One Easter Sunday, before I had even started to think about kids of my own – before I reached that point in my mid-twenties when I had to suppress the urge to spontaneously procreate at the mere sight of a chubby baby thigh – I was at church, watching other people’s children misbehave. It was an outdoor service, and the church had a playground, so it was probably unreasonable to expect the many children in attendance to sit quietly for an hour or more through Easter Mass. But I was struck by one set of kids who completely ignored their parents’ attempts to shush them. Afterward I reminded my mother that when my three siblings and I were young, all she had to do was look at us and we would immediately stop whatever we were doing. Heck, I still stop whatever I’m doing if she looks at me funny. “How did you do that?” I asked her. Her answer, without hesitation, was one word: consistency. And there is no question that she was a great mom, and – if I may say so – we turned out pretty well.
But now that I’m actively engaged in raising a child, I spend more time pondering a different question: do I want my son to be that obedient?
There is a lot to be said for instantaneous, unquestioning obedience from your children, especially if you happen to have more going on in your life than child-rearing, as I hope we all do. Less time “negotiating” with your offspring clearly means more fun time together or for whatever it is you’d rather be doing. And even if the only thing on your agenda for the day is playing with your kid, you’d still rather not spend that time discussing for the umpteenth time why he can’t have a piece of candy, right? As an admittedly impatient and efficiency-obsessed person, I find it very difficult to keep from telling my toddler not to argue with or question me when I tell him something. To be honest, I have in fact told him that very thing on occasion – and then in retrospect recoiled in horror.
Because, most of the time, I am pretty sure I don’t want my son to be unquestioningly obedient. I admit, the few times that I’ve been able to stop him in his tracks with just a look, it felt amazing, like I was a trainer putting a show dog through his paces. Look what I can make him do! But this is not about me; my son needs to understand why I make the decisions I do so that he can make his own decisions. I want him to understand for himself that candy is a “sometimes food,” that he has to pick up his own toys, and that he shouldn’t jump on the dog because he could hurt her. And more than anything, I want him to grow up to be independent and intellectually curious, not to be someone who does what he’s told without asking why.
But then there are days like the one recently when I was trying to leave McDonald’s Playland with my son (come on, I live in the Pacific Northwest; I’ll take dry playground equipment wherever I can get it.) and none of my tactics were working. I’d given him warning five and ten minutes beforehand that we would be leaving. I’d told him why we had to leave. I’d explained that we could come back another time. I’d asked him to be a good kid and help mom out. I’d tried to jolly him and distract him. None of it was working, and I’d been at it for a good ten minutes. I was losing my patience, but more than that, I was increasingly aware of the other parents in the room. Were they wondering why I was spending ten minutes negotiating with my son instead of telling him what’s what and marching his little butt out of there? Were they shaking their heads and clucking their tongues and exchanging arch looks? I suspect they probably were.
It’s not paranoia. I know it happens, because I’ve done it, too. I’ve judged and criticized and pitied and derided more than I care to recall – we all have. Parents who cannot control their children are the objects of universal disapproval. And for good reason; out of control kids are unpleasant and annoying for everyone. So this is my fear: if I don’t impose my own control, will he learn to control himself? Or am I just raising a brat?
Sometimes it certainly seems that way. At McDonald’s Playland, I eventually gave up on a peaceful solution. I threw him kicking and screaming – literally – over my shoulder and slunk out with my head down to avoid the stares. But you know what? He’s two and a half. There are going to be tantrums.
One recent afternoon, he was playing with his six-year-old cousin at our house. I could hear from the next room that they were playing with some delicate glass candlesticks. The candlesticks were from CB2 and probably cost less than 5 bucks apiece, so I decided to let it go. But after a minute, he came into the room where I was and told me that he and his cousin were playing with the candlesticks, but that they were being careful. I’d never told my son not to play with the candlesticks. He decided on his own that he needed to be careful, and that he should let me know what was going on.
Moments like those are worth a few tantrums.