Parenthood Is An Act Of Hostage Negotiation With A Broken Robot

This is literally some shit that just happened:

As is my routine, I left the shed to go inside to make The 4-Year-Old Presently Known As B-Dub breakfast. He came downstairs, excited to begin his day. He informed me that he was SHOCKWAVE, and I was Shockwave’s best friend, SHOCKDAVE (he quickly changed his mind and determined that he was instead Soundwave, because duh).

Everyone was happy. He had awakened as usual, demonstrating the energy of a meth-addled rock drummer, and mornings are usually pretty good because he hasn’t built up all the barnacles one might accumulate during one’s daily existence.

He said he wanted to find these pipes he’d been playing with — they’re not PVC pipes, they’re narrower than that, but he uses them as lightsabers and musical instruments and whatever. (As with many things, the best toys are rarely ones you buy, but rather: random-ass trash. Note I didn’t say random ass-trash, because ew. Hyphen placement matters, kids.)

Great! Fine. But 

He could not find them and immediately began to get upset.

Most times, things like this don’t bother him, but now, it did. You could see the storm about to break on his shores. The wet eyes. The hands balling into fists at his side. His eyes shooting lasers. Okay, maybe not that last bit. But almost.

I commit to helping him look. I immediately find them — ten seconds later, I discover them on the couch under a blanket. I think, HA HA, DADDY IS A HERO. Daddy staved off the stampeding army of a coming tantrum. Daddy is basically like, the Hercules of the parent set right now. Now let’s all go into the kitchen and eat some fucking pancakes because the day is saved.

Daddy was jolly well fucking wrong is what he was.

B-Dub loses his gourd. If he could’ve flipped a table, he would’ve flipped a table. His reason for the escalation of the meltdown is this, and I quote: THOSE AREN’T THEM. As in, the things I found are not the things he was looking for, except I know they are. They are! I’m sure of it! He’s wrong! Is he just fucking with me? Have I lost my mind? And then he adds, for melodramatic flourish: I HAVE NEVER SEEN THOSE THINGS BEFORE IN MY LIFE. (Another lie!) He demands I cover them back up with the blanket — I guess the sight of them alone might make him rage-barf — and then proceeds to stomp around the room like he’s trying to kill a swarm of ants or something.

My wife comes downstairs and she tries to ameliorate the situation and that just — yeah, no. That’s just a burr stuck between his buttcheeks.

My wife is excellent because she’s basically a hostage negotiator. She knows how to speak calmly yet still manipulate him into an end game while making him think he is getting exactly what he wants — she reiterates the situation and the problem and coaches him into an emotional solution. I have this power sometimes, other times I just stare at him like he’s a malfunctioning vacuum. (When hostage negotiation fails, the best bet is to leave him alone and let the preschooler tornado burn himself out — eventually he can’t sustain his own inane rage and it sputters.)

Either way, she got him calm. He came in, said sorry, gave hugs, ate pancakes, yay, whatever.

Here, you think: kids are just… they’re just fucked, man. They can’t keep it together for fundamental, mundane stuff. They’re like Windows computers from the 1990s — they just aren’t built right. They malfunction. They fritz out. UNEXPECTED BLUE SCREEN OF DEATH even when you’re trying to do something basic like update your calendar or write an email. Kids are like broken robots. THIS ROBOT DOES NOT UNDERSTAND ASIMOV’S LAWS. It just whirrs around the house eating your plants and peeing on the heating vents. All while yelling at you.

Thing is, the door swings the other way, too.

Sometimes they’re alarmingly broken little creatures.

Other times, they can be incredibly well-put-together. They can demonstrate levels of awareness and maturity that most adults are never able to muster. Case in point:

Last week, B-Dub wanted to buy a new Minecraft texture pack. To which I said no because (and here my father’s voice gurgles up out of me like a ghost yelling through a sewer grate) WE’RE NOT MADE OF MONEY. Which ticked him off, and the coming tantrum from a situation like that is a little more predictable. I said no to a thing he wanted — it’s like denying a komodo dragon food. It will hiss and spit and bite because it wants the food. Its reptilian urges will not be denied.

Except, they were denied, and he got mad.


Minutes later, he comes into the kitchen, calm as a summer breeze. He says that he’s okay now. He had taken a deep breath (which is a calming technique we taught him) and said that he was letting the texture pack go because it was “too much” in his head and he was going to “lose the idea” because he didn’t really need the pack. He explained to me and my wife that he really wanted it, but knew he didn’t really need it — he conceded he just wanted something. And he added, “I’m okay, now,” then walked the fuck away like a Zen master who had just given up the need for material goods, the world exploding behind him in a fiery plume.

And I was like, dang, kid. I certainly cannot manage that kind of confidence and security. When I want something, it’s like the desire for it lives in my salivary glands — and it’s worse if someone tells me I can’t have it. I don’t care if it’s a cookie or a chainsaw. When I want it, I want it, and damnit why can’t I have it? I WILL SLAPFIGHT YOU OVER A CUPCAKE IF YOU DENY ME. So, here’s this four-year-old illustrating a kind of calm, collected bad-assness that was really quite amazing.

See, sometimes they’re broken robots.

But sometimes they are Bodhisattvas sent here to shepherd us toward better habits.

I don’t have any great takeaway here, really.

Kids are weird, is what I’m saying. And we have the tendency, I think, to respond to children like either they should already be adults or instead respond to them like they’ll never be capable of becoming adults. I know I’m guilty of both — sometimes I want to do the thing my Dad did which was get firm and angry and be like, THE REAL WORLD WON’T ACCEPT THESE SHENANIGANS SO WHY SHOULD I, even though the reality is, he’s not ready for that kind of logic. He’s this kinetic bundle of emotions, and all his synapses haven’t learned to fire together yet. His logic centers are sometimes dominated by his emotional ones — and sometimes his emotional ones are like the wires of the Millennium Falcon, pulled out of the ceiling and draped in a tangle over Chewbacca’s shoulders. But at the same time, you don’t want to treat him like he’s just some wackadoo dum-dum who can’t handle the things that life throws at him, because all too often he shows full well how stalwart he is in the face of problems that would sucker-punch most adults.

I think the best thing we can do is trust them and to have empathy for them. They’re going to get it wrong a whole lot, and we have to accept that. But they’re going to get it right, too — and while we don’t have to expect that, I think we have to allow room for it to happen. We have to help them learn to be people. That’s still so weird to me. They’re not really fully-formed human beings, not yet. We have to teach the broken robot to become a real boy — and, eventually a real grown-up. A grown-up hopefully better than the ones we ourselves became.


Ha ha just kidding I already ate it.

50 responses to “Parenthood Is An Act Of Hostage Negotiation With A Broken Robot”

  1. My son is an adult now and this made me fondly remember his childhood–ha ha just kidding, it made me really grateful that hot mess is over with.

    I remember the nuclear meltdowns over simple stuff like it was yesterday, though. And then alternately, him being calm over stuff that would send an adult screaming into the sun. Kids are weird, man. But I’m glad they’re around.

    • I was just thinking the same thing. I am sitting here sipping coffee in bed and reading this to my partner aloud, and we are recently empty-nested after several years of a rotating, overlapping parade of semi-functional young adults moving in and out. Kids are strange and wonderful and I both miss those days with every fiber of my being and am so, so glad they’re over.

      And it took me four tries to get through “eating your plants and peeing on the heating vents.” Fantastic post.

  2. Okay, Chuck, I know I’m supposed to be all about following you for writing advice and buying your books or whatever–but, as a mom/writer with five (yup, count ’em if you can catch ’em) kids, THIS is the best blog post you have EVER written. You made me snort tea out my nose. Thanks, I think!

  3. I have twin seven-(almost-eight-Mom-)year-old boys. Twin. Seven. Year. Olds.

    Oh, how your words do resonate within me, much like the sound of two pairs of feet drumming on the chair legs at dinner could you please stop that Daddy and I are trying to have a conversation here…

  4. My youngest is a pretty calm and easygoing 12-year-old—who is also on the autism spectrum and rapidly turning into a giant, easily 6-7 inches above average height for his age. He hasn’t had meltdowns like kids on the spectrum can do in years, now, but sometimes I still have arguments with him akin to the unwinnable ones we deal with from toddlers. The other day it was his orange shirt. His mother had ordered an orange shirt on Amazon at his request and it was, admittedly, taking an absurdly long time to ship. He came to ask about it. I told him the ship date was in five days. We proceeded to have a circular and futile debate about how he didn’t want to wait five days and how there was nothing I could do about that. At some point I realized, eh, it’s on me to stop, so I completely diverted him with a funny video I found online.

    He relaxed a bit, laughed and decided to go back to his room. As he leaves my office area I hear behind me a very adult-sounding lower register in his voice as he mumbles, “Don’t want to wait five days.”

    I think my fear for him as he morphs from my skinny little buddy to a large, handsome young man whom others would never assume at first glance is on the spectrum or has any disability at all is that stubborn frustration that’s still very much a kid’s, and in his case, a kid facing the social and emotional challenges of autism. I’ve actually been a parent for 20 years now (two older kids by my first marriage, both adults) and it never stops throwing new shit at you. But it’s okay, in the end I learn more from them about how to be a proper human being than I’d ever have learned without them.

  5. From the outside, to people who don’t want them, parenting often looks horrible because too often, all they see are kids and parents alternating misbehavior in public. You’ve done a lovely job of illustrating both the ups and the downs of both states, parenting and being a kid.

    I lucked out. I got a kid pre-wired for thinking first (in that uniquely limited way a young brain can have). My friend got an emotion-first-full thrust kid, six weeks later. It’s been fascinating watching them over the last 18 years. I am grateful for mine every day. Every. Day. 🙂 He’s not perfect, but he is good.


    My wee dragon is almost the exact same age as B-Dub. I read your parenting posts screaming “THIS IS MY LIFE” and banging my head on the keyboard. Despite my kiddo’s occasional leanings toward being a narcissistic little terrorist, she often blows me away with amazing displays of empathy and understanding.

  7. This post has made me both want to have kids (possibly just out of morbid curiosity) and never, ever want to have kids.

    Well played, Mr Wendig.

    I officially don’t know what I want anymore…

  8. I may have giggled the coffee right out of my mug and onto my shirt, but it is a dark shirt, soooo…maybe not.

    You could have been in my house just the other day, witnessing this very thing play itself out with my two boys. But, you weren’t right? Çause that would be weird.

    Let me add this caveat…when there are two of them, holy hell can ignite with sickeningly, lightning speed. Mob mentality is real.

  9. My 5 year old boy is just like this. Sometimes, if he loses the toy he desperately wants, I’ll help find it. Then suddenly he’s crying hysterically because HE wanted to find it and “You never let me find anything I never get to do it!” Meanwhile I’m baffled because isn’t this the toy he was so upset over losing? Didn’t he JUST ask me for help?
    Makes no sense.

  10. Oh God. As a chick in her mid-thirties, stuck in the now-or-never decision times of uterus-hood, this makes me ache. It sounds so beautiful and exhausting at the same time, like heartbreakingenergyrobbingperfection. I just don’t know how to fit parenthood into a jam-packed adult life. Kids take money, time, energy… argh.

  11. I love this. My little plop is only 9 weeks old (today, actually) and just knowing there are other writers out there balancing the lifestyle of parenthood and writing and marriage… just means a lot. Thanks for sharing this stuff.

  12. Awesome post. I have a six-year-old son. I’m always wondering, out loud and to him, when he’ll stop being this disgusting sticky caveman with highly-questionable bathroom and grooming habits, and become an actual human being.

    He’s also incredibly sweet and intelligent, and knows more about Star Wars and superheroes than your average adult. You take the good with gross.

    • Uh, my youngest is seven and a half and bathroom/grooming habits are still a bacteria-laden fiasco, so you have my sympathies. As for the good, there’s plenty of that too, and I adore his developing sense of humor which gets me laughing all the time!

  13. You captured my life! Thanks for making me think about it AND laugh because sometimes the emotional tornadoes created by my three kids make me want to curl into the fetal position at the back of my closet and stay there until they’re all at least 25! Awesome post!

  14. Our game plan (for MANY reasons) has always been to offer to help find something, but we ensure our child always finds it. In your case, I would have adjusted that blanket slightly so the pipes were slightly more exposed. They learn they can find things if they just keep looking. They learn parents are worthless at this and best left to their coffee cups. But, they will never learn that if they had just put it away where it belonged when they were finished with it the last time, it would be right where it was supposed to be.

    • “But, they will never learn that if they had just put it away where it belonged when they were finished with it the last time, it would be right where it was supposed to be.”

      Truly. Never. Learn. I’m still trying to coach my middle-aged husband on this one every morning when he is frantically searching for keys/wallet/watch/phone as he’s trying to get out the door.

  15. Huh…a day-in-the-life. Last night, my 7-year-old son (youngest of 3, already have a daughter out of the house and one that turns 15 in a month) asked my wife for the blanket behind her on the chair. She, for reasons known only to her, said “No, you have your own. Go get your Avengers blanket off your bed.”

    Son (in the petulant and offended tone of a 7-year-old just told no): “But it’s TOO SMALL.”

    Mom: “It’s the same size as this one. Go get it.”

    Son: *defiant grunt* *walks to room for his blanket*

    Mom then looks at ME and says “You’re gonna have to help with this.” No, really…I think you’ve got this one. Why do I need to get involved (I said this in my head, of course. No smart husband tells a redhead “No.” Ever.)

    Son then returns with the blanket, plops down on the couch, then demonstrates how it’s too small by turning it so the short side is under his chin, then makes a show of flailing his not-covered feet.

    Mom: *looks at me* “Dad…”

    Ok…Dad goes over and turns the blanket so the long side is under his chin, then smiles and says “see, it’s perfect!” Oops, mistake. Like coating myself with meat flavoring and jumping in with lions mistake.

    Son: “No, it isn’t!” and proceeds to yank the blanket up so nothing below the thighs is covered but there’s a pile of microfiber cloth right in front of his face.

    This, ladies and gentlemen, is where many parents will pull out the most treasured and time-tested weapon in the parenting arsenal: The GLARE. No words need be said when The GLARE is deployed, and you feel like you have Lion singing “You got the Touch” as background when your recalcitrant young ‘un succumbs to the weighty power of The GLARE. Yes, it’s like opening the Matrix and watching Unicron detonate. A few more feeble kicks to straighten the blanket, and when I ask him if he wants help straightening it out he says “Yes, please.”

    Of course, he then spends the next half-hour spinning, jumping, and rolling around on the couch until WE’RE exhausted, at which point we send him to bed. Which makes him mad because he can’t see the end of NCIS: Los Angeles, but he does still give hugs. And I still tuck him in.

    And Mr. Wendig, you’ve only just begun. Teenagers are another animal altogether. They’re tame Velociraptors right up until they bite your arm off. 🙂

  16. If you’re unfamiliar with Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development, you might enjoy reading about his theory of child development. According to him, children aren’t capable of truly logical thought until about age 12. I studied this a little bit in school. It’s certainly enlightening in a lot of ways. Bottom line? Kids are freaking fascinating. 🙂

  17. What’s wrong with being ShockDave?! Screw you, buddy. I mean, if you don’t want to be Shocker Dave, I get it. I left that guy behind a long time ago. But ShockDave? He’s a great dude. I can’t tolerate the Dave bigotry on this website anymore.

  18. Ahhh…the days of a 4 year old. I remember those fun filled days of tiny temper tantrums and mini melt downs. Then they become apocalyptic teens. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

  19. Yeah, young kids are nuts.

    I had this scenario not so long ago;

    2yr old is playing, and the dog comes over wanting some attention. He takes her moving away from him as part of some canine-child game to which only he knows the rules, and follows her, this time panting and giving zero fucks for personal space.

    “Daddy, the dog won’t leave me alone…”
    “just ignore him, he’ll go away.”
    “No, let’s smash him with a hammer…”

    Wow. Psycho in training…

  20. You’re really not helping my phobia of kids here! I’m 28 I need to make up my damn mind soon. But they’re so alien and SCARY! But awesome post it made me laugh a whole hell of a lot 🙂

  21. This sounds right for Four–then again at around 12—then again right before they leave for college. They are OK at each stage and helping them turn into adults is a joy.

  22. My wife is really great at the distraction technique as well, diffusing situations like a ninja EOD specialist.

    I’m like an emotional amplifier for the kids. I rarely make it better, even though I sort of understand what’s going on. I can still remember embracing my son telling him to let go of his anger and him pleading with me that he can’t, like it was his precious.

    Not sure it’s a whole lot better now, with my youngest at 15, but they seemed to have turned out pretty good, despite my malformed attempts at parenting.

  23. My son, aged 20, just got married. At his wedding, as I was wiping cake off his face, I was transported back to a time when he was about 2 and I did the same thing on his birthday. This sent me reeling back there all over again. Thanks for the memory Chuck!

  24. Oh the irony! The background music playing while I was reading this blog post was a soundtrack of screaming and banging, courtesy of my almost 2-year-old who absolutely isn’t tired and DOES NOT NEED A NAP!

  25. My youngest (of 5) is now 15. I totally understand, empathize, know this hostage situation. My 19 year old, however, is on the Autism Spectrum. He only understands now. Only understands that whatever need (the damn PVC stick pipes) must happen right now and how he sees it in his brain (it wasn’t you that found them, he must find them). 19 years old. 6’1″ 200 pounds. He only knows fight or flight to problem solve. NINETEEN. Saying a blessing for you that this part will pass and your fight will be about where Bdubs waistline is on his freaking jeans. Or that he grows to love Star Trek more than Star Wars.

  26. Laughed so hard I stopped breathing. Didn’t lose consciousness.
    My 4th is 3. Somehow the other ones all managed to be good kids, mellow with the occasional crying fit. This last one has reached new heights of hellion-ness. The levels of drama that can be instantaneously reached are just staggering to watch. I am so over my head with this demon child.

  27. […] Kids Are Like Broken Robots. Chuck Wendig: my new favorite writer when I’m looking for a good laugh. Parenthood can sometimes be framed around this perfect image (God only knows how) of children being perfect little angles who don’t make messes, who don’t cause a fuss in public, and who are as intelligent and literate as 30-year-olds. So couples in their early twenties are like, “I’d love to have a baby of my own, I held my friends baby once and all it did was sleep, parenting is so easy, my friend was so relaxed when we all went out to dinner together, plus I was such an easy-to-take-care-of baby according to my parents, piece of cake”. Ha!! I found this piece to be similar to, and within the same realm of funny as Louis C.K.’s My 3-Year-Old Is A 3-Year-Old. Please watch, you will not regret it. But anyway, both hilarious renditions of what it’s honestly like to have little kids. […]

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