two-year-old son named Bobaloo (his real name, too), who may be the world's youngest head of household. It is Bobaloo who decides when it's time for Bobaloo to go to bed, what Bobaloo and everyone else in his family will eat, how much candy and cookies Bobaloo will consume between meals, and at what maddeningly slow speed Bob and Bobbi will live every aspect of their lives.

Bobaloo doesn't take naps (he doesn't like them) and doesn't drink milk (he prefers swigs of Dad's beer). He has no use for car seats or seat belts (they're uncomfortable and, as his folks point out with incontestable accuracy, "They don't have car seats or seat belts on buses"). Nor does Bobaloo like to waste hyperenergy by walking down the hall to the toilet, even though he's potty trained. (Diapers, the boy has discovered, are real playtime savers.)

In short, whatever Bobaloo wants, Bobaloo gets. When he yearns to toddle out the door and down the street all by himself, it's okay by his folks, who responded to my wife's politely understated shock by sighing, "I guess we're just not overly protective types." At restaurants, if it is Bobaloo's desire to knock over every filled glass on the table, that's fine, too. Bob and Bobbi just shrug as if to say, "Kids will be kids," then hand their son a bright, shiny steak knife on the off chance it will distract him long enough for everyone's lap to dry.

The ploy never works. But, thank heavens, Bobaloo doesn't seem to mind. And really, what else matters?

The benefits of this approach are obvious. You get all the joys of parenting--and skip the headaches. Why waste time arguing with a toddler when you can spend those same precious moments allowing his personality to develop au naturel, without grown-up restraints? Why risk the loss of his affection by making demands when you can elect him Family Emperor for Life? Why go to all the trouble of making and enforcing rules when your two-year-old can make and enforce them for you? Heck, within a few years, you could hand all your decisions over to the kid: Should I quit my job? Should we sell the house and join the circus? Should I undergo the triple by-pass open-heart surgery the doctor has recommended, or should we use the money for a lifetime supply of cake and ice cream? What's right? What's wrong? How should we live our lives?

It would be like having an old-fashioned South Pacific volcano god right in your own home. And that could be a lot of fun--until the source of your spiritual guidance starts whining for a virgin sacrifice.

At that point, it will make no difference if you finally put your foot down and declare, "There will be no virgin sacrifices in this house, young man!," because an unbreakable pattern will have been set. Confronted with Li'l Kahuna's anger for the first time, you're sure to back off, offer spineless apologies, and begin scouring the countryside for pure, chaste volcano-god food--which, in this corner of the universe, could take a while.

Now, I have never claimed to be a model parent (modesty prohibits). But a wiser course of action, it seems, would be to prepare kids early on for the real, nasty, horribly unfair world by saying "no" once every six months or so; to assume that most preschoolers aren't ready to run their own lives, much less their parents'; and to accept the fact that no matter how you treat your kids, there will be a period of years when they will harbor no doubt that you are an idiot.

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe I should sit down with my kids over brewskies and steak knives and ask them. If they'll let me.

Prepare kids early on for the real, nasty, horribly unfair world by saying "no" once every six months.

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