Posted by: Michelle Mitton | July 7, 2008

Picking My Battles

Roasting Marshmallows in AlaskaYou’re going to think this blog has descended to new lows when I tell you what happened the other day. Any illusion of classy parenting will disappear when you hear the story of the Battle of the Hot Dog (though it has a point I promise, stick with me here).

We had been invited to my sister’s place for dessert a couple weeks ago–s’mores in fact, to be roasted over the gas fireplace on her back deck. We had sat down with our marshmallow sticks around the fake fire when Melissa said that things had been rather rushed at their place and they hadn’t had dinner yet, did we mind if they roasted some hot dogs for themselves as well?

This may seem odd but hey, we’re all family and I was perfectly fine with them getting dinner since they were so nice as to have invited us into their home. However (and please tell me my kids aren’t the only ones who do this) at the mention of “hot dogs” Grace’s ears perked up and while Melissa was getting the dogs Grace signaled to me that she wanted a hot dog.

I shook my head and Grace–though slightly disappointed–shrugged it off. But that wasn’t enough for Spencer.

Melissa came back with the hot dogs and Spencer said loudly to Melissa, “Can I have a hot dog?”

Now my sister wouldn’t say no to my kids even if she wanted to–she’s just too nice–and like the perfect hostess she said, “Sure, you can have one” but I knew what would happen. I knew.

Spencer would want one, then Grace, David and Lillian and they would descend like locust on a field of grain to wipe out any and all food for a three mile perimeter, guaranteed. As soon as they started into the hot dogs they would eat and eat and eat until they exploded in a fiery hot dog ball of nitrites which, oddly enough, was quite unappealing to me right then.

There weren’t enough hot dogs to feed a crowd of 10 and even if there were my kids had already had dinner–a large dinner in fact–with just enough room left for dessert, which was why we were there. I’d already told Grace no and Spencer had heard my answer but he’d waited to ask in front of Melissa because he knew she’d say yes which would make me give in.

So I said no. Just like that. But did that satisfy my boy? Nope, that just released the hounds and he asked in a higher voice with a tinge of whine to it “Why not?”

He should have known better than to mess with me at that time of the evening when I’m at my crabbiest added to the fact that I’d been without Andrew for some time while he’d been out of town on business and when I play single mom I get mean. I told him no again but still that didn’t stop him.

After he’d asked the third time my sister, trying to be nice and to please Spencer said, “Really, it’s okay–he can have one” but by that time it wasn’t okay. At that point we were no longer talking about a stupid hot dog we had a full-blown issue on our hands and I had to decide how I was going to deal with it.

It wasn’t just a matter of him having or not having a dumb dog suddenly it was a matter of him trying to manipulate me. How? Well he knew he’d get a better chance if he asked loudly and in front of his aunt. He knew I’d already said no to Grace but decided to batter me into submission by asking over and over. He knew he’d already had dinner and didn’t need or want a hot dog but it sounded good. He knew he was being rude in someone else’s home (he has been taught better) but wanted his hot dog more than he cared about courtesy.

Now don’t get me wrong, the kid’s only 11 1/2 so I don’t necessarily expect Miss Manners from him but those are the moments when I just hate having to be “the Bad Guy.” Andrew wasn’t there to back me up and the other adults in the room were trying to be nice by encouraging leniency and it was me against my son to see who was going to win this little battle.

I have to admit that if I’d been in public among strangers I might have given in (nothing like feeling the whole supermarket is staring at you as you battle a screaming toddler is there?) just for the sake of peace but he forgot one huge point: that I didn’t particularly care what my sisters thought of my parenting practices. If they thought I was the meanest mom in the world I’d still be able to sleep at night and this major tactical error cost him the day.

After he’d whined loudly for the hot dog the fourth time I finally said nicely and with a touch of scary-quiet to my voice: “Okay Spencer. You want to drag this out here? We’ll take care of it here. You can’t have the hot dog. You’ve already heard me say no two times more than I should have had to, you’ve already had dinner, you’re not going to eat theirs and if I hear another word I’m going to prove how absolutely horrid I can be by grounding your little hiney into next week.” Or something like that.

That shut him up and quietly, quickly the war was over and I’d won. My pre-teen boy had learned that extortion wasn’t going to work–that I don’t negotiate with terrorists and that’s that.

Now I’m going to finish by contrasting that with another story from my early motherhood days when Grace was only 2. She was at the dinner table (why do all our traumas seem to revolve around food?) and we were finished with our meal but she didn’t want to drink her small glass of milk.

I was ready to do dishes and didn’t want to wait around so I tried to get her to hurry up and drink her glass. I tried coaxing and ordering but still she wouldn’t drink it and suddenly in my mind I visualized myself at war against this toddler who was challenging my authority. Embarrassing to admit I know but deep down that’s how I probably viewed it because I dug in and got serious. She was going to drink that milk and learn that there were rules at the dinner table, darn it!

We made her sit there for nearly an hour (please don’t call social services) but she never drank the milk. I finally gave up, exhausted and drained and wondering if I was doomed to raise future Hells Angels.

I guess the whole point I’m trying to make is that I think (and I’m saying “think” here, I don’t know for sure) that parenthood is a lot about learning which battles to pick. My children are individuals with their own thoughts, motives, reasons and urges, I wouldn’t want them to be little clones of me or little goose-steppers obeying out of fear or lack of thought. However children must learn what’s right and wrong and where the boundaries are to function in society and become good and decent people. They must learn to obey rules.

I can’t give up my role as mother by letting them do whatever they want, I have to set those boundaries but when they disobey when it is important to step in and correct the course? Knowing when it’s appropriate to step in and say “This is what must be done” and knowing when a divergence of opinion is okay–it may even be healthy–can be tricky. And if that weren’t tricky enough to figure out add to that that each child is unique and will need a new set of parenting techniques altogether. I could tell Grace that she wasn’t to eat their hot dogs and she was fine but the same thing didn’t work for Spencer and probably would be different for David and Lillian. It’s like having to come up four separate strategies to handle the same problem but from different angles. I’m four moms wrapped into one!

Obviously with my story about Grace as a toddler I was way off in both my reasons for wanting her to obey and my methods. It didn’t take me long to realize that not drinking a glass of milk wasn’t a big deal–that toddlers do that kind of thing all the time and it isn’t the end of the world and that there were better ways to handle it. I should never have picked that fight.

However, I stand by how I handled the Spencer issue with the hot dogs. Why? Well because there are critical battles that have to be fought and if they aren’t fought they’ll be won by by default–and it won’t be by the parents. When I hand out a punishment or consequence I have to follow through because if my kids discover that I can be worn down into giving in they’ll remember that lesson forever and the punishments they earn in the future will be fictional. If our family has boundaries and standards they’re expected to live but I don’t enforce them (including for myself) then the standards are meaningless.

Now the hot dog story is pretty ridiculous but it kind of symbolizes the constant testing that goes on with kids–they’re always looking for a loop hole, for an edge and part of being a good parent is knowing when that’s not a big deal, to let them test things out because they’re just learning and growing, and when it’s critical to their characters to stand firm and not budge. I don’t know that I’ve got it down yet but I figure I still have quite a few battles to go before I win the war.

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