Quite often a parable is an allegoric tale that teaches a lesson…whereas this is a strictly factual story from which I’ve learnt nothing, but I know how much people enjoy other people’s suffering. So here goes.
About a year ago, our eldest (Josh) saw that a few of his friends were busking and making some sweet coin. He decided that this was definitely for him, and asked if he could start busking on his ukulele on the corner of our street. Now at this stage he wasn’t really practising on his uke, and we don’t live on a busy street. So the bad parent in me saw this as an excellent opportunity to teach him a few valuable lessons around hard work and free-market capitalism. First of all, people will not simply throw money at you because you’re sitting there playing, you need to have practiced sufficiently so that you can play well, before people will part with their hard earned cash. Also, simply plonking yourself on a suburban street corner where there isn’t much foot traffic is foolhardy at best. You need to be somewhere where a lot of people will be passing by and will have cash on them (such as the Preston Market or one of the local supermarkets). Best of all, I got to teach him these harsh life lessons while appearing like the good guy! ‘Sure Josh, off you head to the corner…I fully endorse your endeavours…I certainly hope you don’t learn any harsh life lessons…good luck!’
You can imagine my bewildered surprise when he returned about 40 minutes later with just under $50. Apparently he had to come back because he was worried the wind was going to blow away all the notes…that’s right, people weren’t just giving him coins, they were giving him $5 notes…one person had even left a $20! $20!!! Apparently even the police had pulled over, listened to him and then said they’d get the next shift to drop past and listen. What is wrong with these people?! Can’t they see I was trying to teach my son some life lessons?!
Sadly this did not prove to be a one-off…and over the course of about 6 months Josh continued to busk and continued to make money. He purchased a remote control car with the money he made. He started to donate money to charities that he liked. He appeared to have joined an international fraternity of buskers which required us to leave money with almost any busker we passed (he also mastered the art of never actually having any cash on him for these tributes to the busking Gods, and so I invariably ended up handing over some coins).
Then he decided he wanted to get a lizard as a pet. I wasn’t dead keen on this as I didn’t imagine a lizard being a great pet (due almost exclusively to the fact that they were not a dog…or if you got desperate, a cat). But he was dead keen. So eventually we went to the pet shop to see how much it would cost. Now, much the same as my previous attempt at parenting, my theory was the he would hear how much it costs to purchase the tank and the heating lamps and all of the other paraphernalia and would realise that this was a foolish idea. When the guy in the pet store explained that it was going to cost $1,400, I saw Josh’s face fall. Finally…a victory for lazy parenting!
On the trip home he said ‘$1,400! It will take me at least another two weeks to earn that!’ After nearly crashing the car I looked at him and said ‘Wait! How much money do you have?!’ ‘About $1,200’ he replied. This was roughly $1,150 more than I had in my bank account. ‘Oh’ I said ‘I don’t suppose I can borrow $50?’ ‘What?’ ‘Nothing…nothing *sigh*’
Next we discovered that he had to get a license in order to keep the lizard. Woo Hoo! Finally the slow moving wheels of a bureaucracy would be my ally. After all, I get frustrated with unnecessary paperwork and ridiculous wait-times…and I’m a 41 year old man who works for a Govt Department. Surely this will be enough to crush the hopes and dreams of an 11yo boy!
But no. He saved the money for the license, filled in the paperwork and sent off the application…and in what can only be described as ‘not nearly enough time’ he was sent his license. So now he had both the money and the paperwork for his lizard.
But the Gods weren’t finished with me yet. Our next door neighbours inherited a their son’s 15yo, 2.5m long, pet python for a month or so. We were invited over to have a look at it, and Josh was smitten. While I looked at it and thought about it eating Jon Voight in ‘Anaconda’…Josh genuinely loved handling the snake…and needless to say, now he wanted a snake.
When it comes to pets, I’m quite the traditionalist. 4 legs and fur = good, 2 legs and feathers = pretty good, more than 4 legs = avoid, less than two legs = you had better be a fish. I have grown up running with dogs down at the park, taking them for long, teenaged walks where I could discuss with them my current top 10 reasons girls didn’t like me and they would listen attentively and without judgement. I’ve grown up with cats who blithely tolerated my existence. So the appeal of a snake, or lizard as a pet was just beyond me. I remember with great fondness visiting a bachelor pad of very blokey guys who had a pet bird-eating spider. The clear reason for this, was to be able to say ‘We’ve got a pet bird-eating spider!’ But on the night that I visited, it was discovered that the lid to the enclosure had been left slightly ajar and the spider could no longer be seen inside. You know in the old cartoons how when an elephant sees a mouse it jumps up onto the nearest stool and looks terrified…well imagine that…but with 3 very large men instead of an elephant…and some couches that had clearly been found on a hard-rubbish night instead of a stool. It was highly entertaining…apart from the fact that a highly venomous spider was currently loose in the living room I was standing in. Thankfully, it turned out that while the lid to the cage had been left ajar, no one had actually checked the underside of the lid, which is where the spider was hanging out (no doubt enjoying the high drama playing out outside of the cage). This experience did not imbue me with a love of your more ‘exotic’ pets.
But if the 1980’s TV show ‘Different Strokes’ taught us anything, it’s that ‘What might be right for you, may not be right for some’. Just because I don’t like something, doesn’t mean everyone else has to agree (although, I stand by my complete lack of interest in Drake!) So maybe Josh feels the same about snakes as I do about dogs. But then what about the other kids in the family, how will they feel about having a snake in the house? These things live a sodding long-time. What happens if Josh loses interest in it after a couple of years? If we have frozen mice in our freezer to feed the snake…does that mean I have to be even more careful with what I take out and put in a smoothie for the kids?
So many questions!
I know that as a parent I’m meant to put my foot down on some things, but this pre-supposes that I know best…and I don’t know anything about owning a snake. I just have a whole lot of ideas and beliefs that all lead to me not wanting a snake in the house…I don’t have any factual justification, I just want them to go back where they came from…and isn’t that a line of reasoning that’s working out just super for Australia?
On top of that, as a parent, what do I want for my kids? I want them to follow their dreams. I want them to know the value of money. I want them to set goals and work hard to achieve them. I want them to learn negotiation skills. I want them to understand that sometimes you have to navigate your way through systems that you think are a waste of time. These are all really good life lessons, and Josh was doing all of them. Granted it’s also a good life-lesson to know that sometimes you can do everything right, and put all your effort into something, only to have some dick at the next level of management just say ‘no’ and ruin everything…but I’ll be damned if I’m going to be that dick!
So tacit approval was given to the purchase of the snake…with my usual stalling clauses about ‘Well I’m very busy this weekend’ and ‘We’ll have to see when they have one in stock’ and ‘Well you know you can’t buy a snake while the moon is in the third house of Aquarius…that’s just bad luck.’ etc, etc.
But then I made the rookie error of going away for the weekend to do the Peaks Classic bike ride. Upon my return I was greeted by a beaming 11yo who said he had a big surprise for me. I had a pretty good idea what it was going to be…but this was confirmed 3 seconds later when our 5yo said ‘Josh has got a snake!’ I could tell that Josh was excited about the snake because he didn’t maim Xavier for ruining his surprise.
So Josh lead me into his room where the snake enclosure was and moved the little shelter that the snake was residing under. Now bear in mind, I had done a 13 hour bike ride up and down mountains the day before, and had just driven for 4 hours to get home, and I was in a room with an 11yo whose excitement levels were currently at ‘teenage girl at a Beatle’s concert’. So it was already a bit weird. Then there was a scream from Josh…and I realised that I had never heard him scream before…this may have been because he had never been bitten by a snake before. No sooner had he screamed, than Josh realised that this was not the best way to introduce his new pet to someone who he knew wasn’t really all that keen on him having it in the first place, so he casually picked up the snake and showed it to me. He excitedly told me all about going to get the snake and what had happened so far, and that the snake was still a bit ‘cage aggressive’ and so he shouldn’t really have reached in so quickly, but hey isn’t it beautiful?! All the while I’m looking at the small trickle of blood from his finger and thinking ‘the child I’m talking to just got bitten by a $*#@ing snake!’
But I reminded myself that I had seen dogs snap at children who had startled them, and I’d seen cats bite and scratch people…I’d even been attacked by a Pelican at the zoo when I was a child…so let’s not be too hasty. Besides, now that he was handling the snake, it looked totally calm, and Josh was equally calm manoeuvring it around.
So I adjusted to my new role as ‘parent whose child has a pet snake’ and the next 36 hours were fine.
But on the Tuesday night at about 2am, the alarm attached to the heating lamp in the snake enclosure went off. This basically means that the heating lamp had turned off for some reason and the thermostat had realised that the temperature was dropping to a point that wasn’t good for cold-blooded animals. The alarm was going off about 2 meters away from Josh’s head…but he was sleeping through it. Katie on the other hand, can be awoken by a mouse farting in the next suburb and so could hear the alarm from three rooms away. So she went in to wake Josh and tell him to reset the alarm. From all reports a drowsy and grumpy Josh opened the enclosure and reset the alarm, then he and Katie went back to their respective beds. While Josh went straight back to sleep, Katie lay in bed thinking one of those ‘I wonder what this lump is?’ type thoughts that you only ever think as you’re trying to get to sleep and thought ‘I don’t remember seeing Josh close the door on the enclosure’. So she headed back into his room to discover that not only had Josh failed to close the door…but the snake was now missing!
Up until this point I was doing what I do best at 2am…sleeping. This came to the most abrupt of endings when Katie came in and said ‘The snake’s loose!’ As a general rule I can sleep through most things…but ‘The snake’s loose!’ turns out to be one of those terms that gets the body moving before the mind has even caught up. So about 5 seconds later I was in Josh’s room looking at a very empty snake enclosure…then at the myriad hiding spots in his room that a snake could take advantage of…then at the open door of his bedroom…then back at the empty snake enclosure. I felt like one of those people who tries to jump onto a running machine when it’s already running at a very fast rate, things were coming at me way too fast, there was no way I could get up to speed, and it was only a matter of time before things went horribly wrong.
Katie was by far the most awake person in the room, I was just trying desperately to catch up, and Josh was trying desperately to convey that this wasn’t really a big deal…and that if it was a big deal…then he certainly wasn’t responsible for it, and that above all, this was no reason to get rid of the snake.
Just as I started playing a mental game called ‘I wonder what sort of scream the person who finally finds this snake will make?’ Katie found the snake, and thankfully didn’t scream. It had slithered over to the window and was currently hiding in the window sill. Coincidentally, this window sill was also as physically close as the snake could get to the Rabbit and Guinea Pigs sleeping outside. Just a coincidence…a pure coincidence. Just in case I thought my night couldn’t get any worse, I was then given the job of helping Josh get the snake back into the enclosure. Which it turns out is a bit like trying to all of the toothpaste back into the tube once you’ve squeezed it all out…but in this case, the toothpaste can also bite you. Josh, who had been so full of confidence with the snake earlier in the day, was suddenly more hesitant and less self-assured, and suddenly every time the snake coiled back a bit, we were convinced it was going to bite. To prove this point, the snake coiled back, and then bit Josh. To his credit, Josh kept working the snake back into its enclosure. I think he knew that his future as a ‘snake owner’ was on very thin ice…and now was not the time to make a scene about the fact that he been bitten by his snake…again.
With the door to the enclosure now closed Katie and I returned to bed, where we were both thinking the same thing; ‘This is not tenable…how the hell do we tell Josh that he has to take the snake back?!’ We had let this situation evolve and now it had come perilously close to a ‘worst case scenario’. I’m a firm believer in kids being allowed to make a mistake once, so long as you don’t do it again. But thus far that had only been applied to trying to pour milk into a glass from a full 2 litre bottle and trying to put 2 DVDs into the iMac at the same time. Somehow this felt a bit more like one of those ‘you only get one chance’ type situations. This was not proving to be the parenting masterclass that we had hoped it would be.
Then Katie thought she heard someone sobbing. I headed into Josh’s room and there he was, fighting back tears. He told me that he had been desperately thinking of all the things he could say so that he could keep the snake, but at the same time, was really scared that the snake would get out again, and that if it attacked Holly’s rabbit or guinea pigs, he would never forgive himself. I had the crushing realisation that while he had been acting so mature throughout this process, and had carried himself with the standing of an adult…he was still just an 11 year old boy who had gone through a hell of a lot, and was now just scared. I asked if he’d like to come into our bed and he said ‘yes’. So I reached down to pick him up…then I realised that he is actually a freaking giant and that me trying to carry him was going to be like one of those videos where the spider has killed a mouse and is trying to carry it away. So we settled for us walking back to my bedroom with my arm around his shoulder.
We crawled into bed and the three of us (Katie, Josh and I) had a long chat about taking the snake back, and we spoke about how Katie and I had had second thoughts the whole way along.
I can remember growing up that I felt as though my parents knew everything and that they never made decisions that they regretted…so it felt a bit weird to be admitting to an 11yo that I was so unsure of my own decisions that I had let him bring a python into the house. But I also felt that between the two of us, he had been the most mature throughout this whole process…and so I probably owed him a bit of honesty.
So the next morning Josh and I moved the less than impressed snake from it’s large enclosure into a very small container so that we could drive it back to the pet store (every part of this process was exactly as much fun as it sounds). The pet store were very understanding (I imagine the puncture wounds on Josh’s hand helped a little), and pretty soon I was dropping him off at school and left to ponder what the hell I’m meant to take away from this whole ordeal.
On the one hand, if I’d just gone with my gut instinct from the start, none of this would have happened. But on the other hand, while it was traumatic, I think Josh will have learned so much more about himself and Katie and I than any lesson I could have constructed. He now knows that we will back his judgement, that we are fallible, and that sometimes you can work towards a goal only to discover it’s nothing like you thought it would be, and these are great lessons in life. But most of all I hope that as a family we have all learnt, that we really are ‘dog people’.