My five-year-old daughter and I are eating lunch when she casually starts reminiscing…
Brontë: So I really enjoyed seeing the Eiffel Tower with you…
Me: We haven’t been there yet.
Brontë: Yeah, I’m PRETENDING.
Me: Oh, okay. So, we could see the entire city from far above…
Brontë: Because SOMEONE hasn’t taken me yet.
Me: We will go someday. I promise.
Brontë: Can we get a baguette?
Me: Yes–you know what that is?
Brontë: Yeah, a giant bread. Can we see Madeline?
Me: Well, Madeline is pretend, but we can see the places she goes.
Brontë: Can we say “Bonjour” to people?
Me: Of course! They’ll like that… you should always say “bonjour” to people in France.
Brontë: That means “goodbye,”
Me: No, it means “good day.”
Brontë: Yeah, like saying “bye.”
Me: No, it’s more like saying, “Hello.”
Brontë: You’re being RIDICULOUS, mom.
So… color me shocked that my five-year-old already knows about the Eiffel Tower and baguettes and how to say “bonjour.”
I suppose I am taking French classes and watching French films and maybe she’s picked something up. Even if she’s questioning my basic French knowledge and shaming me for not already have taken her to Paris, she seems fairly culturally adept for a toddler.
(That mother is me. I’m the mom in this scenario.)
Scene: It’s lunchtime. Mom has lovingly prepared a princess-pink divider plate with a bean burrito and a handful of strawberries, with the stems scooped out, because her daughter has loved strawberries since infancy and couldn’t possibly reject this particular member of the produce family.
Brontë, the daughter, has wolfed down the bean burrito but is inexplicably looking askance at the handful of strawberries, preparing to make random shows of her Power of Choice by rejecting them…
Meanwhile, her little sister Bridget has wolfed down all of the strawberries while rejecting the burrito outright.
(The child is hovering in a hummingbird blur over her seat, her butt never really resting on the chair and her eyes clearly longing to throw toys in every direction instead of continuing the archaic snooze-fest our society keeps insisting is lunch.)
Brontë: I don’t want to eat my strawberries. Bidgie can have them.
Me: Just eat one.
Brontë: I don’t want to.
Me (picking up one of her strawberries and making it talk in a chirpy voice): “Brontë, eat me and help me fulfill my destiny as your lunch! I’m soooo tasty… Don’t throw me away and make me feel sad!”
Brontë (Taking a bite and shrieking): “OW! My legs are GONE… I can’t walk anymore!”
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.)
Does anyone remember Garbage Pail Kids? They were these nasty trading cards you could get in the late 80’s and 90’s of cartoon toddlers covered in vomit or otherwise being gross or violent.
They were wildly popular. I think they were a backlash against the Cabbage Patch Kid fad at the time, which was all about baby dolls that supposedly grew out of cabbages with levels of cuteness so nuclear that moms actually got into fistfights over them at the time.
Note that I said moms, because their kids were busy collecting trading cards about cabbage spawn exploding their zits or dropping whatever they were doing to go witness the playground fight that just broke out because they suspected this thing we call “life” involves something darker than the perky cartoon facades the adults kept constructing around them while arguing they were 100 percent true…
Somewhere around age 5, if my daughter Brontë is anything to go by, kids start grasping the idea that some things are considered wrong and you’re socially obligated to be offended by them. Girls, at least, like to throw their arms in the air and dramatically shriek upon confronting them.
But I suspect it’s somewhat of an act.
See.. the other day, I was walking up the steps to our house with Brontë and her little sister Bridget when we passed a dead June bug…
Bridget (pointing and shrieking): A bee! A BEE!
Bidgie and I squat and stare at the dead bug for a minute.
Me: That’s a June bug, Bidgie. Where do these dead bugs keep coming from?
Brontë (running away): EWW, GROSS! I don’t want to see that.
Me (watching Bridget poke it with a stick): Whoa, looks like those ants are eating it.
Not wanting to cram my daughter into a pink box from the get-go, I painted her room green, bought her gender-neutral toys, and avoided onesies that said crap like “I’m so pretty” like the plague.
And… I still ended up with the girliest girl that ever walked the planet.
Since she was two years old, Brontë would beeline for the pinkest, fluffiest dress she could get her tiny hands on before sneaking my lipstick to smear all over her face so she’d look fetching enough to host the stuffed animal tea parties she was constantly throwing in her room.
I didn’t think she’d even heard about tea parties, yet there she was… constantly debating the relative merits of various Disney princesses with the giant bears and dinosaurs sipping imaginary flower tea and helping themselves to the pink hors d’oeuvres she’d pretended to lay out on plates.
It was a real head-scratcher.
After she shoved enough trucks aside in favor of dolls, or screamed in enough agony when asked to put on pants, I had to start wondering if… maybe… gender norms weren’t entirely a pack of lies.
Whereas Brontë would throw Hollywood-worthy scenes whenever she scraped her knee, Bridget would punch the trees and walls around her like a miniature Hulk.
While Brontë would run away sobbing whenever one of the playground girls were mean to her, Bridget would literally roll her eyes, fart at them and laugh.
The hilarious thing is, while Bridget absolutely loves her sister, sometimes Brontë’s super-dramatic, hyper-feminine antics get on her last nerve. Like the time Brontë was acting out some romantic fantasy car date between a prince and princess and the moment her back was turned, Bridget replaced the prince with a giant dinosaur then laughed herself stupid after Brontë shrieked in outrage:
Or the way Bridget loves grossing out her sister. We had this dialogue the other day…
John: What should be eat for dinner?
John: We’ve had pasta for the past three nights. What else would you like?
Bridget: Popcorn and salt!
John: That’s just a snack. What do you want for dinner?
Bridget: Fish cones and bone sauce!
Bridget (miming swimming fish with her hands): FISH CONES and BONE SAUCE.
Brontë: That’s DISGUSTING.
Bridget: Fish cones, NOW!
Brontë: EWW, GROSS!
Bridget rolls on the floor laughing.
Or the other day, when the girls and I were walking home from the library when Brontë notices a dandelion in the grass…
Twirling, she says, “A candy-lion! My favorite! I want to make a wish!”
Holding her skirt with one hand, she bends over to pick it with the other. Like a Disney princess, she prances around with it for several minutes, striking poses and saying, “I wish I wish I wish in my deepest heart, the greatest wish that ever…”
And in the middle of her soliloquy, Bridget rolls her eyes, stomps over and blows all the dandelion petals away.
“MYWISH!” she says, stomping away like Finally, we can go home in peace.
I’m not sure whether she was commandeering Brontë’s wish flower or if getting Brontë to stop prancing around was actually her wish, but it was pretty funny, either way.
But it just goes to show that this gender question isn’t quite that simple. Some girls roll out into a glittery cupcake universe from the start, while others are more… sarcastic.
And we don’t fall entirely into either camp. Brontë loves Legos, Outer Space and superheroes, for example. whereas Bridget also loves smelling perfume and having me paint her nails.
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.
When it really counts, I resort to the faux-democracy of preselected acceptable choices (“Would you like to wear this, or this?”) because any semblance of a choice, however manufactured, tends to appease deep toddler yearnings for some control while under their current dictatorship.
But usually, I just let them pick. I figure it’s a harmless way for them to express themselves, even if I have to occasionally suffer sideways glances and condescending questions about whether or not their father dressed them today.
Plus, we’ll be spending most of our lives NOT dressed like our favorite princesses, so why deny them now?
And my older daughter Brontë definitely went through a phase of going practically everywhere dressed like a wedding cake, flouncing about every mundane errand while glittering fluffy pink tulle in her wake…
Yet after getting enough princessing out of her system, she eventually developed a far more sophisticated fashion sense than you’d expect from a five-year-old. In fact, I once had a fun idea about writing a blog post where I let my toddler pick out my outfits for a week that I later abandoned after she kept constructing truly tasteful outfits with well-coordinated accessories.
Well lately, her 3-year-old sister Bridget has also been expressing an interest in her clothing: YES, to the cats-with-glasses dress and DEFINITELY NO to the turquoise shirt.
I was a little surprised to find my Viking daughter suddenly demonstrating fashion sensitivity, but decided it must be time to let her pick her own outfits too.
So, after I told her to get dressed for the park, she came out wearing this:
And it was AWESOME.
In case it isn’t clear from the blurry picture, she’s wearing a pirate outfit with a sword and a knight’s helmet.
She’s pretty proud of it, too. Absolutely no kid is going to mess with her when she’s looking like that and she knows it.
She also made sure to grab her pirate musket water gun on the way out, because you can never be too armed for the playground.
Nor was it the last time this week she’s incorporated the helmet into her wardrobe. Yesterday, she got ready for the library like this:
You may be wondering why, at this point, we have a toddler-sized medieval helmet. Well, Bidgie saw it in the store and absolutely fell in love. She slapped that piece of armor on her head and blissfully rode around in the grocery cart like it had finally completed her.
Maybe YOU can deny your child medieval accouterments while looking into their innocent eyes, but I, for one, felt that watching a toddler stumble around in aggressive, Monty Python-esque head accessories was something my life desperately needed.
I just didn’t want it all to click into place one night at dinner. Especially after 5-year-old Brontë started asking me if octopi had feelings, since our pet kitties obviously did.
So when my husband and I found a dead bird in the yard, we quietly disposed of it. And then a mole. Then another bird.
Until finally, Brontë and I left the house one morning to see a dead bird laying on the doorstep…
Brontë (upon seeing the bird): AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!
Her beloved cat Frodo proudly sits next to it.
Me: Looks like Frodo got that bird.
Brontë (horrified): Oh NO, Frodo! Bad! That’s SO sad.
Me: Well… see, I think he’s giving it to you. As a present.
Me (taking her hand): Well Brontë, cats eat birds. They catch them and eat them and they don’t understand how we don’t eat birds like that. Frodo probably noticed he hasn’t seen you eat a fresh bird in really long time, so he spent all day catching it for you to have a nice dinner. And he was probably sitting here waiting to see how excited you’d be about his gift.
Brontë: Aww, Frodo loves me.
Me: Yeah, he thought it would be a great present for you and that you’d really like it.
Brontë (speaking slowly to the cat): Aww Frodo, THANK YOU! That bird looks SUPER DELICIOUS. I’m gonna eat that later, kay?
(Whispering to me): Okay mom, hurry up. Let’s get out of here….