I know Ellie is only 2 and that her concept of “best” might not be fully developed yet. But the notion as a whole got me thinking about the parenting books and articles I’ve read that state it’s more important to be your child’s parent than his or her best friend. The reason, according to the publications–my favorite among them being The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel, which draws on the Torah, Talmud and Jewish traditions–is that children need structure, boundaries and a reliable support system. More simply: your best friend doesn’t send you to time out.
But being a disciplinarian is the hardest part of parenting, Scott says. Sleep deprivation and walking the length of a lengthy mall in a shirt soaked with diarrhea that isn’t yours and scrubbing vomit out of grout are cakewalks compared to putting your foot down, he’s found. Most of the time the disciplining goes smoothly and without a fight from Ellie: “Please take your foot off the table” or “You have to help clean up these toys before you take out more.”
But sometimes there’s time out, which I am starting to think is as much a moment for the parent to catch his or her breath as it is for the child. Last week, Ellie wanted to eat off her dinosaur placemat, so we took away the monkey one and plunked down the requested tableware. Something about that seemingly straightforward process got to Ellie, who began kicking the table, whining, and yelling. In a final act of frustration, she threw her chocolate milk cup at full force. I took her out of her booster seat faster than she could scream, “NO!” and told her to go to time out to collect herself. She began crying, face turning red. I picked her up and carried her to her time out spot. Then I returned to the kitchen to help Scott clean up the spilled milk. All the while Ellie screamed and cried in the adjacent room.
The sounds and the look on her face were heart-wrenching. It was all we could do not to race over to her, scoop her up and shower her with kisses. “She’s just a tiny girl who doesn’t know how to express herself sometimes,” I thought to myself. “We have to remember she is tired from not sleeping well last night,” Scott reasoned. I countered: “Being tired can’t be a pass for behaving badly.” Ellie had to learn that kicking the table and chucking milk cups aren’t the answer to life’s lemons.
So instead of scooping her up, I got down to her level and calmly asked if she felt ready to behave herself at the table. She said she was. I picked her up, kissed her once, said, “I’m glad you feel better,” and wiped her nose and eyes before putting her back in her booster seat. She proceeded to eat a nice dinner and was well mannered the rest of the time.
As for Scott and me, we were careful to make sure Ellie didn’t think we held a grudge. We joked, shared food off our plates with her and just generally let her know that what was done was done. We learn and move on.
It’s a fine line between being a friend and a parent. I think there are many elements of friendship in the parent/child dynamic, too, which contributes to blurring that line. But in the end, the need to teach Ellie to respect authority, be polite, and handle disappointment when things don’t go her way trumps any pangs of “poor baby” we get when she turns on the waterworks.