Rhetorical Parenting Questions

by Nicole Leigh Shaw
Originally Published: 
A little boy smiling with paint marks on his face from a colored pen

I used to engage my kids in educational life corrections. For example, if one child attempted to climb the banister and slide down it like a cartoon character, I might have said:

“No! No, no, no. I know that looks like fun on TV, but in real life people do not actually slide down banisters. Can you tell me why? Yes. That’s right, it’s dangerous. Banisters are not made for sliding. They are made for helping you to stay safe when walking up and down stairs. And what might happen if you tried to slide and you toppled off? Yes! You’d get very, very hurt. Can you think of better things to slide on? Sure! A playground slide. Very good. Let’s put a bow on this important experience by sharing a cuddle.”

That’s sweet, isn’t it? I was hands-on and thoughtful. I took the time to help my children come to their own conclusions about important matters like their safety, food choices, and when it’s appropriate to be nude. After all, it’s their life to live and learn from.

But lately I’ve not had that reasoned approach, especially during the hours between waking and sleeping. Instead, I deploy a range of to-the-point tactics; there’s no time for explanations and reasoned arguments when a child is about bite the dog. So, sometimes I use sarcasm. Other times I use passive-aggressive questions that point to the obvious. The latter is my favorite approach these days.

Do we put toys in the toilet?

Do we throw cats?

Should you wash your hair with pudding?

I suspect the reason I’m less less likely to engage in “learning moments” with my children is that my children are idiots. They are eager to interact with the world in ways that no one with sense would do. A wall becomes an appropriate place to re-create primitive cave paintings with diaper cream. Shirtsleeves function as handkerchiefs, plates as Frisbees, my sanity as a punching bag.

Do we paint our brother?

Are bookcases ladders?

Do people like to be farted on?

Without meaning to, I’ve become little more than a dispensary of snacks and rhetorical parenting questions. Such unpredictable behavior—I’d have never have thought a person would willingly ingest crayons until I saw it for myself—forces me to do it.

Do we eat dirt?

Are fingernail clippings toys?

Do we touch other people’s eyes?

I may as well be teaching a course on common sense to garden worms. I want to believe that my children know the answers to my rhetorical parenting (hint: always “no”), but at times I wonder if my kids are controlled, not by a primate’s brain, but by an invertebrate nervous system that responds to instinct and the position of the sun in the sky. “The sun is directly above me,” my son’s body may tell him, “it must be time to pee on the front lawn.”

Are umbrellas swords?

Are you an animal?

Do we store things in our underpants?

I’ve begun to point out the most obvious things, trying to get a group of people that Ralph Waldo Emerson famously described as “curly, dimpled lunatics,” to realize that we only jump on trampolines, not on our siblings’ prone bodies. Yes, even if they are laughing.

Should you lick the floor?

Are dogs meant to wear shoes?

Does mommy come to the dinner table naked?

It’s exhausting, to say the least, to have to constantly correct creatures with a propensity for making little else but mistakes. But I hold out hope, the kind only a mother can have, that someday I will not need to ask, “Does that go in your nose?”

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