Don’t Tell Me to Pick My Battles

Whenever I whine to someone about how my kids don’t listen, he or she will invariably tell me I have to pick my battles. I nod in agreement, but I never do it. I never take out my master list of daily battles and whittle it down to only a few. The reason for this is because it’s very overwhelming; there are just too many battles to pick from, and they all seem really important. How many am I supposed to choose anyway? And what is the criteria everyone else is using to determine which battles stay and which ones go?

For example, I feel very strongly that I need to limit the time my daughter spends scrolling through mindless Instagram feeds on her iPod or my son plays fake basketball on the Wii, but I feel equally as strong that tortilla chips are not to be eaten whilst on the toilet. One might be considered a big deal, the other small, but I can’t be expected to choose between the two. It’s just too hard.

Bedtime is something my kids fight every single night, but I can’t let that one go. If they don’t get enough rest, they won’t be able to adequately process what they are learning in school, or they could compromise their immune systems and get a nasty enterovirus. No thanks. This is a battle that is definitely worth fighting. But what about the twerking lessons my oldest child has been secretly giving to my other children in the basement over the last few weeks? Am I supposed to just laugh that off? I can’t. It’s not going to be as funny when I find out that my six year old has been teaching all the other six year olds in the neighborhood how to pelvic thrust like a pro.

Homework has to be completed every night and it has to be completed correctly. If something is wrong and a little extra help is needed, it will reveal itself through homework and eventually be rectified. I have to stay strong when it comes to homework, but am I really being a good mom by letting my last and youngest kid walk out the door wearing a shirt stained with yogurt because I have already hit my battle quota for the week? The answer is no.

The way I see it, my kids have to do it all. They have to brush their teeth, but they also can’t leave the light on after they leave the bathroom. They have to walk the dog they begged me for even though it is raining AND they have to go to soccer practice even though they would rather have a playdate. Also, they cannot physically assault each other over who ate the last piece of gum AND they can’t have a snack when I am in the middle of making dinner.

My point is this: picking battles is virtually impossible. If I cross a few of the seemingly unimportant ones off my master list, I send the message that my kids don’t have to behave all the time, just sometimes. It’s inconsistent and confusing. It might sound like a whole lot of nagging, harping, and yelling, but combined with an equal amount of love and positive attention, that’s simply the sound of mothering. Instead of telling moms to pick their battles, maybe we should encourage them to simply forge ahead, stay strong, and have some faith that the battles are in fact worth it. Every last one of them.

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Say No to the Sleepover

One Saturday night, after having spent all day at a local street fair with a friend, my daughter sent me a text asking for a sleepover. I groaned and showed it to my husband. I LOVE a good sleepover (no I don’t), but I could not bear to see my daughter drooling comatose on the couch the next day yet again, and neither could my husband. He immediately assumed his role as coach.

“Just say no, just do it. Don’t even think about it.”

I looked at him like he was the most brilliant man on earth, because he was.

“You are so right! I need to be swift and decisive, with no waffling.”

“No waffling.”

It was a Pivotal Moment. Goosebumps appeared on my arms. I texted back a firm, “No, you have soccer tomorrow,” thinking the whole time, “This is what it must feel like to be one of those parents who actually know what they are doing. Maybe I’m not as bad at this as I thought! Go me!”

I put my phone away and moved on with my night, which included dinner with the boys, a birthday party, and Halloween costume shopping at Target. At dinner, my purse appeared to be alive with all of the vibrations and the beeps and the rings coming from within. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I took out my phone and looked at all of her texts. Taken together, they could have been used by a psychologist authoring a book on how to recognize emotional manipulation and what to do about it.

One of my favorite movies is Summer of Sam by Spike Lee, and one of my favorite scenes is towards the end when Mira Sorvino learns her husband John Leguizamo has been regularly cheating on her with his clients from the hair salon. While she is packing her bags, he throws every psychological tool he knows at her to try and get her to stay.

Sympathy: “I am sorry, but baby, I’m not me, OK? I’m f**king going through a lot of shit right now, all right?”

Guilt: “You’re everything in my life and I ain’t got shit. I ain’t got friends. Nothin’. I suck at everything I do. You’re the only f**king thing I have.”

Intimidation: “If you f**king leave here now, don’t expect to come back. You can’t leave me and come back.”

Fortunately, none of these techniques work and Mira throws all of his vinyl disco records out the window of their Bed-Stuy apartment and gives him a surprisingly tender kiss goodbye.

In exactly the same way, my daughter was doing her best to get me to say yes to the sleepover:

Sympathy: “Please Mom? Please? I feel like if we do have a sleepover, we will have an awesome and fun time. I want to become reallllllllllly good friends.”

Guilt: “You want me to be with my friends, don’t you? I love you, come on!”

Intimidation: “Mommy, please, if I don’t sleep over she will leave me! Do if for the sake of the friendship!”

Most Moms and Dads I know are immune to these psychological weapons, but I am not. And my daughter knows it. She knows I am a serial waffler, how I second guess even the simplest of decisions. We recently renovated our bathroom and she watched as I nearly had a stroke selecting a paint color for the walls. She has learned that I can be talked out of anything because I am never sure of anything.

This time, though, I am proud to say that I held my ground. I felt the doubt creeping into my brain during our text exchange, but I kept hearing my husband’s voice, “Just say no, just do it. No waffling.” She returned home that night and the first thing she said to me was, “I’m sorry.” I was amazed. It was like she knew she was taking advantage of my historic waffling, a personality flaw, and was admitting it was wrong! Hooray! I won! I gave her a surprisingly tender kiss goodnight, and was glad I didn’t have to throw anything out the window.

Cereal Wars

The following are all the meals that everyone in my house will eat for dinner without complaining:

Penne with meatballs.  The end.

So since my kids don’t really eat what I cook for dinner, they are not surprisingly hungry before bed, and while most Moms would take a hard line and as a result actually make some progress in this area over time, I am weak and sabotage myself night after night by offering a small and simple snack like fat-free saltines, string cheese, or toasted wheat bread with jelly. They always refuse though; a big bowl of cereal with milk is the only thing they will consider. “Now off with you into the kitchen, woman, and hurry. We haven’t all night.”

I argue with them every time as if it’s the first time. “Cereal with milk is not a snack. It is a meal. It has a bowl and a spoon that I will have to clean, and I’ve already closed the kitchen. Dry cereal without milk is a snack, you can have that.”

“Not acceptable, get us the milk.”

I am not kidding, this is what goes on in my house every single night. Some nights I just don’t have it in me to fight, but other nights when I’m feeling particularly audacious, it’s a full-on war. I will declare, “On this day, let it be known far and wide that cereal with milk at bedtime is forever banned from this house! This shall be the last time you will cause me such suffering.”

They took me seriously once and I didn’t have to serve any cereal with milk or clean any additional dishes at bedtime for a few weeks, and it was great! I think maybe it was because I introduced those buttery club crackers in the green box from Keebler, or “night crackers” as we now call them. That excitement ran its course, however, and we are sadly back to square one.

Parenthood is full of these battles, I knew that. I feel like I am prepared for some of the bigger ones. Like in the event I ever catch any of them doing drugs, I myself am going to do drugs and then make them take care of me while I hallucinate a game of Monopoly with the members of One Direction. Or, I am going to simply set myself on fire in protest like a Buddhist monk. But the smaller battles have thrown me for a loop and have seriously worn me down. And let me tell you something, it’s not by accident, either. It’s a proven strategy of war to keep your opponent focused on the minutiae so that you can ambush them in a big way sometime down the road. They are smart, these kids, but we have to be smarter. Which is why I have created the following plan:

Introduce animal crackers as a replacement for cereal with milk.

They won’t be able to resist! I’m also considering a visual like yellow caution tape to help them understand the concept of a closed kitchen. Now, be honest, what, if anything, do you offer at bedtime?