Parenting Theater (n.): The performance staged by parents when other parents (or, God forbid, their own parents) are watching them interact with their kids.
Stage 1: Food Theater
At home, Lucy may scream at the sight of anything green and Johnny may react to ocean protein like it came from a sewage treatment plant, but while these food aversions are extremely annoying, it’s just life with Lucy and Johnny. At dinner at your friend’s place, however, where the menu consists of fish and green beans, it’s time to put on a show. There are several ways to play it.
Outright lie: Johnny is allergic to fish! Lucy loves ALL vegetables but just doesn’t like green beans! (“So sorry. Got any penne?”)
Parental interference: Johnny and Lucy are taken aside and told they’ve got nothing to worry about as long as they keep their traps shut. Then, when dinner is served, Johnny and Lucy get helpings of fish and green beans. Moments later, you have “seconds” on your plate, and Lucy and Johnny have doubled-down on garlic bread.
Old school: Johnny and Lucy are sternly told—in front of everyone—that they have to eat at least one bite of everything in order to be polite, setting off a showdown that makes everyone so uncomfortable the host says not to worry about it and orders a cheese pizza like he should have done in the first place.
Stage 2: Playground Theater
This mostly involves pretending not to think someone else’s kid is an asshole (“It’s okay, they’re just kids. I’m sure your kid didn’t mean to T-bone my kid with a Tonka truck!”) or apologizing profusely when it’s your kid who looks like the asshole even though you probably think—just a little—that it was the other kid’s fault (“Oh my gosh, I’m sorry, that’s so not like her. She never shoves sand up other kids’ noses. What could have gotten into her?“).
Other examples of playground theater include making a big show of taking your kid off the swing after a few minutes when there is a line, even though the other parents are letting their kids swing forever as though nobody were waiting, and walking through the park trying to find your kid without letting on that you have no idea where he is.
Stage 3: Screens Theater
Another family is coming over for dinner. Your kids are on their devices. You yell at them to turn them off, and iPad cases snap shut or are physically pried from kids’ fingers as the front door opens. “We only allow 20 minutes a day,” you say somewhat piously, proceeding to have a values-sharing conversation about restricting screen time with your fellow parent-guests. (By this time, you have put away your own phone, though maybe not.) The kids then proceed to do all of the things they do when they are not on screens: Nerf sword fights, indoor soccer, wrestling matches, whining about being bored, Manhunt.
After dinner—when things have reached a decibel level that would cause Stephen Curry to miss a free-throw shot—somebody asks, “Should we put on a movie?” and you remember why you invited these people over in the first place. Screens and quiet at last.
Stage 4: ‘Are You Talking To Me?’ Theater
When your kids are younger, this performance is triggered when, for example, your child launches into a meltdown after you are forced to peel her off of another equally unhinged kid’s tricycle. She then starts screaming threats and trying to hit you in the face, which you counter with a well-projected combo of “No! You do NOT hit mommy” (even though, yes, she does sometimes) and “Oh honey, you’re so tired,” capped off by an emphatic “That’s ENOUGH!” as you strap her into the stroller like a mental patient so you can exit stage right immediately.
When your kids are older, this is when your 10-year-old son calls his 8-year-old brother a dipshit in the checkout line of the grocery store, and you say, “Watch your language!” in a stage whisper, even though you unleashed a far more colorful phrase when somebody took your spot a few minutes earlier in the parking lot.
Stage 5: Grandparent Theater
This is when your kids do any of the above-mentioned stuff in front of your parents, and you perform your good parenting so hard you end up locking your kids in the closet for failing to call the UPS delivery person “ma’am”—and then remember that when you were 8, you fell out of the backseat of your parents’ station wagon into the driveway because you weren’t wearing a seatbelt and the doors weren’t locked. At which point, you tell your parents just where they can stick every judgmental grandparent-theater aside they throw your way, while your kids eat white food and play Candy Crush at the playground, cursing like sailors. Don’t judge me, 1970s parents. At least my kids ride in car seats.
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