Most of us can agree that being embarrassed by our parents is simply part of being a kid. This also means that embarrassing our kids is part of being a parent. Don’t think you can avoid it. It’s an intergenerational truth, a law of nature. So why not accept our fate and delight in it a bit?
My father did. I was 11 or 12 when, on a visit to see my eldest brother at Bates, Dad insisted on sitting in the way back to make room for a couple of my brother’s very cool friends who were accompanying us out to dinner. Fearing the worst, I begged to take Dad’s place. But he would hear nothing of it.
“What, your old dad can’t enjoy the way back every once in awhile?” To my utter embarrassment, he crawled in through the back hatch – full-grown, bony man knees jutting up to his shoulders, grinning like a pig in shit at this golden opportunity to thoroughly mess with his daughter’s pubescent sense of dignity and self-worth.
For some reason, there was a tennis ball back there and, thinking it’d be a real gas, Dad batted it around like a maniac, hooting with delight and mock-whining, “How many more minutes?!” at least two dozen times as Mom gamely piloted our wood-paneled Oldsmobile wagon down the main street of town. We might as well have soldered a blinking neon sign to the roof: “DON’T MISS JILL HINDLE’S WACKO DAD ACTING TOTALLY WEIRD AND UNCOOL RIGHT NOW!”
So crippling was my humiliation that I refused to speak to my father well into the following day. He eventually said something to the effect of, “Lighten up, kid,” with just enough gravity to communicate that my anxieties might, in fact, be a tad overblown.
I thought about sharing this story at Dad’s memorial last spring because it represents a few lessons he inadvertently taught me that day. First: a well-developed sense of humor can serve as an incredibly effective communication device. Second: it’s best not to worry about, let alone be dictated by, what other people think. Third: parents are people with emotions and attitudes as wide-ranging and unpredictable as mine were at 12; they’ve just had a lot more practice sussing out how to handle them.
It just so happens that I’m a chip off the old block in the goofball department. I delight in joking around with my kids and find it’s one of the healthiest things about my relationship with each of them. That said, I am still their mom, and due to the laws of nature referenced above, even a sophisticated Gonzo impression occasionally gets the eye-roll. Some parents might balk at this reaction and decide to dial it back, especially with the tween years on the horizon.
But I say to hell with that. Stay weird, moms and dads! Keep them guessing. Challenge your smart-aleck grade-school punks to have a good reason why you shouldn’t stand on your head and recite the alphabet backwards, because these are LIFE SKILLS, people. As in, I have actually used them in my professional life, to remarkable (read: “conspicuously unusual”) effect.
Therefore, with ample props to Dad, I offer these sure-fire strategies for thoroughly embarrassing your children to the very core of their being.
Transform ordinary domestic chatter into song.
The last time I did this (yesterday) my son asked (again), “Why do you sing everything?” His father offered the following insightful reply: “Your mom wishes her life was a musical.” He is not wrong.
My guilty pleasure show is “Glee.” Fond memories of childhood involve shoving my pigtails into a bald cap and taking on the formidable challenge of portraying the Mayor Munchkin in “The Wizard of Oz,” whose lines I can still recite on command.
Such improbable aptitudes (i.e. mambo-chasse-kick ball change) add a little pizzazz to cutting off sandwich crusts for the thousandth time. Likewise, spontaneously bursting into made-up musical show-stoppers about sitting in someone else’s pee has proven a persuasive alternative to begging my boy children to please aim when using the toilet.
Speak in made-up languages.
My four-year-old loves this game. My eight-year-old, not so much. Finn and I carry on entire conversations, adding dramatic inflection and hand gestures that seem appropriate for different vowel sounds. Jack generally blocks his ears and groans.
These languages come in handy on long car rides or while putting away toys or when painstakingly extracting head lice for three consecutive hours. Sometimes we’ll even schlerzz the glappher while taking it easy on a Sunday afternoon. I recommend incorporating lots of ridiculous facial expressions to increase the staying power of this particular strategy.
Dance in front of your kids’ friends and/or in public.
The grocery store’s a good place to mock the not-at-all danceable music usually seeping out of the loudspeakers. You could also surprise your children and their new friends who’ve come to play with a lip sync routine to Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream.” Or consider seat-dancing in the school drop-off line where there’s a high concentration of people to be mortified in front of. The bus stop is a great option, as well.
But to make a really lasting impact, shoot for a well-attended birthday party. Ninja Turtles, Frozen – the theme is irrelevant. Feel that funky Dan Zanes groove and get down with your bad mom self.
Act like an impertinent child.
This one’s fun. All you have to do is catch your dear one in the midst of throwing a fit about something entirely undeserving of a fit – like whether a t-shirt falls precisely to the top of his waistband or extends two centimeters past it.
You know as well as I that those two centimeters mean the difference between a peaceful morning of happy chatter over a bowl of organic Gorilla Munch, and an ear-splitting screech session during which your child announces that he hates school, hates his teachers, hates his friends, and will never wear another article of clothing as long as he is alive.
At which point the not inexpensive Tea outfit from Nana is relegated to the “Nice Try” pile, bringing the grand total of wearable items down to three hopelessly stained rags that will undoubtedly draw leers from the parents who somehow manage to clothe their children adorably and without dispute on a regular basis.
In response to this sort of behavior, simply mimic it. Half-baked performances don’t cut it, folks. Do your best to get in the headspace of an irate four-year-old and have at it. It’s Method Acting for Moms, and your unsuspecting audience will stop in his tracks and stare at you in disbelief, probably wondering for the first time if his “safe space” is about to implode.
You now have the upper hand and can say something like, “So how do you like it when Mom acts this way?”
It doesn’t matter what your children think of these antics now. When they’re well into their third decade and have come to understand the titanic responsibilities of adulthood, they will get it.
They will also still remember the time you serenaded them and their teenage friends with a rousing rendition of “We Are the Champions” all the way home from that end-of-season soccer win. The Mom Impersonating Freddie Mercury Story will become family lore. Your children will tell it again and again, and laugh every time.
That’s as great a way to be remembered as any.