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Who's in Charge? You or Your Kid?

02/10/2014 01:28 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2014

My 3-year old son, Eddie, has had a love affair with super heroes for more than a year now. Batman and Superman top the list. Whenever anyone asked him what he wanted for Christmas, he'd say, "BatmanZoopaman," as if it were one word. The fact that he meant any kind of doll, car, game, shirt, sticker or book related to BatmanZoopaman was implicit.

So it didn't surprise me that when I took him to a small circus at a local high school gymnasium, he looked right past the stage and the red, yellow and blue curtains, didn't even see the tightropes strung overhead or the huge stage lights indicating something important was about to happen, and ran right to the row of concession stands and shrieked, "Batman!"

"We haven't even sat down yet," I said, lugging a knapsack on my back and a food bag and diaper bag over each shoulder.

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"I want Batman, Mommy. Mommy, I want Batman," my son kept saying.

I wanted to first find the couple we were supposed to meet there. They had a daughter, Meara, who was just a little older than Eddie. But more, I wanted to find a seat so I could put down my coat and my gear. But I knew there was no point. Either I was going to get Batman immediately, or I was going to suffer an endless stream of "I want, I want" until the item of his desire was in his hands. I walked over to the nearest concession stand and bought an inflatable Batman. I also bought my son a popcorn, even though he didn't ask for it.

We walked over to the bleachers and quickly found our friends. Eddie and I sat down on a bench near them, but before long, he and Meara were running on the gym floor, playing in a valley created by a gap in the bleachers. Eddie was waving his Batman around, pretending he was flying, while Meara was swinging around a glow-in-the-dark sword.

Soon the gym lights went out, the stage lights went on, and the show began. There was a family that rode around on bicycles and unicycles, followed by a contortionist, a girl who could keep 20 hula hoops aloft as she wiggled her chest and hips, and a man covered in brown tubing that moved back and forth across the stage like a slinky.

As I watched the acts, I would glance over at my son, who seemed more interested in the glow-in-the-dark sword his friend, Meara, was holding. Just then, the lights went out and all the children who had glow-in-the-dark swords began waving them.

"Mommy, I want a sword," Eddie said.

"I already bought you a Batman," I said. "You can't have both."

"But I want a sword," he said.

"Listen, you could have had a sword or a Batman, and you wanted Batman," I said.

"I want a sword, Mommy. I don't want Batman," he said.

"You don't want Batman?"

"I want a sword," he said.

"You're telling me you don't want the Batman anymore?" I asked.

"I don't want Batman. I want a sword," he said.

I knew there would be no peace until I gave him what he wanted.

"Are you sure?" I asked.

"I want a sword, Mommy," he said.

I grabbed the Batman and walked back to the same concession stand from which I'd bought the Batman and, doll in hand, sheepishly asked the woman if she would exchange it for a sword. I thought I would have to explain why I had chosen so hastily and that I was sorry and wouldn't do it again, but she snatched the doll from my hand and replaced it with a glow stick, as if she'd done it before. I thought I might get some change, given that the Batman was $10 and clearly a much more sophisticated toy, but she didn't give me any, making me think, "Of course she was happy to switch the items. She made out on the deal." I walked back to my seat with the $10 glow stick.

My son's eyes lit up. He grabbed it from my hand.

"Thank you?" I said.

"Thank you, Mommy."

He began brandishing it and play fighting with Meara, and I knew I had made the right choice.

The gymnasium lights came back on, and there was a lengthy intermission, where some of the circus celebrities came out and members of the audience could have photos taken with them. Meara had her photo taken with two women who were scantily clad and what clothing they did have on was covered in feathers, making them seem more fitting for an act in Vegas than a small-town circus. Soon, the lights went out and the second act began.

About halfway through, a young boy walked by our row of bleachers carrying a Batman doll. My son turned to me and said, "I want Batman."

"Are you kidding me?" I asked.

"Mommy, I want Batman," he says, and leans in toward me and gives me a hug.

"Sorry, dude, you got a sword now," I said.

"But I want Batman," he said.

"Then you chose unwisely," I said.

I knew he didn't know what I meant, but he seemed to take it in for a moment. He then responded, "I want Batman."

"Nope," I said.

"Mommy," he said. "May I please have a Batman?" he says, using the phraseology I've been trying to get him to say. He was pulling out all the stops.

"Sorry," I said.

He began to cry.

"Oh. My. God," I said.

I imagined going back to the woman at the concession stand and asking her if she would give me the Batman back and her laughing at me. I then imagined a bird's eye view of myself, where my son is pulling me by the nose first one way, and then the other, and then back again. I simply could not give in. This was not a behavior I wanted to reinforce. Who was in charge here, anyway?

"No!" I said.

It only made him cry harder. Now his nose was starting to run.

I turned to my friends who were seated next to us.

"Okay, reality check. What would you do?" I asked them.

"Um, I would get him the Batman," the husband said quietly, so my son couldn't hear. I turned to his wife. She nodded her head in agreement.

"Dammit," I said. Oddly, it was actually what I wanted to hear. I hated to see my son cry, and I wanted to give him what he wanted, not because it would make him stop crying but because it would make him happy, if only for a moment.

I walked back to the woman at the concession and asked if I could have the Batman back. She made the exchange without saying a word.

As I walked back to our seats, I could see my son's eyes light up, and I knew I had made the right decision. So he chose unwisely, I thought. I've made plenty of bad decisions. I couldn't help but fear I was opening up some door that would now be hard to close, that I'd shown him some sign of weakness that he could now exploit. But he was smiling now, and that made me smile.

As we watched the remainder of the circus, my son held the Batman doll on his lap like it was a child. When the lights came on, he turned the doll around to face us. The two of us sat for a moment, staring at the doll. It was a funny looking Batman, with a flat face and squinty eyes.

My son looked up at me and said, "I'm afraid of Batman."

I pretended not to hear him.

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