My five-year-old Norah was tasked with cleaning the dinner table. Instead she locked herself in the bathroom and played with the faucet. Once I found her in there, she told me she had a cut on her toe, and she needed to look at it.
“Why is the water on and the door locked,” I asked.
She didn’t answer, so I asked again, and she told me to go away.
She’d had her face painted like a pink and green cat earlier that day while at the farmer’s market, and ever since, she’d been crawling around on all fours, pretending to be a cat. I was sure she was in the bathroom looking at herself in the mirror, probably licking water from the sink.
This was her way of avoiding chores. She did shit like this all the time. I tell her to clean her room, and she hides in her toy box, or she tells me how hungry she is, or that she has a tummy ache, or she simply wanders off, into some room with a lock on the door. I feel this deep urgency to teach my daughter how to pitch in. There are a few reasons for this. One being I want her to take responsibility. I want her to know what it means to get work done. However, living in a small house, in a suburb, makes that challenging.
I was raised on a farm. There was always work to do. Work that took long hours in the hot Utah sun. However, that really isn’t the case with my kids. I don’t have cattle to feed, or fences to mend. I have a messy table and a messy living room and pee on my toilet. All of it needs to be taken care of, but it isn’t clearly needed for survival. A cow will not go hungry if my daughter doesn’t clear the table. When I was a farm kid, I could see that if something didn’t get done, the family might suffer. What I’m trying to say is, it’s difficult to teach my daughter work ethic and responsibility by asking her to clean up a few things around the house that probably seem arbitrary. But it’s all I have, so I make a big deal out of really stupid shit… like clearing the table.
Once I finally got Norah out of the bathroom, she took her sweet time cleaning. Then she insisted on having music because it “Makes her work faster,” something I didn’t know was possible. She seems to have two gears. Slow and lost. Once I got her the iPad so she could listen, she spent a significant amount of the time making sure the song playing was “cute.”
After 30 minutes of reminding her to get to work, I set a timer.
“You have 10 minutes to finish that table. If it’s not done by the time this sucker beeps, I am going to take away your play dresses.”
She gave me a blank look that almost seemed comical because of her cat face paint.
“Doesn’t that bother you?” I said. “You don’t seem to be working any faster.”
Norah place on hand on her hip and said, “It bothers me. But I’m not going to show you that because I don’t want you to know.” She raised her eyebrows.
It’s these little glimpses into teen life that makes me realize that my daughter is going to be a huge pain in the ass. I have no idea how to fix that.
“You are going to really show me that you care when that timer goes off and the table isn’t done.”
Once again, a blank stare.
She kept meandering, and part of me wanted to reminder her. I wanted to nag her. I wanted to make sure she got the table done because I hate punishing her. I hate it more than anything. I want her to do the right thing without me having to be the enforcer. I just want to tell me kids what to do, and have them do it. Show up, do your chores, and then play games. It’s not that hard. But that isn’t the case. Kids fight every step of everything for very stupid and petty reasons. Why clean up the table and help out the family, when you can dick around the bathroom sink for no reason? Why do what your parents ask the first time, when you can drag your feet until they are flaming pissed and start yelling? Everything is about testing boundaries.
Punishment has to be one of the crappiest parts of being a parent.
“That’s the timer,” I said. “You’re not done.”
I walked into Norah’s room, and she chased after me saying, “Just don’t take my night dresses.”
Norah has a lot of dresses. Some of them light up, some of them have sparkles and fluffy curly things that I don’t understand. Those are just for play. Then there are her nightgowns that look like princess play dresses. She sleeps in one almost every night, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, those nightgowns were very important to her. I thought about the snarky thing she said earlier about not wanting me to know that my punishment bothered her. And as petty as it sounds, I wanted to know that my punishment was having an impact, so I took the nightgowns.
And once I had them in my hand, she started to cry. She clung to my leg, tears smearing her painted whiskers, asking me to give her princess nightgowns back.
I looked down at her crying, holding the dresses up and out of her reach, and I felt like an asshole. There is something about making a little girl cry that is so punishing to a parent. But I stuck to my guns, and once Norah realized that I wasn’t going to budge, she ran into her room and slammed the door.
I sat out in the living room for a while. I told myself it was to make sure Norah calmed down, but it was really to let myself calm down. I took time to think about what I was doing, and wonder if all of this was worth it. I felt like the bad guy. I always do in situations like this. I wonder if I am taking things too far. Was a messy table worth making my daughter cry? I didn’t know. In the long run, I just wanted her to be the kind of person that could do what is asked of her, quickly, and without complaint, because that is a hug part of being successful in life. I know that. But I struggle with how to teach it to my daughter.
I went into her room, ready to give her a very fatherly and rewarding talk, but once I looked at her smeared face paint, and watery eyes, I didn’t know what to say. So I asked her a question that I hated when I was a child. “Do you know why I sent you to your room?”
“Because I didn’t clean the table,” she said.
“No,” I said. “I sent you to your room for not listening to me. I want you so badly to understand how to do things that are asked of you because it’s a big deal later in life. It’s crazy, Norah. Little things become big things. And something little, like not cleaning the table when you are asked, can lead to not doing big things that your boss asks you when you grow up and get a job. I don’t know if all this means anything to you right now, but it will someday. I want you to become something amazing because I know that you can. Do you get what I’m saying?”
Norah let out a deep breath and said, “Yes, dad! Can I just go to bed now?”
Then she rolled her eyes, so I wiped the paint off her face, and put her to bed.
I went to bed frustrated, knowing that I would have to have this same fight again. And I would struggle to explain this simple rule of life, do what you are asked, to my daughter again. I will struggle with how to say it. And she will probably still not get it. This cycle will continue, because so much of parenting is about repetition. I just hope that someday, she gets it.
Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America,The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post,Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him onFacebook and Twitter.