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Lessons from the Kids

We are liberal parents. I don’t mean that in a political sense. We raised our kids based on choices and accountability rather than boxes and strict lines. The subtext is they got away with a lot. I can also safely say that this is a damn painful way to raise kids. Ours argued with us, leaned away from our choices, and periodically drove us nuts.

Tarun and I both came down hard on the big topics while I chose to nag about the toothbrush. Good balance we figured, but it didn’t make raising the boys any easier. We have the joy and punishment of having two totally different kids: same gene pool, entirely different wiring. One is quietly obstinate, the other is a confessor. Having been a parent once was utterly useless the second time around.

Neil didn’t take us with him on his weekly pendulum swings at school. “Everything is fine!” was his standard response. He made sure to bring home decent grades at the end of the period to avoid parental meltdown and withheld the operational details from us. Josh on the other hand was our “good Catholic” - frequently confessing. Texts came instantly after a mistake, a bad test, a car accident, losing things, drinking too much and so on. It was nice in a way, but we developed immunity from information overload. In hindsight, his was a truly innovative way to diffuse parental interference. Neil never understood Josh's strategy and Josh didn't budge.

In the quiet of the night or on a long walk I occasionally wonder whether things would have been different had Josh been our first child. With his transparency, would he have set a difficult bar for Neil? Would we have torn our hair out dealing with an obstinate one after the confessor? I'll never know. I have to say that for all practical purposes, I am relieved that Neil came when Tarun and I were younger.

As a toddler, Neil was a huge talker. His first word was actually a full sentence, "Eta ki?" - what is this? - at nine months. He would point to everything and ask that. A centipede on the sidewalk would make his eyes go big, drop him into a squat, and then he'd belt out an "Ettttaaaaaaaa kiiiiiiii?" in sheer amazement. And when his mind was blown with a new experience, he'd repeat this question multiple times in quick succession trying to keep pace with his own excitement. Hilarious is an understatement. When confronted with an unexpected visual cue, Tarun and I still lapse into the long form of the question.

Born a few years later, Neil may have been classified as hyperactive. I simply could not get him to stay still. Forget about reading books or watching Sesame Street. He was the calmest when we were outdoors observing life. I quickly learned that the best way to keep him occupied was to spin tales about cues we encountered. (Like the big black dog who fell into a pond and had to be dried with a hair dryer.) With help, the first thing he read was "Food Lion", the sign on our local grocery store. When I took an illegal u-turn, the little tyke offered, "Ma, it said no u-turn!" Damn, I thought, he can read on his own.

The only book he loved to read was a giant human body book with over-the-top pictures of our anatomy and cells and a tiny book about the little engine that could. I read these to him so many times that I could rattle off the words without looking at the books. While I tended to a bleeding knee, he asked without a drop of tear, "Are the Helper T-cells coming to help the macrophages clot the blood?" Even at age five, his curiosity was a delight. As if to make up for it, his people skills were terrible. If someone said hello to him, he would promptly run behind us and for a couple of years in late elementary school he wore a hat to avoid eye contact altogether. When he made up his mind about doing something, nothing got in his way. Later, he outfoxed us with logic we had not thought of and wasted no time in taking his choices from inception to action.

And then there is Josh....

He was born fearless, happy, and not to be driven by any metric of any kind. Unlike Neil, he loved to be plunked in front of the TV watching his favorite movie, "Moo" (for movie)..."Lion King" in reality. He would disappear for hours in the neighborhood playing "fort" or being superman with our toddler neighbors. When he was about four, I almost missed an appointment because I couldn't find Josh anywhere. I called all the neighbors and walked up and down our street to no avail. Half an hour later, he sauntered out of the bushes, stick in hand, not a care in the world.

The most foolish thing I have ever done is driving into a ditch (with the kids in the car) while looking for my cell phone. Josh was so ecstatic when the first responders arrived that my anxiety and remorse subsided just seeing his cheer. The second most foolish thing I've done is slicing my finger with a kitchen knife after being arrogantly dismissive of Tarun's warnings. Neil shepherded me to the urgent care clinic (and kept Tarun calm) before going pale while I was being stitched up. Josh kept a firm grasp of my finger wrapped in paper towels calmly saying, "Breathe Ma, it's gonna be ok!" Two youngsters took charge when the adults went for a toss.

Another time, eager to go to Disney World despite an infection and asthma, Josh nervously waited in the doctor's office wondering if we might cancel our trip. After the doctor put him on meds and gave us the green light to go, he jumped off the exam table and said, "I lovvvve steroid!" He was the little boy who knew too much and not enough and didn't care about the difference! He could make friends with anybody, anywhere and anytime. As older - and lazier - parents, he's just what we needed.

On their journey to adulthood, they converged in many ways. Neil became a people person without losing his sense of curiosity. He rarely says "Eta ki?" now, but I know he thinks it constantly. He tells us a lot more but continues to be selective. Josh learned to take academics seriously and balances responsibility and kicking back in enviable ways. Like overdosing on pizza at 2 am, while the rest of us have to gulp antacids just thinking about it. On the flip side, he definitely tells us less than he did before. They are both fiercely independent and what a relief that is.

In a sign of life coming full circle, Humera told me that she bought Neil a toothbrush for Valentine's Day. I am sure it was a high-tech gadget, not an ordinary toothbrush like the ones from childhood. Nonetheless, I was warmed by the thought that he continues to have a presence in his life who sweats the big things and the toothbrush. I pray he's doing the same for her.

Three decades on, the headline about raising them is that they turned out just right despite our liberal approach. The surprise is that along the way, the kids became our teachers. One taught us that curiosity has no limits and the other showed us that having fun every single day is non-negotiable. From one we learned that it's good to ignore some of the details, the other proved that fearlessness and acknowledgment of fault make us better people.

We are only at midpoint with years of adventures and lessons ahead of us. So, bring it on kiddos, Dad and I are at full attention now.

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