In my previous life as a young person, I had only a few misguided visions of motherhood. I thought my main jobs would be kissing boo boos and snuggling sick kids. Maybe I pictured helping them deal with academic pressure and bullies in elementary school. I am still guessing teenage years are about navigating the drama and helping them find their paths in life.
The reality I never considered is that parenting is all about manipulation. Every day is full of tricking tiny humans into and out of doing All The Things, and it is no easy feat. Not with toddlers. Not with my toddlers. This job is constant, must be carried out with stealth, and requires frequent refining.
My desire to coerce my kids into being reasonable humans, fit for civilized society, is often no match for their desire to remain wild. Their only interests are doing whatever the fuck they want at all times, and never what they need to do – even if the two are in direct opposition. There is no logic or reasoning that gets them to understand that breaking their toys means they will not have them any more, or going to the park requires sunscreen, or mama will not have the sanity to do afternoon crafts if they refuse to nap.
The only way to get them through basic daily requirements is to dig into my mama toolbox. It is all about the trickery.
When it comes time to get up in the morning, I have tricks. We have getting dressed games and contests. I sing “Old MacDonald” to keep Owen from kicking me during diaper changes.
When it comes time to leave the house, I have tricks: timers, routine charts, mild threats, and a whole lot of humor.
When it comes time to eat or sleep I have tricks and gadgets and routines: 5, 3, and 1 minute warnings, jobs like setting the table, dissolving color tablets for bath time, coveted songs and stories before bed, and (the magical) sound machines. And I sneak the damn vegetables into every food possible.
I have verbal tricks, so frequently used they are automatic. I cannot count the number of times daily I ask for: gentle hands, strong voices, kind words, good listening ears, bottoms on the couch or feet on the floor, inside voices, hands on tummies/heads/elbows, or patience please. No request is phrased without a choice (“would you like to put on your left or right shoe first?”). I am hard-wired to respond with empathic words and name feelings in response to any outcry.
Novelty is the most consistent path to coercion for my kids, and lifts my spirits right along with theirs. They cannot resist a new-to-them catch phrase: “last one to the table’s a rotten egg”. Sing a song they have never heard, and they are putty; “Mr. Ed” recently got Owen from screaming on the ground in the parking lot to smiling in his car seat, and “Manic Monday” tricked Addie into putting on her pre-selected clothes just days ago.
On occasion I utilize rewards (bribes), but there is only one time this consistently works: they get to earn fruit snacks for walking nicely to the car after picking Addie up from school. The alternative is a real shitshow of me chasing, sweating, and publically showcasing my deficit of control, so I count this as a big win.
The same goes for consequences (threats): if they worked more, they would be used more. Owen dislikes timeouts enough to fear the threat – sometimes. Addie is coerced by a natural consequence – sometimes. She has a great fear of not being the first to get into or out of the bath, or not having her hands washed in time to help in the kitchen.
Some days the mama toolbox is too heavy, though. I get bogged down with wanting more fun time, more down time, more cooperation. I run out of tricks and then have to re-read parenting books, consult the mama crews, and Google things like “How do I get my toddler to stop wiping their nose every four seconds?” I start to resent how much of my job is manipulative witchcraft.
But it is. This phase of the job, at least, is all trickery. And on the days when the tricks work, even it drains all of my energy, I feel like a supermom.
I think forward to those elementary school years coming, those (gulp) teenage drama years, and I know I will need a whole new bag of tricks. I kiss my kids through their tears of protest and through their grins of gratitude, and trust that it is worth it. They will be amazing humans, if I can consistently trick them out of destroying property and running into traffic.