My daughter is wild after the first day of second grade – jumping up and down on the living room couch, zipping from the front of the house to the back at lightning speed, trying to fit Johnny Boy – the kitten – into a bucket, and all the while ignoring my protestations, refusing even to acknowledge that I’m speaking. My first impulse is to give her a break. It’s been a long day of new adults telling her what to do. She’s an introvert, she’s had nothing but space and playtime for weeks, and then BAM – six solid hours of people, people, and more people. But she tried to put the kitten in a bucket! “You need to sit on the stairs now,” I say, finally. “For disrespect.” For something. Because I need you to come back. Because I missed you all day and I want to play and the way things are going right now, there’s little chance of our sharing the delightful afternoon of parks and ice cream I had planned.
Now I realize popular wisdom on time-outs suggests one minute for each year of age, but I’ve found I need to build in a little incentive for actually taking the time-out, so usually I start low. “Six minutes,” I tell her.
“No,” she tells me. Okay.
“Seven minutes.” There is subtle movement in the right direction. “Thank you,” I say. Too soon! She sits on the floor. “To the stairs,” I remind her. She pulls a face. I see. This is how we’re gonna play.
I try to imagine my little darling dressed in fairy wings and a sparkly nightgown on the morning of her fourth birthday – before eyeglasses, before elementary school, before homework pressure and the torrent of after-school activity options, when our lives were simpler, more pure. We’re the same mom, same daughter – I tell myself – facing off today. Just older.
“Eight minutes.” Like an angry rag doll, she flops herself onto the couch. Maybe she’s read the parenting books, too, and the blogs. Maybe she secretly subscribes to Mamapedia and BabyCenter, and she knows that eight minutes is too long when she’s only seven. “The stairs, sweetheart.” She remains seated. “Nine minutes.” Aghast, she moves toward the stairs with something one might interpret as purpose, although she is quietly whining – a whisper-whine – as she climbs the stairs, up past the landing, out of my sight. “I’ll set the timer,” I say. I’m met with silence.
There is a debate in my house about consequences – what they should be, when they should come into play, the relative difference in behavior that results from taking away a night of reading “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” for example, versus spending some time on the stairs.
We need an arsenal – a back pocket full of motivational statements, incentives and consequences. Don’t put your kitten in a bucket. Look at people while they’re talking to you. Stop pulling leaves off the neighbors’ plants. I try to match the right consequence or the right incentive with the right behavior: No silly bands for a week, a gentle smile, eye contact, a small piece of hard candy, no television, a short stint on the stairs, a sticker maybe? Wait a minute, honey, while Mami searches for the right response! Why not? She asks me to stop on the sidewalk every time she sees a pole she wants to climb.
Parenting is hard work. We are responsible for building social muscles in small humans, while stoking the fires of imagination – or at least not tamping down the flames – building confidence, persistence, a sense of strength and personal power. Am I creative enough for all that? I ask myself daily, and usually I respond in a positive way.
After eight minutes, she comes down the stairs with bright eyes and a soft frown. “I’m sorry, Mami,” she says on her way down.
“Thank you, honey.” It’s all I need. She meets my eyes for the first time. We’re connected again. I give her a kiss on the head.
“Mom, are you a real person?” She asked me the other day.
“Yes,” I said. “Are you?”
“Do you think I am?”
“No. I can turn into a dog. And a fairy. Whenever I want. You can’t. Unless I give you the power.”
Unless I give you the power. I see. Maybe that’s why I miss you so much when you’re away.