“Epic fail,” Oliver says and he’s not talking about a video game. He’s talking about his mother, who has just deposited his screaming brother into the next room with a plop and a slam of the door, harder than she meant. He’s talking about the woman, muttering to herself, as the disappointment steams off of her in waves. This almost-eight-year-old is talking about me and what he is referring to is how I parent two of his younger siblings.
“They’re just babies, Mom!” he lingers on the word “babies” as if this will make me see them for the vulnerable species he is sure they are. The “babies” in question are 29-month-old twins and fully-carded members of the terrible two club. Their bodies are still dimpled. Their sentences still disjointed. But oh do they know how to get into trouble. They occupy the no man’s land between innocent impishness and full-fledged misdemeanor, a space that is classically difficult for the rules of discipline to bridge.
They are also my third and fourth children, which has come to mean they are not given a lot of leeway in terms of misbehavior. They are certainly not given as much leeway as he was. Does he remember that, I wonder? Is there some part of his brain that is flashing a warning alert of inequity: it wasn’t like this when you were two. Because, lord knows, it wasn’t.
Back then, I thought “no” was a dirty word. The dirtiest. I was the first time mother of a blameless baby who turned, at some point, into a less than blameless toddler but my sense of discipline never turned with him. When Oliver was around 14 months old, there were only two things he used to do that merited a “no,” only two: crawl behind the TV to play with the wires or pull the glasses down from my face. The fact that I can enumerate them is telling. So is the fact that I recall being pleased with myself: I must have read that sustained positive interaction is the key to raising the perfect child.
He didn’t turn out so perfect, though. “Sustained positive interaction” warped somehow into the absence of any meaningful limits and he became, as a result, a two year old with a hefty sense of entitlement. Followed by a three-year-old who would dispatch orders like a tiny tyrant. I made that bed and I lay in it for a while, but I wasn’t going to lay in it again. My second son was different by nature, which was luck. By the time my twins started down the road of toddlerhood, with all of the pitfalls it entails, my view of the route had changed.
When you have four kids under eight, two of whom are two year old twins, things don’t look as “cute” or as “character building” as they used to. It’s harder to see the 20-month-old who won’t stop pitching food from his high chair as an adorable baseball-player-to-be. The 23-month-old who snatches each toy her brother touches as an avid little investigator, locating the mile-markers on the trail of social interaction. The 26-month-old who starts every other sentence with “I want”—and ends it with “now”—as an early master of pronouns and sense of self.
I have less patience, there is definitely that. But I have more of something too: a long view. I have seen children bleed from one phase of toddlerhood into the next and I have watched how problematic behavior condoned because they are “too young” can stay with them like a bad tattoo. And how it only gets harder to address it effectively. This time, I decided to start setting the limits as soon as I felt they were being pushed upon. This time, I am not making the same allowances for the cultivation of “individuality,” because I no longer hold it in the same reverence.
This is one of the trickiest lines to walk in the current climate of parenting. We encourage our kids, almost constantly, to express themselves, to “become” themselves. But we often do so, unwittingly, at the expense of the needs of people other than themselves. At the tender age of two, I regularly tell my twins, in response to a whole host of their demands: “Mommy is a person, too.” Not only I am sure I never uttered these words to my first child, I am fairly certain I didn’t believe them to be true. Or, at any rate, relevant.
Oliver knows I am person now, I have made sure of that. If anything, he is overly sensitive to me, in way that has stemmed, perhaps ironically, from our history of blurred boundaries. And I am overly sensitive to him. I still feel the need to explain myself at every turn, always to explain myself to him, because this is our dynamic and old habits die hard. So in the midst of the crying and the closed doors, there I am explaining it to him. Explaining how I want these babies to learn to respect me, and each other, and to understand that they are part of a family of six, a family in which every single member deserves kindness and also a degree of attention that will sometimes come to the detriment of somebody else.
And in saying this, I see the paradox he sees. How the goal of kindness and respect is overtly incongruous with the reality of firmness and limits and tears. I see in his discomfort a reflection of the mother I used to be, the mother who equated love with the outward, immediate happiness of the child. I kept Oliver happy when he was two because it felt better to me. But what I realize now is that it wasn’t necessarily better for him. My idea of parental love has become thornier over time and I can’t expect him, at eight, to understand what it has taken me years to come to terms with. That loving your kid and indulging him are not the same thing.
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