I used to think it was the height of unselfishness to have kids. But as Liz Gilbert asserted in Eat, Pray, Love, there are many very self-interested reasons to have them. Right now, one of those reasons is the hope and energy that surround me in my children. When time seems frozen at Good Friday, my little ones wake me up to Easter morning.
I want to maximize this natural spirit of hopeful energy, never spoiling it or breaking it. I worry I rain on their parades too often for the sake of prudence, as I try to help them grow up.
The other morning, I was playing the tough guy, insisting that Brielle do something for herself rather than bossing me around to get it done. She wanted a blanket, and was helplessly trembling and crying about how cold she was while the blanket she wanted was three steps away.
This went on for about a minute and I finally said the obvious. “Sweet Brie, if you’re cold, just put that blanket on you,” I told her, working on breakfast at the sink.
“No! I can’t! YOU do it!” she demanded. “Brrrrrr!”
I didn’t respond. We try not to respond to any requests unless she “asks nicely,” meaning use of the magic word and a ladylike tone.
“It’s right there, sweetheart. Grab it.”
“I can’t reach it! My arm isn’t long enough!” More screams from the neglected child.
Sarcasm time. “Hmmm. What is another way you could get that blanket? Let’s think….”
Brielle recognizes sarcasm well enough to hate it. “Stop it!” she shrieked. “You’re being MEAN to me!”
“Brielle, I’m not being mean to you. I just know you are a big girl and you know how to fix this problem by yourself so you can be warm.”
“You’re NOT being nice to me! It makes me very sad and mad when you are not nice to me!” Forlorn cries.
“Brielle, sometimes Daddy’s job is not to be nice. Sometimes my job is to teach you how to be a big girl,” I said.
In the past, we’ve used “being nice” as the ever-desired goal, although the older I get, the more convinced I am that love is not always nice. I just hadn’t tried before now to get that across to my four-year-old. Just now I was realizing why I had waited so long.
“But the way you teach me doesn’t teach me anything!” she cried, cheeks soaked. “It only makes me sad and mad when you fight me like this!”
Most of me wanted to put her on time-out for her insolence in this whole conversation. I was not cool with being bossed around by my preschooler for something she could handle on her own. I resented being chastised for taking a stand that she take care of herself rather than ask me to drop what I was doing to wait on her.
That was what most of me was saying. Yet there was this annoyingly vocal minority in my head saying, She is right. You are fighting her, not teaching her. You could easily do the nice thing here. She’s only asking for a blanket. Is this the hill you want to die on in the battle to teach her self-determination?
And then, Actually, you ARE teaching her. You’re teaching her not to help people who ask for a simple favor. You’re teaching her to be contrary and difficult, to ignore the plea of a shivering human being in the name of teaching her a lesson she is clearly not in the mood to study. Teaching her to be…mean?
I walked around the room in external quiet, defending myself against this minority voice. But it’s important to say “no” to build self-reliance instead of chronic dependency, not to enable laziness or bossiness, I insisted.
But there have got to be more positive ways to do this, whispered the minority.
I busied myself, recounting the ballots to see which voice was really me, and which the pretender. My verbal ceasefire gave her time to calm down.
The votes were tallied.
When I thought it was clear that I was not rewarding her bossiness, I brought over the soft crimson blanket Brielle had been crying for and wrapped it around her skinny pajama-clad frame. From over her shoulder, I kissed the salty cool of her right cheek.
“Thank you, Daddy,” she whimpered.
“I love you, sweet Brie. Next time, just ask nicely and I will be happy to help you.”
My kids do so much to be the light of my darkened life, the updraft that carries me above the thunderheads, the spring that thaws away my hard winter. When I think of them, I see grins, hear giggles, feel cuddling.
What more can I do to be this kind of a positive presence for them? What creative responses to difficult times might increase their experience of me as the brightness, the favorable wind, the warmth in the midst of their dark, storm and winter?
I know there must be negative moments in parenting. But I’m thinking maybe I have been resigning myself to too many of them.