Taylor Swift has a song that goes, “This is why we can’t have nice things, dar-ling/ Because you break them, I had to take them awaaaaaay/ This is why we can’t have nice things, ho-ney.”
The song is about a broken friendship, but as a mom, I often find myself singing this chorus under my breath when my kids do things like touch the walls with chocolaty hands, track mud into the house, or break the recliner. My sole comfort when these things happen is that someday they will mature past this point of careless destruction, and I will actually be able to have nice things. Plus, more often than not, these things happen IN my house, where immediate consequences can be issued, and if they dislike the consequence, they are welcome to throw a fit in their room.
It’s a very different story when we try to DO nice things. Too often, when my husband and I try to do something fun and special with our children, no matter how excited they are about it initially, they turn into ungrateful brats before the day is out, and their discontent and my parenting skills are suddenly on display for the world to see and judge. And every time, my husband and I find ourselves saying:
“This is why we don’t do nice things: because you can’t behave when we do!”
Take, for example, our recent trip to visit family in Pennsylvania. I grew up there, and now that my youngest is old enough to experience and remember things, I was eager to share with them some of my favorite things from my childhood, but they made almost every outing miserable.
On the first day, I wanted to take them on a short, tree-covered, gently-inclined hike in the Appalachian Mountains on a beautiful 77-degree day. My kids have done nature hikes in the humid and baking bayous of South Louisiana, and we regularly go on walks of more than a mile in our neighborhood, so I did not think asking them to go on this hike was in any way unreasonable, but apparently, I was VERY wrong. As soon as we got out of the car, my oldest refused to let us spray her with bug spray, so of course, once we were on the hike, she whined about all the bugs.
Less than a mile into the hike, my youngest started whining that she wanted to go home. We asked her if she was thirsty, we asked her if she was hot, we asked her if she was tired, but it was none of these things. She simply didn’t want to be there and thought that we should all stop enjoying our day to meet her mood. When we didn’t, she cried and cried. About two miles in, we came to a historic log cabin built beside a relaxing waterfall. As we explored the house, her mood changed, her imagination kicked in, and she was having fun, so I thought we were out of the woods (pun intended). After spending 15-20 minutes exploring the house and taking a snack break, we decided to head the two miles back to the car, but my child, who had only minutes earlier been whining to go home, now wanted to stay at the log cabin. She cried the WHOLE WAY back to the car because now she didn’t want to go home. My husband and I had to take turns carrying her just to keep her moving, and if anyone else on the trail thought they were going to enjoy a relaxing hike or see some wildlife, they were sorely mistaken thanks to her screams and wails.
The next day wasn’t any better. We went to Hershey Chocolate World, which in my opinion, is the happiest place on Earth after Disney World. We did the Chocolate Tour, we let them pick out souvenirs, and I told them they could have milkshakes for lunch! (I worked at Ben and Jerry’s every summer of college, and I still think Hershey milkshakes are the best!). As we stood in line for the milkshakes, my youngest decided that she did not want one. I had no problem with her getting something else, but she didn’t know the name of what she wanted, and when I couldn’t figure it out based on her description, she grew frustrated. When I told her we would go find what she wanted after we got her sister a milkshake, she LOST it and threw herself on the floor screaming. My mom had gone to reserve a table and my husband and my dad were across the food court getting coffee for the adults, so I was on my own handling this unexpected (and unreasonable) tantrum. While my instinct was to step out of the line and address the tantrum, I also knew that that decision would upset my oldest, who had been patiently waiting in line for her milkshake and who most certainly would cry about how unfair it was that she had to wait longer. I suddenly felt like no matter what I did, I wasn’t going to win or come out looking like a calm and collected mom who could manager her children, so I picked up my youngest, let her cry and scream until my husband could come to get her, and stayed in line, most certainly annoying all of those around me.
As we sat at the table eating our “lunch,” we talked to her about her behavior, explained why it was inappropriate, and explained that if her behavior continued, she would not be able to pick out a toy at the special store we were going to next (my mom’s treat). She seemed to understand, but then she ran from me in. the. parking. lot. Everyone walking to Chocolate World and a shuttle-full of people headed to Hershey Park witnessed me frantically running after my very fast 4-year-old. By the time I caught her, I was terrified, out of breath, and LIVID. Beyond the absolute terror I experienced as she ran from me, the worst part was that when we upheld the consequence, letting her watch her sister pick out a toy, she fully understood that she was not getting one because she ran and was completely unphased by it. There were no tears about wanting her own toy. There was no desire to play with her sister’s new toy when we got back to my parents’ house. There was simply an unsettling stoic acceptance.
What good is a consequence when it doesn’t seem to have an impact?
Two days into our trip I was already beyond aggravated with and embarrassed by my children’s behavior. The rest of the week wasn’t quite so bad, but there was still a lot of pouting and arguing. On top of it all, while I’m used to challenging behavior from my oldest, my youngest is typically my cooperative one, so I simply didn’t know what to do about her suddenly frequent meltdowns. While I could chalk some of the behavior up to the fact that they were out of their normal routines and experiencing too much excitement in such a short span of time, the truth is, even going out to eat at a local restaurant requires my husband and me to weigh the benefits of not having to cook and clean with the potential stress of handling our ill-mannered children. And, if I’m being completely honest, my social anxiety simply can’t handle the (perceived) judgment of those around me.
All of this is why we can’t DO nice things.
It’s why I struggle with the guilt of saying “no” so often. It’s why we will NEVER have a “yes day” in this household. But it is also the reason why I make a conscious effort not to judge other parents, and why I try to offer a comforting smile, word, or even a hand when I see others struggling with their own kids. Because I know my kids know better. I know I have taught them how to behave. I know we have had serious, on-their-level discussions about why they can’t do things and what the consequences of their behaviors are. I know that my husband and I do the best we can to handle the outbursts and tantrums in the moments they happen, but in the end, kids are kids. They can’t always think logically and coherently. They don’t always have the ability to control their emotions. And despite what my anxiety tells me, and what other people might actually be thinking, I can’t control the way my kids act; I can only control the way I respond, and my family and I can all do our best to learn and do better for the next time.