Sunday, January 11, 2009


I used to think that people who described childraising as "humbling" were being kind of silly. I thought they were referring to some enlightenment they'd experienced while observing their offspring, some lesson they'd learned about what's really important in life--simple, kid-oriented things like sharing one's toys, taking naps, marveling at all the colors in the rainbow, and playing on the monkey bars. I heard the words spoken in a hushed, reverential tone, accompanied by a dopey aren't-children-a-blessing look, while the purported little blessings ran around, beating each other with sticks, and I thought to myself: "Ha! You'll never catch ME saying that!"

Then the other day I found myself locked in the bathroom in an effort to not beat my own child with a stick, and as I stared at my bleary-eyed reflection, feeling squished and flattened by the Great Steamroller of Life, a nagging thought I'd glimpsed before slithered into my mind and filled me with its frightening, irrefutable, and--ahem--humbling message:

Dude, you don't have a clue about parenting. You don't know what you're doing now, and you'll probably never know what you're doing in the future. You might as well just accept that.

I sighed, listening to Lula scream "No, Joedy! No, Joedy!! NOOOOOOOO!!" on the other side of the door, expressing, in a perfectly sensible way, that she did not wish for her fingers to be peeled off the door knob, she did not wish to be put in her room, she did not wish to be told that she was a Very. Bad. Girl.

In terms of averting disaster/a tantrum, The No More Playtime Method hadn't worked, apparently, just like the (Infinite) Time Out Method didn't work, just like the Ignoring This Awful Small Person Method didn't work, just like the I'm Taking Away All Your Christmas Presents Method didn't work. Nothing was working, abso-fruitcaking-lutely NOTHING--not one of the "so simple! piece of cake! works like a charm!" strategies laid out in the parenting book. Nothing my parents had done (successfully! we were angels) with us kids, nothing anyone recommended, nothing that came to me in blazing flashes of clarity during nights spent awake. Nothing: I was, and am, a parent who does not know what she is doing.

I can live with that, I guess--I guess I'll have to. And to be honest, it's not so much accepting a permanent state of humility vis-a-vis childraising that bothers me, it's the hope--the hope that's raised each day to this time get it right, the hope that's routinely flung to the ground and trampled on by little four-year-old feet, feet that belong to a person whose stubbornness and propensity for drama exceed perhaps even her mother's. Yes, I can accept that I don't know what I'm doing, that this feeling of uncertainty and ineptitude will uncoil and fill me on a regular basis for the rest of my life, but I'll have to watch out for the hope. I'll have to keep an eye out for the hope as I devise and plan a new tantrum-prevention strategy; I'll have to keep an ear out for the whispering voice of hope that says "Yes, this time you've got it right: this time, using the infallible Prize Box Method, you'll all be spared another Category 5 tantrum. Lula will be sweet and adorable, and you won't have to worry about getting a knock on the door from the neighbors or, worse, the cops."

It's the hope--the excitement and anticipation, the visions of a delighted and delightful child--I'll have to guard myself against when wandering around the toy store, looking for cheap but neat little presents to put in the Prize Box. It's the hope that's scary, because it can get big, as big as my love; but, unlike my love, it can be washed away--in one clean sweep, by a tidal wave of tantrum-fuelled tears.


As soon as I finished writing the above "Part I," Lula came home from the neighbors' house, tired from a long afternoon and evening spent with the kids there. Joedy had gone to get her, and I was apprehensive about how the transition from fun time to bedtime would go. When they walked in the door, I felt myself bracing for the worst, which lately (especially after time spent with friends) has been lots of screaming, lots of defiance, lots of overall bad behavior, lots of...tantrums. Since it was already 8 o'clock, we knew she should go straight to bed, and as Joedy headed back out to get a movie I told her she needed to come into the bathroom to brush her teeth, etc.

"No, I don't WANT to! I want to go with Joedy!"

"Well, you have to. Now. It's late, and you're tired."

I stood over her--she was on the couch--and gave her my hand, which she took, and we walked into the bathroom. She washed her hands, and I cleaned the smudges from her face, and then I took her toothbrush out of the little cup on the sink.

"I don't want to brush my teeth!" she said, and ran out of the bathroom.

I found her in the doorway leading to the garage, huddled up in a little ball.

"Lula, if you don't go back into the bathroom now, I'm going to be mad, and you don't want that, do you?"

She hesitated, and then, after a little more prompting from me, got up from the floor and walked back to the bathroom.

As I squeezed toothpaste onto her toothbrush she said, referring to the Prize Box that had been sitting on the mantle since yesterday:

"If I'm good today, do I get a present?"

She opened her mouth for me to brush her miniature teeth, and I said that yes, she would get a present if she was good for the rest of the day.

After her pyjamas were on and her hair was brushed and she had a new little airplane in her hands, I tucked the blankets around her and told her she'd been pretty good and I was happy with her. There'd been no tantrums, and she had come into the bathroom both times by herself (i.e. not dragged by me). Her eyes closed, she nodded, and then she said "I love you, Maman."

Did the Prize Box Method work? And is it right to use bribery to get good behavior out of your kid? I don't know. I don't know much, if anything, about any of this childraising business. But I do know that she was unusually cooperative tonight, and we had a wonderful, loving connection. I hope the same thing happens tomorrow.


cpt haddock said...

If it's any reassurance I certainly remember being bribed - perhaps not so much for good behavior as for doing homework, in Little Compton and in Joinville especially. And I also remember being more or less shut up in the room downstairs at Joinville (The window has bars in it. I cried.) until I had read the first chapter of Five On a Treasure Island.

Of course I was older than four at the time. I don't really remember much of being four. (Just vaguely I remember one birthday party on Arlington when I got sent to my room, I think for not wanting to share my new toys with the other kids. I kind of remember being a jerk. I also remember it being acutely embarrassing to be punished in front of my peers.) I do remember You being four and L., of course. I'm pretty sure we weren't any of us angels. As to what motivated us to behave or misbehave, I'm trying to think and, frankly, drawing a blank.

M. remembers drawing on the wall at her Grandmother's and, upon being bawled out by K. claiming that her ears hurt, until - once underway towards the doctor, her ears suddenly got better. When asked what motivated her to draw or not draw on the walls she claims that there never was a conscious decision either way. She also says that perhaps the most important element in terms of her behavior and vis a vis her relation with K. was that both of them should have a way to save face.

isabel said...

Interesting...yes, I think that providing an "out," or a way to save face, is important too, because the alternative (being made out to be perpetually a bad kid) is pretty insupportable. Of course we all misbehaved, and actually, don't our misbehaviors seem kind of cute and sweet now?! Aww, we were all so cute...Thanks for your comment/support, Capitaine Haddock! (Y Mika aussi, bien sur)

grand'prout said...

Welcome to the CPC. The Club of Clueless Parents. All you have to do to become a member is stand up and say, "Hi, my name is ___. I am a parent. And I am clueless."

This is a wonderful post! Funny, perceptive, and very moving.

Post a Comment