Ever have that feeling where you wish you were a kid again? I do. All the time. It’s like I’m homesick for childhood. It’s not the nonchalance of summers and Saturdays that I miss; and it’s not the unfathomable creativity, either; it’s just the liberation from decision-making. Think about all of the people dads have to try to please in a day: bosses, spouses, co-workers, friends, neighbors, children. We’re making all these decisions with everyone’s “best interests” at stake. And it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier: last I checked, neither Romney nor Obama are planning to add any hours to the day. Nope, it’s all ticking away in Nintendo minutes. 1440 minutes before it starts all over again tomorrow morning.
So being a kid is better, right? I mean, c’mon! No big decisions and just your parents to please. Lai. Ssez. Faire. Except it’s not that simple. No, you see, my two year old daughter loves making decisions. Loves dilly-dallying. Loves changing her mind like it’s a Barbie outfit. Here’s an example: it’s bedtime and I know with 99% certainty that my daughter will choose her favorite book to read. Yet, when I pick it up and invite her onto my lap she turns into a squirmy, squealing wolverine of a princess. So, since bedtime is a frenetic and exhausting relaxing time in our house, off she goes to sift through her bookshelf. And after two long minutes…voila! Back she comes with her little thumb-sucking-grin and, yep, the SAME BOOK I JUST HAD IN MY HAND.
Now you’re probably asking yourself, is two minutes really a big deal? Don’t I want my daughter to be curious? To stand up for herself? To make decisions? To embrace the democratic inheritance of her own individual sovereignty? Isn’t one of the hallmarks of strong women not being compliant? Yes, of course I want these things, and when she turns 18, of course I want her to be one of those girls who follows the battle cry of Laurel Thatcher Ullrich: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” But she’s two years old and when this bedtime encounter comes on the butt end of fourteen hours of her petulant stubbornness strong-willed antics, I’m ready for some good, old-fashioned 1950’s obedience.[SPOILER ALERT: this next part is where I explain that the catalyst for great parenting decisions is talking with your partner (or a close friend if you’re a single parent). It is simple: two brains wield twice the horsepower of one. This is a parenting “duh.” Don’t do it alone.]
After sharing my frustration with my wife, she offered me some sage advice.
“Will, you are really rational. You are a sane, reasonable, easy-going guy. In the world of grown ups, these are outstanding traits. But you would make a terrible two year old. You can’t reason with her. She is irrational, she is emotional. She is two.”
“Oh. So, I should be irrational?”
“Try giving her choices.”
These four words are pure parenting gold. Sure my little girl has the vocabulary of a five year old, but she still has the brain of a two year old. She can’t reason or deliberate, but she can choose between two things. This realization has seemingly changed everything (at least until she awakes tomorrow in a new stage of development and says “no” to both choices). I still “knew best,” but the choices didn’t matter…they didn’t even have to be real choices!
Suddenly, “Naomi, please come here so I can change your diaper” became “Do you want to fly out of your diaper like a unicorn or zoom like a firetruck?”
(No tears and I looked like a diaper-changing NASCAR crew chief).
“It’s time to brush your teeth” became “Should I brush your ears first, or your teeth?” followed by me pretending to brush her nose, her eyes, her ears, before dipping the helpless bristles into her tiny chomper-filled jaws. But, by the time I start brushing her teeth (an endeavor that last week would have caused a tear-laden tirade)she is laughing. And if there is one thing that makes brushing someone else’s teeth while you’re kneeling on their shoulders and holding their flailing mouth still as you stab it with the pink, plastic, happy, smiling face of Dora the Explorer, it’s the toothy reality of a belly laugh.
See, the reality of giving your kid choices is that it can be totally silly: “do your socks want to sing a song onto your feet, or scream and shout?” Or they can be completely reasonable: “Do you want your peanut butter on top, or your jelly on top?” and “Do you want to walk upstairs or have Daddy carry you?” Though I’ve made the personal choice to embrace the ridiculous, in both situations you are winning the game. Your kid is getting their needs met, you are less stressed, and you still make it to that ever-so-important-event-that-you’re-dragging-your-family-to-against-their-collective-wills.
Oh, and in the process, you’ll laugh a lot (I mean, how can you not laugh when your wife overhears you imitating an irate pair of hello kitty socks as they scream their way onto a pair of pudgy little toddlefeet?); you’ll develop a deeper relationship with your kids; you’ll receive the gift of hearing them laugh; and, of course, you’ll be reminded that they are still babies. They are not reasonable. They are not mature. They are little unreasonable people who take and take and take and love you endlessly in the best way they know.
Oh yeah, and when it comes to choices, they’ll also help you remember that they’re the best choice you ever made. You could’ve bolted during that first night home from the hospital, but you didn’t. You stuck around and now you’re stuck with them. They’ll never pay you back, but that’s not the point. This is your life. Your life! You can decide to be a unicorn…or a fire truck. Or, of course, there’s always the option of being a lame, boring dad who makes your kids do stuff they hate. You choose.