Your basic job as the person raising this child is to make the initial decisions that will chart the course of their lives. NO PRESSURE. These choices can be huge and obviously significant, such as a choice of school, or they can be small, like “How We Will Spend Sunday Afternoon”. That is the title of this installment of Choose Your Own Adventure: Parenting Edition (inspired by true events!).
I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure book series when I was a kid. They had everything – fantastic 80’s cover art, mystery and adventure stories that I controlled, and as an avid reader I appreciated a book I could read dozens of times looking for different twists. It was like a video game I could read! But now as a parent, I sometimes wish for less choices and potential outcomes. In my brighter moods I characterize these parenting episodes as “adventures”, but some days they more closely resemble gruelling paradoxical puzzles, where the choices are dark and the outcomes murky. Oh well, I guess we’ll find out how well we did when the kiddos turn thirty and write their bitter sardonic memoirs.
On To Today’s Adventure!
Kidlet, a seven year old girl, likes to go to the open gym at a local gymnastic centre on Sunday afternoons. She does not like it when her younger sister accompanies her. She wants to spend time with her pals, and is allowed to invite one friend to join her.
Kidlet does not decide she wants to go to the gym until late Sunday morning, and throws a temper tantrum if you are unable to contact her friend’s guardians and extend the invitation. This has happened several times this fall. You are tired of dealing with this drama. Your solution was to stipulate that if she wants to invite a friend to the gym on Sunday, she has to give you the details on Friday afternoon so you have time to make the play date. That is the rule.
So Sunday morning rolls around, and Dad overhears Kidlet talking about how a certain friend will come to the gym this afternoon. He finds you to ask if you arranged this play date. Since this is the first anyone is hearing about it, you had not. Open gym is in three and a half hours. When you ask Kidlet about her plans, she immediately bursts into tears and begs you to organize her play date.
A) Tell the Kidlet it is too late to invite her friend, and she will have to go to the gym with her sister.
B) Call the friend’s parents and invite the friend, knowing the tears and drama will not end until you have a resolution.
C) Tell the Kidlet it is too late for you to get involved, and if she is determined to invite her friend she will need to do it herself.
If you choose A: Congratulations! You have stuck to your guns and boundaries! You’ve taught the child a valuable lesson. Also, you have hours and hours of yelling, crying and general terrible attitude to cope with. This will lead to further disciplining, which will undoubtedly ruin your plans for a fun and productive day, probably cancelling the family television hour and scrapping dessert. Bonus: younger child will be terribly hurt by her sister yelling horrible things about her, and you will spend an hour assuring the sweet younger child she is loved by her whole family and that sometimes angry people say nasty things they don’t really mean. But – LESSON LEARNED. Good thing you weren’t looking forward to a relaxing end to the week or getting any work done.
If you choose B: There is no shame in capitulation. No, I’m serious. Sure, you are reinforcing exactly the behaviour you are trying to stop, but at least you will be able to get some work done this afternoon and there will be relative peace and calm. Pick your battles, warrior parent! Of course, when the friend turns out to be unavailable for the play date, the tantrum and screaming will begin all over again. Be prepared for more of the same next time your rules do not conform to the Kidlet’s expectations. Casually start googling boarding schools.
If you choose C: Hold onto your hat, we’re going for a crazy ride! It turns out that asking the Kidlet to call her friend’s family and asking if her friend can join us on a fun outing is TERRIBLY TRAUMATIC. Kidlet melts down into a full blown panic attack at the idea of asking for what she wants in a calm and respectful manner. She cannot accept that her parents are not fulfilling their moral obligation as her social directors. She throws herself on the floor beside your computer and cries for an hour while you are trying to finish a work document.
A) Ignore her and put on your headphones. She knows what she needs to do to get what she wants, and when she stops freaking out you will help her do it.
B) Spend an hour calming her down and cheerleading so she does it herself, only to step in to make the call yourself when she just can’t do it.
C) Send the Kidlet into the shower to think about the situation and gather courage to call her friend’s parents. Meanwhile, use text messaging to see if the family is up for the play date, secretly arranging it provided the Kidlet makes the call.
If you choose A: Good for you! There must be a limit to how much meltdown you have to cope with, and you have to set those clear boundaries. Sure, now you are that parent with the headphones, and your child will DEFINITELY bring this up at Thanksgiving when she is twenty-four, but you are doing your best, and you are doing an awesome job!
If you choose B: Good for you! You practiced all that active listening stuff that parenting expert was talking about on that podcast you listened to, you know, the one whose book you’ve always meant to buy but can never remember the title? You heard your child’s needs and responded. Gold star. Also, you capitulated to the child’s original demands, but maybe in a way she won’t notice…so fingers crossed for next time around! You are doing your best and you are doing an awesome job!
If you choose C: Good for you! You remembered all that Machiavelli you had to read in Western Civilization class, didn’t you? You created a diversion (the shower) then used diplomatic back channels to assure the desired outcome. Now all you have to do is get the child to make the actual phone call…
A) Practice yogic breathing techniques together to help her control her panic.
B) Give her your Wonder Woman action figure to help her be brave.
C) Coach her to say one sentence “Can Maggie please come with me to open gym this afternoon?”, practicing over and over until her voice is strong enough to be heard on a speakerphone.
D) All of the above, plus anything else you can think of to help her feel strong. What started out as simple rule enforcement somehow morphed into a huge showdown about being brave enough to speak up and ask for the things you want, even when you are scared. Now you need her to be able to say the words herself so she won’t think she can’t do it.
Isn’t it fun how little parenting choices can turn into giant production numbers?
Obviously you choose D, because you love that little monster and want her to grow up to be a strong, independent woman who speaks up for herself. You hold her tight in your arms as you phone the other parent, not letting her wriggle free and run away. You tell the other mother that the Kidlet has something she would like to ask, and you squeeze your daughter’s hand as she struggles with the words, but finally finds her voice and asks the simple question. You relax as all the secret plans fall into place. You hug the Kidlet, tell her how proud you are, and tell her to go get ready for the gym.
P.S. When you go out to the kitchen to make coffee to take to the gym, you find the Kidlet making herself a cheese sandwich. This is only remarkable in that she has never before taken the initiative to do this entirely on her own. There is a new calm confidence in the way she slices the cheese.
The road to independence is long and winding. It is shaped by unexpected consequences of everyday choices. Choose wisely, because in parenting we can’t just skip back to page 15 to start again.