Before I actually became a parent, I held some delusion that I would be in control of the then-hypothetical children who would someday grow up under my roof. I think that delusion is perpetuated among the not-yet-parents community by people who blame parents for their kids’ behavior in public.
But every parent knows that children save their most mortifying, aberrant, crazy-ass tantrums and MTV-worthy behavior for public spaces and moments when their parents will be caught completely off-guard and vulnerable to it. Why waste a good tantrum on the quiet walls of home when the check-out line at Target has such a great built-in audience? Why take the vocal cords out for a joyride for your own empty family room when you can regale every single person at a restaurant with your cinematic screams—but only after the meal order has been placed and before the food actually arrives? Children are brilliant, I tell you, and their genius is evil.
Eleven years into this parenting gig, I’ve learned that there are several areas in which I have zero control over my children, no matter what I or the child-free strangers on the street, in the airplane, or at Target believe. I’ve also learned that the sooner I understand and accept that I hold no dominion over these areas in my children’s lives, we will all be happier. I don’t often offer parenting advice because I’m no expert and I firmly believe that every child is different. But in the interest of saving someone else the pain, time, and energy, I present to you Three (Maybe Four) Battles Not to Pick with Your Children—for your own mental health, if nothing else:
1. What and How Much They Eat. You are definitely charged with offering your children healthy, balanced meals and with meting out less nutritious fare judiciously. That is never in question. But be aware that it is your child that will always determine if he or she will eat the meal you offer. You can’t force someone — anyone, really—to eat without extensive medical help. You can cajole, coax, threaten, and bribe, but you cannot make that child ingest that quinoa if he doesn’t want to do it. And here’s the bottom line: You don’t want to, because you don’t want to make food a war zone for a child.
My advice? You offer the good stuff. Whatever the child eats, he eats. But don’t make it a battle. You will end up miserable—I guarantee it—and any victory will be hollow, because I don’t know any child that has actually said, “You’re right. I was wrong about that baked tilapia. Now I want to eat it every night!” No. Even if you get the kid to eat the damn fish, he’ll hate you for it. Keep offering, by all means, but don’t force and don’t take it personally. It’s not worth it.
2. When They Sleep. You can enforce a bedtime, and you should. You will offer a wonderful sleeping arrangement, you will provide consistency, you will go through a bedtime production and routine worthy of an Oscar. But the truth is, you can’t make kids fall asleep. Sleep is only ever only on their terms. So losing your patience, demanding they go to bed, and pulling your hair out? It works against you, because how can someone fall asleep when her parent is irritated and angry with her? Be as zen as you can be when leading the rugrat back to bed for the umpteenth time, and remember: Sometimes you have trouble falling asleep too. Children aren’t robots. Some nights they will struggle.
In my house, with four kids scampering about, someone is always giving us a hard time about going to bed. The more we fight it, the longer it lasts. I now either tell the child he is free to stay awake with a book as long as he wants, as long as he stays in bed and doesn’t disrupt his brothers, or I embrace the moment and lie down with the hold-out and rub his back, repeating to myself that someday I will miss this (I do not always convince myself, but I try.) Don’t get me wrong; I still lose it sometimes, but even as I do, I know I’m working against myself.
3. Where and When They Go Potty. One of the hardest aspects of parenting for me thus far has been potty training, and the main reason is that no matter the method or how many times I have done it, it never fails to show me how little control I have in the matter. Even on my third child, I was humbled by the fact that he could have all the skills and know-how he needed, but I would still find myself bringing him home from preschool, letting him in the door, and then racing up the stairs after him like a crazy woman as I realized that he was heading for his bedroom carpet to relieve himself. Because he did. Every day. Somehow, he always caught me off guard and he always beat me up those stairs. He knew exactly what he needed to do to successfully use the potty, but he just didn’t want to, and there was not a dang thing I could do about it. That boy didn’t have but one accident at preschool the entire year, but he had an “accident” at home almost every day. It was no accident. It was his little 3-year-old self giving me a big middle finger and letting me know I was not the boss of him. Ah, threenagers.
I believe there is a fourth battle I will not try to win with my children, and that is when to have sex for the first time. However, as I have not crossed that bridge yet, I’m not willing to comment on it with the same level of confidence as the other three items. I only know that as with the other three categories, I can educate, instruct, and create an atmosphere that I hope will yield the result I hope for, but in the end, we’re talking about their bodies and their decisions. I have a feeling the other three rules will feel like child’s play, literally, when I get to that fourth doozy. Luckily, modern science has provided us with an excellent array of anti-anxiety medication to choose from, because I have a feeling I am going to need it.