My 3-year-old daughter Bridget is starting to sting together sentences and have actual conversations, which is when I think parenting starts getting real fun.
I mean, I love them before that and all, but it’s a whole lot of screaming and you-cleaning-up poop before intelligible sentences come into play. Graspable language is when you start getting to hear their hilarious, unfiltered take on life.
Like the other day, when Bridget started nosing around my coffee cup…
Bridget (pointing to my coffee): That COFFEE.
Bridget: I drink?
Me: No, drink your milk.
Bridget (sighing): I smell? Smell good.
Me: Okay, you can smell it.
She grabs the cup, closes her eyes, and inhales.
Bridget: Smells GOOD, mama… I drink?
Me (grabbing the cup back): No, Bidgie.
Bridget (hands on hips): YOU drink!?
Me: I’m a grown-up. This is a grown-up drink.
Bridget (stomping away): This is… POOP!
The funniest part was how she clearly meant to say “This is a bunch of bullsh*t!” before stomping down the hall, but she did the three-year-old version of baby-swearing instead. Given the look on her face, I could practically hear the proper obscenities falling into place.
(Aww, she wants to drink lots of coffee and swear… she is mine.)
So, lately I’ve been thinking about how Participation Trophies are a great idea…
Psh, calm DOWN everyone. I figure that most of you reading this are currently either 1) assuming I’m being sarcastic, or 2) quietly ranting to yourself about the spoiled Millennials and their unbelievable sense of entitlement after getting participation trophies their entire lives, except:
I’m actually dead serious, and
I’m not a Millennial, remember? I’m a Gen Xer who probably likes to complain about Millennials as much as my friends, even though they aren’t really that bad but life looks much different in retrospect and one of the great consolations of aging is pretending we had the world all sorted out before these lunatic punks got their hands on it.
(Kids, you’ll understand what I mean in about ten years when you’re rolling your eyes at all the Gen-Z shenanigans as cocky youths look at you sideways when you mention Justin Timberlake because seriously grandpa, who the hell is that!?)
But I digress.
My point is that kids, in fact, should be praised for participation. Not as a replacement for winning or losing, because winning and/or losing is a fact of life that kids will either learn to accept or spend much of their adult life throwing irrational fits whenever things don’t work out the way they wanted, which is frankly a parenting fail. We can’t be spending their childhoods validating the idea that the universe has dealt them an unfair cosmic blow whenever they find themselves slightly inconvenienced.
But… in addition to declaring winners and losers, we should definitely be praising participation and effort.
Why? Because sheer effort and persistence is a HUGE part of success.
You see, sometime around the 1980’s, while I was growing up, experts had roughly decided that low self-esteem was the root of a huge number of social problems, such as kids not reaching their full potential. Violence, addiction, and chronic unemployment probably all traced back to dysfunctional families that made kids not feel good enough about themselves to achieve anything productive in life, or so went the thought.
So, with extremely good intentions, parents and teachers were coached to basically tell every child how incredibly unique, brilliant, attractive, and insightful they were. They got to hear this all the time, whether or not they had actually accomplished anything, in hopes that their achievements would eventually meet the inflated self-images everyone had been feeding them.
Problem is, when kids believe everyone thinks so highly of them, they’re reluctant to try anything they’re not naturally good at in case they fail miserably and thereby screw up everyone’s high opinion. It actually makes kids afraid to try.
After years of seeing how You’re-Already-Awesome parenting methods worked out, researchers finally put on the brakes. DON’T tell your kids how brilliant and unique they are, the experts now tell us.
So what’s a parent to do? We still want them to feel good about themselves, right?
Yes, it turns out. But in a way that praises the process, not the result.
In other words, praise your kids for making an effort, for sticking to something, even after having lots of problems doing it right. Praise their work, their persistence, their bold moves of not giving up the first moment they encounter difficulty.
Because honestly, that’s a huge part of achieving anything. The people who graduate college aren’t necessarily the ones with the highest IQ’s, but the ones who keep working at it, keep studying, keep doing lots of research and writing papers that they turn in when they’re supposed to, even if they have to bang their heads on the wall repeatedly before a concept they’re struggling with eventually sinks in. Same goes for getting promotions at work or any other winning measures you can think of.
We have this myth of God-given talent (at least in America) that culturally plays out in movie after movie and really messes with our heads. The idea involves some of us being natural quasi-demigods who are blessed with abilities that will raise us above our peers with little effort on our parts.
It’s a fun fantasy, all the glory with very little work… much like playing the lottery, where our lives are radically changed after only spending a buck at the convenience store before allowing the universe to whisper the lucky numbers into our chosen ears.
Along those lines, I remember a movie I was once forced to watch in a college film class that left me incredibly bitter about the entire idea: Running on Empty.
In the film, River Phoenix plays a kid with natural piano abilities who could never practice on an actual piano because his parents were fugitives from the law. Because of this fact, he could only practice on a soundless keyboard, without lessons, until he manages to one day snag an audition at Juilliard, where he plays a slow, easy, emotional song that immediately gets him enrolled on full scholarship.
The movie was praised by critics, but left me spitting mad.
Why? Because I’ve actually auditioned at Juilliard and know how stupid the entire movie’s premise really is.
See, before I was a whimsical freelance writer and offbeat parent reporting on her strange toddlers, I was a music performance major who played the flute competitively since the age of eight. I’ve played on TV, I’ve trained internationally for world premiere recordings of original compositions, attended the most prestigious music camps, went to a renowned conservatory, and have won more awards than I’ve bothered to count.
(Obviously, it didn’t end up becoming my line of work. My advice to aspiring classical flutists: consider taking up the bassoon.)
But I’m not sharing this information to brag. I want to relate how I was one of the last kids in my fourth grade class to make an initial sound on the flute, but I persisted. I kept at it when all of my friends were watching cartoons after elementary school and when they were later attending parties and sneaking Zima in the 7-11 parking lot. While other kids were learning skateboard tricks and practicing the Roger Rabbit behind closed doors, I was memorizing hours of music marked by painstaking metronome clicks, etching it so beneath my fingers’ skin that I could later reproduce it under the stress of a thousand dimly-lit spectators… tens of thousands of hours of playing songs excruciatingly slowly, moving up click by click on the metronome until, weeks later, I could execute a five-second rift quickly enough that no one could sense that I wasn’t born playing it.
Yes, I had talent, but talent gets you absolutely nowhere without years of focused, hard work.
And many, many other people have talent too. It’s an equation that gets you nothing without rivers of sweat. It’s an equation that every little duck in a little pond faces upon entering the larger waterways.
Kids watch movies about River Phoenix, who never practices on a real piano until he one day sits at Juilliard and feels the gods move his fingers until landing a full scholarship at the most coveted Conservatory in the world. Psh, there are kids from Detroit to Beijing, with enormous talent, who have been practicing the piano for hours a day since the age of five… and still don’t make it.
Yet movies like Running on Empty make it seem like whatever you’re meant to do will just naturally happen. It’s enough to make you think that any supernatural talents would instantly manifest, so if you’re not automatically good at something, why even bother?
Which is kind of what just happened with the last generation of kids.
Our city libraries have a summer reading program that rewards kids for logging books they’ve read. After so many books, they get to pick out a free book. After even more books, they receive a reading medal with their name on it.
The idea of winning this medal has been unbelievably motivating for my kids. They cared far more about that achievement medal than winning a free book, which by any objective standard would seem to be the bigger payoff. They even cared more about medals than being entered into a raffle for winning an iPad.
Since we go to the library every week and I read new books with them every night, winning the medal was inevitable, but they still asked me how many more books it would be until they received their medal… every night.
When we’d finally read enough books, they squeaked and danced a happy dance around the house. They were incredibly proud when walking up to the front desk at the library to receive their medals and uncontrollably danced around the library, squealing, showing off their medals to anyone happening by. They wore their medals to bed that night and made sure to let the neighbors and their grandparents know they had earned medals for superior reading.
And I think it was a great program. Kids should be recognized for trying, for showing up, for doing the work. Because that’s one of the main secrets to making things happen in life: you have to keep trying.
A chicken may have just solved 95 % of the Toddler Problems in our house.
Yeah, I couldn’t believe it either.
You see, once we finally got past that stage where the kids were throwing hour-long tantrums about things like not wanting a glass of water then being enraged about not having one, most of our hassles involved three main issues:
Not Focusing on Any Activity for More than 30 Seconds
“Momma, I want to play with the crayons and coloring books!”
“Okay, but if I get them down, you need to play with them for a while.”
“Okay, I will!”
I heave the art boxes and crayons down from high shelves, open all the boxes, lay out coloring books, paper, and start separating crayons into piles for Brontë and Bridget.
And thirty seconds later, they both scream: “DONE!”
Now, just picture that scenario happening again and again with Legos, scooters, blocks, tea sets or what-have-you, and you’ll get a rough picture of how I spend my day. Since the children won’t entertain themselves for any length of time, it’s hard to do anything else without kids tripping over my feet throughout the process.
It’s draining, I worry about their lack of focus, and sometimes consider pushing them outside then locking the back door for an hour.
For their own good.
Leaving Toys All Over the House
To a non-parent, this probably doesn’t sound like a huge deal because toddlers are little. How many toys could they have? How big of a mess could they possibly make?
Well, it’s staggering, folks.
People love to spoil kids on holiday and whenever the mood strikes them, so my kids are constantly getting toys from us and every grandparent, relative, friend and Happy Meal. They build up.
And, like miniature bag ladies, my girls are driven to carry as many toys as they can pack into their tiny fists every time they leave a room, or really, move in any direction for any reason, before dropping them to chase the next shiny object. Since they don’t sustain activities for more than a couple of minutes, toy bits quickly seep into nook and crevice of our house and yard.
I don’t know if it’s some secret toddler scheme to conquer every last inch of adult territory, but you’ll find yourself stepping on Legos everywhere you walk and crunching Barbie limbs anytime you sit. Doll shoes and plastic animals fly out of my bedspread whenever I straighten it. As much as I try to weed them out, the toys just keep regenerating, like I’m using a sieve to dump water out of my capsizing rowboat.
But beyond the overwhelming mess, it’s also a waste of money. Toys keep getting lost, stepped on or eaten by the dog.
Not Cleaning Up After Themselves
Teaching kids to pick up after themselves would seem like the obvious solution, right?
Yeah, to me too. So, I’ve been working on that for the past two years and man, has it been a haul…
At first, they’d whine and shriek about needing me to help them, but would just goof off whenever I did.
So I stopped, making them do it themselves. This turned ten-minute jobs into two-hour grinds of them putting one Lego block in their mouth then slowly rolling across the floor to spit it into the box, whenever they weren’t angrily throwing it.
I would grit my teeth and sit through it, not wanting to reward them by relieving the pressure and hoping they’d eventually get bored of taking forever to pick things up because doing anything else would obviously be more fun.
After many months of this, we reached a point where they would actually pick things up, however slowly and begrudgingly. It took about 600 time-outs to get there, because rational explanations had no effect.
Then, when I was finally beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, our routine suddenly devolved into the Passive-Agressive Olympics. Neither kid wanted to be the patsy who ended up doing most the work, so they’d both fold their arms and spout off long rants about refusing to pick up toys until the other one put in more effort.
At some point during the second year of this, I’d tried every angle I could think up that didn’t involve spanking the crap out of my kids (though I was beginning to understand why some parents do). I even tried the “I have cookie for the best cleaner!” method, which wasn’t nearly as effective (for me) as you would think.
Enter the Chicken
So last week, when I was complaining about all this to my daycare-running neighbor, she casually mentioned that she sometimes sets a timer during activities.
Hmm. Worth a try, right? I figured it probably wouldn’t work, since nothing else had, but it couldn’t hurt.
So later that afternoon, when the kids started bugging me for crayons, I decided to give it a shot. We have a kitchen timer, shaped like a chicken, that the kids are really fond of.
I got the art supplies, slapped down the chicken, and told them:
“Okay, here are the rules:
I’m setting this chicken timer for 30 minutes. You have to color for the entire time.
You have to color at the art table, because that’s where we color. So, no getting up and leaving the table.
When the chicken timer is up, you clean up the art supplies.”
And then I backed away to watch.
SAT AT THE ART TABLE COLORING FOR THIRTY MINUTES.
They did NOT leave the table
When the timer went off, they started shouting, “CLEAN UP TIME!” and scrambled to pick up all their toys, without stopping once, then slapped the lids back on the boxes.
Was it a fluke? I tried again with Legos, this time for forty minutes, during which they couldn’t leave the Lego area (which happens to be the living room).
And it WORKED!
They played with Legos for a full FORTY minutes before scrambling to pick them all up without whining about it once.
I went on to use this method a few times a day for an entire week, and it worked every time.
I got so much done. I even had space to knock out lower-priority projects, like reorganizing cabinets (which doesn’t sound that exciting but nevertheless marks the moment when adult order returned to our house).
I’m still not sure why this particular combination was effective, since I’d tried every element of it before (apart from the chicken timer), but it was miraculous. Something about timer + play-area limits + cleaning up when the timer goes off = MAGIC.
And I had to share it, in case it helps other struggling parents.
It’s been interesting to check out the kind of advertising they’ve been running on my site lately. Expecting something more along the lines of Legos or diaper deals, I’ve been shocked by all the ads for MBA degrees and thousand-dollar Polyvore skirts.
Or maybe it has more to do with my audience; in which case, you guys are classy folks.
In other news, Bridget, my 3-year-old, has been eating one bite of every apple we own.
Or strawberries, or bananas, or chips, or what-have-you: any grouping of like food substances in a bowl has been vulnerable. It’s the toddler equivalent of grownups who take a small chunk out of every chocolate in the box until they finally find a filling they deem acceptable.
Except in this case, they’re all the same. So why, toddlers, why? Are you trying to find the best one? Are you claiming all the apples for later use? Is it just because you’re not supposed to do it?
She loves to beg for “bapples” then scream “DONE!” after taking one taste. Or burritos, or tacos, or whatever else she catches anyone eating and therefore wants. It’s baffling.
But this toddler phenomenon is hardly news to other parents. A more compelling development has been her 5-year-old sister Brontë becoming the house’s new Apple Sheriff.
After observing the drama enough times, she decided to climb onboard my ongoing Bridget projects by coaching her on everything from potty-training to putting dirty clothes in the hamper to not finishing apples. What’s more, I just figured out that she’s been taping these coaching sessions on the iPad her grandparents bought her, which is hilarious:
Of course, Brontë never accounted for how much more fun eating one bite of an apple would become after Bridget realized how much it would torture her big sister. It’s like Brontë just handed her a big, red, sister-freakout button and then begged her not press it.
Whether or not to teach your child to share is a matter of great controversy.
Some may find this surprising, because sharing is good, right? Doesn’t it teach kids not to be selfish?
Eh, not so fast. Like practically every other aspect of modern parenting, the issue is much more complicated than it seems…
For example, let’s say your coworker Todd likes your watch. Or your car. Or house. How would you feel if your boss made you hand them over, just because it’s so nice to share?
We’d find the idea outrageous, yet we expect our kids to comply without question. It’s admittedly a bit of a double standard, and one that rewards any kid who demands another kid’s stuff. We wouldn’t be happy if the adult world worked this way.
So, there’s a certain logic to the idea that making kids share is misguided, and NOT making kids share happened to be the policy of a preschool our daughter Brontë used to attend. It seemed to work well enough for kids who were around a bunch of kids who were roughly their own ages.
And probably also for only children, which my husband John and I both were.
But… once we had another daughter, it didn’t seem to work anymore. We were completely unprepared for the new dynamic.
You see, Brontë was two when her little sister Bridget was born. Brontë understandibly faced her changing reality with some ambivalence: on the one hand, her baby sister was cute and seemed to like her.
On the other, Bridget was a blatant usurper of mommy and daddy’s love. Brontë would “accidentally” trip and scream whenever Bridget needed attention.
And if that wasn’t enough, Bridget also felt entitled to grab any toy in the house. Brontë was used to ALL toys being HER toys, so she found Bridget’s behavior absolutely unacceptable.
To make matters worse, around the same age that Bridget began crawling and grabbing anything she could get her hands on, Brontë also reached that apex age of insisting the entire world belonged to her.
Other parents will know exactly what I mean by this. There’s a phase, around age two, where a toddler’s chief motivations involve negating suggestions and declaring universal ownership.
Well, our kids both reached the possessive and grabby stages, all at once. John and I would watch Bridget grab something Brontë was holding, then hear Brontë scream “NO!'” and “MINE!” approximately six thousand times per day.
Bridget would then move onto some other object, which Brontë would also wrestle away from her while screaming “MINE!”
That was PURPLE BUNNY, for the love of all that’s holy…
This would go on and on until Bridget finally broke down in hysterical seizures.
Which makes sense, because Bridget could hardly speak a word of English at the time, let alone fathom concepts of ownership. And Brontë couldn’t accept that while she had heretofore held complete dominion over every object in her environment, she now had to hand them over to get chewed on. Even when it was purple bunny.
It wasn’t easy to reconcile, but they clearly had to learn to share.
Problem is, the concept of sharing is a tough one for toddlers to grasp.
Because what does sharing actually mean? When you share a cookie, you don’t get it back. When you share a toy, the other kid keeps it as long as they want, which could be forever.
If your kids are supposed to hand over toys whenever another kid wants it, then they will also feel entitled to grab any other kid’s toys. Even when that kid is some stranger at the park. I mean, they’ll just pick up some other kid’s Tonka truck and try to take it home, which is super awkward, because you just told them that maintaining the integrity of one’s personal property is unacceptable.
So… after much trial and error, this is what my husband and I figured out:
Kid’s thinking may not be especially nuanced, but they can usually grasp basic concepts of fairness.
Fairness includes the idea that if *you* get one, then *I* get one.
It also involves the idea that everyone should get the same thing, including a turn at playing with or participating in whatever desired object or activity is in question.
So, instead of telling them to “share,” which is really vague, it’s easier to tell kids to “wait their turn.”
It gives them clearer rules… You will wait patiently until the other kid is done with the object, then they will let you play with it without hassling you.
And in return, they won’t bug you for playing with it once they’re done, just as you won’t pitch a fit when they pick up something you’ve discarded.
This approach has worked sooooo much better for us. The kids understand these rules better and seem to respect them. It appeals to their inherent sense of fairness. They get the idea of “you were done with it, so now she gets to play with it.”
And weirdly, now they’ll patiently wait for a toy (sometimes finding something else to do) as long as they know they’ll be the next one in line.
I’m guessing that as kids get older, they’ll have an easier time distinguishing the difference between personal property and community objects that should be shared.
But for now, telling our kids to “wait their turn” has made life a while lot easier.
So, what do other parents think about teaching your kids to share?
Do you believe it’s a good idea? Do you believe it’s better to let kids work it out on their own?
So, yesterday I took the girls to the local park to get some exercise, never realizing what mean-girl psychodramas were about to unfold.
Bridget immediately begged to be pushed on the swings, but I told her to GO PLAY. All morning they’d been chewing up the couch like overwrought labradors who needed to work off some adrenalin.
Which would never happen as long as I was still holding their hands. I settled onto a park bench to keep a loose watch on them. Bridget began testing her mettle against a miniature rock wall as Brontë sized up the crowd for potential friends.
I tried to get in a little reading, pausing occasionally to remind Bridget that the bucket of sand she was hauling off wasn’t hers. I smiled, noticing that Brontë had joined a group of girls, before returning to my book.
There were six little girls in the pack, of varying hem-lengths, braids and ponytails. They were all running back and forth when the phone rang. It was John, who always calls me during his lunch hour.
We were chatting about some server issue he was having at work when Brontë came running up with this little Johnny Depp looking kid wearing a comedy T-shirt. She crawled under the table as he blinked at her from beneath his shaggy brown bob. He seemed nice enough, so I ignored them while telling my husband about finding another baby lizard in the living room.
And that’s when Johnny Depp’s mom tapped me on the shoulder.
I politely hung up to face her.
“Umm, I wanted you to know that those girls have been bullying your daughter. “
“Yes. They were chasing her and trying to throw sand in her eyes. They were talking about throwing grass at her too, but the tall one with the ponytail was saying it was mean. I stepped in and told them they couldn’t.”
“Oh… wow. THANK YOU. I didn’t see ANY of that. How did I miss that??”
“Well, the one with the two French braids and the pink dress was the ringleader and I heard her say ‘not now, her MOM is looking,’ so they were only doing it whenever your back was turned.”
My face felt hot. “Thank you so much for letting me know, because I had NO idea.”
She nodded. I turned to look at Brontë, who was staring at the ground.
I don’t worry too much about Bridget on the playground. She’s the type who’ll roll her eyes at anyone who has a problem with her before promptly ignoring them. It’s a quality that will serve her well in this dog-eat-dog world.
But Brontë… this hurt her. She wants so desperately to connect with other people that she leaps at them without defenseless. Rejection trips her and casual cruelty simply doesn’t compute. She just keeps trying, as though it must be a language barrier.
But what to do?
It was over now, and she was playing with Johnny Depp. Do I talk to the girls? Do I talk to the moms, who were all sitting together in short shorts and baseball caps at another picnic table, looking mildly as though they’d just smelled a fart?
“Do you think their moms saw what was happening? It was right in front of them.” I asked Mini-Depp’s mom.
“I don’t know, but I doubt they’d do anything if you told them. I hate to say it, but it’s always those cliquish little mom groups who have the bullying kids.”
“Well, I guess mean women were all mean girls once,” I said, narrowing my eyes. “I don’t get it, cause my kids would never get away with acting like that.”
“OH, I’d spank the crap out of my boys if I caught them throwing sand in some kid’s face and they KNOW it. These girls are brutal. That’s why I always played with boys growing up.”
I chuckled, thrown by her casual admission of spanking her kids, while resisting the urge to admit how I played with the boys too. It felt traitorous to spell out, like I’d be one of those women who brags about being more guy-like. As though it’s more evolved.
But I knew exactly what she meant. Much as I loved the girl friends I had (and love my female friends today), boys were just… easier. You knew exactly how they felt about you and didn’t always have to scan their expressions for micro-hints of betrayal, just in case.
Hell, once I even made friends with a boy after splitting his head open. He had thrown an orange at my cousin’s mouth, on purpose, cutting her lip open against her braces, and I had chased after him with a stick to avenge her honor. Once he’d gotten too far away, I’d flung the stick at him.
He ducked, so it twacked him in the skull, which required twenty-two stitches to fix.
And though his mom never forgave me, he became my buddy the very next day. It was a little disorienting for me at the time, given how one misplaced comment could make a girl your arch-nemesis for life, but I guess he felt I’d acted reasonably under the circumstances.
Then I remembered how that red-haired, doctor’s daughter was always walking up to me on the playground, while I was minding my own business, to ask me questions about my clothes while smirking with her friends:
Where did you get them, she would ask. They’re awfully dirty. You look really poor. I’ve never even seen clothes like that. How can you wear them?
Her pack of friends would giggle as I ran away.
I turned to Brontë. “This park is for EVERYONE. You go where you want and you don’t let snotty little bullies push you around.“
“YEAH,” Mini-Depp yelled. “It’s for EVERYONE!”
Grabbing her hand, we walked across the park and over to the table of moms, as their little girls smacked a teddy bear against a nearby tree.
Holding Brontë’s hand tighter, I walked in a slow circle around the moms until the girls noticed our presence. They paused the beatdown to find out what I would do next, the bear’s defeated glassy-eyes watching the ground as the ringleader held him by a broken foot.
I looked over at the girl in a pink dress and braids and she looked back, dropping the bear on his head.
Then she tilted her chin, clasped her hands, and spread the biggest, sugariest, most innocent smile across her face.
I stared back at her as though she were ten seconds from evisceration. I stared until her friends watched all the smugness disappear.
And then I sat down at the table of moms and stared at them too.
One of the moms popped up, cheerfully saying, “It’s time to go, kids!” They all packed up their stuff and left.
Maybe they thought I was crazy, but who cares? Looking crazy is an underrated move in the urban toolbox. Even I’m not even sure what I was trying to demonstrate, except what body language, alone, can accomplish.
Brontë squeezed my hand hard, saying, “You’re the best, mom. You protect me.”
We hugged as I thought about how in the hell to prepare her for stuff like this, how to teach her to stand up for herself without becoming a monster herself.
Because all the classic advice, that stuff about bullies just being insecure cowards in need of more approval, is truly unhelpful.
It’s just the right thing to say. It’s the horoscope that rings true because it’s so vaguely universal: we’re all insecure at that age. We all have psychological defenses and the need to fit in.
These bullies were just alpha gorillas in lacy skirts, chest-bumping the competition right under the radar. Ruling through exclusion and fear.
But running to authority figures every time someone offends you gets you pegged as a crybaby. It wouldn’t work much longer.
Being nice to the bully doesn’t work either, and it just opens you up to further humiliation. You’re actually better off windmilling your arms until you don’t seem worth the trouble.
And we all secretly know it.
“Some people are jerks, Brontë,” I began. “Some are nice and some are mean. Some are usually nice but are having a bad day, and others… are just nasty. You can’t always tell from looking at them.”
“And you know what? Some grownups are nice and some grownups are mean too. You just have to find out and then be friends with the nice ones. But don’t let the mean ones know you are scared.”
“I was scared,” she said.
“That’s okay, but don’t tell them.”
“Next time I’ll tell them they’re a bunch of MANIACS!”
“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. Or make a joke at their expense. But never be the mean one first.”
We walked home as I silently questioned the wisdom of teaching my daughter to mock other children.
The issue seemed much simpler to my husband, whose face paled when I later related the story:
“So, we’ve got to teach her how to throw a good punch, then.” he said.
“NO, we can’t teach her to punch them. She’ll get into trouble.”
“You can’t *really* get into trouble before you’re 18.”
I sighed. “Look… Yes, I’ll admit that seeing Brontë smack that girl in the face would’ve been awesome. But we can NOT teach her to get into fistfights.”
“Because she will get into serious trouble. She’ll be suspended and get talked to and be considered a troubled kid. Especially as a girl. They’ll think she has real behavioral issues. We can’t teach her to solve problems with her fists.”
“I mean… I get where you’re coming from. I was trying to teach her to not look scared and be confident and even insult them back if they keep bothering her. Maybe we should remind her to make sure no other grownups are listening?”
“Sounds good to me.”
Argh. I just don’t know the best way to teach girls how to navigate the female jungle. It’s a much nastier place then most guys realize.
I really try not to be a judgey parent, because I know how judged we already feel.
But sometimes it’s hard not to be.
For example, we were attending a pool party when another mom warned me about my daughter’s soon-to-be kindergarten teacher:
“Miss Virtue is old and rigid and just doesn’t understand my son Dougie’s needs. He’s a very high-energy boy.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d been warned about Miss Virtue, so I was beginning to worry. That is, until I later saw little Dougie in action…
The host was barbecuing burgers when the hostess opened up the pool. Every nearby kid stripped down to their bathing suits, their parents affixed floatation devices onto them, and suddenly, Elsa’s and Batmen were everywhere.
And that’s when little Dougie started fighting with with his mom. “You HAVE to wear your floaties,” she kept insisting.
All the other kids were jumping into the pool, squealing, as little Dougie chucked his floaties to the floor then stepped onto the pool ladder, rolling his eyes.
Oh no… he did NOT just do that.
Hearing those floaties thunk to the floor, I prepared to watch his parents open a can of whoop-ass. What was it going to be… a time-out? An embarrassing lecture in front of all the other kids?
“Well, okay. But… just stay in the shallow end. Don’t go in the deep end, Dougie.”
Dougie immediately started thrashing toward the deep end, of course, looking back every few seconds to make sure they saw him doing it.
Hoo boy… he’s had it now.
(His parents were probably just fumbling around for the can opener before yanking him straight out of that pool and teaching him what being The Only Kid Not Swimming feels like.)
Except, no. They let it slide and later did nothing when Dougie kept badgering the hostess to let him into the pool after she’d closed it. She must’ve said “No Dougie, we’re not swimming anymore” twenty times, in an increasingly chilly tone, as his parents argued about whether someone should go watch him.
Look, maybe Dougie was having an unusually bad day, or maybe his parents just didn’t want to make a scene at someone else’s party. But I couldn’t help noticing the utter lack of consequences for Dougie’s actions, even when they became a safety hazard as well as an annoyance to everyone around him.
Plus, it had been the second time that month I’d watched someone let their kid get away with murder. The first was at a zombie-themed birthday party for a boy who likes to express himself…
A lot. Loudly.
His folks had gone to great lengths for three weeks to plan the party, making painted-eyeball doughnut holes, watermelons delicately carved to resemble brains, and grab-bags of zombie-fighting kits.
We hadn’t seen them for the past year and were hoping they’d been having an easier time with their son, who hadn’t been responding well to their lenient, validation-focused parenting style.
Well, our hopes were in vain, because when asked where the boy was starting kindergarten, the dad explained that the boy would be held back another year “because he needs more time to develop his social skills.”
And then, his explanation was actually punctuated by his son picking up a metal truck and smacking the little girl next to him square in the face with it.
After she ran away sobbing, dad told the boy that maybe he’d had enough time playing trucks for right now and I stood there praying that the boy wouldn’t attack one of my daughters like that because I didn’t want to have to choke some kid out in front of his dad.
(Alright, simmer down. I was probably totally kidding about choking out a kid.)
At any rate, I then suddenly realized there were half as many kids in attendance as there had been at his last birthday party. It wasn’t hard to see why. As the party continued, the boy screamed at everyone, didn’t thank anyone for their present, and tossed his grandmother’s gift aside with disgust as the woman looked genuinely hurt.
He went on to spit in his mother’s face and punch her repeatedly whenever slightly frustrated, which somehow upset her enough to complain about his behavior to other guests, after all of her hard work, yet never to him.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how much this was hurting him.
What do I mean by that? Well, his parents are good people who obviously love their kid. They genuinely believe that giving him complete freedom will help him develop into a creative, self-actualized adult. They make sacrifices each and every day by showing saintlike patience in the face of his ingratitude.
Except… the kid is lonely.
Because nobody likes him.
And that’s the part self-esteem-centered parenting theories often seem to forget: if you allow your kid to ignore every rule, disrespect others, and expect to be catered to without so much as a “thank you,” people won’t like having them around.
Yes, we have to give them reasonable leeway. You can’t always stop babies from screaming and toddlers WILL throw public tantrums on occasion, no matter what we do. They’re still incredibly irrational and have limited communication skills right then.
But by the time they’re entering school, it’s not unreasonable to teach them basic manners. Like greeting people, respecting property, and following house rules when they are guests in someone’s home. It gets them invited back.
Which is also why I’m a really mean mommy:
I expect my girls to say “thank you” when they receive a gift, and remind them when they forget.
If they start bullying another kid, I yank them away from their activity and explain why it’s unacceptable until they either understand or have to stop playing.
I even make them wait to be excused from dinner, because right now it’s the only thing that keeps them from tearing around restaurants like screaming banshees whenever we go out to eat.
All of which, by some parenting standards, is downright fascist. My girls should be broken puddles of damaged self-esteem and unmet expectations by now.
Except they’re not. They’re happy kids with lots of friends.
They’re obviously not perfect and have their bad days too. We parents all struggle with knowing when we’re being too strict and when we’re letting our kids walk all over us, always stressing about which rules are reasonable and which consequences are fair. Most of all, we worry about hurting our kids.
But having consequences, in itself, won’t damage your children. Not as long as you also acknowledge when they’re being good, give them plenty of love and attention, and make sure your expectations are consistent.
And with that, I’m off my soap-box for the day. I won’t be judging Miss Virtue, not just yet.
Generally speaking, Brontë and Bridget are much easier to manage now that they’re five and three. Gone are the days of three-hour fits and grocery store tantrums. Consistent refusal to reward bad behavior slowly winnowed them out.
Or of Brontë’s poop-mural experiments, which went on for months. Making her clean them up, by the way, was what finally did the trick.
Or of Bridget ruthlessly tackling the cat. We let the cat sort that one out himself.
We’ve finally moved on to more advanced kid skills, like not constantly interrupting people and getting through meals like civilized people. Occasionally, they’ll try snotty attitudes on for size, experimenting with the social ramifications, or check to see how much leverage they’ll get from being tragic.
Like the other day, when Bridget fell into some gravel and scraped her knee. Viking that she is, she handled it by punching everything around her, including the air, which made her fall over and over again, growing ever angrier.
I raced over to help her with her bloody leg and she responded by boxing my legs like a violent leprechaun. This didn’t go over very well, because mommy is not a punching-bag. Even if you’re sick or injured.
Which pretty much set off a cascade of bad behavior for the next few hours, during which time her sister Brontë was the perfect, model child: holding mommy’s hand, cheerfully doing everything she was supposed to, and giving heart-melting monologues about how much she loves her family.
Because I don’t know if this is typical, but my kids like to take turns acting out. I think that one of them acting like a hooligan gives the other the perfect opportunity to look angelic by comparison, and they relish the opportunity to rub their good behavior and all of its associated privileges in their sister’s face.
But, growing bored with their good cop/bad cop routine, they changed places yesterday. While Bridget was snuggling mommy and bringing her flowers, Brontë was accidentally spilling huge glasses of chocolate milk and then later wouldn’t shut up about the “giant turd she’d been wrestling” during lunch because Brontë has picked up that mommy’s weakness is finding your bad behavior hilarious.
Yesterday was the day when Brontë forgot how to put on shoes, after years of doing it correctly, and suddenly found the request outrageous. She wouldn’t quit pushing around her sister either, grabbing toys out of her hands on account of her possessing such a “stinky butt,” which probably made sense to her wound-up toddler brain.
At any rate, it all culminated in last night’s dinner episode. Bridget was quietly eating her taco while Brontë somehow hovered in a blur about the air pockets around her seat as my husband and I desperately tried to have a conversation:
John: So then I went to the manager meeting, and
Brontë: I’M THE QUEEN OF JELLYFISH.
John: I went to the managers’ meeting where they were talking about…
Brontë: I HAVE A BURRITO. MY EYES ARE BLUE. I WANT TO GO IN THE POOL.
Me: Stop interrupting, Brontë. Wait until your dad finishes what he’s saying.
Brontë keeps jabbering on for the next few minutes while John and I try ignoring her until it stops. Bridget keeps eating her taco, watching the whole thing play out. Finally, John looks over…
John: Okay, Brontë. What were you saying?
Brontë: I WANT TO GO SWIMMING AT MIDNIGHT WITH THE POOL LIGHT ON.
John: Not tonight, because you’re going to bed on time. Maybe this weekend we can go swimming when it’s dark outside.
Brontë (stomping away): I’m EXCUSED!
John: Come BACK here and sit down. We didn’t excuse you.
Brontë (making a face): HMPH!
John: Go to your room.
Brontë screams down the hallway before slamming the door. The room gets quiet. Bridget takes another bite of taco, her tiny legs swinging under her chair.
Yesterday was Bridget’s 3rd birthday. She spent the daylight hours indulging in cookies, cat-stalking and sunshine in the kind of present-moment-savoring paradise that most adults wish they still had the freedom to enjoy.
She was playing on the porch swing when her big sister Brontë put one of Douglas’s dog toys in her mouth, barking and crawling around on the ground.
Oh gross, I chuckled. Brontë, put the dog toy down!
She did. We later went inside to start the birthday celebrations, the girls forgetting all about the dog toy incident… until a startling discovery the very next morning:
A photo of Brontë with a dog toy in her mouth splashed across the front page of the The Sacramento Bee today, visible from every newspaper stand in town.
I’ll admit to being a little bit mortified.
And it’s not that I don’t believe most little kids have had far worse in their mouths at some point (kids chew on everything); it’s that random snapshots of our lives can create unbalanced impressions. I didn’t want people thinking I routinely let my kids chew on dog toys that have been sitting outside in the dirt because that’s not usually how we spend our time.
This idea didn’t bother Brontë at all, however. She was too busy being thrilled by her joke making the local news. She grabbed a paper and spent the next couple of hours running up to strangers to point out her featured photo. “It’s SO FUNNY,” she kept telling them. “They put it IN THE PAPER!”
Now, you may be wondering how this all came about…
Months ago, I wrote a blog post called Americans Are Too Damn Clean, inspired by parents who get rid of pets during pregnancies or use hand sanitizer before handling infants from what I consider to be good intentions gone awry, encouraged by our national tendency toward germ paranoia.
In it, I bring up scientific studies showing how kids who grow up around pets actually have fewer allergies, lower rates of asthma and eczema, and better gut ecosystems. No need to get rid of your pets.
Apparently, the Health Reporter for The Sacramento Bee came across my article and was intrigued. She called me for an interview and to set up an appointment to take photos of my girls being natural kids in a laid-back environment around a mom who would let them get dirty.
And Brontë, being the natural performer that she is, supplied the piece de resistance by chewing on a dog toy for the cameras, which ended up being a teaser on the front page. Oh, and she also grabbed the camera from the cameraman when he wasn’t looking and snapped some photos of me. Luckily, he was a really nice guy who has twin 8-year-old girls of his own, so he completely understood.
The only real bummer is how the reporter promised to mention Bubbles and Beebots in the article, which would’ve been great press in a nationally-known newspaper… especially since I live just outside of Sacramento, talk about the area from time to time, and since some of the studies mentioned in the article came straight out of my blog post. There’s a link included on the online version, yet the actual newspaper only referred to me as a parenting blogger.
Dang. Well, maybe the editor cut it. You never know.
At any rate, I think it’s pretty cool that Bridget’s birthday will be forever remembered as the day before she appeared in the local paper. She seems to think it’s pretty cool too.