A Household Word
Sick Sense
“I don’t feel good.”

 My kids use this phrase like the password to paradise. I’ve been known to let them stay home from school, thinking that they were ill. That they needed rest. That they were telling the truth. Ha! But I am on to them at last. Here’s the scam.

 7 a.m.  – The child is lying in bed moaning. She is too weak to rise and can barely croak, “I don’t feel good.” She complains that her stomach aches, her head is spinning and her throat is sore. She can’t eat breakfast. She feels like she is going to throw up. It might be strep throat, Hong Kong flu or even the bubonic plague.  

She seemed fine last night. I am suspicious and launch a basic investigation looking for a motive. Is there a math test or a social studies project due? Is the cafeteria serving something particularly gross? Does the child have gym?

If the academic calendar checks out, I examine the after-school activities. Has she neglected to practice for her 3:15 piano lesson? Are the Girl Scouts going to visit the sewage treatment plant? Finally, I scan the TV listings looking for programs that might lure her away from the halls of academia. Specials like The Mary Kate and Ashley Marathon or 24-Hours in the Swamp with Steve Irwin are red flags.

My research yields no results and I grant permission to stay home from school. Her brothers wail in protest “No fair, we’re sick too!” as I push them out the door and in the direction of the bus stop.

 8 a.m.   - Five minutes after the school bus drives by our house, there is a marked improvement in the patient’s health. She rings the tiny bell next to her bed and requests toast. With butter. Cut into triangles. Is that a small, smug smile I detect ? Maybe it’s not the plague, but she still seems sick. I cancel my meetings, appointments and the child’s piano lesson.

 9 a.m.   ­– She’s sitting up in bed painting her toenails. “Orange juice, please,” she says brightly. “With ice and a straw, the kind that bends.” It looks like she’s going to pull through. Maybe it’s just a bug.

10 a.m.   – The child feels well enough to move to the couch downstairs. She consumes two Pop Tarts and some ice cream while watching reruns of The Brady Bunch. Could have been indigestion.

MsoNormal> 11 a.m.   – The child has changed the channel. She’s off the couch and is dancing and gyrating along with Britney Spears. They are both the picture of health.

MsoNormal>“If I take you to school now, you’ll be there in time for lunch,” I suggest.

MsoNormal>“I don’t feel good,” she replies.

MsoNormal>Passing Muster with Dr. Mom  

MsoNormal>So, instead of arguing, I’ve had to get tough. I’m still happy to load crackers and ginger ale on a bed tray, but you gotta be sick. Really sick. And I need proof!

MsoNormal>The most acceptable proof of illness is a temperature. The fever (anything over 99 degrees) must be registered on a real thermometer (none of those adhesive strips) that has been placed in an appropriate orifice for the recommended time. Temperature readings taken without my supervision are not considered valid.

MsoNormal>Vomiting. This is the trump card for a kid who wants to stay home. Throwing up is an all-expense-paid ticket to TV land, no questions asked. I must, however, witness the process. Retching noises, running water and toilets flushing behind a closed bathroom door don’t make the grade. Extra sympathy points are not awarded to a kid who actually vomits outside of the limits of the bathroom.

MsoNormal> A child who says “I don’t feel good,” but doesn’t have a temperature and isn’t vomiting may indeed be sick, but I’ll leave that diagnosis up to the school nurse.

MsoNormal>Carol Band serves toast triangles and ginger ale to three young scam artists in Arlington, Mass.

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From United Parenting Publications, September 2001.