I really, really, really wanted a hotdog for lunch. It’s such a simple request, and I just didn’t understand why it could not be fulfilled. We had hotdogs in the fridge. We had water and pots and a stovetop where things could be boiled, so why wasn’t I enjoying a delicious hotdog for lunch? Well, my parents said that I couldn’t have one.
I was four-years-old at the time, if that helps with context at all. My developing brain just couldn’t wrap itself around my parents’ reasoning for why I couldn’t have a hotdog. I don’t remember what they were offering me instead, but it couldn’t have been nearly as good. They were saying something about healthier and sodium and chemicals, but four-year-old me was not trying to hear that noise. A hotdog was one of the most delicious things that I’d ever eaten, and I honestly couldn’t understand why we didn’t eat them twice a day every day.
My parents just wouldn’t fold, though. My deep desire for processed meat product could not sway them, and I was powerless to make my own hotdog. Even though I couldn’t even reach the stove, I wasn’t going to take this injustice quietly. I parked myself on the living room couch, folded my arms and frowned at nothing and no one in particular…quietly.
Now that I’m an adult who regularly cares for kids in homes and schools, this sounds like a dream situation. Well, a dream situation would be a child jumping for joy when presented with celery sticks and lean cold cuts for lunch, but this is a close second. A quiet, non-destructive temper tantrum, it’s the perfect moment to let natural consequences take their course. You’re at home, not in public, so you don’t need to worry about transporting the child to a car or other second location. The child isn’t destroying anything or causing bodily harm to herself or anyone else. The child is quiet and still and not in any immediate danger. It’s the perfect time to do one of my favorite things, wait out a stubborn kid. You fire up Netflix or grab the book on your bedside table and relax, because what kids don’t know is that adults are way better at waiting than they are. In some time, you will have a hungry and reticent child surrendering to baby carrots or kale chips or whatever you’re trying to feed them. Or you’ll have a child who wasn’t really that hungry go off to play and return to the kitchen hours later, actually rather happy to see apple slices or dried apricots or whatever. The best thing about waiting a kid out is that it’s a strategy that works over and over again. You’re going to have so much extra time on your hands, you’ll probably re-tile the bathroom or finally learn French.
Waiting out a kid who’s quietly frowning is preferable over sweeping up soupy mac and cheese after it’s been thrown across the kitchen, getting whacked in the face, being locked out of the house, or hearing an ominous cracking noise as glass chess pieces are being launched into the air, which are all things that have actually happened to me while I was performing in my professional capacity. While these experiences were daunting, and I was tempted to throw a response tantrum, recognizing that I was the adult in the situation, I responded with calm, understanding and patience. Okay, full disclosure, the glass chess piece thing did make me raise my voice, but that seven-year-old was not at all afraid of me.
Recollecting my childhood while simultaneously caring for children has brought me to one huge conclusion: I was a pretty good kid. I wasn’t perfect. I definitely had my moments, but sitting quietly and frowning is about as bad as my temper tantrums tended to get. What’s confounding is why my parents didn’t then respond to me with calm, understanding and patience. My memory of that afternoon on the couch, silently protesting the withholding of a hotdog, is that my dad came over and sat down next to me. His face looked like a thunderstorm, and suddenly I was frightened. He was so angry and so scary. He didn’t lay a hand on me, but he told me that I needed to stop it and go to the kitchen and eat some broccoli florets and be glad about it or else a spanking was coming. Cowed, I complied.
I learned then, to be scared. I learned that my own anger is unacceptable. I learned that people in power can always “out angry” me, and so I shouldn’t even try. And, if I do try I should be prepared to turn it up to 11. I learned that people wouldn’t be patient with me. I learned that I was bad for expressing my displeasure. I learned that I was bad for trying to get what I wanted, for trying to feel good. I learned that I was bad. I still carry these lessons with me today. Rather, I should say that I wearily drag these lessons behind me.
Adult me wants to scream back through the years, “It doesn’t have to be that big of a deal! You don’t have to make her feel like a bad kid! Just be patient! Just be kind! Just be nice! Just let her be a normal kid! Just let me be!”
My dad was not and is not nice. My mom lived and, even though they are no longer married, still lives underneath the weight of his impossible expectations of perfect obedience and complete deference. Neither of them could give me the space that I needed and still do need, the space to fuck up and then recover. I needed to be able to be imperfect and then look around and realize that the world was still standing and I was still breathing in spite of my imperfection. Since no one gave that to me as a child, I blundered into it as an adult.
Now I can peer back through the years and whisper to that little girl. “You’re doing fine. It’s okay that you’re angry. The anger won’t make things go your way, but feel it anyway. The anger isn’t a logical or rational response to this situation, but feel it anyway. Sit and frown. Don’t talk. It’s okay. Just feel. Feel that anger. Let it burn you up. Ride on the crests of your waves of indignation. There you go. That’s it. Don’t worry, you won’t drown. You’ll rise above it. You’ll breathe, and the anger will fade, and you’ll amble into the kitchen and enjoy some grilled cheese on whole wheat bread with iceberg lettuce salad, and no one will think any less of you for it. No one will love you any less even though you were less than perfect for awhile. There you go, you’re doing fine.”