Thursday December 16 2010 1239 pm
Have you got a nightly routine at home with your kids? Here’s one of my mine, and I’m not sure I can take much more of it. (Necessary background here: Five-year-old “Emmie” does not like to be told what to do. Ever. Even if it’s something she likes. It is amazing that this child doesn’t share my biology, because wow, in this respect she is so much like me.)
Each evening, at some point I observe the state of simmering pots and pans around me and determine that I’m approximately ten or fifteen minutes from presenting dinner to my family. Thus I know it’s time to set the table, which is one of Emmie’s few chores. (The actual clock time for this event varies, depending on our schedule for the day, what I’m cooking, etc.)
Me: “Emmie, it’s time to set the table.”
Emmie: Rolls on the ground while emitting high-pitched, wave-like, whale tones, similar to the language spoken by Dory in Finding Nemo. “Don’t tell me ‘It’s time to set the table.’ I already know!”
I wait and take deep, preparatory breaths, because I know what’s coming next.
Emmie makes no further movements and continues to hum low-register whale tones.
“Emmie, set the table now, please.”
“Don’t tell me that! I already know!”
“If you know, then why aren’t you setting the table?”
“Because you told me, and I already know!”
Having seen this movie repeatedly, I’m done. “Emmie, you couldn’t possibly know when it’s time to set the table, because I don’t know when it’s time to set the table until, well, it’s time to set the table. It’s okay for me to tell you when it’s time to set the table. And now is the time, and I’ve already told you more than once, so get up right now and set the table!”
The audio assault begins, Emmie stomps into the bathroom to wash her hands, I reach for a bottle of wine and begin finishing off dinner with a dash of anger, Emmie starts slamming plates on the table one by one.
Fun, huh? Want to come over sometime?
This whole scene could be avoided, of course, if Emmie set the table ahead of time on her own, but she needs me to get the plates and things down for her and we’ve got a small kitchen with little counter space, so I can only do this once I’ve been able to clear away the dinner prep materials. It occurred to me a few weeks ago that perhaps she genuinely didn’t understand how this whole process works, so perhaps I ought to keep my frustration in check and help her think it through. Therefore, one evening when the protest began, I channeled all my tension to my wrist. With a death grip on my spatula, I asked her, in a very even voice, “Honey, how do you know it’s time to set the table?”
“I just do!”
“But I don’t even know exactly when dinner will be, and I’m cooking it. So how can you know?”
“Because you tell me! Arrgh!” She clenched her fists, presumably realizing what she’d said.
“You see, honey? I do need to tell you—”
“NO! I know when it’s time to set the table!”
This entire exchange is like a nightly leap into a vortex I can’t escape. I know it’s coming, I know it’s going to leave debris in the form of a headache for me and resentment for both of us, but there doesn’t seem to be any way out of it.
Now here’s why this seemingly petty exchange over table-setting is worthy of a whole blog post, and why, though I could probably come up with a few creative ways to achieve a set table without all of the accompanying frustration, I haven’t been willing to go crazy: I think a mom ought to be able to tell her child to perform an age-appropriate chore, straight up, and the kid ought to listen.
I’m not a strict disciplinarian, and anyone who knows my family knows that respect is the number one value around here, including respect for the kids’ points of view. But—and I’ve written about this before—our playgrounds and schools as well as our workplaces are full of kids and young adults who don’t understand responsibility, who believe in entitlements and who think they deserve gratitude even before they’ve really worked to earn it. I don’t want to raise kids who turn out this way, and I think that result begins with a young child who understands that she needs to contribute to her family and her household in a way that she’s been assigned—when she’s told to do so.
So, what do you think? Am I being a mean, stubborn mommy here, or should I stand firm (and maybe just reach for another glass of wine)?