It started out like many of our routine days around here: a small group of friends with all of our babies in tow, enjoying brunch at someone’s home on a cold but clear Friday morning. Nine little mouths enjoying every last bite of banana bread and savoring the undiluted apple juice boxes. And then, the moment came. The moment that so many mamas of young children dread.
It was time to leave.
Playdates are great. Essential even. But the combination of sugary indulgences, lots of loud children, unfamiliar and much-more-fun-than-our-house toys, and the hour on the clock running up dangerously close to naptime— it can get ugly, friends. And I knew. As soon as I strapped a fussy three month old in his car seat and told the two year old to get her shoes on, the battle lines were drawn.
“I no wanna go!” “No I not have shoes on!” “No you not go home mommy!” Scream. Run away. Scream again.
My tiny baby boy is wiggling and fighting out belly gas in his car seat, my slightly bigger daughter is eluding my reach and headed for the kitchen, and I feel like everyone in the whole world is staring at me, wondering what I’m going to do next, what kind of a mama am I. Frustration sets in. “Miss, I’m counting to three and you better come over here!” No response. “ONE! TWO! THREE!” Not even eye contact. So I’m slightly louder: “Harper, mommy said to put your shoes on right now!” She moves from eyesight to hide behind the counter. And now, I’m just mad.
As I stomped my bitter feet across the living room and to the kitchen, I looked over at one of my closest, most trusted mama friends, and in my best martyr voice complained: “She doesn’t listen! It’s like I’m not even here! She is so… BAD sometimes!”
And my friend, my sweet, gentle soul of a friend—only one year ahead of me on this motherhood journey, but if I measured that year and her heart in wisdom it is a much greater distance than that— she kindly, but challengingly responds, “Katie, she’s just a child. Don’t use those words about her. She hears them.”
What I really wanted in that moment was affirmation. Maybe an “Oh, my daughter does this same thing!” or an “I totally get how you’re feeling right now!” That’s not what I got. She gave me perspective instead. Funny how what we want and what we really need are very often different things. (Don’t we tell our children something like that all the time?)
As my daughter gets older and speaks more and more, I find myself guiding her language every day. She has three percent of the vocabulary that I have to express her emotions, so as she learns which words are right (“No, thank you, mommy!”) and which words are wrong (“Don’t touch me, mommy!”) I put boundaries on her with the statement “We don’t use those words, sweetie.” And every single time I do, I hear my sweet friend’s voice in my own head.
Motherhood has plenty of hard moments and hard days. But in the months since the showdown in the kitchen, I’ve learned to take some of those hard parts back by changing my words. Because when we speak something, it takes on life. And once it is alive, if we keep saying it, it just gets bigger and more real. We feel our words. And a fairly common moment of a two year-old not wanting the fun to end can turn into a test of wills, a wrestling match over shoes and jackets, and an angry, dramatic exit from an otherwise fun morning. These are not exactly what I would call parenting “wins.”
Now I have zero theories on disciplining children. You may be a ONE-TWO-THREE kind of mom and that works just fine for your kids. You may spank or not spank, or “timeout until Dad gets home!” every day. We are trial and error kind of parents and already we see how our two children will need two very different responses from us when it comes to teaching kind behavior. But what I try to keep in mind is this: I cannot have a different standard for my children than I do for myself. (Thank you, motherhood, for pointing out my hypocrisy once again.) If they are not allowed to speak poorly of anyone, I’m certainly not allowed to speak poorly of them - even frustrated remarks to a friend. It helps no one.
We are mamas. It is one of the hallmark descriptions of our job to teach appropriate behavior. And no, it is not ok to run away from mommy when she says it is time to go. It is equally not ok for mommy to act like she is headed to court against her daughter, packing evidence and ammunition to justify my case along the way. Between those two extremes, we have options. The beauty of motherhood is the freedom to choose our methods and not judge others on theirs. Because in the end, we all have little kids who really do want approval, who learn by doing things wrong, who have sensitive hearts and, very often, strong wills to go with them. Friends, we have tiny versions of ourselves right in front of us. And I have to believe that if ninety percent of our self-concept is built with what others say about us, that number must be ninety-nine percent for our little people.
The wrong words tell a story that is more emotion than fact, and they add kindling to the fire of stress and embarrassment. The right words remind me I have actual children, who will fight me now and need a big hug later. They make a statement to anyone watching that my relationship with my kids is infinitely more important than any outside assessment of my parenting.
I often tell my daughter to calm her heart when she is most upset. And really, that advice is for me just as much. You know what helps me do that very thing the most? My words. And when it comes to our babies, only our very best words will do.
Written by Katie Blackburn.