Her fists pound against the inside of her bedroom door.
I look down at my watch. Thirty-seven minutes. I grip my coffee in a tight pulse of frustration and lift it to take a drink. Cold. As I move toward the kitchen to heat it up, I hear her scream. I look down at my watch again. Thirty-eight minutes. A thirty-eight-minute tantrum and all because of a stupid, purple plate.
About forty-two minutes earlier, Lily, my three-year-old, had awoken happily. Together, we retrieved her little sister, Norah, from her crib and went into the kitchen for breakfast. I put two pieces of bread in the toaster, got the coffee pot going, and grabbed two plates from the cabinet—one pink and the other purple. I spread some peanut butter on each piece of warm toast and made my way to the table where the girls were waiting.
In a lapse of judgment (the coffee was still brewing, after all), I set the pink plate in front of Lily.
“No!” she screamed at me. “I want the purple plate!”
I took a deep breath and chose my words carefully: “You will not get the purple plate if you speak to me like that. Would you like to try again?”
She locked eyes with me, paused for a moment, and yelled again: “No! I want the purple plate!”
I stretched my neck to the side; we were really in it now. “I’m sorry, Lily. You know you cannot get the things you want when you choose to scream at me. You can have the pink plate or no plate at all.”
Things escalated quickly from there. Now we’re at forty-one minutes.
I pull my coffee from the microwave and worry that her strong will will always be this strong. I wonder if I can change it somehow—lessen the intensity. This isn’t our first tantrum of this magnitude, after all. I peek my head into her room to see if she’s ready to talk yet. Sweat-soaked and hoarse, she screams at me again. I take that as a no.
I encountered a similar power struggle when I was five.
It was New Year’s Day, and I was home alone with my dad. Still in my pajamas, I came out of my bedroom and was happy to find him watching television. Morning cartoons were our thing. I would sprawl on the carpet with my chin tucked into a pillow, and he would read the title of each cartoon as fast as he could before the words disappeared. The simple game made me giggle endlessly, and even though I could now read the titles myself, I still begged him to say them each time.
Hoping for this kind of morning, I moved closer to the light blue couch he was stretched out on, and told him I wanted to watch cartoons.
“No,” my dad replied. “I’m going to watch football today.”
This option hadn’t occurred to me. I dug my feet into our brown and orange shag carpet. “But I want to watch cartoons!” I tried, louder this time.
“No.” It was clear he had no intention of budging. It was bowl season, in his defense.
At this, I turned on my heels and stormed off to my room. I grabbed a big piece of lined paper and a pencil, and I started to write. Once I finished, I took the note out to the living room, threw it on the floor in front of my dad with a flourish of anger, and stomped away.
Because my dad didn’t want to dignify my behavior, it was my mom who found the note when she got home a little while later. She picked it up, burst out laughing, and passed it to my dad.
“To Dad,” it read in inventive, five-year-old spelling. “I can’t believe I still love you.”
It was probably the meanest thing I could think to say.
I certainly wasn’t a perfect kid, but when my childhood comes up, my parents often note that the only correction I ever really needed was a stern look from across the room. The thought of getting caught doing something wrong or disappointing my parents was usually enough to keep me from melting down or making a poor choice in the first place. I mean, consider that, in one of my maddest moments, I somehow managed to convey both anger and adoration toward my dad.
Lily seemed to be a different story. Stern looks only fueled her three-year-old obstinance. A raised tone only solidified her resolve. An attempt to pull her in for a hug while she threw a fit stiffened her. She was nothing like me when it came to defiance, and, honestly, it caught me off guard.
I always assumed I would parent a mini-version of myself. I didn’t plan on the levels of stubbornness and decibels Lily could achieve because I had never responded to my parents as such. I was easy, so I just always assumed we would skate through the tantrum years on some kind of genetic miracle.
So, when Lily would collapse into an inconsolable tantrum, not only was I frustrated by the behavior itself, but I was also frustrated because she wasn’t responding like I expected her to.
She wasn’t responding like I would have.
Forty-five minutes, and it’s finally quiet on the other side of the door. I walk in slowly and find Lily curled up in her bed with the hand-knitted blanket she’s had since she was born. Her blue eyes look up at me. Instead of looking for myself in their reflection like I have so many times before, this time I look at who is right in front of me. I really look at her. And what I see gives me hope.
I see the strength of her resolve.
I see her persistence and unwillingness to relent.
I see her fiery spirit.
Deep within my girl is an intensity impossible to ignore. A certain resilience which has never been an innate part of my own personality and which I am so thankful is a part of hers.
I pull her into my lap and wrap my arms around her. In this post-tantrum moment of calm, I realize I’ve been looking at it all wrong. These strong qualities of hers don’t need to be changed. They need to be channeled. And if she learns how to appropriately handle her determination, she will be a force to be reckoned with. A world changer.
But what’s more, she will change me too. She will teach me to see a person’s unique strengths and will help me learn to walk through hard things with my own strengthened resolve. She will teach me grace, forgiveness, and the mercy of a new morning.
As I hold her close in the quiet of her room, I can only hope that this girl who feels so passionately about purple plates will change the world someday, but, at least for now, I know she will start with me.
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Guest post written by Molly Flinkman. A lover of gray t-shirts, hand-written correspondence, and good books, Molly spends her days with four small kids and a husband who works unpredictable hospital hours. In her margins of free time, she is either watching Netflix with her husband or writing about how her faith intersects everything else in her life. You can find Molly on her website or Instagram.
Photo by N’tima Preusser.