It was summer, so I did not even have to pull my older son, Tall, out of school for the outing. Both children were excited to see lions, tigers, and zebras—oh my!The day started out uneventfully: a cheetah, a gorilla, a few snakes. We progressed on to the elephants and then the giraffes. I was saving the big highlight for right after lunch—the threat of no zebras would guarantee our mealtime would remain calm and orderly.
Sure enough, something upset Short at lunch (the fact that his apple juice was lukewarm, if you must know) and he began to have a meltdown verging dangerously close to full-blown tantrum. I took his favorite stuffed animal Zebra (nickname: “Zeebie”) out of his stroller and gave Short a stern lecture:“See this? Zebra? You love zebras, right? We came to see zebras. If you have gooooooood behavior, we can see the zebras. If you don’t, then … no. We will go home.”
His dour expression changed instantly, and the crying and whining stopped. He morphed into the Stepford child I had always dreamed of having: quiet, obedient, and profoundly sorry for causing a problem.“I sorry, Mommy.” (Sniff) “I want to see zebras. I be good now.”
He nodded his little head apologetically, forced a smile, and with that, I knew I had won.“Good, Short. You made the right decision. Because you are having good behavior, we will go see the zebras now.”
I was going to keep this trick up my sleeve for future use as well. We could come to the zoo every single week for the rest of eternity if it meant good behavior at mealtimes. Heck, we could move in with the zebras. I was ready to go to the zoo membership office right then and there, credit card in hand, to buy a lifetime membership for our entire family. Why had other parents not thought of the Zebra Method of good parenting? I was secretly considering patenting it.We threw away our lunch trash and excitedly headed over to the zebra pens. There was some sort of wall or barricade with signs directing us through a detour. As we approached, Tall started to read the sign out loud, clearly enunciating every syllable:
“We apologize for the inconvenience, but the Zebra Habitat is temporarily closed for repairs and remodeling. We will reopen in—”I could not react fast enough. I was internally debating putting my hands over Tall’s mouth (and really, what kind of school teaches a 5 ½ year-old to read big words with that kind of accuracy?!) or putting my hands over Short’s ears. My slow response caused me to do neither.
“Milkshakes!” I screamed. “Who wants milkshakes from the Milkshake Hut we just passed? Ooh, I bet they have chocolate!” Distract, distract, distract.“Zebras!” squawked Short, refusing to be distracted. “I want to see zebras NOW!”
I felt horrible. Through my own stupidity, I had talked up the zebras. I had used the zebras as a threat, and then, conversely, as a reward. Now the damn zebras were beating me at my own game, a crazy game that I never really wanted to play in the first place. How was I supposed to tell Short he could not see the zebras even after he had good behavior at lunch? He would never trust me again.I did the only thing I could think of: took Short to see the Mongolian wild horses that I knew from the zoo map were a mere two minute walk down the path. The wild horses were not black and white striped, nor even black and white spotted; they were … brown. Plain, boring, medium brown. The color of dirt.
“Look, Sweetie, look! Zebras! Brown zebras!” I pointed at the Mongolian wild horses and began to jump up and down, like I was on crack.Just because Short was a three-years-old toddler did not mean he was dumb. He shook his head emphatically no and said, “Mommy, those are horses.”
Tall looked at me like I was insane. He took a deep breath and began,“Mom, the sign says—”
I grabbed Tall, pulled him close to me, and whispered in his ear: “I will buy you a new Lego set if you go along with whatever I say next.”Tall’s eyes got wide; his mom had clearly lost any traces of sanity here at the zoo.
I cleared my throat. “Boys, the sign says, ‘Przewalski’s horses, or Dzungarian horses, are a rare and endangered subspecies of wild horse native to central Asia, specifically Mongolia. Sometimes referred to as ‘International Plain Brown Zebras.’ International Plain Brown Zebras! You are so lucky you get to see these! They are so unbelievably rare! WOW!”Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Tall reading the sign quietly to himself again. It took every shred of self-restraint that he possessed to not contradict me, but he has always been the son who can focus on the bigger gain (new Lego set) and give up the instant gratification (calling mommy out). He stayed silent.
In this moment, I was praising Short’s preschool teachers for rejecting all my previous helpful suggestions of flashcards and daily quizzing to get him reading early. In fact, I was almost wishing we had watched more TV all those mornings when we were drawing or reading instead.Short looked at me. He looked at Tall. He looked at the horses. And then he burst into applause.
“Inner-naznal Plain Brown Zebras! Yay! They almost look like horses!”“Yes, Sweetie, they are from the same family, you are so smart! Yes, but they are not! They are actually a special type of zebra!”
By this time, I was attracting a small crowd of interested zoo-goers who were not familiar with the myriad variations in the zebra species. Specifically, a few zoo employees.
I was not about to stick around and wait to be corrected by these khaki-uniformed zealots, so I ushered my children quickly to the car. I was worried that Tall might say something deleterious when we got there, but he didn’t.
And that explains why, whenever we pass a farm and happen to see a certain type of exotic creature, Short inevitably squeals,“Oh, look, Mommy! Inner-naznal Plain Brown Zebras!”