It typically goes something like this: I ask Elle to put on her shoes so that we can go to the park. But she cannot put her shoes on right now, she tells me, because she must paint a picture for her best friend, Lily.
Me: “You can paint a picture for Lily when we get back. We should go to the park now, so we have lots of time to play and have fun there.” I bring her a pair of shoes.
Elle: “Those shoes are scratchy.”
Me: “You just wore them this morning. And you didn’t say anything about them being ‘scratchy.’”
Elle: “But they are scratchy.”
Me: “OK, fine.” I fight off an exasperated sigh. Elle tends to repeat my sighs, which always sound excessively dramatic when she plays them back at me. “Then go pick out the shoes you want to wear.”
Elle: “I can’t. I have to paint right now.”
Me: “Here. Let’s just put these shoes on.” I cram my head under the art table where Elle sits, reaching for a foot. From a sideways angle and without a good view, I manage to slip a shoe on it.
Elle: “AHH! My sock! It’s wrinkly!” Off flies the shoe.
Me: “Do you want to go to the park or not? Because if you want to go to the park, you have to get your shoes on.”
Elle: “But my sock is wrinkly.”
Me: “Then let’s fix your sock.” Stepford smile; crouch under table; straighten sock. Put on shoes. “OK! Let’s go.”
Elle: “I don’t like these shoes.”
Me: “I love the swings at the park, don’t you?” Attempt to refocus her attention.
Elle: “BUT THEY’RE SCRATCHY!” Attempt fails.
Me: “OK. Fine.” Feign indifference. “Let’s not go to the park.”
Elle: “BUT I WANT TO GO TO THE PARK!”
Me: “THEN LET’S GO!”
Elle: “But I haven’t finished my picture.”
Okay, I have an obstinate child: an obstinate, frequently maddening child. Upon reflection, though, I come to understand that these daily trials with my 3-year-old do not stem solely from her apparently genetic predisposition to stubbornness. The trouble isn’t simply that my child is obstinate, I realize. It is that I am too tolerant.
Me: “Elle. Put your shoes on now.”
Elle: “But I don’t want these…”
Me: “You’re wearing these shoes. Put them on now.”
I am the Mom. That means I know – mostly – what is best for my child. I know that going to the park is fun, and that one must wear shoes at a park, and that any issue with shoes, scratchy or otherwise, will soon be forgotten once we steer ourselves out of this maelstrom otherwise known as the Mother Daughter Power Struggle. My folly is that I believe I can outwit my daughter by giving her options, when really I just need to give her clear direction. “Put on your shoes” offers little room for discussion. Asking Elle if she would kindly put on her shoes, however polite that may be, only offers a 3-year-old a reason to believe that she actually has a say in the matter. A 3-year-old is going to test the boundaries every chance she is given. Thus, inquiring whether she would like to put on her shoes, rather than telling her to do so, only leads her to conclude that she has the authority to make decisions for herself. And if I gave her authority to make decisions for herself, she would be naked, shoeless, and probably eating ice cream for breakfast. Every day.
A benevolent dictatorship is really what motherhood comes down to when you have a 3-year-old. Later on, I am hopeful, perhaps the dictatorship part can diminish somewhat. But for now, the kid is three. And despite the many compelling reasons she can come up with to make me believe otherwise, a 3-year-old really can’t make decisions for herself. The mother-daughter relationship may be many things – but it is not a democracy.