I believe in picking your battles. As a teacher, and later, when I was in private practice as a psychologist, I used to dispense this advice regularly. You have to decide what is most important to you, and then stick to your guns when it comes to those things. The other stuff you can let slide.
But as with most parenting issues, it is one thing to be childless and degreed. It’s another thing to be the parent whose child is screeching in a restaurant because she wants out of the high chair, or throwing her food on the floor because she doesn’t want to eat it, or is trying to walk out of the library with a monkey she lifted from the lost and found and who clings to said monkey and screams “Share! SHARE!” when you gently encourage her to put it back.
The public battles are, perhaps, the most difficult to deal with because you have the humiliation factor. And they know it.
So how does one pick one’s battles? How does one decide what’s most important? What gets “ignored” and what gets a “no” and what gets a “time out?” As a behaviorist, it used to be my job to analyze what was motivating the behavior, identify the antecedent and the consequence, and think about how to manipulate either of these to change the behavior. In other words, I had the luxury of time and brain space to think through these issues. But, today, when groggy from lack of sleep and before caffination has taken place I am wrestling my child down to the ground to remove her 20-lb soggy diaper, and she’s screaming “Babies, BABIES!” (translation, “Mother, I won’t let you change my diaper unless I can watch video clips of myself on your Treo.”) do I show her the videos so she’ll lie still for the 2 minutes it will take to change her or do I decide that diaper changes are a fact of life and she shouldn’t get a reinforcer for something she should just naturally do.
Yes, pity me. I really do think about these things.
I choose not to have the dirty diaper battle, so I hand over my defunct Treo and Sophie compliantly lies down on the mat. Babies it is. Sophie: 1 Mommy: 0.
The day continues in this way, with me wearily deciding at ever turn whether to take away an object I told her she couldn’t have, make her pick up something I just told her to pick, make her come to me the first time I call not the thirtieth. I fear the long term—what happens if I don’t follow through—a spoiled, defiant child who doesn’t clean up after herself—and it is my motivation to bite the bullet and have the battle.
But will she really? I mean, is it sooooo terrible if I give in and let her eat a raisin bread and cream cheese sandwich on the floor instead of her highchair (that I just spent five minutes trying to strap her into as she arched her back and screamed). Cause we’re already late and I want her to eat and the floor isn’t THAT dirty.
Okay, maybe it is. (But, remember, the NYTimes says its okay.)
I let her eat on the floor. Sophia: 2. Mommy: 0. She gets a little food in her. Sophia: 2, Mommy: 1. We get out of the door in 15 minutes instead of an hour: Sophia: 2, Mommy: 2.
Finally in the car, and headed North, Sophia demands “E O! E O!” (Translation, “Please, mother, could you play Raffi singing, ‘Old McDonald Had a Band,” on a constant loop for the next 45 minutes?”) At first, I try to ignore her, but the kid has staying power. “EO EO EO EO! Mama! Song! EO!”
As I reach for the CD player, I think about something that I learned in couples therapy: there is no malice; only competing needs and desires. I think of Sophia’s need to be independent. To exert her will and make choices in this world. To hear a little music while strapped to a chair in a five-point restraint.
I press play. Raffi’s dulcet tones replace my toddlers piercing cries.
I catch Sophia’s eye in the mirror. Signing, she extends her hand from her mouth towards me, “Thank you,” she says and smiles. The words are spontaneous and genuine.