The Battles of the Milk-Bottle Top

We have fallen into a habit of sidestepping confrontation. For instance: Sophie grabs the plastic top to the milk and shouts at me when I explain that I need to put it back on the milk-bottle. She’s old enough that it’s no longer a choking-hazard. It’s just an annoyance. I could forcefully take the piece of plastic from her, leaving her to pitch a small tantrum, or I could just ignore the whole Battle of the Milk-Bottle-Top that she’s trying to start. When I ignore the problem, she’ll eventually get distracted and drop the milk-bottle-top, so I can casually pick it up, wash it, and put it back on the milk in the fridge.

Ben calls this “picking your battles.” I call it sneaky parenting. We both do it a lot.

It’s the easiest thing to do, but I’m starting to wonder whether it’s the best thing to do. 

We think we’re saving our direct assertions for truly dangerous situations, but those are so rare that Sophie may not actually learn words like “stop”. Asking two rock-climbers to identify truly dangerous situations may just be a futile exercise in relativity anyway. We tend to be overconfident about safety. A friend and fellow adventurer allows her toddler climb on almost anything, as long as the toddler wears her bike-helmet while teetering on toys that really weren’t meant to be mounted.

I probably don’t have enough fears about safety. What I am afraid of now is that we sidestep so many issues, continually choosing the easiest passive-aggressive route, that Sophie isn’t learning that we’re really in charge. Sometimes I suspect she thinks she’s in charge. Right now, she thinks it’s okay to shout at me when I ask her to return the milk-bottle-top.

So I’m working on being more direct in telling her my expectations, even on minor issues that are side-steppable. I know I’m courting many small tantrums. I’m hoping that this teaches her a kind of general cooperation, so that in the long-run, we’ll avoid the huge tantrums of, say, the teen years.

I’m not good at directly expressing my power. I’m not good at insisting on issues that I would rather analyze. I tend to ask myself, “Does this really matter? Why do I assume that the milk-bottle needs its top on anyway? If I insist on politeness, is that really politeness? Doesn’t respect have to be freely given to be true respect?” Can you tell I’m an academic? 

In high-school, a good friend of mine decided that he didn’t want to sit at a desk. This drove his teachers mad. He told them that he could listen to them just as well when he was sitting on the floor or on a window-ledge. He thought it was ridiculous that they made an issue out of sitting at desks, insisting on a blind conformity that they couldn’t explain. He thought he learned best wherever he was comfortable. He insisted on sitting on a window-ledge. He wore his teachers down so much that they eventually permitted him to sit wherever he wanted. I admired him hugely.

When Sophie wants to wear only one shoe, or play with my students’ midterm exams, or swing her Dad’s bike-wrench around, or clutch the milk-bottle-top for dear life, I keep asking myself, “Isn’t this just Kenny’s window-ledge? Why do I expect her to conform to some arbitrary norm?”

But now that I’m a teacher, I realize that I need to see all my students’ faces all at about the same level, because I need to see student reactions, continually, in order to teach effectively. I think I might be one of Kenny’s teachers who would insist that he sit somewhere close to the other students. I hope, though, that I could be the teacher who could explain why I needed that.

Sophie is still too young for explanations, though. I’m hoping she’ll reach the age of reason sooner rather than later. I like reasoning. Much more than I like arbitrarily enforcing rules. 

Because, I’m realizing, that if one of my students asked why he had to sit in a chair, I would tell him why, but also admire him for challenging the status quo. How do I raise a child who is polite and relatively safe but also adventurous, questioning, exploring, nonconforming? I still admire my silly friend Kenny.

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