The Nuclear Option

The other night after dinner, Lily begged me to go with her to ask whether a neighborhood boy – whose house we pass every day as we walk to and from Lily’s preschool – could come over to play on the trampoline in our backyard.

I’d previously mentioned Lily’s interest in playing to the boy’s mom, so I agreed to help carry out Lily’s plan (and yes, she DOES always have one).

Indeed, because we’d run into the family earlier that day, and suggested the possibility of a post-dinner get-together, the boy – I’ll call him William – spotted Lily as we approached and burst out the door to accept her invitation.

All good, right?

We walk back to our house, and the kids jump on the trampoline for a few minutes. Then Lily decides she wants to change into her bathing suit and run through the sprinkler. Now, as it happens, she’s so excited that she’s had an accident, anyway; but then I worry about William not having his swimsuit with him. His mother quickly says William can just wear his shorts, though, and Lily’s giddiness at having a new friend over to her house instantly ratchets up several notches.

So the two of them run through the sprinkler a couple of times, until Lily decides that she wants to fill the kiddie pool with water and go in that next – and she kind of orders William to do the same, even though he seems initially uninterested.

“Lily, you should ask him if he wants to go in. It’s up to him,” I say, but she’s like a coked-up hummingbird by this point and doesn’t hear a word, doesn’t change her bossy tone.

“She’s just excited,” I tell myself. “Nothing is making it through those little ears just now. Cut her a little extra slack until she get a bit more used to William being here.”

Joe arrives back home with Neve at about this time, having taken her downtown to an outdoor concert for kids. The poor little pigtailed baby is konked out in her stroller, so Joe, after chatting with William’s mom for a few minutes, takes Neve inside to get her jammied up for bed.

Meanwhile, in the pool, things slowly go off the rails. William agrees to come in as the hose fills the pool, and Lily suddenly gets obsessed about seeing his underwear under his shorts (“Let it go, Lily,” I tell her – and the source of all this is another blog post altogether, people); she also starts randomly throwing things like a large plastic watering can, with no regard for whom it might hurt on its way down.

I sternly tell Lily not to throw it again, but she’s just as oblivious to my voice as before. She starts splashing William, who asks her to stop it. She promises him she will; but then, moments later, she points the hose at him again, and I see the watering can go airborne again, too.

That’s the instant when some switch inside me gets flipped on – some recognition that Lily is way out of control, and that suddenly, the only option is the nuclear option.

So I yank her up into my arms and walk with her toward the house, yelling apologies to William and his mother as Lily wails and kicks and fights me for all she’s worth.

I get her inside the house, and one of the first things she screams at me, repeatedly, is, “Give me another chance! I want another chance!”

My heart breaks a little at these pleadings. Part of me wants to do precisely as she asks, and flag down William and his mother as they make their way back down the sidewalk. But I know I can’t do that.

“I gave you several chances, Lily,” I say. “You didn’t listen to me, and you weren’t nice to your guest. You made him a promise, and you broke that promise seconds later. I won’t have guests who come to our house treated that way.”

By now, she’s a red-faced, veiny mess of tears and snot and fury. “I want to play with William! I want to go back outside!”

“He and his mommy are gone, sweetie. They’ve gone home.”

“No! I want to play with him!” She starts jumping up and down. “I want to play with him!”

Now I should tell you at this point that while I’ve seen Lily angry many, many times, no rage I’ve witnessed matches the level she achieved during this episode. She was furious with the world at large, screaming and lashing out at everything that crossed her path.

But I rode it out, telling her that William might come over some other time – “No! I want to play NOW!” – but if he did, she’d have to strictly follow three rules: first, when a guest comes to our house, he or she is to be treated kindly and with respect; second, underwear, and unwanted physical contact, is off limits; and third, she has to listen to what Joe and I say to her, no matter how excited she gets.

As Lily continued to weep and wail, Joe and I got her into pajamas and brushed her teeth, leading her up to her room.

Once there, she essentially screamed orders about who should put her to bed, and that she wanted her dollies and some water. Um, no, sweetie. That’s not how this is going to go, especially since you’re yelling at us and not at all trying to calm down and ask us for these things nicely.

At this point, she started taking light swats at us. Now, she knows very well that she’s not allowed to hit me or her father, so we confront her about this very thing, telling her she’s on thin ice – and I eventually get her to calm down enough to sit and read a couple of books with me.

Of course, it just so happens that some old high school friends of mine, one of whom was in town from the other side of the country, are meeting at 9 p.m. in Novi for drinks. Since Lily is normally in her bed by 8:45, I thought, sure, I’d love to go – and one of my friends who lives nearby had said she’d give me a ride. While reading Lily books, I know we’re probably right up against my pick-up time, and I hear my cell phone ringing downstairs. So I ask Joe to go check the driveway and the street to see if my friend has arrived and is waiting for me.

Meanwhile, between Lily’s stories, I warn her that I have to leave afterward – that I’d made a promise to meet some people for a while that night.

At first, she seems fine with that – until Joe comes in and says, “You need to go.”

Aaaaaaaand then Lily loses it again. “Just go, Gorgeous,” Joe says, holding Lily back from following me as she wailed. Not sure what else to do, I left, grabbing a brush on the way downstairs to at least perform one minimal act of grooming before seeing my friends. And then I’m taken aback by two things: my friend is standing in the kitchen, waiting for me (Joe hadn’t told me she’d entered the insane asylum that was our house that night – I’d wrongly assumed she was still out in her car); and though Neve has astonishingly slept through Lily’s keening up until that point, her cry suddenly joins the domestic cacophony.

I curse under my breath. I feel bad for my friend – though she has two kids of her own, and thus has surely experienced similar nights from hell, it’s still no fun to be around a complete domestic breakdown – and I feel profoundly guilty about leaving Joe with TWO unhappy children. I climb back up a couple of stairs and call out, “Joe, do you want me to stay until one of them is down? I can meet up with everyone a little later.”

“No, I got it. Just go,” he says with a shrug.

And I know then that while it will likely be unpleasant, Joe will and can handle it. So I go. (It really is amazing how it seems that kids somehow KNOW the one night out of 200 that you have fun plans for yourself. Uncanny.)

So I go, snarf down a couple of drinks, and gab and laugh and gossip until midnight. (I know! On a Wednesday night! Go ME!) I had a terrific time, and came home to learn that Lily went to sleep shortly after I left, and Neve followed suit. Though the scene couldn’t have looked worse when I left, it ended with a bit of a whimper.

Also, a few days later, this past weekend, Lily had a neighborhood friend from preschool over to our house, and Lily was a well-behaved, polite host throughout the afternoon; and the next day, when we traveled 90 miles to Bowling Green for a 3 year old’s birthday party, she listened well and was a polite, helpful guest. (The weekend was so nice, and both girls were so good, that I thought, “Ah, so this is the pleasant part of having a family.” Strange as it is to say, when you’re in the weeds for a long time, and things both large and small are a constant battle, you forget how nice this can be.)

Now, I’m not making a direct connection between the “nuclear option” night and the weekend that followed; four year olds are wildly random creatures, and to ascribe rhyme or reason to their behavior is a fool’s game.

But my hope is that in the future, my family will have many more enjoyable, relaxed days like Saturday and Sunday if we are willing to suffer through the ugly, nasty process of establishing boundaries and holding to them.

To underline this idea, Lily, when I refused a request while walking her to preschool recently, said, “You’re a mean mommy.” Shrugging, I replied, “Well, you’re not always a model child, sweetie. But we’re a family, so we stick together and love each other anyway.”

I mean, that’s how this whole thing is supposed to work, right?

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2 thoughts on “The Nuclear Option

  1. We’ve found the “instant removal” threat — as long as we actually carried it out if necessary — to be a very effective nuclear option. I used to take Cordy to the mall, just to walk around and look in some of her favorite stores. On one visit, she was acting up repeatedly, not listening, etc., and then she got the warning — one more time, and we will leave immediately (I find an explicit warning of the impending punishment to be a critical element of the process). She crossed the line, and I threw her — screaming and flailing — over my shoulder, marched to the nearest exit and drove her home as she sobbed and I explained to her what just happened. She never did that in the mall again, and I think it still subconsciously helps to keep her manageable in public places seven or eight years later.

    Basically, I learned that I had to be willing to make good on any threats, so I had to think very carefully about what would be appropriate and what I was actually willing to do. Kids learn quickly how to tell when a parent isn’t going to make good on a threat, and they behave accordingly.

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