Negotiating fear: It's going to take more than hot chocolate
No moon tonight and it’s darker than dark, especially if you have to walk through the woods to the outhouse.
Kids are up in the loft, their daddy is reading to them from A Wrinkle in Time and Z is making his own illumination with a battery-powered turtle that casts stencil stars across the ceiling. His sister lies next to Sean in rapt attention.
I remember when my own dad and my brother-in-law built this cabin, back when our family used to live in Colorado, back when I was the one being tucked in the loft before my parents would go down and play Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit until well past when I could keep my eyes open. The days in the mountains are long, full of hiking and fishing and exploring the rocky outcroppings where I would play make-believe with dolls or with rusted cans left from when they used to log these mountains or with just a few pebbles and some pinecones.
As a parent now myself, I understand the urgency of an early bedtime. I love being with my kids all the day: they have a kind of attention and curiosity in the mountains that I find wondrous and energizing.
But then. The sun goes down. And this is the time I relish having my husband for myself. We sit by the fire, preferably with a s’more in one hand and a glass of whisky at the ready. We give and feel love in a way that’s deep and easy. I crave it all day long—all year long.
But tonight, Z is having none of it. He wants to stay up and sit outside with us by the fire.
“Go to sleep,” Sean says.
“It’s past your bedtime,” I say.
Z groans loudly in frustration, throws his jacket and kicks his little ten-year-old foot into the mattress. He punctuates his way down the ladder, jams on his shoes, then slams the front door behind him and stalks off toward the fire.
When Sean and walk out to join him, his arms are crossed and he’s glaring at the fire pit.
May I just pause here for a moment and say—this is one of my greatest fears: that my kids will disobey me. And then they’ll realize that I don’t have any power over them at all, not really. I pretend I can make them do things—but that authority is so thin it can be undone with a single tantrum. I fear they will see me as just a fraud.
Do parents other than step-parents feel this way? I’ve had to earn every bit of authority and trust I do have now in bits over the past two years. I can’t leave Z’s disobedience untouched now because, if I do, he’ll learn that all he has to do with me is say no and that’s a lesson he’ll keep for all time. But what do I say? How do other parents deal with disobedient kids?
The firelight casts an orange glow on my husband’s face. I lean into him and and whisper, “Do you want this one, or do you want me to take it?” Sean touches his index finger to his nose and winks at me. I sigh.
I look at our son and fold my hands together. “So here’s the deal,” I say. “You need to talk to me when you don’t like what I’ve said. If I ask you to do something and you think it’s not fair or if it’s confusing, just come talk to me.”
Z sits across from us, emphasizing whatever point he’s trying to make with a thick pout. Sean pats the bench between himself and me. “Do you want to come sit with us?” he says. I love this about my husband: he easily conveys shares his with an expression or a gesture while I’m down some verbal rabbit hole trying to articulate section III, subparagraph 4a.
Z trundles over, still trying to hold onto his stubbornness but also wanting to be cuddled. We all three snuggle up together.
“I do the best I can as your bonus mom,” I say to Z as I stroke his hair, “but I’m just guessing. You weren’t born into this world with a ‘How-To’ manual, right?” He laughs and so does Sean.
"Do you know what negotiate means?” I ask. Z nods. “Well what if you had, instead of storming out of the cabin, said to me, ‘Kyra, I know you want me to go to bed, but I really want to sit be the fire. How about I just have five minutes, then I promise I’ll come right to bed?’ What do you think we would have said? How do you think that would have made us feel—or you feel?”
Z doesn’t say much, but I can feel him softening and I know I’ve made my point. We talk for a few minutes more, and then tell him goodnight. This time he goes without objection.
I have a parenting epiphany the next day when we’re hiking and Z is throwing rocks for like the zillionth time even though we’ve continually asked him to stop.
“What do I have to do to get you to stop throwing rocks?” I say, exasperated. “Do you need a consequence or a bribe to help you remember?” He starts brainstorming potential punishments and then suddenly stops himself.
“Wait, no, a bribe!” he says.
My epiphany is this. With the Momex, my perception is that the kids grew up with hard rules and then hard punishments (unrelated to the offense). There was no room for negotiation. Recently, for example, Z told me about a couple small lies he'd told (saying he’d put on socks, he hadn’t; saying he brushed his teeth, he didn’t) so the Momex took away all screen time for a full month. Our daughter regularly gets her phone taken away for any kind of offense, whether that offense was related to phone use or not.
It seems to me, at least based on parenting A and Z, that when you cut kids off at the knees—when you take away their voice, when you don’t invite their opinion on the issue at hand and help them work through their feelings with empathetic dialogue—then they act out and throw tantrums because that’s all they have left.
Z didn’t talk to me when he wanted to stay up by the fire because he expected that I would shut him down without listening and punish his behavior.
But I was raised by a couple of university science professors. My parents understand that “truth” is just an opinion, that we are better as a humanity when we respond to authoritative statements with, “Ok, but what if we did it this way? And when you came to that conclusion, did you account for that?”
This is what I want to teach Z: that most of the time he needs to do what I say because he can trust me; and as for the rest, I’m a reasonable human being and will always offer empathy and a safe space for him to practice strengthening his own voice.
And this is what I want to teach myself: that I don’t need to be afraid my kids will see through me and discover a fraud—but instead that they will discover that all I do or ask of them comes from a place of deep and unconditional love.
Z and I go through a couple rounds of negotiations to resolve the Rock Throwing—and finally settle on a bribe of hot chocolate with whipped cream at the end of the week. Which I’m happy to report he earned. And bonus mom lives to tell him what time to go to bed another day.