Small Wonders: On letting your kids be themselves

One of the most valuable parenting lessons I learned came before I was even a parent. It had nothing to do with diapers, puberty or college funds. It had everything to do with macaroni and cheese.

I was single, childless and naturally wise beyond my years (of course). Left at my sister's home one day with approximately 23 of her children — seriously, we lost count in 1995 — I was asked to make lunch for the unruly brood. With but one box of the ubiquitous Kraft Mac & Cheese in the cupboard, I set out to artistically supplement its contents in order to feed the battalion.

Some extra bowtie, rigatoni and penne pasta, copious amounts of sharp cheddar, a smattering of broccoli florets — the perfect way to get them to eat their vegetables, I surmised. Gruyere, heavy whipping cream, just a rumor of cayenne and a delicately placed sprig of parsley. Voila! What kid could resist?

At this point, I hope every parent reading this is rolling with laughter. Because my sister sure was when she saw what I’d made, and what her ungrateful mob refused to eat. Fit for a five-star restaurant; unfit for a 5- year-old.

With the years and my own offspring came some clarity. In this experience is just about everything you need to know about parenting. Everything, except maybe how to make every human interaction perfectly fair between bickering siblings.

More than a mundane meal of supernaturally glowing orange, it offers us insights into ourselves. And life. If you look hard enough.

Really, really hard.

The Expectations. None of us sets out to feed our children processed foods devoid of nutrients. We all strive to find healthy alternatives to Cheetos, Oreos and Otter Pops. We want the best, inside and out, for our children and become parents with that goal in mind.

But it happens. Somewhere along the frustrating and arduous road that is parenthood, we break. Maybe it happened at a friend's house, a child whose parents care less about their children than you do yours. Maybe it was Grandma — disrespectful, conniving Grandma — who happily feeds her grandchildren rock candy for breakfast to revenge all you put her through. Or you, one day when you simply have no gas left in the tank of resistance.

But they will eventually eat Kraft Mac & Cheese.

They'll be mad at you at first, believing you've denied them this manna from heaven. But once they've tried it, they believe this is the only form of macaroni and cheese in the world. And there is no going back.

Then Acceptance. You fought the good fight. You did all you could to raise your children poison-free. Give yourself a pat on the back. But it's time to accept your fate. You are not in charge anymore. Come to grips with the fact that you never really were.

You can try to set limits — serve it once a month, on special occasions, only at the witch's, sorry, Grandma's house. But soon you find it's one of the few things that will make them sit patiently for 15 minutes while you cook. You begin to relish the peace that comes with making a meal you know they will eat and not complain about.

Once in a while you'll try something different; make it from scratch, with organic gluten-free pasta. That's OK. Like college, it's a time to experiment. But they know. And they won't be fooled.

Before long, you're making it every Saturday, Sunday, holiday and school “pupil free” day. You'll have the recipe and instructions memorized and never have to read the box again. You'll think of many creative ways to use the leftovers: casseroles, salad toppers, ice sculpture substitute. Don't bother. It is a food product genetically engineered to be inedible 20 minutes after it's made.

And finally Patience: I, too, love a good, four-cheese macaroni and cheese from scratch with a breadcrumb crust served in individual ramekins. But the best you can hope for with your kids is to slip in the occasional enhancement: a hot dog, smoked sausage or a dash of pepper. Leave out the milk if you want it extra thick.

But save the good stuff for yourself, and for them in years to come. They'll grow to like it in their own time. Probably when you're able to talk to them honestly about your illicit drug use in the back of high school civics class, or the summer you hooked up with that roadie from Whitesnake.

Have your expectations, but don't let them prevent you from letting your kids be themselves. Accept what can't be changed and have the courage to change that which can be changed. With patience comes the wisdom of knowing the difference.

And patience is always rewarded.

One day you'll get to feed mac and cheese to your grandchildren.

PATRICK CANEDAY has two left feet. He may be reached on Facebook, at and

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