I was sitting down to an early dinner with a friend much older than I. I was in my teens, and she had 2 children: an 8-year old boy and a 2-year old girl. It had been a few weeks since we’d met, but I knew that her major parenting project at that time was to toilet-train her daughter.
The girl, like any other 2-year old, was an enchanting bundle of mischief. (My friend was so taken with her daughter that she tended to ignore her son, who then had neither the social skills nor the personal charisma to help him with his relationships.) As a result, she had never yet been scolded or taken to task for anything she’d said or done. No matter what the transgression, a twinkle from her eyes, a slant of her lips, a cajoling lilt in her voice, and her mother turned to mush.
As we sat around the dinner table, I noticed my friend was pale with exhaustion. She was, in fact, regaling us with how she was pulling the weight of 2 workers at the office because of a colleague being unwell while a huge product launch was planned for the subsequent week. As her list of woes drew to a close, her daughter seated next to her turned and said brightly, “Mama, I have to go pee.”
The girl was beaming, delighted, expecting to be praised by her mom for giving notice so she could be taken to the toilet, instead of soiling her diaper.
My friend looked at her daughter and snapped, “Well, get off your chair and pee in my mouth. There!” as she held her mouth open.
All our mouths fell open. The girl couldn’t have looked more shocked if someone had hit her, the boy couldn’t believe that his mother had something to her darling daughter that was less than sweetness and light, I couldn’t believe my friend had said something like that, and her husband – well, I don’t know what he thought, but he was agape too.
He was also the first one to recover. “Er, why don’t I take you to the toilet?” as he matched the action to the words. There was complete silence at the table. We were frozen. When the father and daughter rejoined us, he urged his children to eat, and we all began moving cutlery around on our plates.
In a while, hunger reasserted itself and the meal was consumed. As the chairs scraped the floor, I offered to make coffee. When I emerged with the coffee, the children were playing in their room while the adults were in the garden, watching the sun set. We drank our coffee, and my friend seemed to have recovered her equilibrium. The incident at dinner was not mentioned.
The following week, she called me. “Something’s been bothering me. I think what I said was wrong, but it was perfectly justified given how aggravated I was because of all the pressure… What do you think?”
I told her she should talk to her daughter about it. Even though the child was only 2, she should explain why she’d acted as she had. It would help the girl make sense of things. It would help her understand that sometimes people say and do things which are out of sync with who they are. It would help the child understand what happened, and make her peace with it. I urged my friend as best I could.
My friend disagreed – mainly on 2 counts:
1. The child was only 2 – there was no way to explain something so complicated to her. It would involve too much explaining – work pressure, losing one’s temper, frayed nerves…
2. She (my friend) was the Mom, and as such, she was the authority. If she explained the incident to her daughter, it would seem like an apology for what happened, and as the mother, she shouldn’t have to apologize. (!) “But you yourself feel you made a mistake,” I cried in disbelief. “Still, I don’t want her to think that every time I make a mistake I should explain or apologize. How will she learn to respect my authority? How will she learn to obey me?”
I met the children a few days after this conversation. The girl was wary, watching her mother. Even at 2, her natural, impulsive nature had suffered a check. With everyone else, she followed her impulses. So if she raised a hand at her brother, the hand would hit him unchecked and only then come to rest beside her. When she wanted a second, not-allowed helping of dessert, she would drum her fists on the table, stamp her feet and raise her voice with her dad and me and her grandparents.
But with her mother, things were different. She was different: she would often start saying (or doing) something – only to stop, and then either edit it before speaking, or fall silent.
A few months later, my friend reminded me of the incident at the dinner table, and said, “I’m glad I didn’t explain the incident to my daughter. Have you noticed that she’s become much better behaved? She’s less impulsive; she weighs her words and actions. Earlier, she was all over me all the time, but she’s become a lot more considerate since then. It might be a natural result of growing up, but whatever it is, I’m glad of it.”
As a teen, I didn’t have the words or the finesse to tell my friend what I really thought. That instead of becoming more considerate, her daughter had become more watchful, more cautious, but only around her mother. It was only her mother she was so circumspect with; as if she didn’t trust that lady’s reactions. With everyone else, she was her unadulterated self. Around her mother, she walked on eggshells (or its equivalent for an exuberant 2-year old).
In the 20+ years since then, the girl has learnt to better disguise her reactions around her mother. She herself has never spoken to me of that incident. But her brother and dad have. She is still living the reality of one momentary lapse, a tiny, off-the-wall comment made by her mother under extreme stress.
An incident that was not explained.
When I look back at this entire episode, what strikes me is that instead of enforcing her authority (!) as a mother, all that my friend achieved was to insert a wedge of mistrust between herself and her child. She herself failed to recognize what had happened, while it had colored all the years of her child’s life.
If obedience is important to you as a parent, and you want your authority to be recognized by your child, explaining yourself is the best way to achieve it.
It is only when your child understands why you insist upon certain things and forbid certain others that he is most likely to ‘obey’ you. And he will understand only if you explain to him – every gory detail. Let him absorb your explanation. He might have questions that need clarification. “Tell me again why…” “What do you mean by…?” “What does … have to do with …?” Clarify. Explain. Give details.
Obedience is not very important to me as a parent – probably because there are very few things I insist on, and I’m open to discussion on pretty much everything else. But still, I explain. To show my child that there are ways of thinking which differ from hers, but are still valid. To show her that different doesn’t mean ‘wrong’ or ‘evil’ or condemnable. To give her a wider range of options from which to choose a response to future events. To help her understand why sometimes ‘good’ people do ‘bad’ things, or ‘bad’ things happen to ‘good’ people, and so on.
You are so patient with people at work, with strangers. Why not with your child, whom you profess to love the most?
Why can’t you take the time, summon up the patience and interest to help him understand a few things? If you do, you will find your child has it easier than most in his journey to becoming an adult.
It is no less rewarding for you as a parent, for it cements your relationship with your child. 🙂