Recently I took my 3-year-old daughter shopping with me. I needed some new clothes, and I thought it’d be a fun mother-daughter bonding moment. She was excited and thrilled and made one of my least favorite activities more enjoyable.
After I had my arms loaded with items to try on, we walked over to the kids’ section so she could pick some things out too. I’m striving to raise her to be independent, have her own opinions about things, and speak up to ensure those opinions are heard. This seemed like an easy way to start building those characteristics in her. She touched and admired everything she saw and finally chose two dresses and a skirt to try on.
We headed to the dressing rooms and both began to put on our potential new clothes. After every dress she donned, she would twirl and look in the mirror and ask me what I thought. I told her I loved all of them, but she could only choose one to bring home. She stared at her items hanging from the door and decided on a pink number with criss-cross straps and a skirt that was made to swish as she spun around. As we waited in line to pay for our new treasures, she informed me that it was her new dancing dress and she was going to wear it forever.
Sadly, forever didn’t last as long as we had hoped.
She put it on as soon as we got home and danced and twirled all day. She asked her dad and brother repeatedly if they liked her new dress and expressed her unwavering affection for it every five minutes. I had to do some major cajoling to convince her to take it off that evening when it was time for bed. The next morning, it was back on only mere seconds after her eyes opened for the day.
The fact she was so enamored with it was what tipped me off that something was amiss. She had been theoretically playing in her room for quite some time, and when she emerged, she was no longer wearing her dress.
“Why aren’t you dressed?” I asked.
Guilty smile, feigned innocence, and then the smell hit me.
I rushed to her bedroom and discovered a mini-disaster. There was nail polish covering a number of her books. There was a dried puddle of nail polish on the carpet. And there was nail polish all over her brand new, favorite dress.
Her punishment came in three steps. First she had to sit and face the wall while I calmed down and Googled how to get nail polish out of the carpet (Windex, who knew?). Then she had to sit in her room and watch silently as I scrubbed the carpet clean. Then she had to throw away her dress.
“Baby girl, because you got into the nail polish without asking, then made a mess and ruined your dress, then didn’t tell me about it, your punishment is to throw your dress into the trash.”
Her face fell. Her lip quivered. Her eyes welled up with tears along with mine.
“But I love that dress. We just got it yesterday.”
“I love it too, baby, but you did a lot of things you know you’re not supposed to do, and you’re old enough to get a real consequence for your actions.”
After talking a bit longer, she took her dress to the trash and dropped it in. Soon she had mostly forgotten the whole thing had happened.
But I didn’t.
All afternoon my heart ached. I loved that dress, or rather, I loved what it symbolized. It was a tangible memory of a fun time I had with my daughter. It was a reminder of how I was helping her become her own person. It represented a moment in time when we weren’t having power struggles or tantrums. We were just two girls out buying hew clothes. And now all of that had dissolved into my very first “this hurts me more than it hurts you” parenting moment.
It hurt terribly. It hurt to make my daughter sad. It hurt to discipline her in such a personal way. It hurt to see that brand new dress that had brought both of us so much joy lying in the trash can.
I desperately wanted to retrieve it. It could just be a play dress for home, I thought to myself. It was too badly stained for me to let her wear it out in public, but it would be OK to wear around the house, I reasoned.
But I couldn’t do it. What hurt the most, what made the whole thing hurt me more than her, is that I had to stick to my guns. I had to stick to the punishment I had doled out. If I backed down from it, she wouldn’t learn. If I backed down from it, I wouldn’t learn.
It’s something all parents have to go through. At some point, we have to give real consequences for our children’s actions regardless of how much it hurts them and us. We do it to teach them about life and decisions and actions and repercussions and so many things you don’t think about when you’re thumbing through What to Expect When You’re Expecting. It’s hard and it’s painful, but it shapes our children into respectable members of society, which is what we all want for our children.
“I really miss that pink dress, Mom,” she’ll say every once in a while.
“Me too, baby. Me too.”