Jun 07 2009

The Parenting Puzzle – Harder To Solve Than A Rubik’s Cube

Published by at 4:00 am under Parenting

It’s interesting to observe how differently children perceive the parent who goes to work versus the parent who stays at home to look after them. I’m sure there’s studies and research done on this subject, but I’m not really interested in any of that academic stuff. All I’m really concerned about, is that as my kids grow older, they won’t forget some of the things that have made me such a legend in their eyes while they are still small, young children like they are now.

For example, all my kids know that when I was in my early teens, not only did I become the local region’s “Macadamia Nut Cracking Champion”, I was also photographed for the local community paper for my ability to solve a Rubik’s cube in under 30 seconds.

Regarding the Rubik’s cube, I never told them that I had somehow come across the formulas for solving the cube, written them all down on a piece of paper that I carried everywhere around with me, and that I had then continually practiced and learned these formulas until I could solve the cube without giving it a single moment’s thought. Admitting to my kids that the solution to the puzzle didn’t just come to me because I was such a mathematical teenage genius would probably tarnish my “hero” status. I fear I would be known as a “cheat” and, right now, my kids firmly believe that cheats are bad guys and that all bad guys inevitably go to jail, so I couldn’t possibly inflict this kind of mental torment, pain and anguish upon their innocent and beautiful little minds.

But, as we all know, everything that goes around eventually comes back around to bite you hard on the bum (I’m sure there are academic studies and research done on this subject too, which I’m also not interested in knowing about!).

Not too long ago, Corporate Babe and I decided to take a short family holiday during the kids’ school holidays. My wife booked us a small rental cabin in the mountains – a 6-hour drive south of where we live. We had to fit this break in between her flying off to Singapore for a 3-day company event, and her then having to be back at work about a week later for another important company presentation.

The night before Corporate Babe was due to arrive back from Singapore, I packed the car up with everything we would need for the trip (including, of course, Destructo’s back-pack filled with all of his most treasured stuffed toys!) and got all the kids into bed. We needed to get up early the next morning and swing past the airport to collect Corporate Babe when she arrived at 7:00 am, and then just keep driving down towards our rental cabin in the mountains.

As we all got into the car and started driving out in the morning, the kids pointed out the most amazing rainbow I have ever seen. We arrived at the airport almost an hour later and picked up my wife, who had already cleared customs and was waiting outside the arrivals area. As soon as she got in the car, all the kids wanted to know was what kind of presents she had brought back for them. Knowing that our car was going to be filled to the brim with stuff when she arrived from her trip, she had wisely only brought them back a couple of very small gifts.

Each of the kids was given a small Rubik’s cube on a key chain. Corporate Babe had also purchased a Rubik’s cube for herself, but this one was different. It only had 2×2 squares to solve on each face, instead of the normal 3×3. My wife confessed that she had purchased it for the long plane ride home because she thought it would be a much easier puzzle to solve than the normal version of the cube, but that it had indeed proved to be just as difficult as the regular Rubik’s cube (which only goes to show that you can’t cut corners on a Rubik’s Cube that’s only made of corners – ha ha!).

My eldest son, Filosofo, who was already busy at work trying to rearrange his puzzle back to its original starting configuration, reminded everyone in the car of my reputation as a Rubik’s teen prodigy, and that if anyone needed the cube to be solved, they should just give it to me when we got to a set of red traffic lights and that I would have the puzzle completely solved for them before the lights turned green again, because, as he pointed out, it takes more than 30 seconds for the average set of traffic lights to change colors.

Corporate Babe must have noticed how uncomfortable I looked as Filosofo reminded the family of my legendary prowess when it came to solving the Rubik’s Cube. Thankfully, she intervened on my behalf and quickly made everyone aware that “Daddy hasn’t solved a cube in almost 30 years, so he may just be a little rusty!”

Exacto, my middle child, decided he was going to trust no one with his cube and declared to everyone present in the vehicle that he was never going to mess up his cube and that no one should touch it.

Destructo was already getting very frustrated with the fact that after only 4 seconds of playing with the cube he couldn’t even get one face of his puzzle to be all the same color again.

After about 3 minutes into our 6-hour long trip, the kids had already all but given up on trying to solve their cubes and were now asking us when we were going to arrive at the cabin.

Corporate Babe was too engrossed in her “dumbed-down” version of the Rubik’s cube to answer, so I told the kids that the “golden rule” of the trip was that they were not allowed under any circumstances to ask “how long” before we got to the cabin.

Of course, this was the worst thing I could have said. Destructo simply ignored the rule – not only did he start driving us nuts for the next several hours by moaning about how long the trip was taking, but he also invented several new “Golden Rules” along the way which he accused his brothers of transgressing (“Daaad … my brothers have just broken the Golden Rule – they’re annoying me / they’re teasing me / they’re looking at me / they’re touching me / they’re looking out my window! etc …” The other two just kept figuring out different ways of asking us how soon we were going to get there without actually using those precise words. Filosofo achieved this by continually subtracting the distance from where we currently were to where we would ultimately end up and dividing the result by my average driving speed (“We are now only 540 kilometers away from the cabin. Dad … if you increase your speed from 100 kms p/hr to 270 kms per hour, we can be at the cabin in exactly two hours time!”). Exacto took the legally safe approach (“Dad, I know I can’t ask how long it’s going to take us to get to the cabin because I don’t want to break the “Golden Rule”, but am I allowed to ask if we are going to get there before night time?”)

Before the trip, Corporate Babe and I had briefly discussed whether or not we should have purchased a small portable DVD player to keep the children quiet and occupied during the long drive down to the mountains. In the end, we both agreed that we would not succumb to our normal obsessive tendencies of staying connected to the Internet 24×7, or avoid being fully present to the kids during our trip by delegating parental duties to electronic nannies like DVD movies. Hence, no laptops, internet access or DVDs were allowed for the week we were going to be away.

Not having DVDs in the car was a mistake. Kids today are not interested at spending hours sitting in a vehicle looking at trees and beautiful scenery, unless, of course, they have access to some form of noisy, controlling device that allows them to press buttons and explode those trees and everything else that can jump out at them from the scenery. We were thus condemned to a long trip of suffering through our kids moans and complaints that the trip was either very long, very boring, or very long and very boring.

None of this seemed to matter to my wife, however, who sat through most of the trip completely engrossed in trying to solve her Rubik’s cube.

Eventually the kids grew tired of annoying each other. This all happened just as we arrived at the cabin.

We then began to enjoy our vacation and had a wonderful and relaxing time. We even experienced a freak early snow fall on the third and fourth days of our stay, and all the kids went wild with their first experience of snow.

Without access to the internet, I soon found myself becoming completely engrossed in trying to solve those infernal Rubik’s cubes. The fact that I could actually get at least two or three faces of the puzzle solved helped boost my reputation as a mathematical “genius”, and helped to convince the kids that I was indeed only “rusty” through lack of practice.

About five days into our holiday, the kids and I were sitting in the car while Corporate Babe shopped at a local supermarket for supplies. I was working on the cube. Exacto suddenly become visibly upset in the back seat. I looked around and saw him in tears holding up a messed up Rubik’s cube. Filosofo’s face had gone completely white. My eldest son had taken his brother’s cube, and had been teasing him by turning the cube a couple of times so that the pieces looked messed up, then reversing his moves to restore the puzzle to its original look. After doing this a couple of times, however, Filosofo had truly messed up the cube and could not restore it back.

Even though I could see that Filosofo was genuinely remorseful of what he had done to his brother’s cube, I couldn’t help reacting in anger. I got very upset with my son and began yelling at him. This made Filosofo start to sob very loudly. Seeing his oldest brother sobbing remorsefully and his older brother crying unconsolably, my little one joined in as well. I sat inside the car with three kids crying loudly in the back seat.

Still fuming, I picked up the cube I had been working on previously and just sat there angrily twisting the pieces of the cube around and around, wishing my wife would hurry up and return from the shops so I could just drive the hell out of there.

And then, in the middle of all of this emotional family turmoil, with the anger and tears flowing out of everyone inside the vehicle, all of the puzzle pieces suddenly came together.

I had solved the Rubik’s cube!

I had truly solved it! And all without resorting to cheating or remembering any of the complex mathematical formulas for twisting the pieces around that I had once memorized as a teenager, which had then given me my fleeting notoriety at school and landed my picture in the local paper.

But this was not an appropriate moment for reveling in personal jubilation. Looking at the solved puzzle in the palm of my hand did help me to calm down, however. I quietly put the cube away, then turned around and began to apologize to my son for having yelled at him and for making him feel worse than he had made himself feel by going against his brother’s wishes.

I then waited quietly in the car until my wife returned from shopping and we were back on the road and everything had blown over and things had returned to normal, before triumphantly producing the cube from the side pocket of the car and showing everyone that I had once again proved my ability at solving the notorious Rubik’s Cube puzzle.

Maybe because of what had happened earlier in the car, I did not get the hero’s welcome I had anticipated I would get from my family. There was no lasting moment of glory to savor, no chorused outburst of cheers of joy and elation from my wife and kids in unison, no congratulatory slaps on the back or confetti and ticker-tape streaming down from the skies … just a barely perceptible grunt from my wife and a quick look at the cube from 3 little pairs of eyes in the backseat. Filosofo further diminished the impact of my accomplishment by saying that the cube I solved was only the 2×2 squared one and not the 3×3 cube.

I drove back to the cabin that day feeling a little crestfallen and pondering on the little virtues and calamities that can either turn a dad into a real hero in his children’s eyes, or a villainous monster. Yelling at your kids is certainly not one of those little heroic virtues.

As always, there were some important lessons for me to learn from this experience. Parenting in a way, is an infinitely more difficult, challenging and complex puzzle than a Rubik’s cube. It requires us to constantly twist around lost of different parts trying to make everything work and come together on all sides. And if we do indeed get to finally solve the puzzle, whatever feeling of pride and accomplishment we experience lasts only for the briefest of instances. The moment we begin to play with it, we risk messing everything up again.

I wonder how much less of a hero I will seem to my kids in a few years time, when they finally discover that all I had to do to win the Macadamia Nut cracking championship event some twenty-eight odd years ago, was to simply be the first to crack enough nuts with a hammer to get ten unbroken macadamias out of their shells. Definitely not a hard accomplishment for a nutter like myself!

The Lazy Househusband


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