My six-year-old daughter, Norah, was picking her butthole with her right hand, and holding a toothbrush with her left. She was in pink underwear with a green waistband. Sleeping in her underwear, like her older brother, was her new thing.
She was old enough to wipe her own butt without asking me to check it, but at the same time we’d reached this awkward stage where I’m not sure if she does it very well, but questions about how well she wiped her butt were seen as accusations. They usually resulted in a crying fit. This all winded down to her occasionally digging at her butt, usually at unfortunate times, like at church or right before dinner, or in this case, right before she was about to brush her teeth.
She finished picking at her butthole and asked me to set the timer for two minutes so she could brush her teeth, as if it was no big deal, but it was, in fact a big deal, because I am a grown man. I am her father, and I had picked at my butt as a youngster for the same reasons she did, so I knew that her fingers smelled like poop, which meant that she had just a little bit of poop on her hands, and she was now going to use her right hand, the one she favored, to brush her teeth.
“I’m not setting the timer until you wash your hands,” I said.
Norah placed her right hand on her hip, head tilted to the side, left hand still holding the toothbrush, and said, “Why?” in an angry, snarky, tone. One she reserved for when I ask her to do something she really doesn’t want to do, like clean her room, or stop singing “Let It Go” in a clear attempt to irritate her brother.
I braced myself for an argument over something that seemed so obvious to me “If you touch your butthole, you should wash your hands, especially before brushing your teeth.” But it clearly wasn’t obvious to her.
I was being difficult.
I was making her life harder.
So much of parenting comes down to arguments over basic hygiene. No parenting books tell you this. It just becomes very apparent the first time your child gets pissed off because you ask them not wipe a booger on the sofa, or to spend a little time making sure their butt is wiped properly. My first night as a father I leaned over and looked at my oldest son sleeping soundly in his crib. Never once did I think, “Someday I will teach you to wipe your ass so it doesn’t itch. You will fight this lesson, but I will teach it because I love you.” It never crossed my mind.
But this is, frankly, the sad reality of parenting. You are working with a raw product. I’ve had to teach my children how to sleep and eat. How to get along with others and how to get dressed. Very little came naturally, all of it came with a fight, and right then, as Norah looked at me like I was a HUGE jerk, I was going to teach her not to pick her butthole and then brush her teeth.
“Because… because…” I stumbled on just what to say. I assumed that I’d be able to hit the ground running with some sort of 50s TV show fatherly, Leave It To Beaver, wisdom, but I stumbled just long enough for Norah to place the toothbrush in her right hand, shove it in her mouth, and look at me with a slacked, irritated face, that seemed to say, “I don’t have time for this, Dad.”
I put my hands up to try and stop her. To try and make it clear that what she was doing was flat out nasty. And then I thought about all the times I’d chatted with her about not picking her butthole. About how she needed to wash her hands after something like that, and how she always fought me. How many times had she done this without me noticing? Was this not the first time? Would it be the last? I didn’t know. With parenting, you never know. Every time I hold one of my children’s hands, I never really know where it has been, so I try not to think about it. And every time I see Norah brush her teeth, I don’t immediately assume that her hand has been digging at her butthole.
I grabbed her wrist, pulled the toothbrush out of her mouth, and said, “You just picked your butthole and now you are brushing your teeth. I don’t know how to say this more plainly. You must have poop on your hand, and now you are getting poop in your mouth. Poop doesn’t belong in your mouth.”
Norah’s eyes slanted, and I couldn’t tell if she was embarrassed, frustrated, or she just didn’t understand, and thus, felt I was being mean.
I wanted to ask her to take a shower. I wanted to ask her to wipe her butt again so that it wouldn’t itch. I wanted to make sure she understood that this was all part of a chain of events, but it all seemed like too much for her. Because here’s the thing with Norah. She’s a sensitive little person. She gets really frustrated with everything from homework to playing sports, and correcting her takes a level of tact. But it’s difficult to have tact in a situation like this, but I was trying.
I decided to take things in stride, so I decided to simply get her to wash her hands. Her not wiping her butt properly was going to be a long-term fix.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, and I thought, ‘Yes. It. Does.’
I picked her up and set her down in front of the bathroom sink. Cradling her did something, and she calmed down. She washed her hands, and her toothbrush.
I was sitting on the edge of the bathtub, behind her. She turned around, face flushed, and said, “Happy?”
I patted next to me, and she sat, her face pointed down.
“Listen,” I said. “I’m your dad and my job is to keep you healthy and happy. You may not realize it, but picking at your butt and then brushing is, well, nasty. I’m not saying that you are nasty. You are sweet and wonderful. But…” I was struggling now, “it’s just not healthy.”
I looked down and her shoulders were shaking. At first I assumed she was crying. But then I heard a giggle.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Sticking poop in your mouth. That’s funny,” she said.
I tried not to laugh. I wanted this to be a serious moment because I didn’t want it to happen again. But I couldn’t help but laugh. Suddenly we were both laughing in the bathroom, loud enough that Tristan, my 9-year-old, came in.
He asked what was so funny and Norah said, “Dad’s talking about putting poop in people’s mouth.”
Then Tristan was laughing.
I tried to get Norah to calm down. I wanted to give her one last serious speech about how nasty it is to pick your butthole and then brush your teeth, but it didn’t work. It was everything I could do to get her into bed. And once she was in her room, falling asleep, I thought about how all the sincerity of the situation was gone, and I had, without a doubt, blown it as a father. I didn’t know if Norah would do something like that again, but I knew that she thought it was all very funny, and not serious, like I wanted it to be. I stood outside her room for a while wondering how I would ever fix this. Perhaps it was fixed. Perhaps she got it. Perhaps she didn’t. Perhaps I was a failure as a father. Perhaps I was overreacting. I never really know as a father.
But what I do know is that Norah gave me a hug good night. She smiled as I kissed her forehead. And there is something about that simple gesture that made me feel like I was doing something right.
“I love you, Norah,” I said.
Norah gave me a sly grin and said, “Poop in mouths.”
Then she laughed as I left the room.