Years ago, I invited a colleague to join my family for dinner. After dessert, our six-year-old daughter started acting like a six-year-old. She became loud, mushed the last of her ice cream, and then slipped under the table and started crawling around like a little puppy. At first we all laughed, then my wife and I told her to stop. When she wouldn’t, I kept my voice calm, and tried reasoning with her.
Like most attempts at reasoning with a six-year-old, this attempt was also fruitless. The more I tried to reason, the wilder she became. Embarrassed, I glanced at my friend, a child psychiatrist, who said, “Art, pretend I’m not here. Do what you’d normally do.”
With that, I reached under the table and lifted my wriggling, cute, athletic daughter up into my arms. “It’s bedtime,” I said. “In fact, way past your bedtime.” I carried her into the bedroom, helped her into her pajamas, and tucked her in. Minutes later, she ran back into the dining room and dived under the table. I snatched her before she got all the way underneath. “I am finished with this out-of-control behavior!” I yelled. “You behave yourself! Do you hear me!” I stormed back into the bedroom, put her in bed, and stalked back to the dining room.
I sat down at the table and tried to calm myself. Just as I took a sip of coffee, my little demon was back! Before I had a chance to say anything, she put her hand on her hip, posed like a movie star and said, “And you call yourself a psychiatrist.” Then she pivoted, perfectly in character, and ran back in the bedroom — not to emerge again.
It took a few seconds of shock before we all started laughing hysterically. The story has become part of our family lore. Why tell this story? What does it all mean?
Our children learn by what we do, not by what we say. Both my wife and I are pretty outspoken. My little pipsqueak never had a problem saying what was on her mind, and as a grown woman she still doesn’t.
It’s sometimes a fine line between setting limits and encouraging independence. Both are essential and a parent walks that line every day. That evening I wasn’t tolerant of my daughter and set reasonable limits. Interestingly, she found a way to also put me in my place and bring me down to size. In my mind it was a fair trade. Mutual respect was established.