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By DeeDee Corbitt Sauter

I stood in a public toilet stall with my 5-year-old. In slow motion, I banged my head against the metal partition as he pulled off his last sock and flung it on the disheveled pile of clothing on the floor. He waved his hands, the nails painted a glorious orange, and tried to reassure me by gesticulating calmly and flashing his freshly polished fingertips.

“Don’t worry, Mommy,” he said. “I will put all my clothes on after I poop. And you can leave now. It’s okay. I will be fine.”

Using the Mommy whisper that theoretically conveys frustration, not anger, and acceptance, not dismissal, I could only mutter, “Oh, honey, please, stop.” My forehead was now somehow glued onto the wall. I understand my tone only conveys that complex message in my head, and his young brain did not decipher it any further than me using a term of endearment.

He smiled and started to perform a State Farm commercial followed by a complete recitation of “What Does the Fox Say?”

He still wasn’t done.

Where did I go wrong?

A few years ago, a friend of mine said that she wished children came with instruction manuals. But they do. These manuals can be found in bookstores, online, playgrounds, family gatherings and doctors’ offices. There is no shortage of advice, facts and anecdotes (much of it conflicting) that affords parents an opportunity to choose what works for them.

No one can say that a manual is not available.

The majority of my friends are amazing parents. I listen intently as they report their interactions with their families, hoping I can glean some useful information that I can apply to my home, thereby creating the perfect family.

One friend recently told me that her kids start creating homemade Christmas gifts in September. Full plans are made as a group and joyfully executed together annually.

While another friend was weeding her garden, her 15-year-old son approached with a small problem. He understood the springtime planting rush, but had noticed the living room was disheveled and the kitchen was still a mess after breakfast. He then asked permission to clean those areas. The scenario is simply too confusing to believe it actually happened.

When I am sitting at dance class every week, waiting for my youngest to finish one of our many attempts to reduce his energy level, I chat with several other moms, many of whom have children with them for the hour. Every week, I am fascinated by one toddler who has never misbehaved. He consistently plays with an iPad, cell phone or small toy. He never cries or screams. He never annoys other children, but if one approaches him, he shares his snacks and is generally very nice to everyone. Plus he’s incredibly cute, which is just an accident of genetics. But I would love to read his mother’s manual of child behavior tips.

“A few years ago, a friend of mine said that she wished children came with instruction manuals. But they do. These manuals can be found in bookstores, online, playgrounds, family gatherings and doctors’ offices.”

By contrast, my youngest child’s skills not only include singing naked in public restrooms, but also stealing small items from around the house, like a raccoon on a scavenger hunt, and hiding them under his bed. We never check there, of course.

My oldest is deathly afraid of acquiring an unidentified food-borne virus while holding a dirty dinner plate by the edge and gently applying random sponge strokes in the general direction of the dirt.

In what manuals are the clues and hints necessary to make parenthood run smoothly without anger, tears and tantrums? Where’s the tome of information that enlightens children and makes them self-motivated and less egocentric?

I turned around in the tiny stall. The echo on the ceramic tiles encouraged him to sing just a little louder. His feet swung back and forth, and he started to giggle insanely when he saw my hair stuck to my forehead.

I suddenly realized that I had been searching the library, when the book of information was right with me the whole time.

My children most often hold the clues I am looking for to make them happy and me proud. My 13-year-old simply may need a pair of gloves to make him comfortable while learning independence. Nail polish is probably not in any guide to parenting a 5-year-old boy, but that’s what I finally read in his joyful eyes.

DeeDee Corbitt Sauter is a resident of Prince William County. Her column, “Tambourines and Elephants,” appears monthly in Prince William Living.

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