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Nashville Scene Inside Job

When you're 5, rainy days are the longest

By Margaret Renkl

The parenting columns in newspapers and magazines love to offer advice about how to help bored children overcome the rainy-day blues. To stay-at-home parents in particular, such advice can seem like a godsend when the household rain gauge is spilling over with tears. It's never raining when I read these things, but I keep a folder of clippings from such columns to refer to when the need arises. The only problem with most of this advice is that, when you actually need it, it turns out to be stupid.

For one thing, all of these activities require a parent-child ratio of one to one, or at the very least one parent to two children of exactly the same age, ability, and interests. Neither of these conditions can be met on an ordinary basis at my house, but, even if they could, my children and I would still be stymied: Virtually all of the suggested enterprises require a craft closet full of materials: "For this project you'll need a variety of common household items, including orange mohair yarn, chartreuse pipe cleaners, several wooden spools of thread, four Styrofoam balls varying in size between one-half and three-quarters inch in diameter, and a handful of small polished rocks, preferably pink quartz."

You can buy whole books of this sort of advice--lots of books: My online search, using the keywords "rainy" and "day," of a mail-order bookstore turned up 163 different books featuring rainy-day stories or activities. You can order Little Miss Sunshine's Rainy Day Pop-Up Fun, Mr. Silly's Rainy Day Puzzle Book, Mrs. Noah's Rainy Day Book, Word Bird's Rainy-Day Dance, or any of the other 159 titles available to anyone with a modem.

Neither Little Miss Sunshine nor Mrs. Noah nor Word Bird (nor their publishers) seems to have noticed this glut of advice books on the market. There may be so many of these books because they're all offering the same sort of useless advice; desperate parents buy one book after another, hoping at least one of them will work. Or maybe it's because these books are just aiming too high; instead of simply helping children pass the time, such books want to improve their little characters along the way. In one book, according to its descriptive blurb, "Each activity is designed to enhance a child's positive self-image through fulfilling experiences with parents, grandparents, teachers, and other adult caregivers." Another book is simply called Reflections on a Rainy April Day: A Conversation Between a Boy and His Higher Self.

The rainy-day amusements that actually work are tried and true, and no parent needs to read up on them in books. You can bake cookies--from scratch, or the peel-and-slice kind--and eat every one of them for lunch. You can paint or color or cut up all your magazines and glue the pictures down. You can play board games. You can turn your dining-room chairs into a secret hideout by throwing a blanket over them. You can drive to the mall and ride the escalators. If it's warm and there's no lightning, you can go outside and play in the mud. In total desperation you can always watch Barney.

Each of these old favorites is good for a single afternoon of rain. A combination of two or three might get you through a full-day deluge. Not a single one of them--nor any combination--works, however, when the rain has kept your kid cooped up for more than three days.

Even if he were literate, my 5-year-old could not write a book conversing with his higher self; in his case no higher self has yet put in an appearance. If he could write, his book would likely be called Rainy-Day Delirium: A User's Guide. Advice would be aimed at children rather than at their parents, and would consist of exactly two chapters: "Torment Baby" and "Torment Mommy."

Chapter One, "Torment Baby": Pull out every toy you own that is roughly the size of a penny. When your baby brother or sister crawls over to join in the fun, snatch the toy out of reach and say solemnly, "No-no. Not for baby. Not for baby." Use the same technique with all off-limits snacks, drinks, books, and audio-visual equipment. If the baby is happily playing with her own toys, hold up the choking hazard before her and say, "Want to see what I'm doing? But you can't touch. No-no. Not for baby." Snatch the toy out of reach again. When your mother insists that you go into another room to play with your tiny toys, decide instead to go outside with your umbrella. Stand in front of the sliding glass door and wave at the baby while she pounds on the glass and wails. With care, you can keep the baby wailing for most of the day.

Chapter Two, "Torment Mommy": Follow your mother around the house and whine her name, endlessly repeating the prefix, "Guess what?" (or its equally common variant, "You know what?"). You can also ask rhetorical questions: "Guess what, Mom. You know what? This is the 25th day of rain in a row. Twenty-five days of rain in a row. What's going on; did God die or something? Mom, do you think God died? You know what, Mom? Mo-o-o-m, you know what? Birds get to poop anywhere they want. Did you know birds can poop anywhere they want? Mo-o-o-0-m, I'm talking to you. Was God the one who decided birds could poop anywhere they want? Why did God make poop anyway, Mom? What's the point of poop?"

"Let's have a special rainy-day activity," you say brightly to your child as he stands at the window, complaining bitterly at being stuck in the house for the 25th day in a row. He looks at you through bleary eyes, suspicious but with a child's endless capacity for hope. However unlikely, his eyes suggest, it's just this side of possible that diversion really could reside in a book of rainy-day advice for moms. His tears cease mid-roll, and he comes to your side as you read aloud the possibilities, all of them ruled out or attempted in the previous three-and-a-half weeks.

As his chin starts to tremble again and you feel your own eyes beginning to well up, consider this final suggestion from my private stock: Slowly, deliberately, and with infinite care, tear out all of the pages from the rainy-day advice book. Teach your child to fold each page into a paper airplane. Standing side by side, open the patio door and gaily sail all 200 airplanes, one by one, out into the pouring rain.

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