Bath time for my nine year-old
The nine year-old needs a bath. Or anyway mom says he needs one. It’s not a topic we see eye-to-eye on, exactly. There isn’t an objective frequency for cleanliness, and in my opinion people clean themselves far too frequently. Among our peer groups are people who have established a daily bath as part of their children’s bedtime ritual. In the abstract I find myself partial to Roald Dahl’s ``once a month’’ (established in passing as good balance for warding off witches). In reality, though, I admit that this is probably not often enough for children who occasionally still climb into our bed at night. It’s been a week maybe, at least a couple of days, and though it’s not too hot out (freezing, in fact), there’s has been some normal activity, including a four hour hike, wood stacking, and walks with his sisters. There is a certain general accumulation of little boy grubbiness that should also be factored in. Mom’s probably right: a cleaning is in order. The nine year-old needs a bath.
Establishing the need is one thing; execution is another. Already one or two days’ reprieve has been secured through ordinary deferrals and general vague promises of compliance. Can I do it tonight, mom? Okay, right after dinner. But sister has cooked dinner and it is late. I’ll do it tomorrow, mom, I promise. Tomorrow comes and goes and in the evening we read by the fire and now it is late and mom and dad want to get the kids upstairs to spend some time without them. Did you take a shower today? No, I didn’t have time. There has been very little to do, today. Hours of time frittered away. Almost certainly accompanied by complaints of boredom. But no bath. It gets put off till tomorrow, against all proverbs. You have to do it before noon, though, okay? Got it? Got it.
The next morning finds him in the kids’ favorite spot in front of the heat vent. It is fiercely contested winter territory, the site of frequent battles and even bloodshed. He is breakfasted, his blanket and his book on his lap, school canceled, the clock steadily making its way towards the deadline. He reads mostly in silence. But every few minutes he blurts out:
Hey Siri, what time is it.
We have one of those room speakers. It’s probably a bad idea. It breeds bad habits, like the one my nine year-old son is engaging in now. In fact Siri serves mostly as a clock for this young child who refuses to glance up at the wall or wear the watch I once bought him that is now lost. Weighed against the alternative where he is asking one of us to answer for him, I’m not sure which I prefer. There is also the issue that I don’t like how quickly we as a society have become comfortable with a live internet-connected speaker sitting in our living rooms. Apple’s the only company I would trust with such hardware, but still, it’s the kind of situation we would be better to inculcate suspicion and distrust around, especially while our privacy laws lag so far behind the technology. And yet, somehow we have three of them.
It’s 10:32, it responds.
There is still plenty of time. He announces that he is going to read till 10:45.
Hey Siri, what time is it.
It is 10:36.
I begin to suspect that time-tracking may be occupying more of his attentional state than his book. Observing procrastination of this magnitude is something to behold. I am routinely late with my own obligations, but for the most part, the things are put off are unpleasant.
The querying continues for I don’t know how many iterations. The last time, Siri responds with the time per usual, but I swear I can hear in its response a hint of annoyance and frustration.
Hey Siri, what time is it.
It is 10:48. (It is time to take your bath, child.)
I’m going right now, he tells us. Don’t worry, I have plenty of time.
Should I take a shower or a bath? he asks.
It’s a cold winter day, and a long soak in a tub of hot water sounds wonderful to me. I imagine a day whose only work involved tending to the cleaning needs of my body. But then, were I granted such a day, would I really use it in such a manner? Crossing off tasks that others have prescribed for me? If I am honest, the answer is that it is unlikely. Who or what is to me, as I and this task are to my child? Maybe the closest analogy is mowing the lawn. Upon further thought, this is quite fitting. The task is made necessary by nature and entropy. My wife’s higher aesthetic sensitivity dictates that I do it well before I would like to. The end result is not unrewarding, yet I don’t want to do it right now. I table the introspection for the moment.
A bath, I respond.
I don’t know dad.
He pauses thoughtfully, then grabs a coin and puts his hands behind his back.
Dad, pick a hand.
Your left or mine.
Mine, your right hand, the one over there.
It’s not in that one.
It’s unclear what this means. He decides to flip instead. Wait, was heads bath or shower?
This continues for another round before the outcome reveals his true preference. He has decided on a shower. He heads upstairs.
A moment later a request is yelled down the stairs for help getting set up. He is a third child, well suited for this task, but nine years spent as the baby to two doting older sisters has molded him with only the thinnest tolerance for decision fatigue. I ignore further requests until he finds one that requires help. He would like assistance setting up the iPad so that he can listen to the playlist his sister made him for Christmas. He brings it down to me. I stop my work again and solve his problem. He starts playing as he walks upstairs.
As a Corona diversion, my wife and I have been working slowly through the world’s catalog of popular music, introducing the kids to an album at a time, or sometimes just a song. Some of them, we regret, not having anticipated the capacity for replay, or how easy it is to do so with modern invasive speaker devices. He makes his way to the shower and the water starts. He even remembered to start the fan.
After a while I make my way up there. As a parent, the window for teaching your children proper cleaning etiquette is short. At too young an age, they will not remember the important parts with enough precision. Too old, and they will not receive your advice on so intimate a task. You are lucky if you have a critical period between these points.
Are you okay? I ask. Do you have a washcloth?
No, I already washed.
Okay. Well, I’ll leave it with you, but it’s better if you scrub with a washcloth, I say. Did you wash everything really good and scrub?
What, he yells.
It’s better to scrub.
Can you unlock the door?
He unlocks it. I reach my hand in the door, yielding him the wash cloth, before returning to my computer downstairs.
More time passes.
Dad, dad, he yells.
A floor below, I can barely hear him, over the music, the fan, and the water. There are two ways to respond to this situation. One is to become annoyed and angry, to think of the work that is being interrupted, etc. The other is to breathe deeply, invoke perspective, and realize these times are few. Most days I choose the first response. Today, I manage some genuine patience. I make my way back upstairs.
Dad, can you get me a towel?
He hasn’t remembered to get a towel. I don’t always, either, despite having taken thousands of showers in my life. I bring him one, walking into the bathroom. It is soaked; the humidity is at 100%, condensation has gathered on the ceiling and is dripping down the walls. His clothing is scattered across the floor as if to maximize the covered surface area.
Can you clean up when you’re done? I ask. He says he will, but he probably won’t. I don’t know if he ever did, but what he did do is emerge from the bathroom, decently cleaner, wet and shining, smelling like whatever shampoo he mistook for body wash and his own particular scent that I cannot describe but know.
I love you, I said.