Yesterday I was feeling brave, so I decided to load all four kiddos into the van for some errands. The boys were in serious need of haircuts and we were overdue for a grocery run, so I thought we might as well mash it all together and stick a fast-food dinner in-between.
So we did the barber shop (but the wait was too long), then dinner, then back to the barber shop (success), then the liquor store to buy more of my new favorite wine from the mark-down cart. (I don’t know anything about this wine except that it is AMAZING. I highly recommend it if you like a white that’s dry and full but bright. Just amazing.)
By then the baby was starting to fuss, so I decided to forgo the grocery run. (That is, I decided to have my husband take care of it on his way home.) We left for home, the baby fell asleep, and I threw caution to the wind by ushering all three boys into the tub almost as soon as we walked through the door. (Baths require almost as much courage as grocery runs in my book.) Afterward, I nursed the baby in her room while the boys played at my feet.
All this time – from the restaurant to the barber shop to the bath to the nursery – my four-year-old was naughty naughty naughty naughty naughty, varying only in the intensity of his misbehavior. “Stop it stop it stop it stop it,” I’d said, until I finally banished him from my presence. He was sent to his room.
All was peaceful for about three minutes, until he decided to up the ante: he threw one of those little egg shaker musical instrument thingies into the nursery, cracking it in half and sending hundreds of tiny metal balls flying around the room.
I yelled, he laughed. I YELLED, and he stopped laughing. He was again sent to his room, this time to an early bedtime.
Oh how awful that was for him! The child screamed and called for me and begged to be let back downstairs. But I was busy with the baby and the brothers and the daddy calling from the grocery store. And anyway, he was being punished. It wasn’t supposed to be pleasant.
I did go up at one point, once I’d finished feeding the baby. I hugged him and tucked him back in, but told him that no, he would not be allowed back downstairs. He continued his tirade.
A short while later, I was scrolling Facebook when I saw a heartbreaking photo and caption. It was from Humans of New York (of course). A woman’s face conveys a sense of terrible pain and loss. “Two weeks after Max was diagnosed, he asked me if I’d be his Mommy forever,” a woman named Julie said. “Of course I will,” she told her son. “Even when I’m ninety?” he asked. “Yes.”
“I just couldn’t tell him,” she said. “God I was such a coward. I should have told him. I just couldn’t do it. Even toward the end… the whole last week I’m whispering in his ear: ‘Let go, let go. Please Max, let go.’ My seven-year-old son. I’m telling him to let go… And the whole time I never told him he was dying.”
You can imagine what this did to me.
Tears streamed down my face as I imagined this woman whispering “Let go,” to her dying child, a child she’d never told was dying. And there was my child, just a few feet above my head, screaming for me, begging for me to have mercy on him.
What a line we walk as parents.
We want to instruct, we want to form, we discipline in order to help our children learn to control themselves. Or to follow rules. Or to respect us. Or to not treat others badly.
At the same time, we treasure our children. They pull on our heartstrings and we’re happy to have them do it. We want to wrap them up in our arms and prevent them from feeling any pain.
But learning lessons often involves pain.
So it doesn’t seem to me that you can choose one side over the other. I’ve always thought that good parenting required a lot of discipline and a whole lot of love. A lack of either would be damaging to a child. We parents just have to walk that line, wherever we think it lies.
So how did I (try to) do it?
I went back upstairs. I told my boy that he could not come down, but that I would sit with him a while. I climbed onto his bed and held him in my lap and rocked him. Then I flipped on the light, grabbed a couple of books, and moved over to the armchair in his room. He sat on my lap as I read those wonderfully sappy Nancy Tillman books – “On the Night You Were Born” and “Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You”.
I read slowly, carefully. I let my tears drip down onto his face. He calmed down.
When the books had ended, we got up and got him back into his bed. I tucked him in for the third time. I kissed him and ruffled his newly-cut hair. Then I went back downstairs.
I don’t know if I did the best thing but it felt like the right thing. That’s all I can do. I try to walk that line wherever I find it, wherever it seems right given the circumstances of the moment.