Children are smarter than we think they are. A few evenings ago, Eliza refused to eat her dinner. What’s so frustrating is that sometimes when she does this, she will actually taste the food and say she likes it. But, her highness is just not interested because … well, the only conclusion I can make is that she either likes to annoy us or she wants to prove that she is in control. Here’s how it went (and goes often):
Eliza: “I’m not hungry. I don’t want my lunch.” (She has her meal names mixed up.)
Me: “Well, that’s okay. If you don’t want to eat it now, you can have it for breakfast tomorrow.”
Eliza: “I don’t want to.”
Me: “Well, you can either eat it now or eat it later. It’s your decision.”
Eliza: “Mmh, I ate it! I ate a bite. It’s good. I like it, Mommy!”
Me: “Great. Eat some more.”
Eliza: “I don’t want to.”
And on and on it goes. So, the next morning rolled around and I heated up about 7 bites worth of the chili for her. (Translation: not a lot. I mean, she could have eaten it in about one minute.) Greg and I stayed the course, confirming her worst fears: she was not going to get a bagel or eggs until she ate her chili. You would have thought we were asking her to eat wriggling scorpions and worms on Fear Factor. After about three bites, she gagged. About 15 minutes into breakfast, Eliza reluctantly gulped down bite number four, only to throw it up – mixed with her morning milk – all over her lap and into her bowl. And of course, this upset her. “Mommy, I spit up!” she cried. At this point, as a parent, what are you supposed to do? She’s two, not twelve. We calmly consoled her and cleaned her up. And then I dejectedly set the plate of bagel and eggs in front of her and she ate it up happily.
It’s hard to walk away from the situation feeling like I didn’t just get schooled by a two-year-old. Is she really playing a mental game? Did she think, “I know, if I throw this up, I’ll get out of eating it?” I remember gagging as a child on purpose, trying to show my parents what a torturous and inhumane thing they were doing by making me eat my peas. I definitely thought I might get out of eating them if I showed them how uncomfortable they were making me. But I’m pretty sure I was at least four before I figured out I could do this.
It’s so hard to figure out what battles to fight with the strong-willed child, because I know I will fight many useless ones if I don’t give her some decision-making power. I also want to have a fun-loving house where we laugh, don’t take life too seriously, and, where, well, eating your vegetables isn’t always important. But Eliza also needs to learn to submit to authority, and she’s at an age where she is constantly testing. Today it’s eating her chili, but when she’s six, it will be a fight about doing homework, and when she’s 8, it will be a daily fight about getting a cell phone until I give in, and then when she’s 13, we’ll get a call from the police that she wrecked our car. I know where this road can lead if you don’t tread it carefully. And what’s always so amazing to me is you see these parents on the news, wondering where they went wrong. And I think, “You went wrong when your child was two and you allowed her to do what she wanted.”
So, for now, I’m going to assume she’s as smart as I think she is, and I will continue to parent her firmly when the issue at-hand matters, such as in the areas of nutrition and sleep and danger. And then I’ll mix in moments of grace – because we all need that.
Boy, can it be tough to know what the right thing to do is. Especially when I just really don’t want to clean up any more milk and chili throw up.