The answer, I've concluded, lies in my view of my children, myself, and our respective roles. Until now, I've viewed my children as essentially helpless beings that must be taught everything - from how to burp to how to poop to how to do calculus. I've viewed myself as Chief Entertainer, Butt Wiper, Taxi Driver and Brain Builder, with a focus on exposing them to a broad array of appropriate enrichment activities in order to stimulate optimal social and cognitive development. Problem is, not only is this take on parenting exhausting, I was starting to see it lead to a feeling of entitlement in my kids and an increasing lack of empathy for those of us running ourselves ragged giving them every advantage in life.
But what if they're not helpless beings? What if my endless drive to do for them is actually harming them? What if they are essentially capable beings, who simply must be taught the building blocks of self sufficiency one step at a time? What if it's possible to sit through a four-course meal with two preschoolers in peace and harmony, and actually enjoy ourselves? I started trying a few things out.
I began by taking an inventory of what was not "working" for me in our day-to-day lives. At the top of my list was our morning routine, which generally involved me running around half dressed, barking at Roan to get her dressed and groomed, while tugging Maddox's shoes on and making her lunch. So I began setting a timer on the kitchen clock, in clear sight of everyone. I let Roan know that since she's going to be a Kindergartener soon, she is now responsible for her things, her body and her lunch. It's her responsibility to have herself and her things ready by the time the timer beeps. Ready or not, we all get into the car on time each morning.
The hardest thing about this for me is keeping my mouth shut and letting her experience the natural consequences of her actions. But if I am operating from the assumption that she's essentially a capable being, giving her the space to make her own choices - and live with them - affords her a certain freedom and respect. Of course, it also demands a level of respect from her for the needs of the family: to leave on schedule so we can be at work and at school on time.
Rest assured, she has put me to the test. One morning she basically refused to make her lunch. True to my word, we piled into the car on schedule. I asked how she felt about not having a lunch for camp that day. She began to get upset. I asked if she'd like some ideas, and she said yes. She had just gotten her allowance the night before and was planning to go to the toy store with her dad that day. I suggested she could use some of her allowance money to buy herself a lunch. "It will make me late to take you to the store, but I'm willing to do that to help you this time." How heartless am I? Even Arwen felt I perhaps went too far. But I wanted her to experience a natural consequence as opposed to a punitive one, like taking away movie day or a favorite toy. She thought about it, and we talked it over. She really did not like the idea of missing out on buying a toy, but ultimately decided she liked the idea of missing lunch even less. I could see the wheels turning in her head. She was taking ownership of her decisions. She didn't whine. She didn't blame me. And I think that lesson stuck. She has taken responsibility for making her own lunch every day since, without complaint.
The next thing on my list of pet peeves was my kids' constant snacking. I could never leave the house without two sippy cups and a bag full of food. Afternoon pickups from school were always stressful because either I had to remember to pack snacks before leaving for work in the morning, or - heaven forbid - endure an hour of endless whining on the way home. Even if I did pack snacks, I often got complaints on the selections I'd made. And for anyone who has had the misfortune of riding in my car, there is the toll all that snacking takes on the backseat. Maddox inevitably would throw his milk each and every day. So I announced to Roan that soon we would have a "no snacking in the car" rule. The first couple of days I offered her a choice: she could either have a single graham cracker now OR if she waited until we got home, she could have that graham cracker plus a sweet treat. The first day she chose instant gratification. The second day she waited until we got home.
The third day I brought no snacks. She began to cry. Then she began to scream. And then she became totally unhinged. It was so ridiculous that I suggested we have a screaming contest. "Is that as loud as you can scream? Come on!" That stratagem failed utterly. 10 minutes into the car ride and she was still screaming. I felt so powerless. I was yearning for some way to hold onto my sense of calm, composure, and control of the situation. So then I said calmly, "Roan, I'm going to turn on my timer. However many minutes you spend screaming in the car is how long you will have to go to your room when we get home." Guess how long it took her to calm down. Guess. Really. You'll never guess.
18 seconds, and not only was she not screaming or crying. She was smiling. She let out a little laugh. "Guess what, Mommy! I was only fake crying!" Wow kid. You have been playing me. And I've been falling for it so hard.
I keep thinking about that 18 seconds. It's like a mantra I repeat to myself when I'm feeling particularly challenged by the kids. It reminds me that they're capable of much more than I think they are. If I raise the bar, they will rise to the challenge.
Fast forward a couple of weeks to now. We still have conversations from time to time about snacks. But no meltdowns. Even Maddox will say "Milk. Home. Milk. Home." from the backseat after I pick him up for daycare. And the change in Roan has been remarkable. She's decided she prefers packing her lunch the night before, so she has plenty of time to get ready in the morning. She asked me to wake her up a few minutes early so she has time to make her bed tomorrow (her idea completely). When I pick her up from camp in the afternoons, lo and behold she has pre-filled her water bottle for the ride home (water is allowed in the car). She sets napkins and silverware out at dinner time and clears her plate when she's done. She even pours her own milk sometimes (while I stand by holding my breath). Last weekend she baked her first cake - from measuring to pouring to decorating - with help only getting it into and out of the oven. And I swear, she's walking two inches taller, proud of herself, secure in the knowledge that she is capable of many things.
The change in me is good too. I'm relaxed more. I'm enjoying our time together more. It's creating space for me to take time for myself, and for me to pause and enjoy my wonderful husband. I've realized it's far more important to teach my children to be patient, to persevere, to take responsibility, to put their endless desires within bounds than it is to entertain them, or even to tend to their cognitive development. If they can learn to be calm, confident, and focused, then their internal landscape will allow the rest to follow.