Just before the alarm clock went off, I started dreaming that Holly wanted to drive the car. She cajoled. She pleaded. She whined. She demanded. I conceded, then realized as she took the wheel that it really wasn’t a very good idea to give a 7-year-old control of the car. “Holly, please, be careful, be sensible….” I fretted as we veered across the road.
The alarm went off and I woke up amused rather than frightened, with these simple words in my head: “Holly can’t drive!”
The light of day showed the dream-conflict for all of its absurdity: Holly is seven! It doesn’t matter how much she demands, pleads, or cajoles: she can’t drive!
The reason I dreamed this seemed clear to me. Holly still has occasional tantrums and I still sometimes find it challenging to stand up to her. Tim was the same way at her age. Though I generally associate tantrums more with the preschool years, both of them at around the same time hit a streak of iron will that enabled them to stand up against every force of parental reason.
But now when it happens I just remind myself: Holly can’t drive. No matter what, it’s not an option.
Reading Eileen Calandro’s blog entry about the importance of saying no and considering some issues absolutely non-negotiable reminded me of that dream and the part its message has played in my life over the past few months. We parents encourage our children to be articulate and analytical, and then sometimes, to use an expression of my father’s, we hoist ourselves on our own petard. “Use your words,” we say over and over again when they are small in an attempt to get them to verbalize their feelings. But eventually, we reach a point where we have to remember their words aren’t always relevant to our decision-making process. Waking from the dream, I realized there was no amount of seven-year-old eloquence in the world that could convince me to let Holly take the wheel; and yet in waking life I still, after eleven years of parenting, have to remind myself sometimes that some decisions are universally mine and not up to discussion.
At 11, Tim is past the tantrummy stage; he may still disagree with my edicts but he doesn’t try to change my mind through force of will. But back when he was Holly’s age, there were similar struggles, and sometimes I found it helpful to ask myself this rather coarse but straightforward question: “He’s still, like, half your weight, right?” It’s not that I would really use physical force against my children; it’s just that reminding myself of this fact underscored the fact that it would be physically impossible for Tim to force me to, say, let him play another half-hour of video games or invite a friend whose presence I found disruptive for a sleepover. No mother really wants to think of parenting as a contest of physical might, but the obviousness of it always jolted me back to reality.
My husband’s simple sense of logic sometimes provides a useful reality check as well. Once when Tim was seven, Rick was present for one of Tim’s and my near-daily arguments about whether I would pick Tim up at school (which he vastly preferred) or whether he should take the bus (my preference). Tim was insisting that I had to pick him up, and I was dithering and arguing and protesting until Rick simply said, “Fine, Tim. You stand out on the school plaza until Mommy arrives to pick you up, because she already said she’s not going to!” And Rick was right, of course. If I wasn’t there to pick Tim up, he’d have to take the bus home. End of discussion.
Not that it’s always easy. But keeping these basic principles in mind helps in the heat of the moment. Just this past weekend, Holly and I were in my bedroom and she wanted me to read to her before bed – but she wanted me to go fetch the book from her room, and I wanted her to do it. She fussed and screeched; she pointed out that she often fetches things for me when I need them. But I simply didn’t feel like it. I was already lying in bed and I was comfortable, and she was the one who wanted the book. So I said no.
She was right; I do often ask her to go grab my phone from my purse or a stamp from the desk. But this time it didn’t matter to me; I wasn’t willing to back down. Because for one thing, when I back down on trivial things with the kids just to avoid prolonging the argument, I end up really irritable. If I went to get the book, I’d be feeling cranky the whole time we were reading. “Fine,” I said to Holly. “If you won’t go get the book, we won’t read. I’m going to do some deskwork. If you change your mind, come get me.”
Holly hates to lose face by backing down. She disappeared into her room, then reappeared a half-hour later to announce frostily, “I’m ready for bed now, if you would please come tuck me in.” So we missed out on reading that night. And I understand it wasn’t all that important an issue. But maintaining willpower against the kids’ demands is a good exercise for me. And so I’m glad once again for the practice. Because Holly can’t drive. And to contemplate allowing her to do so would just be bad parenting.