This topic came about after one of the most familiar toddler dilemmas; as we all rushed around one morning getting ready for school and work my sweet 4-year-old, Indy, sat at the table for cereal. “Where’s my brown bowl?” My husband glanced over and said, “That is a brown bowl.” Indy looked again, “No. That’s the light brown bowl…I only like the dark brown one.*” My husband, distracted, told him “That’s the one you have. It doesn’t matter what color it is.” Predictably, hysterics ensued. And as much as I loathe the sound of a meltdown at 6:50am as much as anyone, I felt like I needed to interject. I asked my husband if the dark brown bowl was clean and he gave me a look…that look, which I instantly read as a breach of our mutual pact: “We do not negotiate with terrorists.” I understood exactly why he was making the face but I also saw it as an opportunity to differentiate the times when we can be accommodating to someone without encouraging bad behavior by being indulgent.
I explained to my little buddy that I had the time to look for the bowl but he needed to calm down. He took some deep breaths, the tears died down and I found the bowl, clean and unspoken for in the cabinet. Later, this incident sparked a really great conversation between my husband and me about the difference between bending to the whims and preferences of our kids and taking an extra step, when possible, to give someone what they want. It came about from a place of understanding after I pointed out that we, as adults, found ourselves reaching for the same two or three coffee mugs every morning in a kitchen overflowing with choices. When we use phrases like, “It doesn’t matter” we are confusing what the battle is actually about: it does matter. Greatly. Just not to us. Claiming that someone’s preference, no matter how irrational or pointless it may seem, is of no importance is dismissive and often leads to resentment or, in the case of a toddler, the strong need to double down and stick with the fight.
As someone with older kids I often get to see both extremes; the parents who feel that these small fights are not worth it and cater to their kids on most issues and those who take a hardline on anything that feels like going out of their way for something that is of little consequence in the big picture or will lead to laziness later in life. At a park one day, a mom I met who had older kids and no shortage of opinions informed me that she never, ever made a trip to drop off forgotten items at school. Homework? Nope, not my responsibility. Instruments? No. They can borrow one or sit out. Lunches?! She admitted that she had done that a couple times when it was too late to switch her kid to hot lunch. When she asked if I did those things I said that yes, I did, when I could. My rationale was that it didn’t happen often, I often have a flexible schedule and don’t live terribly far. She laughed and said, “I live 5 minutes from school and don’t do it! It’s not my problem and they need to be responsible.” I agreed but told her that I always remember the times when my husband or a friend went out of their way to do something for me. I was incredibly appreciative and it made my day. The day that I forgot my book when headed to a kids’ soccer game and, whining about it to my husband on the phone he said, “Can I bring it to you?” Of course not! That would be crazy and a huge waste of his time! But did it mean a lot that he offered? Absolutely.
I, like everyone else I know, want to raise kids who are independent, self sufficient and grateful. I also want them to know that I’m on their side and that I’ve got their backs. I thought a lot about that distinction - where was the line between being helpful and encouraging entitlement? The more I went over these different scenarios it occurred to me that this mom, who had strong beliefs about not swooping in to save the day, likely still had strong feelings about the kids needing to be saved in the first place. When they got in the car at the end of the day, did they get a lecture about having forgotten their stuff? If she did make an exception and deliver things, did they still get the talk? Did they acknowledge that someone had gone out of their way to help them out and express their gratitude? I realized then that the clear difference between accommodating and indulgent was not black and white for all situations; it is completely dependent on how doing these things makes us feel. When a kid hears the office call their classroom to say that a forgotten lunch is waiting in the office, they feel relieved and grateful. I, as the dropper-offer, imagine my kid feeling relieved and grateful and it makes me happy that I was able to do them a solid that made their day less stressful. At the end of the day, the conversation was not about how much they had inconvenienced me or how irresponsible they were - I got a huge “thank you!” On the opposite side of the equation, the times that I was told that I needed to bring something/do something or completely rearranged my day for a task that was not my responsibility, it didn’t feel so great. I felt resentful. I wanted to lecture, I wanted to berate. They felt defensive and ashamed. How is this helpful to anyone?
The more thought I put into this the more I believe the answer lies with a couple things that set everyone up for success: Clear expectations of kids’ responsibilities and making sure that kids actually have time to accomplish those expectations. When kids know what is their responsibility and are consistently expected to come through, they are less likely to rely on parents as a catchall. And when parents acknowledge that kids can be stressed out and forgetful it brings greater awareness to the reality that being a kid is tough! There are days when I can’t drop off the violin or the dark brown bowl is in the dishwasher but I would like to think that over the course of many years and many, many forgotten items I have let my kids know that I’m someone who will accommodate when I can, within reason and when I can’t it’s for a good reason. A reason that matters to me, not necessarily to them, and we give each other that acceptance and understanding. We accept that it feels really shitty to say, “HERE. Here’s your brown bowl!” and it feels awful to get what you want knowing you played dirty to get it with manipulation and tantrums.
So maybe, in light of recent news it’s more important than ever to talk to kids about personal responsibility and remind them of their own capabilities. That they are trusted and respected enough to competently pack a lunch or organize homework the night before and that we have structured their schedule to allow that space. And, in the event they are human and forget something or need a little help we are there to accommodate.
*worth noting that I’m speaking of the East Fork Pottery bowls in molasses and morel. There is indeed a difference in the colors and these bowls, our family Christmas gift, are all that you want them to be and so much more!