Competitive Parenting for Beginners

If there were such a manual as “Competitive Parenting for Beginners,” my husband Brett and I would be the authors of chapter 6, “Arts and Crafts Projects that Leave Others in the Dust.” Forget chapter 4, “Scream-Coaching from the Sidelines” and chapter 10, “Throwing Your Money Around.” That’s just not our style. We are psychotic creative types. And, since our kids are only 7 and 4 years old, we’re just getting started.

Brett and I made the discovery that we are co-dependent in our artistic insanity when our son Andrew was Child of the Week in his preschool class. This is one of the earliest opportunities parents have in the lives of their children to show off their own artistic agility. We recognized the prospects for greatness right away, as the cogs in our delusional minds began churning in excitement.

The directions for Child of the Week are rather simple: create a 24 x 36 poster that celebrates the child. In normal households, those directions would lead one to glue on a bunch of cute family photos and call it a day. In our house it became an opportunity to engage in a series of roundtable discussions that would eventually lead to a culminating thematic exploration of Andrew’s first four years on earth. We would have to create a single point message, visual identity system and multi-point integrated marketing campaign. Andrew would be the first-ever branded Child of the Week.

At the very least, this was certainly an occasion that called for foam core, Exacto knives, Photoshop, and a whole lot of string.

What emerged was a kick-ass poster, if I must say so myself.

We still have it. I’m on the verge of inviting you over to see it.

In the center, Andrew is dressed like Spiderman and is crouched in the famous spidey-pose. This large, colored image is mounted onto foam core and is raised in two dimensional, bas relief. Andrew seems to be jumping out from the center. Radiating out from behind him is a gigantic web of black string. At the end of each corner of the web, groupings of photos are arranged by genre (“family,” “favorites,” “friends”). Each has its own think bubble a la comic books. It’s intense.

Kindergarten provided several other opportunities for artistic parental acrobatics. There was the Thanksgiving Turkey Vader, a cardboard turkey dressed with poultry-sized mask and cape (made out of a black garbage bag), brandishing a red lightsaber (made by covering a packet of chopsticks with the red plastic pull-chord from the same garbage bag). This was followed by the 100th day of school project. Late into the evening, we strung together 100 paper balloons, each one celebrating something that Andrew had learned.

“Is this…normal?” I asked Brett as I sat counting and then re-counting the 99 luft balloons.

“Who wants to be normal?” He asked, half-joking, half twitching.

Kindergarten culminated with a book jacket jacket. This is a costume made out of a paper bag that celebrates the child’s favorite book. It fits over the child like a vest, so that he or she can parade around the school in it and be laughed at by the 5th graders.

Andrew’s favorite book at the time was the Caldecott winner, Make Way for Ducklings. Hence, his book jacket jacket was covered in felt ducks, gold medals, and feathers. Lots and lots of feathers.

Alas, Andrew was absent from school that day, saving him from the humiliation of looking like the littlest member of The Village People.

We still have that creation, too. I might wear it next Halloween, just to see who reads the newspaper.

Last year, Andrew and Brett entered Scarsdale’s window painting contest, which in first grade is actually not a contest.

“Everything is a contest,” Brett replied, having set up his art supplies 6 hours before anyone else on Garth Road in order to “prime” his “canvas.” Andrew was still home sleeping.

“It’s the bagel shop window, Rembrandt.” I rolled my eyes. Some people get so carried away.

For this year’s window painting contest, Brett made a colored mock-up of the actual design days before. I can’t tell you what it was, though, since we had to miss the event. Andrew will be unveiling the design next year, so until then, it remains top-secret.

“You know that in third grade, the kids have to paint on their own, without parental intervention.” I warned Brett.

He took the news pretty well. “That’s okay. Pretty soon I can help Zoe with her windows!”

Ah, yes, Zoe. A few weeks ago it was her turn for Child of the Week at preschool. Brett and I make several trips to Michael’s craft supply store in anticipation of the week ahead. But as we began to discuss the conceptual framework for Zoe’s poster, a question lingered: can we out-do ourselves? Has greatness at this level of poster mania ever been achieved twice?

The legacy of one-hit wonders haunted us.

Luckily, what emerged was akin to Michael Jackson’s second solo album, Thriller. It was even better than Off the Wall.

After three hours huddled around the kitchen island, we stood back to admire our handiwork. The poster was a life-sized, cardboard dress suspended by pink leopard-print spaghetti-straps attached to a real hanger. The “dress” was fringed in black, silver, and pink ribbons and bedazzled with rhinestone studs. It was tacky. It was fancy. It was so Zoe.

“We did it!” We called out to each other and to the kids who were glued to the television set in the sunroom, in lieu of having attentive parents to play with.

Zoe came wandering in. “I’m hungry. You forgot lunch.” We conceded that we had, in fact, skipped some meals in order to concentrate on the poster. Then she saw it. “What’s that?” She snapped.

“It’s your Child of the Week poster!” We exclaimed.

She scrunched up her face, and turned her head to the side, deliberating. “Why is it blue? I hate blue.”

“It’s silver. The dress part is silver.” I cooed soothingly, trying to keep the level of conversation from escalating.

“But the poster is blue! I said no blue!” She may have stamped her foot. “And I want a cheese stick!”

Brett and I exchanged sad looks as he headed to the refrigerator. Clearly, this child was not getting it.

As Zoe chewed greedily, I paused to consider whether or not Brett and I were getting it. Perhaps our need to achieve on behalf of our children was not really good for them, or good for us.

But then I imagined the upcoming Jackson Pollack workshop that Brett would be leading on Thursday in Zoe’s class and the dress-up tea party I had arranged for her on Friday. If I played my cards right, there were years of science fairs, historical re-enactments, and creative extra credit projects in my future.

I looked again at that sparkly poster and pushed the doubt away.

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