How to lose a grammar battle with a 9-year-old *

As a loving father, I always stay alert for those golden opportunities when I can hit the pause button of life and take a few minutes to impart to my children some small portion of the vast wealth of knowledge I have amassed in my 40-plus years.

Almost invariably these teaching moments present themselves in ways that allow me to clearly display my wisdom while my children stare at me in awe wondering how I came to know such things.

As my children grow up, however, I more and more often find myself inadvertently forced into a teaching situation where I struggle with achieving the clarity to completely “seal the deal.”

One early such case occurred several years ago when my oldest was a mere 9 years old.

Those who know me well can attest that my number two pet peeve of my single father days was finding clothes left in the floor after my children had taken a bath.  It remains so to this day. This night was no exception. Tired of the old, “GET IN HERE AND GET THESE CLOTHES IN THE LAUNDRY BASKET!!!!” approach, I seized my chance for the gentle but firm parenting I more often aspired to in those earlier years.

I called for the culprit, now enjoying her dinner while catching up on the latest “iCarly” episode on one of these kid networks.


“Yes, Dad?”

Having gotten her attention on the first attempt, a rarity even then, I lowered my voice to a conversational volume.

“Where are your panties?”

She knows exactly where they are but comes to investigate prior to answering the question. A prudent approach, in my opinion.

With a resigned look of conviction, “They are in the floor.”

“And where should they be, Sweetie?”

A long sigh followed by, “in the laundry basket.”

“Exactly! Will you put them there?”

“Yes, Sir.”

Brilliant, Michael. I congratulated myself for being gentle, kind and yet still persuasive all while maintaining a standard of accountability.

“Well, Dad, Jacob’s underwear are in the floor too.” As she made this comment, she guided my eyes with her index finger to her brother’s underwear also lying nearby.

Now those who know me well can also attest that my number one pet peeve is the misuse of simple grammar. I bristled.  I was presented with the opportunity to be gentle, firm and educational – the trifecta of teachable moments.  “Jacob’s underwear is in the floor,” I boldly replied.

“What?” She inquired, not immediately grasping my grammatical correction in the sheer chaos of putting things where they belonged…

“Well, Kaylee, you said, ‘Jacob’s underwear are in the floor,’ but the proper use is to say, ‘Jacob’s underwear is in the floor.’”

Appearing somewhat bemused, she followed up with another question. “So my panties are in the floor but Jacob’s underwear is in the floor?”

“Exactly!” I beamed, pleased as my daughter’s genetic predisposition to high intellect and reasoning began to reveal itself. Clearly, she would be almost as smart as her dad someday.

Still seeming a little perplexed, she continued the inquisition. “What’s the difference?”

Foregoing the battle with Jacob, I had begun collecting his clothes.  “The difference in what?”

“Why is it ‘panties are’ and ‘underwear is’?”

“Well…” I started, thinking that trying to explain my vast knowledge of singularities and pluralities might be a little much for a 4th grader to comprehend.  But it was my duty as a parent to train my child up right and this little girl seemed in the mood to spar.  So, I gamely climbed into the ring unaware that I was about to begin a mental boxing match that would rival Ali & Joe Frazier’s third meeting at “The Thrilla in Manilla.”

I started with a gentle left jab.  “It’s just easier to understand that way, Sweetie. It’s always, ‘Kaylee’s panties are’ and ‘Jacob’s underwear is.’”

Clearly not convinced, she countered with an accurate hook, “So if I put on Jacob’s and he put on mine, would it be, ‘Jacob’s panties is on and Kaylee’s underwear are on?’”

I side stepped. “No… It would be, ‘Jacob’s panties are on and Kaylee’s underwear is on.”

She continued the onslaught, “Are you wearing underwear, Dad?”

Oooh a feint. Nice touch, Kaylee. I took the bait and swung a haymaker. “Yes.”

“So are you a girl?” A brutal uppercut out of nowhere!

“Of course, I am not a girl! What would make you say that?”

“Well, you said it is always ‘Kaylee’s panties are’ and if Jacob is’ wearing his underwear but you ‘are’ wearing your underwear, would that make you more like a girl than a boy?”

This brutally accurate combination left me speechless. My mind reeled, trying to unravel how her last statement was, in fact, grammatically correct with all those is’s and are’s.  I faltered.

As I fumbled for a response, Kaylee reached the count of ten. She rolled her eyes and stared down at me on the canvas just like Ali towered over Sonny Liston in 1965.

“Yeah, Dad, I’ll see you later.  I is going to finish watching ‘iCarly’ now.”

If you enjoyed this column and would like to see more, click here.

© Michael L. Collins

* Originally published under the same name in the July 16, 2014 edition of The Mountain Press




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