Harlow is a pretty particular kid. She likes things when she wants them and how she wants them. She does not budge.
Sometimes her requests are tough, like the fact that when she gets up in the morning and comes in our room to wake us, she has absolutely no desire to climb in bed with us. She wants to sit on the couch and she wants to sit on the couch NOW. She also wants cold water with ice, a waffle cut in fours, and a bowl of strawberries with the tops cut-off but otherwise whole. DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT cut those strawberries in half. And don’t even think about serving that water ice-free.
She’d also like a bowl of cereal but she doesn’t know which cereal. And it’s not enough to just name the available cereals. You must bring her over to cabinet, hold her up in the air (our cereal cabinet is above the stove and microwave) so she can see the cereals herself and make a choice. Yes, she knows it’s the same cereal selection every day, but she must confirm that fact with her own eyes.
When she sits down to eat her cereal, she’s very cold. That’s because she’s only wearing underwear. She’s only wearing underwear because every night after I put her to bed, Harlow drags her little body back into my room and asks if she can take off her pajamas.
“Will you go back to bed if I say you can take off your pajamas?”
“Okay. Then sleep naked. I don’t care.”
In the morning, when she sits down to her bowl of cereal and announces that she is cold (and by “announces,” I really mean, “barks in a panic”), I say, “Well, why don’t you put some clothes on?”
“NO! I NEED MY BLANKIE!!!”
In this moment, I know exactly the next sequence of events. I will tell her not to use her blankie because she might spill milk on it and get upset. She’ll say, “I won’t get upset” which I know to be a lie. Then she’ll give me her best doe eyes with a “Please can I use my blankie, Mommy?” and I’ll oblige, tucking the blankie under her tush on the chair so no cold air can get in, as I have come to understand that she likes it. Then she’ll take a spoonful of cereal, spill milk on her blankie and scream, “OH NO!!!!!!! I NEED A NAPKIN!!!!” And I’ll have to run over immediately to wipe the milk away to stop the tears.
Harlow is a bit of a tyrant. And a neat freak. With possibly a dose of OCD.
Mike and I have come to know her particulars and our goal is usually to keep the peace. I mean, if she asks for something unreasonable, we have no problem saying no and dealing with her wrath, but if it’s something simple, sometimes it’s easier to just give in. Because it would be totally bad parenting to consistently give in to a child, I find myself trying to anticipate the potential pitfalls so they don’t set her off to begin with. Like, if I know she’ll freak out over a cheese stick stripped clear of the plastic wrapping, when really she likes the plastic wrapping pulled halfway down so she doesn’t have to actually touch the cheese stick with her hand, I’ll just make sure to give it to her that way. Or I’ll ask her ahead of time if she wants her pasta warm or cold, her waffle with syrup or no syrup, her jacket zipped or unzipped because she always has a very definitive preference and if you assume anything, you will get it wrong. “Okay, so I’ll just unzip the jacket!” I’ll find myself screaming and then we’re both screaming over a zipped jacket which seems even more ridiculous.
I think Harlow tends to get away with this stuff because she has remained a tiny peanut even as she grows older, fooling us into thinking she’s still a toddler in her terrible twos, when really she’s a four-year-old heading to kindergarten next year.
The other night, I finally put my foot down. It involved an issue regarding Mazzy, a book and some ice cream.
The girls were having ice cream after dinner. Mazzy was eating her ice cream while she did her homework. Harlow wanted to scoop out her own ice cream, which was admirable, I thought. The only problem was that the ice cream was pretty hard and it was tough for her to scoop out. I offered to help but she insisted on doing it herself. By the time she got the cup full, the ice cream was in the beginning stages of melting.
After she finished, she sat down at the table with her dessert and asked if I could read her a book while she ate her ice cream. No problem.
Then Mazzy asked if I could wait to read the book until she was done finishing up her homework. All she had to do was fill out the sheet that said how many pages she had read from her book, along with the name of the book and the author. A couple minutes tops.
“Sure, Mazzy. No problem.”
But there was a problem, because Harlow wanted me to read NOW.
“I’ll read as soon as Mazzy is done,” I informed Harlow. “She’ll only be a couple more minutes.”
“But then my ice cream will be melted!!!”
“So eat the ice cream now and I’ll read the book after.”
“NO!!! I WANT YOU TO READ THE BOOK WHILE I’M EATING MY ICE CREAM!!!!!”
Well, now this didn’t seem just particular. This was unreasonable. So I said…
“Harlow, you have two choices. You can eat your ice cream now or you can eat it in a few minutes. Either way, I am going to read the book when Mazzy is finished. If you want, you can put your ice cream in the freezer while you wait.”
Harlow didn’t like those options at all.
“I said… I WANT YOU TO READ THE BOOK WHILE I’M EATING MY ICE CREAM NOW!!!!!”
She screamed again so I had to throw out a third option.
“Harlow. If you scream again, I will have to take away your ice cream and then you will get nothing.”
She screamed again.
I took away the ice cream.
She went ballistic.
I sent her to her room.
When Harlow cries, it is goddamn awful. There is not a sadder sound in the world. I don’t know what it is, but it elicits something in me that never happened with Mazzy. With Mazzy, I always believed that when she cried, she was just being dramatic and everyone, including her, knew it. With Harlow, it really sounds like her world is caving in on her.
Nevertheless, I persisted.
I listened to her crying escalate and tried to remind myself of something my sister had told me long ago. That when a kid is having a tantrum, the crying always gets worse before it gets better. It’s called the Extinction Burst and the worst thing a parent can do is give in at the moment the crying is at it’s most heightened. The end result being that your kid will just learn to reach the heightened frenzy sooner because that’s precisely the time when they get what they want.
I went into her room to comfort her.
She looked at me, her eyes soaked with tears and practically hyperventilating.
“Okay, Mommy,” she said through sobs and hiccups, her sweet little munchkin voice returning. “I will eat the ice cream melted.”
“No, Harlow,” I said calmly. “There will be no ice cream.”
“I SAID, I WILL EAT IT MELTED!!!”
“Harlow, sweetie. The chance for ice cream is over. I’m sorry.”
I wish I could say that she understood her fate at that point, but instead, what I had previously thought was the extinction burst turned out not to be the extinction burst at all, because this was the moment Harlow truly went to an awful awful place.
She became hysterical, banging on the door with her fists and screaming for me to let her out to get the ice cream. I was inside the room with her, but sat with my back leaning up against the door so she wouldn’t open it.
She shrieked and cried, making her little voice wretched and raspy and oh god, it was so hard to watch her and not cry myself.
“Harlow. It’s time for you to go to bed.”
“NOOOOOOOOOO!!!” She wailed.
“Do you want me to lie with you?” I asked her.
I picked up her flailing body, placed it on the bed as she kicked and screamed and then tried my best to tuck her in. Finally, she stopped fighting me and gave up. Her breath heavy, her eyes red and her cheeks soaked.
“Harlow, do you understand why you didn’t get your ice cream?”
“No,” she told me.
“It was because you got mad that you couldn’t have it exactly how you wanted it. Next time, you just have to think about if it is worth getting so upset.”
“Okay, Mommy, I understand” she said, as her eyes glazed over and the last hiccups settled.
“I love you, Harlow.”
“I love you too, Mommy,” she said.
I put my head down next to her on the pillow so that I could lie with her until she fell asleep. This was the moment when we would come back together and everything would be okay.
“Mommy?” she asked sweetly.
“Can you get Daddy so that he can lie with me instead?”
Ah. This was Harlow’s punishment for me. “Alright,” I told her and left her bed.
I found Mike in the other room.
“Harlow wants you to lie with her.”
“But, whatever you do— DO NOT GIVE HER ICE CREAM.”