Oliver was a very easy baby and toddler. He started sleeping 12+ hours through the night at 8 weeks old. Teething was a breeze. He was bright and sweet; he listened and used manners and rarely threw a fit.
Then he turned three, and soon after that, things… changed. Arguments! Tantrums! More arguments! WAY TOO MUCH ATTITUDE for someone still a dozen years away from a driver’s license!
Oliver is six years and nine months old now: he still has big, big ideas and a big, big heart, but he is also very, very stubborn (gee, I have NO IDEA where he gets THAT from). In his mind, he’s on the same level as adults, which makes for constant power struggles and battles of will. It’s been a long, frustrating, exhausting three and a half years.
Thankfully, our relationship has improved a great deal over the past few months. More often than not he tries to do the Right Thing; he likes to be helpful and he wants to make us proud. But he still does not like to be… well, PARENTED too much, for lack of a better term.
George was late getting home last night, so I was on my own with the kids at the elementary school’s “Picasso Night” art show. The building was packed with students and families, and at first Oliver was very excited to play the Good Big Brother and lead Andrew carefully by the hand through the crowded hallways. He found one of his paintings and excitedly pointed it out to us.
We weaved our way through another classroom where his class’s clay sculptures were on display, then back towards the auditorium where a group of students was singing. I thought we’d stand in the back and watch, since one of the neighbor girls was on stage, but—
“(Gasp!) Mommy, they have ICE CREAM!”
The local Handel’s had set up a stand in the hallway with about eight or ten ice cream flavors for sale.
“I’m sorry, honey, but you guys just had Dairy Queen yesterday,” I said. “You can have a healthier snack when we get home, okay?”
“But Mommyyyy… PLEEEEEASE?” he pleaded.
“Not today,” I replied apologetically.
Oliver stomped his foot and made the usual complaint about me never letting him have anything he wanted, EVER. I could tell things were heading south quickly so I herded them towards the exit and out to the car. He pouted, cried, and yelled at me the whole way home. When we got in the house, I told Oliver to brush his teeth and change into his pajamas.
He slumped onto the floor defiantly. “I don’t WANT to go to bed.”
“Please be a good listener,” I begged as I helped Andrew take off his shoes and jacket.
He crossed his arms. “You didn’t listen to me so I’m not listening to YOU.”
“You’re being disrespectful,” I said in a warning tone.
“Well YOU’re being a farty-pants!” he retorted.
“Get… Up-… STAIRS!” I didn’t mean to yell, but I was tired of arguing and Matthew had just spit up on the floor. Oliver pouted but slowly dragged himself up the steps.
After I got Matthew and Andrew into their respective beds, I went into the master bedroom to tuck in Oliver. (We still have to put Oliver and Andrew in separate rooms to fall asleep because they get too wound-up at bedtime, so they take turns weekly between our room and theirs.) He was waiting penitently by the door in his pajamas, eyes downcast. “I’m sorry, Mommy.” With an anxious glance up at me, “Can we talk now?”
I softened. There was something new in his expression—something sincere, and almost… manly. He understood. He was trying to do the Right Thing.
“Yes, we can talk now.” We sat on the bed and I hugged him as we talked. I apologized for losing my temper, too.
Later, I went in their room to check on them after George carried Oliver back to his own bed. It’s such a paradox, the way he looks asleep: his length on the bed makes him look much older than six, yet his face looks younger than it does when he’s awake. I brushed the short curls off his forehead and kissed his cheek, whispering in his ear as I always do, Mommy loves you, Oliver.
I wish I could explain to him how hard it is to be a responsible parent. Sure, it would have been easier to just buy the ice cream (and I totally agree it’s unfair that we can’t eat ice cream every day), but I don’t want to make the easier choices if they are not the right ones. The same goes for not buying toys every time we go to the store and not using the elevator at the library if we are capable of taking the short flight of stairs. I want my kids to be healthy. I want them to learn needs versus wants, patience, respect, contentment, gratitude. These are all things they won’t really understand until they’re older, but the lessons are being established even now.
There are other times when I recognize my responsibility to make magic, too. Surprises and treats and exceptions to the rules. Special things. Special times. Those are the best memories from my own childhood and it’s those gifts I hope to pass on.
Finding a good balance as a parent can be a challenge, especially with a child who has a temperament like Oliver’s, but there are more and more moments when I’m starting to see our efforts paying off. Sometimes in his face I see the person he will grow to be, a man of great character. Sometimes that is what makes it so hard to remember he’s only six years old. I wonder if he will ever stare down at his own sleeping child and think, Gosh, he’s beautiful. I really hope I’m doing this right, because his love is so vast and deep. And maybe then he’ll understand.
For now, that parent is me. I read this line in a book recently (The Forgotten Garden): “It’s incredible, having the chance to see a work in progress. It says so much more about the artist, I sometimes think, than the finished work ever could.” My son’s childhood is a rough sketch from his own ever-changing perspective. It is a privilege to be a part of this process, to watch the lines and forms take shape and reshape over time. And as much as I look forward to seeing the finished work, it is through these drafts and details that I’m getting to know him, that I can appreciate more because of the vision and the hard work and even the mistakes that go into it. I’m just doing my best to guide him as he creates and as HE is created because I want him to take as much pride in himself as I do.
He may not always get what he wants, but if the rough sketch is a tiny glimpse into the finished work, I think Oliver has incredible potential. And I hope he always draws himself happy.
I love you times novemdecillion, Oliver. (That’s his new favorite number. SIXTY ZEROES!)