January 23, 2012

If Then

I don’t know if it’s my stubbornness, H’s stubbornness, the fact that she’s two, or perhaps I have seriously missed the parenting boat, but I feel like we are the only pair that can fight for going on 40 minutes now over asking her to sit on the potty before we turn on the TV.

She screams, “Sesame Street!” I say calmly, “You need to sit on the potty first.” Repeat.

Clearly not my kid. But you get the idea.

This fight is not and never was (really) about going to the bathroom. It’s about me asking her to do something and her doing it. The tantrum would have been the same if I’d asked her to wash her hands before we ate and she refused. It is far easier for me to just give up and let her watch Sesame Street. But, and here perhaps I’m overstating, I feel like that is the road to a spoiled child. If she screams and I give in, aren’t I teaching her that screaming is an effective method of getting her way?

Time has now past, and it’s past my bedtime, but I’m getting this down on paper anyway. It took an hour and five minutes before she sat on the potty. There was hitting; there was time out; there was crying; there were hugs. At no point did she finally relent. You know what happened? She got hungry. She calmed down enough to sit on my lap and recover slightly (while I started typing this actually), and she got hungry. We decided on a smoothie. I made her the smoothie and as she sucked down those first fruity, frosty sips, I stuck her ass on the pot. Shockingly, she did in fact have to pee. Funny, it had only been four hours since she last went.

Did I teach her that following Mom’s orders gets her what she wants? Probably not. Did I get my way? Yes. Was it fun? No. Will I be repeating this scenario in the near future, like tomorrow? Probably.

I’ve been surprised at how often I’ve struggled with deciding when I’m taking a stand for all that is good and pleasant and when I just get stuck in a bad situation and have dug myself a hole. I know that I am right in insisting that she wash her hands every single time she goes to the bathroom. Am I therefore also right in sometimes having to football hold her with one arm and wash writhing, protesting hands with the other? It’s happened. I’m not proud. But I know that she needs to wash. I know that it’s not negotiable, and I know that at some point, if I don’t make her wash, she’s going to put those hands in her or someone else’s (read mine) mouth. I console myself with the thought that at some point, she’ll decide it’s easier and faster to just wash her hands.

Some of you reading this may be surprised. “But Jamie,” you’re saying, “Your daughter is such a sweetheart.” And she is a sweetheart. She is also the single most stubborn person I’ve ever met. She’s always been this way. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve slapped clothes on a twisting, crying, screaming, banshee. Usually the only trigger is that I want to her to do something, like get changed, and she doesn’t want to do that thing.

A good friend once told me that as parents we have to say no an awful lot, so if we can say yes, if it’s not that big a deal, then why not? This has stuck with me, and there have been a number of interesting outfit and meal choices that have resulted. I strive to convince, connive, and only occasionally bribe her to do things my way. I much prefer for her to come along willingly. Before the meltdown in question, I had to play, “If you’re asleep, then I’ll just leave you here while I go to the store.” I got all the way to the garage door with my coat and purse before she “woke up.” Like a switch, she was ready to go. And that’s ok with me. A lot of the time, she plays along without the games. If every now and again I have to role play, fine.

This particular meltdown, however, was purely a struggle of wills. I’ve gotten into them with her before, obviously. I often find myself frustrated because does it really matter THAT much if she pees before Sesame Street? Probably not. But I always come back to the fact that it does matter, very much, that she do as I ask. This is even more important in light of the fact that I am often the only parent. It sounds horrible, but for all intents and purposes, this is a dictatorship, and I am Julius Caesar. When I’m the only one here, it’s a tenuous balance between letting things slide and letting behavior problems blossom.

For example, after the stress of the meltdown and the subsequent hour lag in TV watching, there really wasn’t time before bed to have a proper sit down dinner in the dining room. This is normally something I insist on. I can write an entirely separate post about the pros and cons of turning off Sesame Street at various points in the program and the subsequent level of tantrum that will result. Tonight, however, I was all tantrumed out, so we ate on the floor of the living room. If we eat 8 out of 10 dinners while Josh is gone in the dining room, I think we can spare the occasional “picnic.”

No matter how I try to balance it though, I just come back to the central question. Am I right to enforce rules that an adult would see as ultimately trivial for the sake of maintaining dominance? Am I sending the message that Mom is the boss? Or am I creating an adversarial relationship that will only lead to more tantrums? Or am I over-analyzing normal two-year-old behavior?

I’m reaching out to you, dear reader. I’m hoping that perhaps you’ve been there. Or perhaps you are there right now. Where do you draw the line? When is it ok to make a stand? When do you find yourself becoming ridiculous? How do you gracefully back out?

And when does the logic of, “If you’d done it when I asked, we’d already be watching Elmo’s World,” kick in?


  1. 1. You are a great mom, and H is a very, very normal kid.
    2. Your friend who said the thing about saying yes to things that don't really matter to save the nos for when they are absolutely necessary is brilliant.
    3. This stage of parenting SUCKS ASS. There were a few times that Will's stand-offs lasted much longer than an hour. Emphasis on a few times--the bad ones only happened a few times before he was smart enough to figure out that it wasn't working for him. He screamed, he kicked, he threw toys, he cried until he made himself throw up, and you know what? I hated every minute of it because I just wanted to scream "YOU ARE MAKING THIS SO MUCH HARDER ON YOURSELF THAN IT NEEDS TO BE!" (See #4 for a caveat.)
    4. Don't beat yourself up if she "wins" every now and then. Sometimes you get so effing tired, you lose one. And that's okay. One time of having dinner on the living room floor is not going to reverse the nine times of consistent dinners at the dining room table that you've put in place.
    5. H is smart. Her reasoning will kick in (if I were to guess) earlier than the average bear, but don't think that reaching that logic stage is the end of the problems. Once they have logic, they argue. New problems.
    6. I know it's hard to see it at the end of a day like today, so when you find yourself thinking, "I JUST WASTED AN HOUR OF MY LIFE ARGUING WITH A TWO-YEAR-OLD," add this (my mantra through all of age 3 with Will): Tomorrow will be better. And I am the parent. Tomorrow will be better and I am the parent.
    7. One thing that worked for us was separating him. I would put him in his crib and then on his bed when he got older. I'd shut the door, and I would go to the other end of the house to have my own temper tantrum. Sometimes the power struggle reaches a stalemate, and they feel like they are in control as long as you are giving them any kind of attention. Once he was separated for awhile (number of minutes=age of child), I was usually able to go back in and say, "Are you ready to ______?" Sometimes it took three or four or five times of shutting the door, waiting, and then trying again. I found that taking away the physical struggle helped him calm down, and even in the times that he didn't calm down, I wasn't holding him while he cried and thrashed and screamed. And of course, one they are calm, hugs and kisses are the kind of physical touch they are craving anyway.
    8. Love you.

  2. I fight these same battles daily too. A lot of times it involves sitting on the potty too. I'm usually ok with just walking away when the tantrum ensues...just leaving her in a room where I'm comfortable that she's alone and pretending like I don't hear a thing. I don't come back until the tantrum stops. Lately, I've been trying to find ways to make her think the things I need her to do are her idea...or giving her 2 or 3 choices, all of which are acceptable to me, but she feels like she is in charge if she makes the ultimate decision...or even letting her decide the order of operations, like say, we need to go somewhere and I'll ask do you want to put your shoes on first or your coat? This has really seemed to help a lot- giving the illusion of control and a little freedom for miss independent.

  3. I agree with everything Leia and Karen said. Going to the bathroom before watching Sesame Street is a must in this house too - there's something about the mindlessness of (even educational) tv that causes my children to release the contents of their bladder if they don't GO before it starts. So, in this situation, I used to say/still say, "Let's go to the potty and then we'll watch Sesame St." And if they say, "NOOOOOO!" I shrug my shoulders and say, "Let me know when you're ready to go to the potty and watch Sesame St." And then I walk away. If they throw a tantrum, I pretend I can't hear. They usually change their mind quickly. W is my extremely stubborn child. I mean EXTREMELY stubborn. We had a battle this morning because I wanted him to get ready for school, and he didn't want to. I guess it was more of a war, since we had battle 1 - clean up the jammies you pulled out of your drawer, 2 - put dirty clothes in laundry, 3 - brush teeth, 4 - pee in potty, 5 - put on undies, 6 - stand here and let me help you get dressed. In the case of Sesame St, if we don't get to watch because he won't go to the potty, well then, his loss. But if we don't get to school on time (or at all), it's MY loss, so obviously the situation is a little different. This morning I ended up putting him in timeout in his room for a few minutes in the middle of battle 3. It helped me take a breath and remember I was the adult (I can be calm!!), and he was completely willing to brush his teeth when he came out (his turn, then mine). Of course he left before he went to the potty, was mad about having to come back, and then cried and tried to tell me he couldn't put on his undies, but I had had a short break, so I was better equipped to walk away and come back when he was ready for me. (And he also had a sweet brother to coach him through it.) We all survived and got to school on time. I also like to give them choices - even, "Do you want to go to the potty now or in 2 minutes?" "Should we leave the park in 2 min or 5 min?" works well for us. Have you read Love & Logic for Early Childhood? I really like a lot of that book. Sorry this was so long! You are an awesome mom and H is a fantastic little girl. You guys will get through this!


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