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Night Lights: Bedtime Stories for Parents in the Dark by Phyllis Theroux (Viking: $14.95; 164 pp.)

April 12, 1987|Kristiana Gregory

Parents who feel they're the only ones yelling "Don't!" every five minutes must read this comforting collection of essays by columnist Phyllis Theroux. A single mother of three children, she confesses her blunders and accomplishments with such candor that the reader can put feet up, ignore the dust and take a breather. This is as rejuvenating as not cooking dinner for two weeks.

Euphoria, Theroux says wryly, touches the parent in you from the moment of birth or adoption to the Saturday morning you hire a baby sitter so you can "sit outside in the car with the doors locked reading a magazine." It's hard to fathom that your innocent newborn might eventually wear a Mohawk or five-pound earrings but, should this happen, take heart. "Perhaps," Theroux reflects, "we are not far from the day when I can take a family picture that I won't have to explain to the viewer."

She examines babyhood and adolescence with great respect, tempered by spilled-milk reality. Children "flounder because childhood itself is a new experience," but, she points out, parents are new to parenting, too. One of our major responsibilities is to educate our young, and how lucky we all are when they land in a classroom headed by a pro. Good teachers should "earn far more than corporate lawyers; the latter are replaceable, the former are not." Amen.

It's funny what happens to your ideals along the road of parenting. The mother who says that over her dead body will her babies eat junk food finds herself serving pretzels with potpies for dinner. If you so much as breathe your disdain for television, you more than likely will become a passionate viewer of Sesame Street. When Theroux wheeled her infant son past her local football field and saw the "latent Nazi" coach terrorizing the team of boys, she hurried home. "I spun my dreams of male evolution over the baby-bonneted head of the child who would be a flute player or possibly a forest ranger who cared about all the tiny things in the woods."

"Well," she says later about capitulating, ". . . what we most earnestly run from tends to be standing at the far end of the field, smoking Marlboros and waiting for us to sign up." Her son thrived under Coach Burkhead's loving discipline. Humbled, she realized, "Small boys learn to be large men in the presence of large men who care about small boys."

On kids getting into trouble, it's bound to happen, so get ready. The words "They did what ?" will escape your lips the very day you announce their perfect behavior. Who could imagine your cherubs would give the kitten a boat ride in the toilet? All you can hope for when you do get that phone call is that it comes from a "good family," which Theroux defines as one that doesn't blame "you when both their children and yours are hauled into the police station for spray-painting the local school."

There've been days she's yearned for a personality transplant, such as to that of a Marine drill sergeant to help with the "ad hoc" ambivalence we all feel at times. Parenting is a hard, often thankless job, hours are long, and there are no pay raises. But there is nothing on Earth equal to the joy it can bring. "It does not matter whether one is at the giving or receiving end of love just as long as one is part of the process in some way."

Theroux is so modest and funny that when she does boast, you're on the bleachers beside her, clapping along with her. Chapters are brief and approachable, so if the phone rings or you need to scrub pudding off the couch, you can return to any one of the pages and feel right at home. This is a reassuring beacon for parents sailing in the dark.

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