Nina turned three in January. And three is. kicking. my. ass. The terrible twos are a crock compared to three.
I am living with a “three-nager.” Nothing, absolutely nothing, gets done without a fight. Bedtime stinks. But potty-training is catching on like gangbusters. Sometimes she tries to put her coat on backwards and I laugh because some nights I think both of us need straight-jackets. Not only is she developing some very specific preferences, but she will tell me (ad nauseam) what is wrong with the bad things. My cooking (“not tasty”), bedtime (“not fun for me”), hair-washing (“I want to be dirty!”)…She has a little BFF, who will be going to school in September. I’m dreading it already.
And yet there is a scary level of emotional intelligence and sensitivity. A desire to be a “good girl,” for me to be happy, and to share how she feels at varying decibels. Last week as I was snuggling her in bed, she turned to me for the very first time ever, exclaimed “guess what?”
I was giddy with excitement as I cried “what?”
It turns out that “what” was that her friend fell on her bum, and then got up. But with those two words I was rocketed forward, to a time when we will converge at home after school and work and talk about our days. When the “what” will be something bigger and more grown-up. Maybe a problem at school, trouble with bullies, or a fight with a friend. And I realize that the wonderful thing about three is that I still have a little more time when the biggest news will be about someone falling on their bum. And where she will snuggle up to me after sharing her news, still believing that Mummy can fix any problem, still little enough that a kiss cures all things.
Guess what? I think I can handle three a little longer.
“You let her win!”
“If you let him win he will never listen to you.”
I don’t know who started using this kind of language. I don’t know when parenting became a competition, a contest. But I know that in the brief period that I have been a mother, I have been told countless times that I’ve let Nina “win” and that she won’t respect me if I keep doing that. I don’t believe that the people who’ve said this are malicious. But I also don’t believe that my daughter and I are adversaries. I’m still trying to figure out what kind of parent I want to be. And I still make plenty of mistakes.
But I have come to a realization about power. About the different ways that power can be wielded and what it can do to people if it is used inappropriately. Abusing power erodes trust, damages relationships, and creates wounds that don’t ever really heal. I am humbled daily by the power that I have as Nina’s mother, the way that she trusts me and looks to me for comfort. The way that she asks questions and believes what I tell her. The way that she absorbs the tone of my voice and my mood and gives it back to me. I have plenty of opportunities to use this power to instill fear, to correct her or to embarrass her. I have the power to do things that she will remember forever and that will shape the kind of person she becomes.
When someone tells me that I have let her “win” at something, I wonder exactly what it is that I have “lost.” Because if there is a winner, there also has to be a loser.
Last night Nina was being an epic butthead. Throwing papers around and tearing up the living room. My husband looked at me and said, “what do I do?” I said, “hug her.” And he did. As he held her, he shook his head. “When I asked her if she wanted a hug, she said no. But then she came to me anyway.” This is exactly why I don’t want to be the winner. Because at the times when Nina seems most deserving of heavy-handedness, when I would be most expected to exert my power, what she needs more than anything is softness.
Fear, intimidation, and shame are powerful. There’s no denying it. I have felt the terrible pain of power being used against me, and the thought of inflicting that kind of pain on my child is sickening. But trust is also powerful. Comfort – not material, but the feeling of being secure – is not a prize to be given only to the strongest competitor. It isn’t something that any child should have to win.