What’s a Mother to Do?
by Ann Edwards Cannon

Chapter 8
Gotcha 

[p.25]This happened when Philip was four years old.

I was fixing dinner one night when he wandered into the kitchen with my old dog Bogie, who  has panting hard in an effort to make me believe he’d been running marathons instead of watching Divorce Court all afternoon.

“You wanna playa game!” Philip asked me.

“What kind of a game!” I returned, all primed to fake a faint if the words Candyland or Chutes and Ladders should tumble from his youthful lips.

“You know,” he said, “a Pretend Game. Let’s say, like, I’m somebody different and you’re somebody different and Bogie’s somebody different.”

Better than Candyland any day, I think you’ll agree. “Sure,” I said. “Why not!”

Philip bustled about, making up rules and assigning roles. “Say, like, I’m the Man and you’re the Kid and Bogie’s the Mom.”

I looked doubtfully at Bogie who was padding toward the fridge. Bogie as “Utah Young Mother of the Year”! Frankly, I couldn’t see it. For one thing he loathes children. For another he doesn’t do aerobics or volunteer to teach in language labs for the PTA. Besides, he smells bad on warm days.

But Philip insisted and so our roles were assigned. I was the Kid. Philip was the Man. Bogie was the Mom.

We bantered back and forth in character for a while when Philip started eyeing Bogie carefully. “Hey Kid,” he finally said to me in his Man’s Voice. “Did you know your Mom looks like a dog!”

I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t. I was blind-sided. Conned. Set up by a four-year-old and a duplicitous dog. Talk about your Fagins and your Artful Dodgers.

I’ve decided that kids are actually rather good at making adults feel foolish. It’s their way of evening things up between them and us. The simple fact is that children are horribly, appallingly dependent on grownups for just about everything—food, love, shelter, moral [p.26]guidance, slurpees at 7-Eleven. They know how much they need us and they resent that need. So they devise all sorts of ways to take us down a few notches, to throw us off balance, to make us stare in a mirror every so often and say, “How now, you Chump.”

How else can you explain their awful jokes?

I’m not talking about knock-knock jokes here, however horrible they may be. At least knock-knock jokes make sense, and if you’re feeling kindly toward the little poppet who told you the joke, you can fake a loud guffaw and slap your knee at the punchline. No. I’m talking about the jokes kids make up as they go along. (EXAMPLE: Why did the dragon cross the road? Because he was really a dinosaur!) These kinds of jokes don’t make sense and they aren’t funny, not even if you’ve had too much gas at the dentist’s office. But kids love them. They squeal like little gnomes at one another’s jokes, while you, the Big Person, stare stupidly into space. Gotcha, they say.

Kids lie for much the same reason. They like to watch you scramble when their friends go to you to verify a story. I frequently have neighbor children ask me things like, “Is it true Philip is a ninja?” or “Is it true that Alec rode an ostrich?” If I say no, Philip is not a ninja, then I run the risk of embarrassing him in front of his peers. But if I say yes, I run the risk of neighbor children telling their parents that Ann says yes it’s true Philip used to live in China and yes it’s true Alec’s grandfather is a wizard. Gotcha again.

And even though they are supposed to be teetering on the brink of adulthood, adolescents love to one-up us, too. Take what happened to me the other night when I went by myself to a local hamburger drive-in. A teenaged girl, chewing her gum and chipping old polish from her nails, stopped dreaming about appearing on Star Search long enough to take my order. Since I was ordering for half the neighborhood as well as for my own family and a few Eastern Bloc track and field teams, it was a large order to be sure. “Twenty burgers, fourteen fries, sixteen onion rings, fry sauce, all the caramel shakes you have on tap, and a Diet Coke with lemon, please,” I told her. She dutifully wrote this information down, repeated it back, checked the car to make sure I was alone, then glued her eyes upon me and asked with a perfectly straight face, “Is this order to stay or to go?”

Side-swiped again.

[p.27]I’ve thought about fighting back, but I know it’s no use. The kids will just change the rules or the punchline or the tall tale on me. So I guess I’ll have to get used to playing Rowan to their Martin, Abbott to their Costello, Hardy to their Laurel. It’s not an entirely bad life, I guess.

Especially for someone whose mom looks like a dog.