Starved for attention, and also food

I waved the granola bar in the air ineffectually, like a hiker waving one at a charging grizzly bear.

“Just take it and spare me!” I said, but my attacker/son, Zack, was not to be appeased so easily.

“I’M HUNGRY! I’M HUNGRY!” he shouted again, tears streaming down his face in the rearview mirror, as if the granola bar was irrelevant to this conversation.

Just moments before, we’d dropped off his older brother, Evan, at summer camp, which is like school, except our retiree neighbors don’t help us pay for it.

“Good morning, Evan!” the counselor said as she opened the door. At this camp, the counselors remove your child for you, which is a nice touch. It’s like a drive-thru where instead of giving you food, they take your child. Sounds like an idea with serious franchise potential.

“I’M HUNGRY! I’M HUNGRY!” Zack screamed to the counselor, who shot me a quick look as she unsnapped Evan’s harness.

“Yes, I’m a horrible parent. We can just acknowledge that fact with a brief, knowing glance, then move on with life,” I said, with my eyes.

If I’d had time to explain, I could have given the counselor some context, like recounting the conversation that had occurred an hour earlier, when I’d tried to get Zack to eat his breakfast.

“C’mon, buddy, it’s time to eat,” I’d said.

“I’m not hungry,” he’d replied, turning down his usual (microwave, of course) pancakes and (microwave, of course) sausage. On that morning, my wife, Kara, was out-of-town, leaving me to do my best to keep everyone alive, a task I performed largely by slathering Nutella on food-like breakfast items to make them palatable.

Our kids don’t know how good they have it. We didn’t have Nutella when I was a kid, because the chocolate, nut and lard mixture hadn’t spread across the Atlantic from Europe yet. As a people, we’re very cautious about the things we borrow from Europe. Bike lanes and universal health care, they can keep. But slathering chocolate on already unhealthy things? Uncle Sam heartily approves, just a couple decades too late for my childhood.

But Zack wouldn’t accept his breakfast that morning, throwing a wrench into my Nutella-powered keep-the-kids-alive plan. Figuring that he might change his mind about enjoying starvation, I threw a granola bar into my pocket, then threw the kids into the car. As soon as we rolled out of the driveway, the screaming began.

When I offered the granola bar, Zack acted as if I’d offered him a spritz of pepper spray instead. After a few minutes, the screaming felt as if it was rupturing important parts of my cranium. Well, you know, important to me.

After we’d dropped off Evan, and after every attempt to modify the temperature, window height and radio volume failed to mollify the starving child, my mind wandered to the book “Between Parent and Child,” which is the only parenting book I own, bought on a whim after Googling “how not to mess up your children.” Every now and again, when it feels like our parenting techniques could use a tune-up, I’ll read another chapter. The basic thrust of the book is that kids don’t always want answers, but they always want empathy. They just want to be heard and understood, even when you can’t understand them anymore, on account of your shattered eardrums.

“I’M HUNGRY! I’M HUNGRY!” Zack screamed.

“So you’re hungry, then?” I asked. It seemed a ridiculous question, since he’d just been screaming about his hunger for the longest hour of my life.

“Yeah,” he replied, settling down almost immediately.

After a few beats, I asked, “Want a granola bar?”

“Yeah,” he replied. He spent the rest of the drive happily munching.

When Kara came home, she looked onto the back deck.

“Did you remember to water the tomatoes?” she asked, gesturing toward the wilting, yellowing plants.

“The kids are alive. Anything beyond that is extra credit,” I replied.

You can ignore Mike Todd’s pleas for silence at mikectodd@gmail.com.

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