Too Many Choices

So, I’ve recently been reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and the follow-up, 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, perhaps the greatest annoyance any parent can inflict on a child. Because, of course, we are never satisfied with improving and reforming ourselves. No. We must needs improve the world, and who is handier to start on than our own children?

My son has an unreasonable and seemingly unyielding distaste for our dog, which is both exasperating and baffling, because he is the one who picked the dog out in the first place. Of course, the dog bit Liam’s tractor, so I suppose there is no forgiveness in this world or the next for such a grievous offense, as far as Liam is concerned. And Liam can be quite the stubborn, maddening little 4-year-old, getting mad at the dog for sniffing or even looking at him. “Don’t look at me, dog!” is a common refrain in my home.

Funnily enough, feeding the dog is one of Liam’s chores. Really it’s one of the few things he can do unaided, as both the food and the dish are within his reach. When he was first assigned this job, he was very excited. He’s very helpful, always asking what he can do to help and trying to find ingenious “helpful” ways of pitching in, such as voluntarily clearing the table by throwing away all the dishes, or helping with the baking by pouring water into every available mixing bowl. He also seems to think I should never be detached from my phone; I can’t set it down anywhere without him bringing it to me with a sweet smile and saying “You got-for this” (got-for being his way of saying forgot). (I’m a little disturbed by this impression I’m apparently giving him, that I desperately need to have my phone on me at all times. Then again, how often has he heard me say “I’ve lost my phone again” and seen me wandering around the house, checking all the usual and unusual places where I might have set it down last? Really, he’s quite right).

Anyway, about two months ago we were trying to come up with jobs around the house that he can do, and feeding the dog was the one that most easily fell into his scope and fit his abilities. And he happily agreed to it. He was happy to have a job that was a real help in the family. We had a short training session on how to fill the cup, how to walk without spilling the food, putting the cup away so it didn’t get lost, and closing the door when he was finished so the dog wouldn’t get into the food. From all perspectives, this seemed to be a win-win-win for the situation, for Liam, the parents, and the dog.

But, of course, that would be too easy. Because now, Liam doesn’t like the dog. He doesn’t want the dog to look at him, and has suggested several times that we take the dog back. I’ve been struggling with how to deal with this. Do I scold? Punish? Ignore? We’ve been aiming for a mixture of talking and ignoring, provided the dog isn’t abused (there were several tearful trips to the bedroom for kicking the dog), without aggravating the situation. But for the past several weeks, the real fight has been over feeding the dog. We have had screaming tantrums, stomping, cries of “I hate you!”, dirty looks, and tearfully slammed doors. And don’t even get me started on Liam’s behavior (just kidding, that was all him; I usually just try very hard not to yell and not to swat his defiant little bottom).

So, enter The 7 Habits, where I read about trying to create win-win situations, teaching that we are responsible for our actions and yes, even our reactions, that everything we do, think, and even feel is a choice. Now, while this all makes sense in my head, it is hard to put into practice, even as an adult. I try to catch myself saying things like “It makes me mad” and change it to language that is more positive and portrays my own control over my feelings: “I would rather do something else; I would prefer you not use that word; I will swat your bottom if you disrespect me again (trying to keep it positive, but at least acknowledging that I am in control of my actions and feelings). Now, if this is hard enough for an adult to do, imagine the fun it is trying to get a four-year-old to grasp these concepts of self awareness and self control. But I’m trying anyway.

The other day, after a lovely show of anger, defiance, and four-year-old logic (“Dave can feed the dog. I won’t do it!”), which ended with me feeding the dog and Liam staying in his room until bath time (which took place with no toys!), I tried to sit down and lovingly talk to my son. I explained to him that he had agreed to feed the dog, that choosing to go back on his word meant I couldn’t trust him. We discussed why he doesn’t like the dog (when Liam rides his tractor, the dog bites the bucket, and when Liam runs, the dog tries to knock him down). Every time he said something like, “The dog makes me angry,” “I hate the dog,” or even “I hate you,” I would respond with “That’s your choice.” When he said he wouldn’t feed the dog and I explained the consequences, he said he hated me or that he didn’t like the consequences, and I explained that he could choose what he did, but he didn’t get to choose what I did, or the consequences.

Is this all sounding a little heavy for a four-year-old? Obviously, Liam thought so. Finally, he leaned back on his bed, gave a dramatic groan of frustration and said “Mom! I don’t like all these choices! I don’t want so many choices.”

And there it is. What he meant, of course, is that he wanted to be able to do, think, and feel whatever he wanted, make whatever choice was easiest, without dealing with unpleasant consequences. Don’t we all? Isn’t that the battle of every adult, every human, learning not to try to control what is not ours to control, to live with the consequences of our actions, to make choices with those consequences in mind? To realize that every time we say “You make me so (insert emotion here),” we are telling ourselves a lie?

I remember being so frustrated with my own father for trying to teach me this lesson, telling me “No one can make you anything. It’s your choice.” It’s very annoying as a teenager (and child too, apparently) to have parents who demand more of you, who won’t just let you shift the blame for your frustrations and faults onto someone else, something else, or just life in general.

I’ve considered giving my son a different job, trying to keep him separate from the dog, but what would that really teach him? That it’s okay for him to change his mind and back out of an agreement? That his word doesn’t have to mean anything? That he doesn’t have to learn to control his emotions and actions? Would I really be so selfish as to damage him like that, just so I don’t have to put up with some unpleasantness right now? If I really love him, don’t I want him to be the best he can be, to be strong enough to push himself to do hard things?

I feel you, Liam. I remember those days of frustration, just wishing my Dad would beat me rather than give another lecture on why I’m in control of myself and how my behavior was disappointing (all in the most frustratingly loving tone and gentle manner; nothing like guilt to drive home that lesson). And as a parent I can see how tempting, how temporarily satisfying, how much simpler it would be just to give a quick spanking and move on, without addressing the real issue, without really teaching or communicating. I’ve made this mistake in the past and doubtless, I’ll make it again, but I’m trying.

So, yes, Liam. You have a lot of choices to make, and a lot to learn.

And for every parent doing their best not to screw up their kids (or at least avoid paying for years of therapy) here’s to us and our choices. Here’s to holding that door shut on a screaming child so you don’t shake them, here’s to explaining for the millionth time why they can’t have ice cream whenever they want, here’s to resisting the urge to just give into those puppy dog eyes and crocodile tears. Here’s to every hug, sweet smile, kiss, and blessed moment of hearing “Mom, I really like you.” Here’s to us and them, figuring it out together.