A few years ago, my son Ambrose was hospitalized with a lung infection. The two weeks he spent away from home were trying times for our family, but I have one particularly fond memory of his stay.
One day, when I returned to his hospital room after being away for a few hours, he made a startling confession.
“This afternoon, while you were gone, I was flipping through the TV channels and I . . . I . . . saw some SpongeBob SquarePants.”
I tried not to laugh.
You see, I had a rule back then: I did not allow my kids to watch SpongeBob. Some might think it’s silly to deny your kids such innocent family-style fun. Others might assume that I was just being a good mom — thoroughly researching various television programs and carefully choosing what kinds of cultural influences my children would and would not be exposed to.
That’s not exactly true, though. At least not about SpongeBob.
The truth is, I just didn’t like the look of him. I’m prejudiced that way. I had never even watched a single episode of SpongeBob, but I outlawed him because I didn’t like the way the pictures are drawn. And those briefs he sometimes wears? Well, they looked kind of gross. Vulgar, even. What did I know?
Predictably, my maternal moratorium on SpongeBob SquarePants led to some of my children’s preoccupation with all things SpongeBob. In fact, if you happened to ask four-year-old Stephen back then what his favorite television show was, he would have proudly declared that it was none other than SpongeBob SquarePants — a show he had never seen.
Stephen’s fascination was only reinforced one year when his grandfather gave him a special birthday present: Ants in the SpongeBob SquarePants, a wildly entertaining kids’ game featuring plastic pants, itchy insects, and the famous comic sponge.
When he unwrapped this forbidden fruit, the other kids’ eyes grew wide with scandal. Stephen, however, looked deliciously naughty as he pulled it from the box and hugged the plastic pieces to his chest.
“SpongeBob!” he cried with glee. “My favorite!”
Dan shot me a look over the boy’s head that said, “What on earth could my father have been thinking?”
I don’t know. Maybe Grandpa asked Stephen what his favorite TV show was.
But that was years ago. This is now. And that is why, a couple of months ago, when my oldest daughter stood before me, television remote in hand, and asked, “Can’t we watch just one show?” I said yes.
That’s right. I said yes to the sponge.
And the children were smitten — positively smitten with the eager-eyed, brief-wearing, pineapple-dwelling sponge.
“What happened?” I thought to myself one recent day, as even two-year-old Daniel sang along to the theme song. “I used to have standards.”
But I still do. They are just different ones now. Ones that suit the new family we are growing up to be. It has nothing to do with a cartoon sponge who may or may not have taught my three-year-old son to wiggle his bottom in a way that makes a mother cringe. It has everything to do with my growing realization of the imperfection and limitations of parenthood.
It sometimes seems we parents are doomed to wind up with unending questions and self doubt. If we outlaw SpongeBob, does that only make him all the more appealing? Will our children grow up to skip classes and binge on cartoons during their college years? Will they flunk out, as my husband so often threatens them, and wind up living in a box under the freeway?
Of course, there is no easy answer. There never has been a pre-set outline to follow in order to achieve parental perfection.
It’s trial — and a whole lot of error. It’s communicating and explaining not just the rules but the reasons behind them. It’s convincing our kids that we really have their ultimate happiness in mind when we restrict them. It’s teaching them not only to obey God, but to know God and to love Him, too. It’s picking our battles. It’s being uncertain. It’s second-guessing and messing up and starting over and trying again.
And finally, it’s finding yourself thinking that parenthood is the hardest thing, the most wonderful thing, and the most daunting thing you have ever done. And recognizing that’s how you know you are doing it right.