“Grilled cheese,” he told me.
“You sure about that?”
“Yeah, Da-da. Grilled cheese.”
“Meat or no meat?”
“Ham, Da-da. Grilled cheese with ham.”
While he watched his daily dosage of television, I slathered slices of bread with butter, loaded them with grated cheddar and strips of salami, and cooked them to a golden-brown, crispy perfection. I kid you not: if Norman Rockwell painted a still-life of grilled cheese sandwiches, these would be them.
But when Felix came to the table, he rolled his eyes and said “Grilled cheese? No, Da-da. I’ve changed my mind.”
“You’ve changed your mind?”
“I want pasta.”
“Pasta? No, no, no. It’s too late for that. You said grilled cheese.”
The whites of his eyes flash and his upper lips tremble, and like a person in a movie who yells “Noooo” in slow motion when it’s too late – the train’s already running off the tracks – I witness the tantrum’s onset. “I. Wanted. PASTA!!”
With great effort I suppress my frustration and pitch my voice low, keep it steady. “You told me grilled cheese, hon.”
“BUT I CHANGED MY MIND!”
And then we go down another parenting rabbit hole.
Months and months ago, in the far reaches of his development, Felix learned to talk. And one of his first words, or at least the first word my wife and I heard with great frequency, was NO. Anyone can go with the flow – a sheep, say, or a wolf in the pack, if you prefer. Defiers, on the other hand, garner attention. Negaters generate a response. Haters make people angry.
In those early stages of language, it’s important for the child to exert their will and get a rise. What will Daddy do if I just say NO? The language learner slams the brakes on any variety of inconsequential actions in such an ultimate, non-negotiable, extreme way that huge consequences result in the way the day runs – we can’t go outside if you don’t have shoes on, which means we can’t buy groceries, which means we can’t eat dinner. In short, the child learns that he or she has power, and free will.
In the course of this civil (or not-so-civil) disobedience, the parents fight with the child and eventually some sense of normalcy returns. Sure, little kids say no a lot, but not all the time, the way they do when they’re on the cusp of language. Except, now, my son has a new form of no. “I changed my mind.”
Saying, “I changed my mind” does not always mean that I respond. He may change his mind about what shirt he’s going to put on, and I could care less. In fact, I’m happy when he not only selects his own clothes but dresses himself without my assistance. Right on! Another step toward independence. I love it.
Sometimes it’s annoying, but no big deal, really. At the food coop this morning, for example, I was just about to sign him into child care when he “changed his mind” and decided to shop with me. (Yes, we have child care at our coop, so parents can shop in peace while the kiddies munch on bagels in the playroom.) Alright, so back downstairs and in the shopping cart. A few minutes lost, that’s it.
But when it comes to food, or something purchased, or a series of events set in motion that, like drawing a bath he suddenly changes his mind about taking, cause annoyance if stopped – because you went to all that work to get the water just right and now he doesn’t even want to dip a toe in! – well, that’s when it gets ugly. Because, as we tell him, our choices have consequences. Our words, like our actions, create effect. And if you said you wanted a grilled cheese and I went ahead and made a really delicious one, well, you gotta eat it, kid. You break it, you bought it.
In the long run, he’ll drop this rhetorical strategy and we’ll probably forget about it. But man, it’s annoying as a splinter in the toe in the moment. The whining. Complaining. Sometimes crying. Occasional temper tantrum. “But I changed my mind!”
Well, sorry son, but sometimes, you have to live with it. Which means, in your case, eating that grilled cheese. Which really isn’t that bad, right?
Try explaining that to a three year old.