If my wife, the mother of our children, were not around, our children would probably be dead from any variety of medicine overdoses or interactions. Her knowledge of over-the-counter and prescription medicines is well-earned, as she’s been on the receiving end of about half a dozen surgeries, two pregnancies, chronic migraines, and a childhood coma. My own medical history includes breaking my collar bone when I was 5 and getting run over by a hatchback in a parking lot when I was in college. I have no recollection of the former because I was 5, and of the latter because I probably hit my head or something. In any event, my experience with medications is limited to my mother accidentally overdosing me on Oxycontin after I had my wisdom teeth removed. So when it comes to dosing our children for their sundry maladies — runny noses, teething pains, Joshua’s probably fatal shellfish allergy — Jen takes point.
I know next to nothing about over-the-counter medications. In fact, I only know two of them — one of them is aspirin, and the other one is not. Jen casually tosses around terms like “naproxin” or “bacitracin” expecting me to recognize those as real things and not Dr. Seuss people. I’ve been fortunate to have been very healthy through my life, likely a side effect of my mom working in a hospital laboratory from which she likely brought home every strain of every bad thing out there. Resultantly, I have precious little experience with medicine. Jen’s pages-long medical history has acquainted her with every brand name and generic medication behind the counter at your local Walgreen’s. So, she asks me to get some Benadryl from the closet full of bottles whose only similarity to one another is that none of them says, “Benadryl,” and I immediately envision my children bleeding out of their elbows from a terrible complication. She tells me that we don’t have any medicines that do this, but I think she’s just trying to boost my confidence.
I complicate matters further with my alarming sensitivity to medications. I hurt my back a few years ago while painting our house. Jen offered me a muscle relaxer she’d been prescribed for something else. She took those things two at a time and it took the edge off of her pain. I took just one and couldn’t stand on my own. During my semi-annual allergy season this past spring, I began taking some allergy medication. The first dose helped quite a bit to clear my nose and sinuses. The second dose eight hours later did the same, but kicked in much faster. The third dose gave me some hallucinations and a dream about changing the name of one of our kids to “Hot Dog Water.” I don’t handle medicine well.
It’s frustrating to me that in the course of my meager public school education, few practical skills were ever conveyed. I can analyze some sonnets like a boss, but I couldn’t balance my checkbook until I bounced a check for some gum at Wal-Mart.* What, exactly, was the point of health class if I was never taught how to maintain my, you know, health? I remember the highlights — wear condoms, do drugs** — but I don’t remember anything about treating routine ailments. Maybe they assume that people have had enough colds and bouts of flu to have been familiarized with these things, but I slipped through the cracks. But, in the spirit of “We Learn As Much From Our Kids As They Learn From Us,” I’ve learned quite a lot from my kids’ mild problems. I now know the difference between allergy medicine and cold medicine and Tylenol and Ibuprofen. I know the correct dosage for each of my children for each of the medicines they take, and which ones they can’t for whatever reason. This is a big win for pharmacists near my house who no longer have to give me a guided tour of the cold and flu aisle to keep me from poisoning a child.
My fear going forward is that our kids will end up like me. This is truthful on several levels, but we’ll just focus on the relevant one for now. I am not a great person to educate them in the ways of pharmacology, which is still only slightly more transparent than alchemy to me. I suppose I can get them to the point of not mixing booze with cold medicine and then operating heavy machinery, but this is almost certainly not germane to your average pre-schooler. So far, neither of our kids is especially sickly, though Joshua does have some wicked eczema. His and my familiarity with corticosteroids still doesn’t prepare him for flu season, but I suppose it’s something.
This is all a prelude, of sorts, to a larger point about gaining life skills. I know I’ve read something about learning 95% of everything you’ll ever know by the time you turn five years old, but thirty seconds spent searching the Internet turned up nothing, so I’m sure it’s just a thing I made up. It sounds impressive, though, and plausible when you think about it. You go from literally being incapable of holding up your own head to walking, fluency in one or more languages, literacy, pooping in a toilet, dressing yourself, and the seven movements of Grand Prix dressage,*** all in the course of five years. There will not be a more intense period of learning again in your life until you start working on your doctorate, and one of those periods is still more useful than the other. (Hint: it’s not your dissertation on The Impact of Archery on the Slam Poetry of the 16th-century Agrarian Steppe Peoples.) A great many of these are accumulated without a whole lot of conscious effort. The brain is just hard-wired to learn. But trivial, though critical, life skills seem to be learned piecemeal and largely by caprice. For example, I learned that one does not make pasta by putting dry noodles in water and then putting that on the stove. Took ten weeks of cooking classes to undo that one. I also used to use cleaning wipes to clean every surface in my bathroom. The notion of paper towels and actual bathroom cleaner was unknown to me. The particular species, Bachelorus Americanus, is a pitiable creature indeed.
It’s a parent’s job to teach tiny humans to be big humans. They’ll learn all the really important stuff like language and motor control on their own, but they need a hand to master all the societal crap we’ve invented for ourselves in the last few thousand years. Don’t kiss on a first date, except when you should. Always hold the door for a lady, except when she’ll be offended by it. Don’t travel back in time and kill relatives. There’s an endless litany of life lessons that have to be learned, and almost all of them the hard way. As parents, we want to impart these lessons the easy way. We want to just communicate the perils of risky behavior so that our kids don’t have to experience heartache, pain, or time paradoxes. But pain is how we learn best. I gave myself a mild electric shock when I was a kid by replacing a lightbulb while holding the metal bit that screws into the socket. That’s not a lesson that needs repeating. Mixing cough syrup and allergy medication seems ok until you’ve spent an afternoon taking an impromptu nap in the azaleas. Sometimes, no matter how bad our own experiences with things, we still cannot osmotically transmit the lessons we’ve learned to our kids. Joshua will have to slam his finger in a door at some point, and Jack will inevitably travel back to the Great Depression and accidentally kill his great-great grandfather. Experiential learning is a bitch, but it’s potent. They’ll be better people for it, and it will have not that much to do with me. My role, it seems will be teaching them the basic skills to get there. Also, not to confuse allergy medicine for cold medicine before a driving test.
*This is, without a doubt, the lowest point of my attempt at adulthood.
**Or something like that.
***Did I mention that my parents used to show horses? Yuppie ain’t taught; it’s caught.