For the past five years I have been attempting to stay carefully balanced in the center of a parental seesaw. On one seat rests my children's independence and creativity -- this side is strong and heartily managing its position. On the opposite side sits obedience and respect for authority, which is desperately attempting to gain momentum. I teeter in the middle, trying to keep both harmoniously balanced, not wanting either to fall.
My toddler is constantly testing the seesaw's equilibrium point by forcefully jumping on independence's seat and refusing to budge. When she does this I sometimes feel the need to creep in the opposite direction, inching my way towards respect.
Like many toddlers, my 2-and-a-half-year-old has a favorite outfit that, given her druthers, she would wear morning, noon and night. For Maisy it is a pair of pink zip-up pajamas covered in rainbow polka dots. She affectionately dubbed these her "pink candy pajamas" and whenever she dons them she never fails to offer anyone in the vicinity the "candy" of her choice.
These particular pajamas are a good six months too small. When we bought the pajamas they were footed, but the feet are long gone and they now end at her mid-calf. And the child adores every inch of them. (She bounces happily on the seat of creativity and independence.)
This morning while eating breakfast the messy eater dribbled milk and maple syrup down the front of the treasured pj's. Maisy looked up at me from the kiddie table, her eyes brimming with tears, and said, "They're dirty! Bwah! You need to wash them. I don't like Elana!" (A more accurate transcript would be: "Der durty! Bwahhhhhhhhhhh! You need to wass dem. I don't wike Awana!")
Not one easily fazed by tantrums, I silently handed the tot a kitchen towel and finished the breakfast dishes. Maisy cleaned (and I use the term loosely) her pajamas, and then made the appropriate decision to change her clothes. Crisis averted!
Unfortunately, the irrational toddler assumed that I would immediately adhere to her laundry demands and that the pajamas would be immediately washed and dried within the next few minutes.
"Are my candy pajamas clean now? Can I wear them?" she asked.
"Sorry sweetie, I haven't done the laundry yet, but they will be ready for you at bedtime," I responded.
"But I need them right now."
"No Maisy, they are dirty." (I shuffle closer to obedience's seat.)
It is at this point that the toddler transformed from the sweet child I once played Peek-a-Boo and rocked to sleep to what I can only imagine mirrors a meth addict detoxing. She ran around the house with such fervor that she drained the energy from every other breathing thing in the room -- flies ceased buzzing and plants wilted.
As foamy bubbles of spit oozed from the corners of her mouth and wails of despair echoed down the hallway, she stomped down the stairs, into the garage, opened the washer, and reappeared with her dirty pajamas. "I want to wear them! Put them on me now," she bellowed. I alternated between patiently ignoring her demands and placing her in time-out to regroup (for me, that is; I needed time to regroup and search for a few more ounces of patience). This cycle continued for another twenty minutes until I finally hid the offending outfit in the top shelf of my closet and closed the bedroom door. (I am now applying all of my weight on the seat of respect for authority and obedience.)
By the time the tantrum had been going on for nearly forty minutes I began to question my stance. Was it really that important to me that Maisy not wear these particular pj's? Sure, they were a bit dirty, but did I care enough to spend almost an hour arguing this with an unreasonable toddler? Had the point of the fight become lost and were we now locked in a battle of wills? (We are now both unwilling to budge from our opposite positions on the seesaw.)
As a parent, I battle daily with the struggle between choosing the battles I want/need to fight and sending a clear message about who is in charge. For the most part, I allow my girls to exert control over a large portion of their environment. Still, at some point I would like my children to do as I say, because I say it.
When I lamented to another local playground mother about this struggle, she replied, "Well, do you do what somebody tells you to do without issue?" After honestly pondering her question, I decided that even though I do not take orders without question, I am also not three years old and lacking the ability to reason. My children, on the other hand...
And, even with all of my new-agey parenting beliefs, I think that this need is more than ok, I think that this is necessary. When the modern parenting movement calls for "gentle discipline" (treating children as though they are partners in the relationship and cultivating a mutual respect), will these children ever be taught to listen to authority?
I want my children to be creative, independent, free thinkers and I want them to respect the authority around them. Finding this balance is proving more difficult than I first imagined that infamous day I peed on a stick. Every single day since first becoming a mother, I struggle to achieve this equilibrium. And I imagine that I will continue this ride on the seesaw for the foreseeable future.
Today, I was pretty sure that the whole clothing debacle was going to be a repeat when Maisy adamantly requested to wear her spaghetti sauce stained purple dress from the night before. After my initial response of "It's too dirty" failed to garner a different reaction than the previous day, I reminded myself of the notorious Albert Einstein quote, "Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results."
Instead, I picked up her current favorite stuffed animal, Mr. Bunny, and asked him what dress he wanted Maisy to wear. "Purple Hearts!" Mr. Bunny answered. And the toddler, so deeply trusting in the advice of her toys, agreed. (The seesaw may not be balanced, but we are now teetering evenly in both directions.)