The week my husband was out of town my almost three year old son and my new born daughter and I weathered a hurricane-turned-tropical-storm, having the drunk who lives on our block harass us one dark night by banging on and yelling through our living room windows, and an out of the blue request for a brief TV appearance. All this, I took in as if it was par for the course, just the normal run of things when my husband left town – never mind that I was still a wee bit tired and recovering from giving birth to the daughter who still fits in the sling I wear her in. But it’s the morning when my son wakes up before he’s ready to at 6:45 am that made me think I was going to lose my mind, that made me question myself and think I was a terrible mother, and that made me put myself in time out so I could think through and figure out the appropriate course of action.
When my son wakes up after a good night’s sleep, he’s cheerful, independent, and playful. He thinks everything is exciting and a game. When my son has woken up before he should have, for reasons unbeknownst to all of us, he’s indecisive, impish and well, there’s just lots of crying, simply because he’s tired.
Like many mothers, I want to give my child everything his heart desires, and if he can’t have it or if I can’t give it to him, well, I want him to at least feel like he can ask, and I do explain when he can’t have something. And I do often say when he’s in such foul moods that I will give him anything he wants but he just has to tell me what it is. Except when he’s in that too-tired-still-needs-to-be-asleep mood, he can’t tell me what it is.
His request for breakfast goes something along the lines of:
“I want blue berries.”
“No. I don’t want blue berries.”
“I want a spoon.”
“No. I don’t want a spoon.”
And in between all of it is crying and screaming. I think some would describe it as a temper tantrum. A really good one. Except the cause is unknown to all except him. I just happen to suspect it’s because he’s tired.
When I was a child and something made me cry, my mother uttered the line that many mothers of her generation did: “Stop or I’ll give you something to cry about.” This never made sense to me as a child. I swear I remember thinking, “But I’m already crying, thanks. I don’t need any further help from you.” I think my mother was attempting to make me stop crying, which is part of why it doesn’t make sense. Such a sentence suggests that the child is crying for no reason, except that children don’t cry for no reason. Just because we as parents don’t know the reason, or the child is unable to tell us the reason doesn’t mean they don’t have one. It infers that even if the child has a reason, the parent considers it invalid or unworthy of tears.
Needless to say, I hated it when my mother said this line to me, and when I was teenager I often made lists of the things I promised I would never do to my children. At the top of this list: washing a child’s mouth out with soap and uttering this famous line.
Watching my son crying and asking for something only to refuse it, I thought, this is one of those moments that my mother – if she were here – would indeed say, “Stop, or I’ll give you something to cry about.” Or she’d want to, and bite her tongue, knowing I don’t believe in corporal punishment or really, any kind of punishment. And, I can get how frustrating it must have been for my mother in such moments, simply because it is frustrating, when your child is endlessly crying and frustrated and screaming when you give him what he asks for.
I walked out of the room to give myself a moment. (Just because I don’t see the sense in time outs for children doesn’t mean I don’t regularly take them myself.) On my living room bookshelf are half a dozen of the child rearing books I have read and refer to: You Are Your Child’s First Teacher, my favorite, Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves and so on. On my refrigerator are clippings from parenting articles, so I have reminders of how to stay rational in such situations. Despite all my reading and research, I felt completely inept at the moment. Until my eye falls on a quote from one of the articles, “When you can ask nicely, Mommy will be ready to listen.”
It wasn’t an exact fit for the situation, but close enough. I adapted it, and said calmly, “I will give you whatever you want, when you can ask nicely.”
His immediate response, of course, was to hit, kick, open the fridge and slam it shut. But I knew I couldn’t take it personally. I just repeated what I had said, with the added, we don’t kick or hit or slam doors.
I had to repeat myself I don’t know how many times. The phase became a mantra that for whatever reason removed the anger from both of us and the situation.
Finally, my son hugged my legs, looked up at me and said through his tears, “I want a nap.”
“I thought so.” I said. “Let’s go back to bed.” So we went back to bed. He didn’t sleep, but he curled up and rested his head on my shoulder, while his sister continued sleeping on the other side of me, and we read the latest installment of books from the library.
Half an hour later, my playful, excited, game loving independent almost three year old, sat up as if he was now ready to start the day.
Thank Heavens, I thought, for the morning re-start. And thank heavens I didn’t give him something to cry about.