When Beth and I started writing down all the dumb things we said while trying to discipline our daughter, I had no idea the list would turn into a magazine article, which is maybe why it sounds so real and unforced. I think too many articles are born only because someone has an assignment. Anyway, this ended up as the back page essay of Child, an upscale parenting magazine that’s since folded. For the record, Beth says I got the genesis of House Rules wrong, and that she was the one who first said, “No hugging bread.”

Before my daughter Natalie was born, I promised myself that one thing I’d do better than my parents was avoid relying on the clichéd phrases and rote advice that roll from the mouths of all mothers and fathers.

But “Don’t run with scissors” turned out to be pretty useful instruction, pretty succinctly delivered. Aphorisms such as “Look both ways before you cross the street,” and “Make sure you have your mittens” make me less original and way less cool but they also guide my daughter around some of the most common pitfalls of life — and that’s an easy trade for any of us. I’ll bet even Courtney Love has told little Frances Bean not to touch the stove.

What’s come to haunt me aren’t those valuable chestnuts, but the parental proclamations that are so absurd you could never have imagined yourself saying them – until you do.

My life of babble began one day at lunch when Nat was just past one. She decided that the proper way to prepare bread for chewing was to squash each slice between her arms and chest before popping it into her mouth. “That’s it,” I exclaimed after seconds upon seconds of calm reasoning, then listened with horror as these words came from my mouth: “No more hugging your bread.”

My wife laughed and said, “Now there’s a rule worth remembering.” To prolong the joke, she wrote my quote on a sheet of paper, labeled the top “House Rules,” and posted it on the refrigerator.

I appreciate humor. And revenge. I waited patiently. A few days later, Natalie put her Playskool creatures to the kind of uses that make toy-company liability lawyers swill Old Granddad behind closed doors late at night. After several rounds of discipline, Beth removed a tiny pachyderm from Nat’s grasp and informed our bereaved child that, from here on out, in the Strickland household at least, there would be “no stuffing elephants up your nose.”

And the list of House Rules doubled.

Entry number three followed within the week, as I endeavored to solve the ongoing problem of mixing stuffed animals with fine dining: “No wiping your plate with flamingos.” Our collection of inane credos grew to double digits in no time. As Beth and I saw the world, and wished our daughter to live in it, there should be “No eating without pants,” “No throwing lions in video stores,” “No coloring on your food.”

One night at dinner, with her mother and father stalemated for weeks at the authorship of six House Rules apiece, Natalie stripped off her socks, cocked her calf onto the table, picked up a piece of chicken with her toes and brought the morsel toward her mouth.

“Nat,” I said, “don’t –”

I stopped. I flicked my eyes from my daughter to my steely-jawed wife as if I were the Ugly guy in a Sergio Leone showdown. If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, the mark of a true genius is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at once, then my wife and I were both, at that instant, the Stephen Hawkings of parenthood: We understood that it was our duty to help our daughter realize she’d go farther in the world if she refrained from dining on poultry while employing her feet as utensils, yet, locked in an immense test of willpower, each of us refused to utter the first word.

I’m not proud that my wife and I sat in silence while our daughter cultivated chicken toe jam. But from ignominy came epiphany: Good parenting, I realized, is of necessity an endless act of improv, a series of jukes and split-second decisions that can appear ridiculous in hindsight but, in the moment, are brilliant for their clarity and effectiveness.

As parents, we’re at our best when we learn to let go of our adult pride and do whatever it takes to connect with our kids – whether we’re involved in discipline or play. Blurt out your own House Rules. Get down on your hands and knees and be a doggie next time you’re at the park playdate. Our children benefit, as well – and not just because they learn to avoid eating chicken with their toes; Natalie’s become a socially flexible kid, able to adjust to unpredictable changes in circumstance when we travel, for instance, rather than requiring the comfort of a rigid itinerary to function. And we sometimes overhear her solving grave playdate disputes with humor.

These ideals are way too complex, and not silly enough, to qualify as House Rules but they’re crucially, deeply important. Almost as important as the fact that I’m not the one who said, “No biting milk.”

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Originally published in Child, July, 2005

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