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Guest Editorial

Good parenting not always by the book

BY DANIEL B. KLINE

Despite my not being a medical professional, I was fairly certain the rivers of vomit pouring out of my son Joshua and onto my wife suggested that something might be wrong. Fortunately, after he finished throwing up, received a new set of clothes and was given my assurance that I did not think the vomiting was "his fault," my nearly three-year-old immediately returned to perfect health.

Though he repeated this scene with me in place of my wife a few nights later, nothing appears to be wrong, and he has not thrown up on either one of us for a few days. Like most things we have experienced with Joshua over the last three years, we are unlikely to get an explanation and simply have to be thankful that the has stopped emptying his innards onto a combination of our clothes and carpet.

Being a parent has generally meant not knowing why things happen and having no ability to control them when they do. As a fairly smart person who likes to be in charge, this has been particularly difficult for me. No amount of confidence, appearing commanding or logic helps you control a three-year-old who becomes intent on doing whatever it is you have decided he should not do. While these skills aid me in managing adults, the only skill that has helped with my toddler appears to be patience-a virtue I am sorely lacking.

Before having a child, I truly believed that all problems had a rational solution if you looked hard enough. How to do everything from home repair to brain surgery could be found in a book, and anyone with enough determination could master pretty much any task.

Parenting, however, cannot be learned from any book. This does not stop people from writing books, and it certainly hasn't stopped me from reading them, but an author can pretty much only write an instruction manual for a kid he or she has already raised.

Basically useless, most parenting books come from well-intentioned authors. They raised their kids well and maybe even helped some other children, which gives them the very false impression that whatever worked for them will help others.

A technique that works on one child-the use of the timeout as a penalty for misbehaving, for example-simply encourages my son to act up more. He certainly screams and yells if I put him in timeout, but his fear of that consequence ends the second the punishment does.

Explain this to a parent who has had success using that method, and you might as well be telling them that the sky is actually pink. It's understandable-anything that actually works to get your child to behave in the desired manner feels like magic, and it seems like it should work for anyone.

Unfortunately, like snowflakes that occasionally bite or take a magic marker to the wall, no two children are exactly alike. These differences are just subtle enough to make every parent think he or she can help every other parent, while making it impossible for them to actually do so.

This makes raising a child a genuinely frustrating experience. Whether it's dealing with unexpected vomiting or trying to explain to your son why he can't have a gift box of chocolates for breakfast, parenting requires something different from every person who attempts it.

I'm a reasonably good father who certainly puts in the effort, but there are times-such as when my son was crying hysterically because the candy counter at our supermarket was out of chocolate-covered pretzels-when no amount of effort guarantees success. I'd guess that the difference between being a good parent and a bad one comes from how you handle those times.

There's no book about how to do that, but once I figure it out, I'd be happy to write one that won't help you at all.

Daniel B. Kline's book, "50 Things Every Guy Should Know How to Do," is available in bookstores everywhere. He can be reached at dan@notastep.com.

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