A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

How to Be Nicer to Your Children

A simple exercise to help curb those nasty moments.

Motherhood is full of joyful moments–and those not-so-joyful ones we agonize over. As you become more experienced as a parent, you learn to accept as what my friends and I call Bad Mommy Moments. A few years ago, after my children (and I) had survived their toddlerhood and were enrolled at last in full-time school, I had a moment to reflect on what I was, and–more pressingly–wasn't doing well as a stay-at-home mother. I was great at keeping things on the domestic front humming along–okay, we weren't starving or buried up to our necks in clutter, and the house hadn't yet crumbled about our ears. Check. The children were washed and fed on a more or less regular schedule, and we even got them to school on time every morning. Check. Most surprisingly, I had found ways to enjoy running our home life after my cold-turkey transition from challenging, full-time work to the stay-at-home life. Check. My marriage, while certainly weathering stresses and strains neither of us had anticipated, was still intact despite--and maybe even stronger because of–the shared challenges of parenting. Check.

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So what was I less happy about? Putting aside the times we turn to each other in horror and wonder how–how on earth?–we produced these monstrous offspring who won't eat or sleep or behave the way we tell them to (those moments are, after all, common to all parents), the worst part of parenting is the hideous behavior I never knew was in me until I became a mother. Yes, earlier in my life I was known to let loose as quasi-hysterical, melodramatic screamer and drama queen. But for so many years after that, as I basked in the glow of my childless, happily coupled-up existence, I truly believed the emotional tempestuousness of my youth was behind me. I'd achieved a new balance and equanimity in my outlook on life. 

Enter baby number one.

A difficult sleeper, an infant who spurned baby food, a toddler who loved and required constant attention from adults, a preschooler who engaged everyone in her path with her fearless personality; this baby–this love of my life–pushed my buttons from her very first weeks of life. I have some terrifying, shameful memories of screaming at her, a tiny baby, when she wouldn't nap, and of tearfully hurling precious, homemade baby food into the trash. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment, and when it was unavoidably sleep-training time, we lay there, rigid and sleepless, while she bawled for hours from her bassinet at the foot of our bed. I would walk along the beach where we lived, with her howling and screaming in her stroller, while I gulped back bitter tears and tried to keep moving, despite the black cloud of doom I could feel hovering just over my head.

Although we survived this, and the arrival of a second, easier child two years later, motherhood triggered a return of the volatility in my personality I thought I'd outgrown. Apparently, Ma Jekyll needed only a strong dose of sleeplessness, combined with the careening loss of control that parenting brings, in order to emerge, stronger than ever. I became a screamer, a crier, a mother who raged and threw things (or wanted to). I hated losing control of my temper, and I felt terribly guilty afterwards. Worst of all was knowing they would remember not only my bad moods and irrational angers, but the words that flew heedless from my mouth. We all have a few choice childhood memories of things our parents said to us when they were angry, and they still sting, decades later. Now I was sure I was inflicting the same kinds of wounds on my children.

So when I sat down a couple of years ago, in this rare moment of self-reflection, I thought about putting a curb on my sharp tongue. And I know many other mothers who wish they could do the same. Just last week, some friends and I were laughingly sharing some of the awful things we find ourselves saying to our children, our better instincts be damned. So I created a little list: "Things I Will Not Say to My Children." It sits on my computer desktop now, as a reminder that although anger and Bad Mommy Moments are unavoidable, we can choose the words we use to express our frustrations, and perhaps even try to get our point across without unnecessarily inflicting lasting scars. Your list may be a different one, but I'd encourage all mothers–no, all parents–to come up with a selection of the things they'd rather they didn't say to their kids. Maybe, just maybe, it will help you excise those cutting words from your parenting vocabulary.

Things I Will Not Say to My Children:

1. "What's wrong with you?"

This is a big one for me. One of the greatest frustrations of motherhood is children's apparent inability to listen to and follow instructions. Repeated instructions. You can say the same thing until you are actually sick of the sound of your own voice, and still your children ignore you. So after a while you wonder: are they flawed or damaged in some way–how else could your voice fail to register? As common a feeling as this is, it's pretty clear why this is a particularly bad choice of phrasing. All children disobey and ignore their parents. In fact, child psychologists have suggested that only children who feel safe and confident in their parents enjoy the liberty to be naughty and disobedient. Inattention and even misbehavior are part and parcel of childhood, and for us to infer a fundamental flaw is simply cruel.

2. "Why don't you ever...?" and "Why do you always...?"

Like Bad Thing Number One, this phrasing is problematic because of how it exceeds the situation. Be mad about what your child has done, sure; be frustrated that you've had to repeat yourself ad nauseum, but try not to extrapolate beyond the moment. Your child is not always bad, and your child does sometimes do what she's told; to let the anger of the moment become a referendum on your child's character is unnecessary and flat-out mean, however tempting.

3. Name-calling

Schools these days, from day one, teach children not to call each other names. But parents can be far more guilty of this than schoolyard bullies, and no one's there to send us to the principal's office. Don't call your child a brat, or something worse, unless you want them to think of themselves that way. A name is much harder to outgrow than a behavior. Once a spoiled brat, always a spoiled brat–at least, that's what they will think. I have, in moments of desperation, bent this rule slightly to say, "You are acting like a...", but I think that only makes me feel better–I'm pretty sure children don't get the subtle distinction there. But I do get desperate sometimes.

Finally, when all else fails, I've found refuge in sarcasm. Children aren't particularly attuned to it, yes, and it does confuse them–but it's still marginally better than being mean. I'm hoping to tackle my reliance on snarkiness at a later date, though; for now, I'd settle for sticking to my list. 

What I cooked this week:

 

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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