At the park, a dad was struggling to get a bratty three-year-old to leave. He didn’t do any of the conflict-avoidance strategies I usually see, forewarning the children and giving them a false sense of control with the parenting-stalwarts: “We’re going in two minutes, choose one last slide to slide down, say good-bye to your friends now…”
Instead, he got right at her eye level and asked, “Who’s in charge? Who’s in charge here?”
She squirmed and screeched but she knew the answer: “Daddy’s in charge.”
“That’s right, daddy’s in charge. And who’s my good listener? Who’s my good listener?”
It was a bold approach. I’ve been thinking about it ever since: does Sophie know that I’m in charge? Do I even want to ask her, or is this Park Dad inadvertently causing his daughter to realize eventually that he’s actually not fully in charge?
The whole scene left me uncomfortable, really.
Sophie knows that I’m in charge of driving the car and using the stove. Sophie is so helpless that it seems arrogant to throw that fact in her face. Still, we have had a few too many battles lately where Sophie hasn’t accepted me telling her something. There have been too many instances lately where Sophie thinks that she gets to push me off the kitchen seat just because she’s decided she wants that particular kitchen chair right now immediately.
So I’ve been reading Miss Manners Guide to Raising Perfect Children. I know that sounds wimpy, but, I swear, Miss Manners is the most graciously aggressive woman I know. She is quite insistent that good manners does not mean being a doormat.
Does the neighbor ask for too many favors? Just tell her, “Sorry, no.” If she wants to know why, then add, “I just can’t do that for you this afternoon.” That’s all. It’s surprisingly simple advice.
Does an out-of-town relative show up unannounced, expecting you to drop everything? Greet her with open arms, exclaiming, “It’s great to see you! What a shame that I didn’t know you were coming, so I didn’t have a chance to rearrange my schedule for you. It’s just not fair; I wish I did have time to see you. Oh, I’m so sad I can’t spend more time with you. I’ve got to go now.” Then go.
It’s ballsy, you see, but gracious.
But those examples aren’t particularly about toddlers, and it’s the toddler politeness that I need to learn now. The chief tools of parenting, Miss Manners says, are nagging and modeling, and even with those tools, nothing happens quickly. It takes about 18 years to make a child presentable enough that someone else will want to take that child off your hands.
Okay, nagging and modeling. We have some of that down, and Sophie is actually getting quite adept at wielding “Please,” “Sorry” and even “Excuse me” to get what she wants — but even with those polite words, she’s still quite bossy, and we still have tantrums. Saying “Excuse me, please” still doesn’t allow her to push me off my kitchen seat for no good reason.
The proper response to a tantrum, Miss Manners advises, is to pretend it’s not happening. This works well for me in private, but not so well in public. That may be because I cave in too often in private, actually, reasoning that whether Sophie gets to climb on my chair hold the tube of toothpaste is not an issue worth fighting over, and hoping that too-big chair or too-sticky toothpaste will be an object lesson in why she should have listened to Momma in the first place. But that object lesson doesn’t always work, and even in the best-case it creates more work for me and danger for Sophie. Lately, I am thinking that the ability for Sophie to accept a “no” may truly be an issue worth fighting over.
The sensible response to many children’s requests, Miss Manners says, is, “Sorry, no” — with a few exceptions thrown in now and then, thrillingly. I think “Sorry, no” is going to become my new mantra, along with, “As long as you’re kind and honest, you don’t have to feel badly about saying what you want.”
But here’s one great obstacle to good parenting: “A belief in the arguability of every premise.” Darn. There goes my entire liberal education, my career, and my own childhood models. Miss Manners, always gentle, admits that my belief may help me raise a little lawyer — but she doesn’t recommend it as a pranting style. I think she’s right. And I think it may be too late to change my entire worldview.
So I’m just going to work on, “Sorry, no.”