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Lessons From Our Children

Little Snow Man, originally uploaded by elefanterosado.

A temperature of 106°F would be enough to lay most adults out flat in a miasma of outright misery. But for a child, such a dangerously high fever is beyond excruciating. And it amounts to more than just snatching the wind from their sails: it eradicates the wind entirely. Not to mention the sailboat and blue sky.

By virtue of their wondrously innate knack for living within their inner bodies, children will generally bounce back from malaise intact. Unlike most adults, they are capable of returning to the fullest expression of their inherent selves when the clock is wiped free of physical time. And if they decide to return to the maze of arbitrarily ascribed rules and social moors dictated by their parents, it will be at an appropriate juncture known only to them. It is not for we adults—seasoned veterans of the world, of inflexible schedules and rigmaroles—to decide when, precisely, that time will be.

I learned this lesson last week via the school of very hard knocks as I attempted (by turns) to coax, nag, bribe and finally shout my son into a neat package of improved social behavior. After all, I felt entitled. Entitled, I reasoned, because he had put me through a wretchedly miserable week of insubordination and a never-ending barrage of the dreaded word “no.”

The gall of an obstreperous three year old who has figured out how to hold and wield power will soon stick—like a stubbornly atrophied thorn—into the side of a parent foolish enough to brag of his or her patience with a self-congratulatory pat on the back. Yet this is exactly what my husband and I did as we dug deep to unearth the reasons surrounding the recent egregious behavior of our small progeny.

Case in point: Several days ago I returned from a highly unsuccessful outing to the local CO-OP, in which my son had had not only one, but two full-out, please-call-an-exorcist NOW screaming matches on the floor (in the walking paths of hapless passers-by), which tried my already slim reed of patience beyond the breaking point.

“I will NEVER, REPEAT NEVER, take HIM to the CO-OP, EVER AGAIN! And I DO mean NEVER!!” I screamed across the front lawn at my husband, who looked down upon us with a mouth full of nails and an armload of boards.

The onerous and ongoing job of clapboarding our house (as part of our home owner policy’s “We Will Drop Your Policy If You Don’t Do This” mandate) had left him tired, crabby and full of mid-winter angst. The shrill refrains of his strident wife, coupled by the shrieking protests of his son were causing his head to pound with a powerfully treacherous headache. (Not a good thing at all when you’re high on a ladder and swinging a heavy hammer.)

By evening things had escalated to the point that the three of us were embroiled in an all-out war of the wills. The usual sides were drawn (and unfairly so): parents against child. With our voice boxes straining to their highest octaves we strove unmercifully to divide and conquer; now removing a favorite train set from his room, now pincering and rendering immobile his flailing arms and legs as he attempted to retaliate by screaming, biting and kicking us.

“You must apologize to mummy and daddy!” we ordered (with heavily laid-on Draconian zeal).

“Noooooo!” He wailed, his little face screwed up in abject misery. “Get me out of here!”

“I’m sorry for my behavior, mummy and daddy!” we drilled him.

He wouldn’t give in. Indeed, the more we insisted, demanded and punished, the more he dug his heels in.

In the war of the wiles with a three-year-old, parents are bound to be the losers. And rightfully so. Kids have a keen (if developing) sense of justice. Woe to the interloper who trespasses upon it.

Of course, we (that is, we parents) felt horribly wronged and ill-used.

Until I happened to have a phone conversation with my neighbor, in which I mentioned the recent and terrible behavior of my son. My neighbor is a fifty something speech pathologist with years of experience with kids. And she just happens to think my son is pretty cool.

“Maybe,” she suggested impartially, “he’s picking up on all the fear you and T were emanating while he was in the hospital with that bad fever.”

Touché.

Indeed, the fear we had tried so carefully to bundle and trundle had still managed to rear its ugly green head. The primal Pandora’s box of uncensored adult emotion, when released upon an unsuspecting child, is nothing less than hell with the flames cranked somewhere past high. And to tether demands and threats to the coat tails of those demons is no different from actually asking your child for the worst possible behavior, only to become irrationally pissed off when that’s exactly what you get.

Two days ago I rode one of my two horses down the road for the first time in many weeks. Like fat, good behavior in horses tends to hibernate in the winter. And J, though preternaturally good-natured, has a few well-developed trigger points. For instance: She doesn’t like sudden sounds that aren’t tied to an object within her line of vision, and (like most of us) she doesn’t like being rushed at by rabid dogs. So when a ferocious-looking Rotweiler mix came racing toward us with fangs a-snarling, I visualized the sign of the cross over my body and readied myself to go down hard. As the dog skittered toward us, I became acutely aware of the hot rush of fear that shot through me. It felt like a series of electric ribbons jolting through my body. Yet as I yelled “Go home! Go home!” at the determined mongrel something miraculous happened: he actually obeyed. And J, who had in reality not reacted at all (either to the dog or the fearful creature on her back), calmly cocked an ear back toward me as if to say: “Get a grip on yourself, will you I? I had it covered.”

Whenever I allow that same sensation of fear to re enter my body, I realize how contagious an emotion it is. More to the point: I realize that the only things I’d been modeling for my son in the days following his illness were my own feelings of fear and discomfort. No wonder he had shrugged off my demands like an old, itchy wool sweater. He didn’t see much in me worth aping.

The night before last I gave him a bath and vowed to myself that I’d given my swan song as dictator-parent. My son and I laughed and talked, cuddled and snuggled. I thanked him for his all of his good efforts. Thanked him for showing me a better way. And told him he was my superstar.

“You’re my superstar too, mummy,” he said.

Out of the mouths of babes.

© All rights reserved by Mary Alden-Allard. Content may not be reprinted except by express written permission of the author.