“Steady as she goes” said Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise. Indeed it is a foolish consistency that is the hobgoblin of small minds. To my knowledge, Emerson never had anything to say about a sensible consistency.
Of course, Emerson only had four children. And it frequently seems as if we have several times that number. Especially around bath time. “A parent’s place is in the home,” we are told. “Then why am I always in the car?” is the response. Remind me how I became an unpaid Uber driver. Parenting is not for the faint of heart.
The “Terrible Twos” do not end with a child’s third birthday. Nor do the “Why Threes?” abate at age four. I frequently observe the Terrible Twos in full force all through adolescence, something of an issue when impaired driving is more of an issue than a child going to bed with strawberry jam in his hair. “Why do I have to take a bath?” at some point becomes an existential question to which there is no satisfactory answer. Toddlers are inquisitive. And repetitive. “How do you know that?” is another query that it seems reasonable to leave alone. I can certainly attest that “because I have a graduate degree in developmental psychology from an accredited university” doesn’t get much traction. Frequently the best answer to “why do I have to go to bed?” is just an enveloping hug. Maybe the answer to all questions is an embrace. Argue with a pig in mud if you must, but do not try syllogistic logic with your pre-schooler. Four-year-olds have more “are we there yets” than you have reasoned responses.
If I had to guess, “why do I have to brush my teeth?” is just a manifestation of “is everything okay?” I think that’s what tantrums are as well. “I’m out of control and I don’t know how to articulate my overwhelming feelings of frustration and confusion.” Hence the recommendation of an all-encompassing hug. Keep in mind that “tooth decay” means as much to a five-year-old as “gravity waves” do to you and me. Whereas hugs are straight-forward and easy to understand. You want to convey, “the world is a safe place.” The evening news notwithstanding.
Speaking of befuddlements, nothing is more confusing to parents than a child’s comprehensive, thermonuclear come-apart. What to do when your five-year-old is flailing in every direction at once? How is it possible that this child’s temper tantrum has lasted longer than the Crimean War? Common parenting tips include “time out” and “I can’t hear you when you’re out of control.” Couldn’t it be argued that when our children are through the third door on the left, that’s when they need their parents the most? Leaving your children alone when they’re okay makes sense; abandoning them when they are crazed less so. “We’re going to get though this unhappy time together” is the message I recommend. You’ll have time to go put a fork in your eye once your child is calm. And by that time, a good nap may serve just as well.
Not to shift topics abruptly, but I have been listening to lectures about substance abuse disorder for some decades now. Everyone agrees that the best way to stop is not to start. But the 72,000 opioid deaths last year and the 20-something million Americans directly affected by addiction suggest that not everyone is getting the memo. “I spent my life chasing the feeling I got from that first high” is more common than “I quit using IV drugs because I read somewhere that I should just say ‘no.'” How to quit is controversial, expensive, and fraught with frauds and failure. While no one treatment modality seems to work unequivocally across populations, punishment and isolating those suffering from substance abuse disorder seems not to work at all. Connection and community are more effective. Meetings seem to be the most cogent factor in recovery from narcotics. Prison cells and inhumane treatment less so.
Could there be an analogy between parents who insist that their children calm down on their own and communities who imprison those with substance abuse disorder? Time out and incarceration have something in common. Hugs and community overlap as well.
In raising children, “steady as she goes” implies thinking about the long game. If you’re going to choose a path, I recommend consistent support and understanding over isolation and punishment. And if kids feel listened to their whole lives, aren’t they less likely to end up with substance abuse disorder and prison sentences down the road? If we’re going to make a mistake, shouldn’t we err on the side of nurture?