You know those exchanges with your child where you’re trying to make a point and your parental wisdom, impeccable though it might be, is not being embraced? Before you know it, you’ve landed in a gnarly little power struggle. In our family, the snafus tend to happen in the morning, when everyone is trying to eat, feed the dogs, get organized, and get going. Amid the melee patience wears thin, and a parent (well, this one anyway) can lose perspective.
A few weeks ago, my older sister was visiting when I had one of these minor blowouts with my nine-year old daughter. Larkin had dawdled and I was trying to get her out the door to school, when I saw that she had put on a pair of beat-up galoshes-like boots, in a dingy shade of purple, instead of her usual shoes. I told her to change them.
Why? she asked.
“They’re not school shoes,” I said. “They’re not even shoes. They look funky, and they’re too big for you, and they’re gonna be uncomfortable and probably too hot.”
“But I want to wear them. I got them at the tag sale last week and I love them!”
“Honey,” I said. “They’re not appropriate. You have a whole bunch of great shoes right here to choose from. Please take those off and wear something else.”
“But Dad. They are comfortable. And the only rule for shoes at school is closed toe. So they are appropriate. And I’m wearing them!”
Things went downhill from there: gritted teeth on my side, tears on hers, and the final stopping point of “Because I said so!” It wasn’t pretty, but we got out the door, with the usual shoes on my daughter’s feet. When I came back from dropping her off I chatted with my sister, who had observed the interaction. “Not my finest moment,” I said to her, glumly. But my sister – who doesn’t have kids -- tends to view children today as overindulged by parents unwilling to draw clear lines, and my adamancy found favor with her.
“Listen,” she said, “you told her to do something and then you stuck to it. Kids need that. She should do something because you tell her to.”
I wasn’t so sure. My daughter had refuted every reason I gave her for not wearing those boots. Sure, I told my sister, I can force my child to do things, but what good is it when there’s no real reason for it? “I shouldn’t have gone out on that limb. It wasn’t worth fighting. It just came down to brute power.”
“Well, OK,” my sister said. “But I still think you were right.”
Live and learn, live and learn. Another one of these conflicts happened just this morning. Today is photo day at our daughter’s school, and at the breakfast table she and Molly and I are deciding which photo package to order. In addition to those sheets of wallet-sized pictures, the company offers a dog-tag photo – a laminated miniature, enclosed in a little plastic oval, on a chain. I have one of Larkin from three years ago and wear it most days beneath my shirt.
“Dad,” she says. “I want a dog-tag photo this year.”
“What, you mean, of yourself?” Molly and I glance at each other. “You know, honey,” I start in. “I wear that dog-tag photo of you because you’re just about the most important person to me on earth, and it’s a way of symbolically keeping you close to my heart. If you do that with yourself – well, it’s kind of weird, don’t you think?”
“But I do love myself!” she says, brightly. “And besides, it’ll be beneath my shirt!”
“OK, but what about when someone notices the chain around your neck, and they ask to see it? Do you really want them to see you wearing a keepsake of yourself?”
“I don’t care! What’s wrong with it?”
Mercifully my wife jumps in to help me out, telling a story about a friend of hers years ago who got engaged to a slick and ambitious young lawyer whom none of her friends liked or trusted, and how one time my wife was at a party at his apartment and, looking for the bathroom, wandered into his bedroom. “There was only one photo in the whole room,” she says, “in a big frame right on his bedside table. And do you know who the photo was of?”
“Himself?” our daughter says.
“Right. Now do you see why nobody trusted him? Because we knew he loved himself more than anyone else.” She gives Larkin a smile. “The thing is, sweetie, I’ve watched you, and that’s not the way that you actually behave with other people. You’re not like that lawyer. You don’t always put yourself first. You’re very considerate with other people.”
She nods. But she still wants the dog tag, she insists. “Dad,” she says, “everyone in class is getting them. They all wear dog tags with pictures of themselves. Nobody cares.”
“Ahh, I see. So what if you go in today and all your classmates are smearing pigeon poop on their foreheads? Are you gonna come home today and say, Dad, lets go scoop up some pigeon poop?”
She sighs in a way that announces she’s done with the joking, time to get down to business. “Dad, please, can I pretty pretty pretty please get the dog tag?”
I hesitate. “I’m just not sure I can let you go around wearing a locket with a keepsake of yourself,” I say.
And there’s the crux of it: me, my concerns, and my power to “let” her or not. It’s my hang-ups that have me stumbling over this, not hers. The narcissistic ramification of the self-depicting dog tag – or whatever dire significance it holds for me -- is not at all what it means to her. As Molly pointed out, excessive self-love is not in fact a problem with our daughter, whose instinctive generosity on behalf especially of kids who are marginalized is one of the most appealing aspects of her character. So maybe I need to relent. Maybe she doesn’t need us to formulate and deliver to her -- tied up with the bow of a dog tag -- something she already knows.
And after all, I remind myself, a dialectic will only take you so far. When you get there, better to opt for laughter instead.
“OK, honey, we’ll get the dog tag,” I say, to her loud cheer. “And the pigeon poop too.”
PS/ Apologies to those of you who found yourselves unable to post a comment on my last blog entry, which took up a critique of college lectures. A prominent person mentioned in the piece has been stalked for years by a deranged individual who jumps into any thread in which this person’s name is mentioned and disrupts it with a nonstop stream of bizarre and paranoid accusations. To keep this maniac off the site, the editors at Commonweal were forced to shut down commentary on my entry.