The Frontline of Parenting: Gum and Outfits

August 21, 2010 at 9:35 am 8 comments

Here are a couple of the sticky issues popping up with our three-year old these days.


Echo: No! I wanna wear the polka-dot dress I wore yesterday!

Me (inner dialog): Crap. I don’t want her to wear that dress again. I’m kind of sick of that dress. And it’s out in the hall, stuffed in that bag. I don’t want to go out in the hall, I’d rather pick from all these clean clothes stacked right in front of me. (Outer dialog): You want to wear that dress you wore yesterday? I think it’s dirty. But there are lots of other dresses right here. How about this rainbow polka-dot dress?

Echo: NOOOOOOOOOO! The other one! The other one! The other one!

Me (inner dialog): Holy shit. I am going to go crazy with the screaming. I don’t like this. This isn’t worth it to me. Why do I care if she wears the same dress again. What’s the big deal? Why am I swimming upstream like this? (Outer dialog): Well let’s check out the dress and see how dirty it is.

Echo: OK

Me: I know you’re upset but while we are walking toward the dress will you stop making the loud noises you’re making? It’s just really hard for me when you are so close to my ear.

Echo: OK

Me: (inner dialog): Well it’s really only a little dirty. I can let this battle go. (Outer dialog): Here it is. A little dirt on it.

Echo: Waaaaaahhhh! But I want to wear it!

Me: Yeah. I just said it was a little dirty, I didn’t say you couldn’t wear it. Do you want it?

Echo: (sniffling) Yeah.

As a side note, there are plenty of times that Echo is really upset, screaming, crying, and I do not give her what she wants. I complied in this instance because in the end it made very little difference to me, it wasn’t important enough to me to fight against her feelings. In other cases, especially where safety is concerned or other health issues are involved I might react to her crying with empathy, but not offer to give her what she is asking for. If, for example, she were asking to be able to continue to hit her sister, or cross the street without looking, I would hold her and empathize, enduring her screams until they finished on their own. I do not believe that strong feelings indicate manipulation on the part of the child. If they themselves are not subjected to manipulation by their parents, then strong feelings are just that, intense emotional reactions to the current issue.


Echo: Mom can you move a chair over here so that I can climb on the counter?

Me: Why?

Echo: Because then I can reach the gum.

Me: (frustrated) I don’t want you to have gum right now, I’m putting food into a bowl for you right now.

Echo: Please move the chair Mom? I just want to HOLD the gum.

Me: (exasperated) You’ll wait until after dinner to eat it? You’ll just hold the pack?

Echo: Yeah. Thanks Mom. I choose bubble gum. Will you not look Mom?

Me: (suspicious) Echo… Even if I’m not looking I want you to wait until after dinner to chew the gum.

Echo: I will! Just don’t look. I’ll just go in the bedroom.

Me: (following behind, getting angry) Echo, I’m serious. I’m feeling mad, and if you eat that gum I will feel REALLY mad.

Echo: I’m just going to hold it and jump on the bed.

Too frustrated to stay engaged, I close the door.

Later Echo emerges, and moves to my side where, in delight? fear? triumph?, she opens her mouth to show me the unchewed pink rectangle sitting on her tongue. Without thinking my hand zips out and yanks that gum right out.

Echo: Waaaaaah! I’m going to get ANOTHER piece!

Me: (infuriated, chasing behind, and scooping her up, thinking: Holy shit. I am so pissed. But crap this is really going in a bad direction. Now she is afraid of this gum-yanking, chasing mother, and thinking that if only she hadn’t shown me, stayed hidden, she wouldn’t be in “trouble”.) Echo love. Let me hold you. Let’s talk about this. Was it scary when I chased you and picked you up?

Echo: Yeah and I really want that piece of gum!

Me: Why did you hide and eat the gum after you told me that you would hold it until after dinner?

Echo: Because I really wanted it and I thought you’d be mad.

Me: I’m mostly mad because you told me one thing and did another, not so much about the gum.

Echo: Oh.

Me: (snuggling)When we make a deal I like it when you do the deal, not something different. That way I know for sure that you are telling the truth. If you wanted the gum I would rather you had said: “Mama, I can’t wait until after dinner. I want the gum too badly.” Then we could have worked something out… You really wanted that gum.

Echo: Yeah.

Me: Well here’s that piece you had in your mouth. Let’s put it right next to your bowl so that’s it’s ready for you, right away, after you eat.

Echo: And I can suck on it between bites.

Me: (inner dialog): I’m feeling reluctant and pretty grossed out by that idea but it feels worth it to negotiate. (Outer dialog): OK

These have been trying moments. Wearing the dress one more time was no big deal once I got my feet moving out of my stubborn attachment to a clean, fresh outfit, and toward what would work for Echo. In the end a repeat outfit is small potatoes. But gum has become a struggle. As a Mom my desire for gum to come after dinner, or after breakfast, is intense. I tell myself that chewing gum will ruin her appetite, that food particles will mix with the gum and then …and then…? There isn’t really any sound logic. The gum is good for her teeth. She chews, maybe, one piece per day. What it really comes down to is that I have a preference. Gum is not life or death.

I guess I unconsciously think that if she has gum when I don’t want her to then it’s a downhill slide to other, more undesirable actions. Drawing on the walls today, beer bongs and frat parties tomorrow. It’s silly really because intellectually I know that freedom to make safe choices as a child leads to safe, well thought-out choices later in life. Putting her on lock-down only leads to more resistance, more lying, and more hiding. I think I’d rather Echo suck on a pice of sugarless gum in between bites of soup.

My relationship with her is more important than the proper sequence of dinner and gum, and I almost blew that by attempting to bully her into compliance. By chasing her through the living room, reaching for the pack, desperate to keep her from defying me, from selecting another rectangle of sweet rubber. The pack itself cost $1.09, which means that each piece is worth six cents. Even if she managed to cram thirteen pieces into her mouth before we had a chance to talk it through, that’s a fair price to pay for parenting my daughter with empathy and respect.

I’ll remember that for next time. And if the polka-dot dress is the selection for tomorrow… well, if you see us around town, just give us an understanding smile.


Entry filed under: discipline, life lessons, parenting principles. Tags: , , , , .

Keeping the Beast at Bay Out Like A Light, ha ha

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Krista  |  August 21, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    I just love when you share these dialogues. We are in so similar a place (as far as I can tell by your blog posts) in parenting philosophies as well as our daughters are only a month or so apart, when you’re talking to Echo, I can picture Hillary doing/saying such similar things. I love giving her empathy. I love taking that extra bit of time (that I wasn’t given, growing up) to work things out with me. I am not perfect, of course, and get caught up in my *wants* sometimes instead of seeing the *needs* of both sides. But I’m happy to say that more often than not, I enjoy being able to see past my wants and come to that more flexible, more fun, open place where solutions are so much more easily found. Don’t you find it a joy to practice putting your relationship first, over the small, inconsequential stuff? My biggest heartache is that my partner is no where near coming to these realizations and has very little ability to work things out with our children. I wonder, since I love your take on things so much, if you’d ever consider writing a post about “partners in different parenting places”. And I mean **REALLY** different places?

    • 2. nataliechristensen  |  August 22, 2010 at 7:57 am

      Oh yes, parenting differences can be so very hard. Parenting comes up more frequently than any other issue and is usually so heated. So far Nathan and I see almost exactly eye-to-eye on raising the girls so I don’t have some immediately ready insight into this but I’ll give it some thought.

  • 3. isa  |  August 21, 2010 at 9:41 pm

    loved that post! if we weren’t in Ct and if we saw you in the street, of course we would smile at the dress with understanding…i often think of you when my son’s hair are full of knots- putting the relation first…thanks Natalie!

    • 4. nataliechristensen  |  August 22, 2010 at 7:53 am

      oh I’m so glad knotty hair brings me to mind!

  • 5. martha  |  August 23, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    this was really helpful for me, too. the way you walk through the steps, and include your internal monologue, is so interesting and engaging. i really think you could write a great and useful book, soon, encompassing these scenarios, if you wanted to, had the time, etc. For me the “CLOTHES” and “GUM” situations with my 2-year old seems to often hinge on my readiness, willingness, or whatever it is, to stop and bring to consciousness whatever it is i’m fearing in the moment. often it’s just something i couldn’t have foreseen before that moment, that becomes perfectly approachable once i recognize that it’s the surprise element of it that’s holding me back more than anything.

  • 6. Miranda  |  August 23, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    I love your dialogues, they are so helpful, but it’s so hard to follow sometimes as my kids are close in age, boy 38 months, girl 18 months. I just don’t always get the chance to talk it through, emphathise, and connect with two little kids at my feet. I’m trying my best but I need quicker solutions, other than yelling or spanking or threatening – which my husband thinks would work better!

    • 7. nataliechristensen  |  August 24, 2010 at 1:53 pm

      Yes, I agree, the time it takes to work something out with words and empathy can be difficult with little ones, especially those close in age. But I assure you it can be done. Our play group includes three three-year olds, a two year old, and three infants, and at times it feels like utter chaos, but still we manage to treat each conflict with patience and care. All four mothers respond with empathy and information time and time again. It works.

      But time really is the key word. If you are going to operate in this manner you must be willing to stop and work it through no matter what you would rather be doing. You might be in the grocery store parking lot for a bit, or sitting on the curb at the park for as long as it takes for your children to feel heard and become ready to move forward. It isn’t easy.

      But let’s look at the alternatives of yelling, spanking and threatening. I wonder if this would save you any time at all. Yelling might be effective in stopping a particular motion at a particular time but it is not a long term solution. You’d like your son to not hit your daughter, for example, not because Mom will yell really loudly but because he is aware of the pain he causes, and the emotional effects of such an action. Threatening, again, might work temporarily but at the cost of your credibility when you fail to meet-out the threat, or at the cost of having to come up with new torturous reactions, or new toys to buy them and then take away. Often threats (“If you don’t stop yelling we’ll have to leave the grocery store. 1…2…3…”) end up punishing the parents, as they must follow through, leaving the full grocery cart in the aisle and returning home empty handed. Also, in order to keep “working” threats must escalate with each conflict. Removal of a beloved toy will only work so many times. As for spanking, it simply doesn’t work, read more here.

      Where these methods do succeed is at teaching your children that violence and intimidation are how one gets what they want in life, and that as soon as they are bigger they can treat people as you treat them. What it creates in your household is a boiling pot of tension and anxiety. You might fly quickly from one conflict, having opted for yelling and spanking, only to crash headlong into the next violent episode, either on the part of the child or the parent. A household like this, where quick orderly obedience is prized and therefore sought out with force, is one lacking in the thing that matters most in the long run; healthy, trusting, parent/child relationships.

      For more information and the kind of statistics that satisfy even the most intense skeptic please look at Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting.

      I know you are not advocating these methods, simply trying to avoid them, but I feel it never hurts to debunk the “effectiveness” of such methods, especially when they are touted above a more humane response. As for quick solutions that do not belong in the intimidation category, I would look for ways to simplify your life. Reduce the number of errands, lower the number of demands on your children’s patience, reduce the amount of television or computer time, stay off the phone as much as possible, stay home more, and in general do less, so that compliance need not happen immediately, “or else”. Make room for patience, empathy, and information and they will not fail you.

      • 8. Miranda  |  August 24, 2010 at 4:51 pm

        Thanks for the reply. I guess it’s not the day to day sibling fights or getting dressed or bathed that’s the issue, I do have lots of time for explaining and empathy and we have little of those conflicts. It’s more like ‘danger’ situation which there are many with two little kids, such as getting them both dry before they streak across tile floors wet, or while I’m helping one on the potty the other starts jumping on the bed close to falling off, or getting shoes on one while the other heads to the road on a trike, it’s a lot if madness really, not misbehaviour or tantrums, we actually have very few, but you see why I can’t just stop and explain a situation.

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