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Let's Panic: The Book!

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How to Endure and Possibly Triumph Over the Adorable Tyrant
who Will Ruin Your Body, Destroy Your Life, Liquefy Your Brain,
and Finally Turn You
into a Worthwhile
Human Being.

Written by Alice Bradley and Eden Kennedy

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I'm In...

Sleep Is
For The Weak

Chicago Review Press

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Let's Panic

The site that inspired the book!

At LET'S PANIC ABOUT BABIES, Eden Kennedy and I share our hard-won wisdom and tell you exactly what to think and feel and do, whether you're about to have a baby or already did and don't know what to do with it. → 

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Burning onions = ten years of therapy.

While Henry organized his Stormtroopers, I had some precious phone time with my friend.

“Damn, I burned my onions,” said Stacey.

“You burned your onions?” I said. “I didn’t even know you were cooking. You cook while you’re talking? You talk while you’re cooking?”

“I’m a multitasker,” she said.

Henry, meanwhile, was staring at me. “Who burned what?” he asked.

“Stacey burned her onions,” I told him.

“Let me talk to her,” he said. He grabbed the phone and confirmed the events surrounding the onions, and the burning of said onions.

Eventually I got the phone back. While I attempted to finish our conversation, Henry pulled at my leg, barraging me with questions regarding The Burning.

I began to lose my patience. I suggested that he play. Look at a book. Do something while I have the only interaction I’ve had with an adult all day except for those few minutes with the cashier at the supermarket that I continued way past an appropriate point.

His lower lip began to quiver. “But why did everything get all burned up?” he said. Then I noticed he was holding his special bear.

Finally I got it. Burning. Fire. Three-year-old listening, thinking our friend is aflame.

I explained to him as best I could about what we meant when we said the food “burned,” how it’s not on fire and etc. He was not appeased. I got off the phone and sat next to him. He leapt onto my lap and dug his head into my chest.

I explained it all again. “That was confusing, when we talked about something burning, wasn’t it? You were worried.” He nodded vigorously into my boobs.

“I didn’t understand,” he said.

“Well, why would you? When we say something’s burning, we usually mean it’s on fire, right?”

“I’m sorry I didn’t understand about the burning,” he said.

“You don’t have to be sorry about that,” I said, and held him tighter.

When I was three, a boy we called Little David began spending weekends with us. I am unclear about the reasoning behind this, but I know that he lived at an orphanage where my mother was a volunteer. It seems strange to me that the orphanage would loan children to volunteers, but there it is. Little David came for weekends, and according to my parents, I did not like this at all. He was maybe a year younger than me, and very physical and boisterous, and I was a little girl who liked everything just so and he was touching my stuff and he even slept in my room, and I wanted him out out out. So after a few weekends, my mom told the orphanage the weekend arrangement wasn’t working.

The following weekend I asked my mother where Little David was. “Don’t worry,” she said, “We know you didn’t like having him here, so Little David’s not coming back.”

The next morning I woke up and couldn’t talk.

I couldn’t talk for a while, actually. Well, can you imagine? I had wielded untold power! One complaint from me and I could disappear people! How could I say something? What would happen next? I would say I didn’t like my hamburger and then all the cows on Earth would spontaneously combust?

Eventually everyone in charge figured out what had happened; I was reassured and shortly thereafter I returned to my usual chatty self. And every time I heard the story of my temporary muteness, I would wonder at how impressionable little kids are. I knew, however, that when I was a parent I would certainly be as mindful as I could of my child’s fragile grasp on how the world works.

But the thing is, it’s haaaard. It’s like you’re raising an intelligent, perceptive, mildly psychotic Armenian. He’s got a good grasp of the language, the Armenian, but he doesn’t get the idiomatic expressions, he has frighteningly good hearing, he remembers everything, and he’s extremely sensitive. You can’t get away with anything with this Armenian. Don’t tell your husband, after a long day, that you’re pooped—because five days later the Armenian will shout to you in the supermarket “WHY WERE YOU POOPED DID YOU HAVE POOP ON YOU?” (For instance.)

A few months before the Armenian really wasn’t as interested in what you had to say. He didn’t have a real handle on the language, so if conversation went over his head he would let it pass him by. He was invincible, the Armenian—if he didn’t get something, it didn’t need to be gotten. All that mattered was what he knew. But now he’s figuring out how much he doesn’t know, and how much he needs to know, and suddenly he spends a lot more time with his bear, on your lap, needing some extra comfort.

Okay, so my metaphor has fallen apart, but you get what I’m saying.

A couple of hours later we were playing on the floor, and he asked me what the floor was made of. Was it made of sticks, like in the Three Little Pigs? He studied the floor, checking it for signs of weakness. “No, no, it’s nice, sturdy wood,” I said, and he knocked on it. There was a faint echo.

“Hey, it’s like someone knocked back from underneath there,” I said. As I said it I thought, hmm, perhaps this isn’t the image you want to give your child, and before I could even finish the thought he was back on my lap with his bear.

Hey, at least he can still talk.

Reader Comments (75)

I like the Armenian idea. It trumps my old one, which is that 3-year-olds are like very small, drunk people. You don't know what they'll do or say next -- they might cry, they might throw up, they might observe some very beautiful, delicate truth.
January 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterSarah
See, I've always said it was like having a largely senile, grumpy old man in my house. Well, at least in the case of my now 6 year old son. He was always mis-hearing, mis-understanding, jumping to conclusions. "I'm going to my in-laws house this weekend,"I might say to a friend. "You're breaking the LAW This weekend?!? You'll go to JAIL!" he'd shout. "No, no, we're going to grandma's, that's all." "GRANDMA is in JAIL! WAAAAAAH!"
January 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDeana
For some reason my 4 year old doesn't have issues with "fired" or "pooped" or any of those words. But try to explain family relationships and he is out of the water.

We had an arguement in the car yesterday about how Papa is my grandfather. He just kept screaming at me, "NO, he's my Papa." It was good for a few giggles.

He also got on the phone with my father-in-law (who he has never met b/c he's in Louisiana and we're in California) the other day and told him, "I don't love you, you are not my Papa." I guess he thought that my husband was talking to Papa and was quite upset that this person had the gall to think *he* was Papa. Thank god my father-in-law thought it was funny.
January 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterKristen
What a wonderful entry. Now I'm remembering all of the language misunderstandings I had as a child (funny now, painful then), and you've reminded me to be more mindful of language around my own child as he grows. thanks
January 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMandy
The other day as we were walking through a muddy slushy parking lot, my husband told our 2.5 year old daughter he would carry her because it was so "poopy outside". For days we were bombarded with "where is the poop?" "Poop on the ground?" type commentary. It's like having a incessantly speaking personal tour guide that has never been anywhere you go, but is going to tell you about your trip anyway.
January 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAngela
When you're an older sibling, gullibility and confusion can work to your advantage. One day my sister thought it would be fun to ring the doorbell a lot. Then later that evening the basement flooded. So we told her the two events were connected. She thought, until she was about twelve and told her friends this and was seriously embarrassed, that if you rang the door it would cause the basement to flood.

My brother and I thought this was hillarious, and still do.
January 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJessie
Love this. I probably spend too much time thinking about this stuff because of my background in communication and development, but it's one of the things that weighs heavy on me about having a child. Such a responsibility to help them navigate the intricacies of language and not end up with a twelve year old who has no concept of sarcasm, irony or humor.
January 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterTB
Hell, I feel like I always accidentally do this sort of thing to my fellow grad students, and they're twenty-two to my thirty-seven.

When I was a wee thing, my parents took me to a parking-lot fair back in Ohio and I waited and waited for a turn in the inflatable jump-up-and-down thing and when I finally got inside, the HISSING of the air made me suddenly believe that the carnies were planning to deflate the whole contraption with a load of kids inside and take us away. My parents couldn't figure out why I spent my whole turn very very still, flat against the floor and listening to the hissing.
January 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMiss Weeze
When my guy was little he thought that the warning beeps that construction vehicles make when they back up meant that they could magically back up into our house or over him no matter whether he was 3 blocks away or not. So he'd run and leap into my arms.

This seems so harmless compared to the years I lived in fear of laughing when I was little because my older brother told me that if you laughed too hard you could die. I think I may have been eating something at the time and he thought I might choke. I just thought that laughing hard and death were connected, which scared the living shit out of me for years!
January 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commentermarian
You hit it on the head. I'd have reflected on this more, in the past year, but I'm so neurotic that it's in my wiring to explain every idiomatic epxression to my son as it comes out of my mouth. He rarely has additional questions about what it means, but instead offers (for the rest of the day) other examples of the idiom, in various contexts. Language fascinates him, and why shouldn't it?!
January 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commentersteph
When my cousin was about Henry's age, his parents were watching an action movie on video that contained the phrase "shit for brains." His ears perked up and he asked, "what's 'six for brains'?!"

Being quick-thinking, they said, well, most people have TEN for brains, so if you only have six you're not very smart. To this day, our whole extended family refers to dumbasses as having Six For Brains. I highly recommend it.

Oh: and this same cousin, during the same time period, could only sleep after his dad made a large and carefully lettered sign for his bedroom door that said "NO GIANTS ALLOWED!" Now it's all just fodder to embarrass him with in front of his girlfriend. No therapy bills as of yet.
January 19, 2006 | Unregistered Commentersz
Never posted here before. I read your blog all the time and love it even though I'm an old lady with a grown daughter. A couple of examples of how kids interanlize what they hear - As a youngster many moons ago, there was a daytime TV show hosted by Arthur Godfrey (that's how old I am). One time he had a little girl on and she was shy and wouldn't talk on cue. He said something like "Cat got your tongue?". Imagine my horror. Many years later my daughter was about 3 and wouldn't hold on to the handrail when riding escalators. This drove me nuts, I was always afraid she would be injured. Then, one time unexpectedly an escalator we were on just stopped midstream, causing us all to kind of lurch forward (or back can't remember which way it was going, up or down). I instantly saw it as my opening to exclaim to my daughter that it happened because she wasn't holding on. She never got on an escalator after that without holding on to the handrail.
January 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah
I used to think that when a car hit you, you'd automatically die. I always looked twice and twice again before crossing the street, so I guess it was good for something. But scary.
January 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterEuropean
Here's how you'd tell an Armenian that you need a toilet: unek zukaran? You know -- to avoid being pooped like that...
January 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterPants
I love the Armenian analogy. Poor Henry. The idea of someone knocking back through the floor freaks me out, too!

When I was Henry's age, I was diagnosed with hyperlexia after teaching myself to read and setting about gutting every book in our house. The problem was that while I could read all the words in the grown-ups' books just fine, I was (like Henry) still a very literal-minded little kid. For example, my dad tried to explain when I read Animal Farm that the book was an allegory about Communist Russia; but then every time the USSR was mentioned on the news (this was during the Cold War) I thought our town was going to be invaded by mean pigs with attack dogs. This literal-mindedness lasted for years (a common phenomenon among hyperlexic kids). For my 6th birthday, I wanted pierced ears. My mom took me to the doctor's office to get them, and when the nurse said "I'll go get the [piercing] gun" I started shrieking because I thought they were going to shoot my ears with a pistol. I can still recall the mental image I had at the time of what I thought was going to happen: me standing on a railroad track, with the gun-toting nurse several feet away wearing a Stetson.

Now that I'm a so-called grownup I'm not afraid of invading pigs anymore, but when the students I teach incorrectly use the word 'literally' in their writing assignments (something they do often, unfortunately) I have a good laugh by picturing what they're saying before correcting their papers.
January 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJ.
Six for brains - good one. My sister promotes my nephew's mis-hearing of her evening television wind-down show so that instead of going to Daddy's and telling him that he and Mommy watch Sex and the City, he can only report their enjoyment of "Saxophone City."
January 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLinda
As my husband and I were leaving to return home from a visit to relatives recently, I asked him "did you put away the toiletries?"

My 3 yo's eyes grew very big and she asked "mommy, you can grow toilet trees?"

I'm still dying to find out what they look like in her mind.
January 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterKirsten
I have never thought about how confusing what we say can be for little kids.

I love the story about little David. Although I admit, I find it odd that he was out on loan to your family. Interesting...
January 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterIsabel
I don't even feel like sharing anymore. The number of comments here have become almost obscene. How do you have time to read all these?
January 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBren
Maybe someone should write a children's book called "Someone's Burned the Onions" to help children understand the delicate nature of what happens when someone burns their food in a way that doesn't scare a child but helps them understand on their level. As much as they can. Listen, I'll call the publishing companies and do some legwork and you get on the horn and find an illustrator. Let's get this going.
January 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterStefanie
When I was at that impressionable age, my mother, as a homemaker, wanted to "give something back" to society, so my parents arranged to become a foster home. They were available for emergency placements - children removed from a bad situation in the middle of the night, etc. These placements could last anywhere from just a few days to weeks or months.

In the context of this post and these comments, we can all see it coming: after a while I started freaking out every time I was left with a babysitter because I was too young to understand that *I* was a permanent part of the family. Once they realized what was going on, they arranged for a long-term placement (who, 30 years later, still calls my parents "Mom" & "Dad.")

Also: We had that kind of stove where the burners glow (beautiful, irresistible) orange when they're really really REALLY hot. Of course my mom impressed upon me that this was very dangerous and never to be touched. One day I saw her turn off the burner while it was glowing like that. When I asked if the stove was off, she didn't realize the implications and simply said that yes, she had just turned it off. Knowing that the stove was "safely" off, I went ahead and reached for the pretty red coil...
January 23, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer
Jennifer: AIIIIIIEEEEEEE. That will haunt my dreams.
January 23, 2006 | Unregistered Commenteralice
Um, hi, I've commented a few times, and this time I have to say:Hey Deborah, I remember the elevator stopping while we were half way, and while I may have always held on to the handrail, remember I STILL do!! And that folks is what can happen when you scare a kid into thinking things like that, neurotic adults like me.
January 23, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJena
Alice, If it makes you feel any better, I only know that story from having it told to me, not from traumatic memory. Plus, there are no scars on my fingers and I have no lingering fear of stoves. So I guess it wasn't as bad as it could have been.

Although now that you mention it, I *have* always disliked the color orange...
January 25, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer
I don't comment here very often because it sort of feels like shouting into the noisy wind. But I've come back to this post a thousand times. It's so brilliant, on so many levels. I just wanted to say thanks.
February 4, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

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