Saturday, August 29, 2009


When I was a child what I wanted most in life was a pet monkey. My mother said no, not because it was probably illegal or because we already had three dogs and two cats, but because “monkeys swing on the drapes,” she said, “and I’m not about to have one destroy my house.” At the time, I really didn’t understand, but mom did most of the housework and was hostess and homeowner, so I respected her wishes and so did not independently purchase a pet monkey. Not that I would have known where to buy one.

Just last week my American friend Patricia showed up for a visit with her two children, and before I knew it the eldest had used a ballpoint pen to add to Liina’s favorite Paul Allik painting. The second child, a bit younger and therefore lighter, had actually climbed the drapes halfway up the wall. I spotted him just before the curtain rod gave way and he tumbled a meter to the floor bawling. In that split second before he hit ground, I thought back to my childhood desire for a monkey and empathized with my mother.

“Oh, geez,” said Patricia, grabbing her screeching child and pulling him to her breast. “You should really childproof your house.”

Why? I wanted to ask but didn’t, since I was engaged trying to imagine what items I could leave in the house that could not be destroyed by her simian primates. I couldn’t think of a single one. Childproofing would literally require the house to be gutted, removing drapes, paintings, books, hiding our toothbrushes. I tried to imagine what Patricia’s home looked like. Perhaps it was nothing more than a padded-wall cell. Maybe the adults had surrendered and moved out.

Seeing her drapes destroyed, Liina clearly wanted to take my 12-gauge off the wall and blast Patricia’s kids in the ass with a load of rock salt. Liina was aghast at the implication that we should childproof our home, as if Patricia had no obligation whatsoever to restrain her children. “This is what you get with kids” was what Patricia’s resigned face communicated. Liina’s face resembled that of a passenger on a jet airliner just before it crashes into the ocean at over a six hundred miles an hour.

As I’ve been led to believe, many parents today don’t punish their children by physically striking them. This may be a good idea, even though my parents certainly trotted out the hickory switch in instances of Major Child Crimes. Today, American parents punish their children with something called a “time out,” which means the kids are supposed to sit still in a corner until they’ve calmed down. But why can’t the kids be calm all the time? Or at least when they’re at my house?

Sure, within reason, my mom allowed us to run wild in the Vikerkaar household, but we were strictly forbidden from doing it in someone else’s home. And when there were adult guests present at our house, my brother Villu and I were required to follow simple rules about interacting with them: Don’t interrupt a conversation; Say “yes sir” and “no sir,” or “ma’am” as the case may be; All intelligent questions are welcome, even encouraged, but no gaga babytalk was allowed under any circumstances. Villu and I ate at the same table with the adults, used knives and forks with our elbows held in, and we chewed with our mouths firmly closed. And we, never, ever, climbed on the drapes. Destruction of the home was beyond consideration.

I’d like to think Patricia’s case is an isolated example of child mismanagement, but it hasn’t proved to be.

Not so long ago, I loaned a friend a signed copy of Raise High the Roof Beam by J.D. Salinger. (The reclusive writer had visited Tallinn, had drinks at our house, and so I asked him to sign his book.) It was the only copy I had, and my friend wanted to read it. It was a first edition, and I suppose that fact, combined with the signature makes it worth good money on eBay, though I’ve never cared too much about that when it comes to books. Until, that is, my friend emailed to ask: “Do you want it back in good condition?” I replied to ask if she was using it for archery practice. “No, but it’s hard to keep it away from my toddler.” Just how is that? I wondered. The toddler is exactly how tall? And a signed first-edition cannot be put out of a child’s reach? Particularly a borrowed, signed first-edition?

Yes, I rant to Liina, the world has indeed gone to hell. The modern “vaba kasvatus” has backfired, and the peasants are in full revolt. There’s only one way to quash it, and that’s with blood on the square. Liina agrees with me, though she says she’d stop short of guillotining children.

“Oh, but you’ll both feel differently when you have kids,” people tell us. But, no, we won’t. I can guarantee you that my child will never swing from your curtains like a rhesus macaque. He will not add his signature to artwork in your home. He will not mine boogers from his little nose and deposit them in your salad. And should he, by some wild chance, say, drag a dead, bloody deer across your new white carpet, then I will return to clean it spotless, dear host, after I take him outside and spank the living daylights out of him. Our kids will behave because it’s the right thing to do. And because we don’t believe behaving well is too much to ask of a human being, regardless of his age.

After we cleaned up the collapsed curtains and the potted plants the child destroyed on the way down, Liina took Patricia’s child in her arms. She told him that accidents happen to everyone and that she wasn’t angry. “Would you like me to read you a story?” Liina asked the child. “Oh, yes,” cooed the little one. “A story!”

Liina reached behind her and took a book off the shelf. She opened the cover and read Jonathan Swift’s first sentence: “A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country...” And onward she read to what turned out to be a very attentive little person.


Read it in Estonian in Postimees.