A few years ago I made a small mistake that has shaped my parenting in a big way—thanks to hindsight, it is one I’ve never made again.
We were visiting family in New York over the summer and my oldest, who was 3 at the time, was having the time of his life surrounded by fun and people who loved him. The entire weekend was spent swimming, playing, and snacking, but by Sunday evening we wanted him to sit at the table and eat a proper meal. Usually on special occasions our “treats” rule is relaxed. In general, if it’s a party, you can eat what you want to. But this night, in an effort to encourage him to eat his dinner, I made a parenting mistake that still brings tears to my eyes.
My sweet boy watched wide-eyed the fresh watermelon being sliced for dessert that evening. It must have been so hard for him to not grab a piece and run with it. Thinking about all of the junk he had eaten that weekend, I wanted him to eat his dinner first, but as the words left my mouth, I knew I was wrong.
“You cannot have watermelon unless you eat your healthy dinner.”
And the line was drawn. I felt like if I were to bend that boundary he would eat me alive. If I went back on my word I’d set a standard for not following through that would spill into every aspect of our mother-son dynamic. If I offered up wishy-washy punishments, perhaps my family would see me as weak disciplinarian. If, if, me, me, them, them… what about him?
He was tired, over-stimulated, and didn’t eat a single bite of his dinner. He pleaded for watermelon and through his cries I could see how unreasonable and ill-timed my ultimatum was. Our extended family, who all so badly wanted him to have the melon he had waited all day to taste, chased him with spoonfuls of dinner begging him to eat. And as I watched it happening I felt two inches tall.
In our house we don’t give food power; we don’t bribe our kids to eat and we don’t put unrealistic expectations on a very busy, excited, and overwhelmed 3-year-old who had been in the sun all day and probably wasn’t that hungry to begin with.
But I stuck to my guns, and so did he. He didn’t eat his dinner, and he didn’t eat a piece of watermelon that night. He watched everyone around him eat what he coveted most and cried himself to sleep. A night that should have been filled with fun, was drenched in disappointment.
And after all that, he did not learn a lesson that night. But I did. It wasn’t about the watermelon or the unfinished dinner. It was about me being so focused on my own insecurities and expectations of myself as a parent that I lost sight of a busy little boy with watermelon dreams.
Sometimes the line in the sand can be brushed away. Sometimes we, as parents, are wrong. I fumble through parenthood even worse than I fumble through life and not everything can be perfect the first time, or even the second. My words are not law and every situation needs full examination before boundaries and expectations can be set.
That night, I put my own need to be THE PARENT in front of everything else and every moment of it felt icky and wrong.
As the Days of Awe draw to a close and we as Jews look for atonement, this particular mistake comes to my mind. I have been much more aware of my words when I am setting limits and always examine the situation to assess what expectations are realistic for my children within the given parameters.
Years later I offer up this apology as proof that this Mama is a work-in-progress, now and forever:
Sweet boy, I am so sorry. I am sorry for that warm summer night that you spent dreaming of watermelon, and I am sorry for putting unrealistic expectations on you. I have thought about it many times since and while I’m sure my parenting mistakes will continue to be many, I promise to not make that mistake again. It was a special day and the watermelon should have been yours to enjoy. The lesson my heart learned from that missed piece of watermelon will never be forgotten.
On Yom Kippur, my book will be inscribed with the following message to myself: Don’t take yourself too seriously, learn from your mistakes, you can go back on your rules, and most importantly—always, always let them eat watermelon.