I’m part of an online mom’s group where we share parenting struggles. We all have 4-year-olds and there’s a trend emerging among our kids lately. They are saying things like: “You are the worst mommy ever!”, “I hate you mommy!” and “I wish Jessica was my mommy and not you”. Thanks for being so awesome, Jessica.
It’s both hilarious and heartbreaking considering all that a parent does for their kid only to get verbally slapped in the face.
I had one of these moments over lunch recently. It had been a rough morning with lots of high-decibel screaming over minor things like putting shoes on, who got the purple-lidded snack cup, and 50 more examples of pettiness before the nine o’clock hour.
We were late eating lunch so I placed a tortilla on my daughter’s favorite colored plate to get things rolling. I set the taco fixings out on the table with a spoon in each dish like an organized mother so she could serve herself. “She will be happy with this” I tell myself with wavering hope.
My 2-year-old was devouring his food when my 4-year-old finally trudged to the table. Within seconds she yells “BUT MOMMY! I wanted to choose my OWN PLATE!”
After some negotiation and telling her to ask in a kinder voice, I allowed her to put the red plate back (she always picks the red) and chooses pink.
We all sit at the table and I put the tortilla on her pink plate and proudly tell her she can choose her own toppings. A thunderstorm of emotion pours over the room.
“BUT MOOOOOOMMMMMYYYY! I WANTED TO PICK MY OWWWWWN TORTILLLLLA!” she screams.
Okay. Momma is done with this power struggle. I also do not believe in wasting the perfectly good tortilla she is ripping into one thousand pieces. I tell her she needs to be happy with the tortilla I put out for her, that it is a great tortilla, it’s just like the rest of them, and that I got it just for her out of kindness and I don’t want to get up to get the tortilla bag out of the fridge, again”. Exhale.
Well, she did not like that. So she screamed for the next 10 minutes while angrily wadding the innocent tortilla into a sorry little ball.
I try to appear calm and ride it out. That’s what I thought to best in the moment. You know, it’s the first-born child. But in the midst of this screaming, hot blood was pumping through my head that I somehow managed to control with the powers of my fully developed pre-frontal cortex… which four-year-olds aren’t privy to.
After some time, her screams reduced to whimpers.
I could see the conflicting emotions crisscrossing in her mind. She felt ashamed and sad. I saw a look of fear that she harmed the relationship with me. I’m pretty much her connection to the world right now. The person she relies on for food, emotional security, and love (at least from 8 to 5 on weekdays except for Wednesdays). So for her to mess things up with me, well, that’s a big problem.
Rather than scolding her and adding fuel to the fire, I didn’t say anything and walked over to her chair and gave her a hug, hoping I was doing the right thing in this all too familiar yet uncharted territory of tantrum-taming.
She melted into my arms. She rubbed her hot angry wet face into my shoulder and took a big breath of relief that I was not going to hold this tantrum against her.
It was a hug reassuring my love and forgiveness—even though there was ABSOLUTELY no way I was giving her a new tortilla.
After she was confident in my love, she was able to conjure up the confidence to talk through her feelings in an incredibly mature way.
With tears still rolling down her cheeks, she said, “Mommy… I felt like you were ruining my life.”
Wow—over a tortilla… I say to myself, wondering how I would ever survive parenting a tween.
She continued on. “I felt like you were just controlling me”.
I listened and took a deep breath with her, commending her for great communication and empathizing that she’s not alone in her dislike for being controlled. We talked through it more, but I took note of how much humans hate losing freedom. Prison is the consequence our society has come up with for worst offenders—essentially the ultimate loss of control. Many of us would agree that being controlled is one of the worst things that could happen. And it’s just as hard for kids, even though they need healthy boundaries from parents.
The outburst wasn’t really about the tortilla. It was about control. And we can’t have a four-year-old in control of our lives so it is my duty to teach her what is appropriate. Even though it would be easier in the moment to give her a new tortilla, it would also be a disservice to her in learning the necessary life skill of how to treat others.
Through this moment of tortilla rage, I’ve seen proof of what my kids need more than anything else. More than eating perfectly healthy food or having the perfect preschool, they need to know I love them through it all, even when they say those dreaded words “I hate you” or “you ruined my life”. When children can understand that their parent’s rules and boundaries are based out of love, they learn to trust that authority, even if they don’t like it.
The little battles that make up our children’s first years demonstrate our authority and love before the conflicts become more consequential than tortillas. I have heard that it is more important for a parent to earn the trust of their teenager than for the teenager to earn the trust of their parent.
For now, take comfort in knowing that “somewhere out there beneath the pale moonlight” when your child is screaming, mine probably is too.