How to Do Battle with Grown-ups
Bursting into tears, he runs out of the house, shouting “Everybody hates me!”
Answer question 1 and then 2 OR 3.
1. James Lincoln Collier gives four examples of ways children might get their own way with grown-ups. Do children sometimes behave the way the author describes?
2. Mr. and Mrs. Goliath and David are the names of the characters. Why are these names especially appropriate? (Ask your teacher for help if you don’t know who David and Goliath are.)
Or 3. Choose one of Collier’s examples and tell what the parents might have done to win the “battle.”
JAMES LINCOLN COLLIER
AS A CHILD, when I asked my father why I had to sit up straight, brush my hair or hold my fork correctly, his usual answer was, “Because I said so.” It never seemed to me a good enough reason. On the other hand, I was never able to think of a good retort, either, and I invariably ended up crossly brushing my hair or holding my fork right.
I realize now that my father was taking advantage of my inexperience. In the unending battle between children and adults, the grown-ups win most of the time, not because they are smarter or morally superior, but because they were kids once themselves and know all of the enemy’s secrets. To redress the balance, I would like to offer some advice to the children.
A grown-up, Mr. Goliath, fires the opening shot: “David, don’t make that noise when you eat.”
“What noise?” David inquires.
“You know-the slurping noise.”
“I can’t help it. The soup’s hot.”
“Wait till it cools.”
“But you’re always saying eat your dinner before it gets cold.”
“Stop arguing.” Mr. Goliath is beginning to show signs of strain. “Just eat your soup without making that noise. It’s rude.”
“Why is it rude?”
“Because I said so!” Mr. Goliath bangs out the classic line.
It is a hard line to counter. What David must do is pull back as if retreating, and then, when he has drawn his opponent onto new ground, attack again. He may now say, “Is it okay if I do it quietly?”
This mollifies Goliath, gulling him into a false sense that he has won the battle. After all, his whole point was to make David eat more quietly. So he says, “Okay.”
David now continues to slurp as before. Lulled by his seeming victory, Mr. Goliath doesn’t realize for several minutes that he has accomplished nothing. Finally, he snaps, “I told you to stop slurping.”
“Well, try harder.”
“I am trying harder.”
Mr. Goliath struggles to keep his temper.
“Dammit, when I say something, I want you to do it!”
Whereupon, his soup finished, David says, “Okay, I won’t do it anymore.”
The point is that David should never confront Goliath directly. He must always give the appearance of retreating before superior power, when in fact he is actually shifting sideways. Consider the following:
It is about 8 p.m., and David has been playing quietly with a truck on the living room rug. Suddenly, Mrs. Goliath announces, “Eight o’clock, honey. Bedtime.”
She has sugar-coated her voice as if she were offering David a ride in a helicopter or a second Christmas. David should not be fooled. Grown-ups frequently tell children they want them to go to bed because it is good for their health and will eventually make them successful in business. The truth is: either (a) they want the television to themselves, or (b) they want the children out of the way so they can stop pretending they are responsible and wise.
Resisting the impulse to argue, David says, “Okay, Mommy.”
Startled but pleased by this response, Mrs. Goliath lapses back into her magazine, and it is fully ten minutes before she realizes that David is zooming the truck around the rug. “I thought I told you it was bedtime.”
“I am going,” David says. “I told you.”
“It doesn’t look to me like you’re going,” Mrs. Goliath says. “It looks to me like you’re playing with your truck.”
“I just have to finish this.”
Mrs. Goliath is somewhat put off, since she cannot figure out exactly what it is that David has to finish. So she says, “All right, but don’t take too long.”
It will be not quite ten minutes more before she says, “Okay, that’s enough.”
“I’m not finished.”
“I don’t care. That’s enough.” She is beginning to lose her temper.
Now David sets the trap. “You said I could finish.”
Mrs. Goliath pauses a moment to get a grip on her temper. “Finish what?” she says.
The trap is sprung. With a little imagination, David can expend as long as half an hour explaining the nature of the game, with demonstrations and elaborate elucidation of the rules, which he makes up as he goes along. Operating carefully, David may get to 8:45 before Mrs. Goliath snaps an order to brush his teeth. Whereupon David can counter with, “How about a bath?”
This is a request no parent can refuse. And, simply by dawdling, David can stretch it out to 9:30 before his lights are extinguished. To be sure, he ends up in bed eventually; but, by the rules of domestic warfare, any time a child is still up one hour after first being told to go to bed, he can claim victory.
It should be remembered, however, that the Goliaths, having been children themselves, are cunning. Let us suppose that Mrs. Goliath has come home from the self-service laundry Saturday noon with some absolutely choice gossip about Jack and Mary Finsterwald. The news is trembling at her lips, but there in the living room with Mr. Goliath sits David, working on the weekend crossword puzzle. She gives Mr. Goliath a wink and a jerk of the head, indicating that he should follow her into the kitchen. Then, just as she is about to unburden herself of her news, David trails in saying “What’s for lunch?”
At this point Mrs. Goliath can hardly say. “Go away, David. I have some absolutely choice gossip about the Finsterwalds I don’t want you to hear.” Instead, she says, “Have you cleaned your room?”
“Yes,” he says, “I did it yesterday.”
This may well be an untruth, but Mrs. Goliath doesn’t want to get into a long wrangle about David’s room. So she tries again. “What about your science report?”
“I don’t have to do that until Wednesday.
What’s for lunch?” By this time, David has got the message. Clearly, he is going to miss out on something if he leaves, so he drifts over to the kitchen table and begins playing with the salt and pepper shakers. Recognizing this lingering ploy, Mrs. Goliath says, “Darling, your father and I have something important to talk over.”
Now David hasn’t been darling since about four days after he was born, and he knows it. He also knows that the moment somebody calls him that, watch out. So he says, “I won’t say anything. I’ll just sit here and be quiet.”
By this time, Mr. Goliath decides to get into the act. “This is grown-up talk, David,” he says, his voice all growly and serious.
And this is where David, in his inexperience, can make a mistake. If the Goliaths are reasonably good actors, they may actually convince David that something quite serious is afoot. Mr. Goliath has lost his job again, or Uncle Fritz has blown a gasket and will have to be sent back to the Home for repairs. David may then go away, quietly sucking his thumb. He should remember this important rule, however: when anything really awful has happened, the grownups will always pretend that nothing is the matter. It follows, thus, that when they come on all growly and serious, ten to one a con is going on. Therefore he asks, ”What’s grown-up about it?”
This question is terribly difficult to answer, so the Goliaths both start babbling in frustration. Mrs. Goliath is beginning to tense up, and Mr. Goliath’s voice is getting very loud, so David exercises the better part of valor and flees. He does so, however, smug in the knowledge that whatever it was they were going to talk about has been forgotten.
But the fact remains that, from time to time, the Goliaths pass out a ruling which has real substance behind it. Such as: “If you keep playing with that glass like that, you’re going to break it.” David has known all along that the chances of his breaking the glass are good.
However, (a) it might not happen right away; (b) there are plenty of glasses in the kitchen cabinet; and (c) it is too much fun to stop. He says, “I won’t break it.”
“Yes, you will,” says Mrs. Goliath. “Now stop playing with it.”
“I’ll be careful.”
At this point, the glass slips from David’s hands and crashes to the floor. Now he stands naked before his enemies. Already a shriek of triumph is forming on their lips. David has only one resource left. Bursting into tears, he runs out of the house, shouting, “Everybody hates me!”
This is a palpable untruth, but it is going to worry the Goliaths, at least temporarily. Have they been too hard on the youngster? Did something happen at school that is upsetting him? By the time David returns, they will not only have resolved to say no more about the incident but will have picked up the broken glass.
It is, admittedly a desperate measure. But in the war between grown-ups and children, the rule is: No quarter given -and the sooner David learns this, the better. In fact, he’d do well to take notes. Someday he might have little ones of his own.
“How to Do Battle with Grown-ups” by James Lincoln Collier. © 1974 The Reader’s Digest Association (Canada) Ltd. Reprinted by permission.
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