09/22/2014 10:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Hard Should You Try To Contain Little Boys?

If you were standing in the ocean and you kept getting battered by the surf, what would you do? Would you scream at the waves? Get out of their way? Put the ocean in time out?


I thought about this last Sunday while my boys, Jay, 5, and, Wally, 3, took a bubble bath. They were in the tub off our bedroom, chin deep in suds, awash in little rubber toys, and they were having a hard time complying with the afternoon's one rule: Please, no splashing water outside the tub.

Wally tromped his squeezable T-Rex through the water and a few drops flew onto the floor. Jay whirled to make a whirlpool and some bubbles hit the wall. Wally stood up to clean the foam from his face, slipped, and fell in a splash that sent a small tsunami across the floor.

I watched all this from just outside the bathroom and I wasn't quite sure what to do. The first time they splashed I calmly restated the no-splashing rule. The second time I barked at them. The third time I put my head in my magazine and pretended I hadn't seen what was going on.

Increasingly the boys feel like a force of nature, and my wife and I are at a loss about how to respond. When they do something that's obviously wrong or dangerous, I feel comfortable getting mad at them. When they're obviously exhausted, I know the best thing to do is to take a deep breath and patiently pack them off to bed.

But recently they've been spending a lot of the day in a different mode: They're energetic, unruly, loud, clumsy, fun-loving. I joined the boys for the last ten minutes of their afternoon television shows yesterday and found Jay rolling up on his back, so that his feet were over his head and coming close to hitting the television screen. Do I say something about that? At dinner last night, for no explicable reason, Jay let out a loud whoop. Do I tell him to stop that? At breakfast this morning, Wally arrived at the table with his "cereal pinchers," repurposed from his doctor kit, and proceeded to use them to eat his mini-wheats. We have a rule about no toys at the table, but really, weren't the cereal pinchers more of a utensil?

All told, I prefer a calm house. I'd like to see Jay and Wally spend more time reading books. I'd like them to sit neatly at the dinner table and tell us about their school days, instead of sending each other into uproars of laughter with nonsense utterings like "schmooey" and "stinky underpants." They do read books, and they do sit calmly, sometimes. But order is not their natural way.

To bring them in line, I'd have to spend all day telling them no, putting them in separate rooms, yanking them out of the bath. I don't want to raise wildlings, but trying to contain their quivering, random energy, has started to feel as unnatural as foot binding, and as futile as yelling at the ocean.