The phone was barely audible above the noisy din of two exuberant children racing around the dining room. At age 5, Ally was already too large for the toddler-sized plastic car. However, she still managed to balance precariously on the seat with her legs outstretched in front of her as her hands wildly jerked the steering wheel back and forth. Her three-year-old brother, Quincy, ran behind her, pushing the seat's back to propel the car around the room.
I sighed and set aside the onion I was chopping for dinner. The dining room floor was so littered with discarded toys that it looked like a war zone. I awkwardly hopped across the dining room, strategically aiming for the patches of open floor en route to the living room. I reached the phone just seconds after it stopped ringing.
"Just my luck!" I groaned in exasperation. "Well, I suppose if it is important," I thought to myself, "they will call back eventually…" I stuffed the mobile phone into my pocket so that I would have more ready access to it next time it rang.
"Ally! Quincy!" I called. The car slowed to a rolling stop as both kids looked in my direction. "I have to finish making dinner. You two better pick up your toys before Dad gets home. You know how much it bugs your Dad when the house is messy."
Ally and Quincy each compliantly scooped an armful of toys off the floor and dropped them into an open toy bin in the adjacent play room. Since their arms were on the small side, it didn't make that much of a dent in the chaos. However, the kid's interpretation of clean was less than fully developed and they decided their task was complete after one armful. They quickly resumed their mad car chase.
"Guys! You aren't done yet …,"I began, but my complaint fell on deaf ears. Their attention span had already moved on to new things.
I knew I should have pushed them to complete the cleanup, but my hunger won out and I headed back into the kitchen to finish making dinner. Any lessons in household cleanliness would have to wait until later.
Spontaneous outbursts of random animal noises signaled the end of dinner.
"I'm a pig!" Ally snorted and squealed with laughter.
"I'm a baby beluga!" Quincy waved his arms in his best whale impression, but as usual his poor diction and unique animal selection made it impossible to tell what he was saying. The rest of the family stared blankly at him for a minute until we all gave up and nodded encouragingly in agreement.
"OK – looks like you two are done eating," said my husband, Ethan, as he stood up and collected the dirty dinner plates off the table. He turned toward the kitchen, but tripped over an errant stuffed penguin lying in the middle of the floor, nearly dropping the dishes.
"Aaghh! Why are all the toys in the middle of the dining room floor?" Ethan raised his eyebrows and glanced inquisitively at the two most probable suspects in the room.
Ally ducked her head under his accusing stare. Quincy took a sudden interest in a crack in the ceiling.
Ethan strode purposely into the kitchen and set the dishes down on the counter. He grabbed a broom and dustpan out of the pantry and returned to dining room. "You two have exactly 5 minutes to get all your toys off the floor and into the play room. Anything that is left on the dining room floor is going to get swept into the trash." Ethan brandished the broom threateningly for effect. He then held the dustpan up to conceal his face from the kids and flashed me a conspiratorial wink.
Ally and Quincy responded with a flurry of activity. They ran about the room, rescuing as many of the offending toys as they could to the safety of their play room. Since Ethan was clearly more interested in having the kids put their toys in their proper place than in throwing anything away, he gave them a few extra minutes to finish their cleaning project. When the kids slowed their pace, Ethan thumped the broom on the floor. "Ready for inspection?" he asked in his best mock-military voice.
Ally and Quincy glanced nervously around the room. Once they were sure that nothing obvious was in immediate danger, they nodded shyly.
Ethan was clearly enjoying playing the part of an inspector general. He made a dramatic show of walking to a corner of the room and peering under the radiator. He poked the broom under the radiator and fished out a long forgotten rubber ball. He tossed the ball into the trash and watched the kids carefully to gauge their reaction. Neither child flinched as the toy was irreversibly banished from the house.
Ethan continued his tour around the room. He stopped at the large plastic car the kids had been playing with before dinner. "Do you want to rescue this car or does this go into the trash?"
Quincy did not pick up on the subtle hint to save his toy. Instead, his literal three-year-old logic did a quick calculation and concluded that the car was safe from harm. He replied smugly, "That won't fit into the trash!"
Ethan, unprepared for that answer, looked back at him in surprise. He spoke in a low, measured tone that hinted at his irritation at the challenge. "Is that so?"
Quincy puffed up his chest confidently. "Yeah!" On occasions when Ethan asserted himself as the alpha dog of our family unit, it was not uncommon for Quincy to act like an alpha puppy. I groaned inwardly. I knew that Ethan would not let Quincy have the last word on that one.
Ethan knelt down on one knee so that he was eye level with Quincy. He poked his index finger straight into Quincy's chest. "I've got a solution for that!" He stood abruptly and marched downstairs into the basement. After, a few minutes of rummaging noises, Ethan reappeared holding a 20 pound sledgehammer he had been using for some recent home improvement projects.
"If you think that you can leave that car out because it is too big for a trash can, I've got news for you. I'm going to MAKE it fit." Ethan strode over to the door and paused to check if anyone was following. "Well, come on, you two, let's go." He congenially ushered us all outside to the driveway.
Both Ally and Quincy stared wide-eyed and mouths agape as they watched their father quickly pound the car into shards of broken plastic. With a flourish, Ethan scooped up several of the largest pieces and tossed them into a nearby trash can in the garage. He rubbed his hands as if cleaning off the dirt. "Now it fits. What do you think about that?"
Ally and Quincy silently looked at each other. I'm not sure what wordless form of sibling communication passed between them, but they mutely raced each other into the house.
I looked over at my husband. "Nice work! I guess that means I'm on comfort duty. I'd better get in there and dry some tears."
Ethan nodded in agreement. "Sorry to be so dramatic, but sometimes that is the only way these kids learn anything. Go on – I'll finish cleaning up the mess here." He grabbed a broom and started sweeping up the smaller pieces.
I found Ally and Quincy in their play room and was surprised to see everyone was dry-eyed.
"How about that one?" Ally was pointing at a large Tonka dump truck.
Quincy shook his head. "No. This one is better – it's broken anyway." He picked up a plastic tool bench. "And this one is boring." He shoved a toy xylophone under his arm.
"What are you two doing?" I asked, completely confused by their unexpected reaction.
Ally explained patiently. "We're getting some more toys for Daddy to hammer! It's really fun to watch and we have too many toys anyway. Besides, you'll get us more toys later." She nodded at Quincy. "Let's go." They paraded off to the driveway for more excitement.
I stared after them dumbfounded at their logic for a minute. Then it suddenly occurred to me to warn my husband. I quickly slid open the window and called out to Ethan in the driveway. "Hey Ethan!" I yelled coyly. "I think your plan worked - you did teach them a lesson they won't forget!" Ethan looked up from his sweeping, a slightly confused expression on his face as he caught the tone in my voice. His eyebrows furrowed deeper as he spied the kids marching towards him bearing new toys.
From the window, I could see the kids making their way out to their father. I was too far away to hear the actual conversation, but I'm sure it was pretty similar to the one I just had with them. I watched Ethan dejectedly pick up the sledgehammer and return to the house. The pile of toys slated by the kids for demolition lay untouched in the driveway. Ethan didn't say a word as he passed me returning his tool to the basement. Nor did he open his mouth as he returned the broom and dustpan back to the pantry.
"Want to talk about it?" I asked quietly as he passed by me.
"Nope." Ethan said as he continued past me on the way to bedroom and soundlessly closed the door behind him.
I peeked my head out the window to check on the kids. Ally and Quincy had started a new game banging some sticks on the 'boring' xylophone they had so enthusiastically rejected earlier. Apparently their loyalties to their toy collection were somewhat fickle.
I smiled to myself in
wonder. I'm not exactly sure what (if any) life lessons my children
learned from that episode. As for Ethan and I, we certainly learned our lesson!