So if you’re on Facebook and you’re friends with any parents, you might be familiar with this article: You Just Broke Your Child. Congratulations. (TL;DR: Man in Costco sees father yelling at his innocent little boy.) I strongly dislike this article for any numbers of reasons, such as the author being a smug dillhole (“People see my relationship with Noah, and quite often put me up on a pedestal or sing my praises for loving him more than most dads love their own kids.” OMG so this is who really owns all those World’s Greatest Dad mugs?), but primarily because the article is so one sided. As a parent myself, I happen to know just how likely it is that what Dan “I’m a damn good dad” Pearce actually saw was carefully orchestrated by a devious mastermind, i.e. a toddler, to coerce/embarrass his dad until he bends to his will.
I’m not saying, ever, that parents should go around jamming their fingers into their children’s collarbones, but as the parent of a 2 1/2 year old, I know how easy it is for a child’s words and a parent’s reaction to be wildly misinterpreted by outsiders. I submit for you Exhibit A, an Oscar-worthy routine Klara has perfected which I like to call “I Need A Big Hug.”
“I Need A Big Hug” was born about a year ago, when Klara was still an only child, on a nighttime car trip home from somewhere, probably my parents’ house as I was alone with her in the car. She was crying about something – leaving her grandparents? wanting a snack? dropping a mitten? – and through her sobs she choked out, “I need a big hug.”
Well I’m not made of stone. How can I hear that from my baby and not want to encase her in my warm, loving mother’s embrace? You better believe I pulled off the road. I got off an exit and pulled into a gas station. I crawled into the back seat, unbuckled her, and cradled her in my arms.
I’m pretty sure it didn’t help, and then I had to fight with her to get her back in her car seat, and she probably cried the rest of the way home anyway. But the damage was done – she had found a powerful tool at her disposal, one that would make Mommy stop whatever she was doing and pay attention.
As a parent, we are often told to pick our battles, or save our most powerful tools (time outs? balloons? new episodes of Doc McStuffins?) for when they’re desperately needed. Toddlers never got that memo. If something works once, they’re going to play that ace every chance they get. Mommy won’t let you use her iPhone? “I need a big hug!!!” Mommy gets mad at you for not following directions? “Give me a big hug!!” Mommy tries to put you in time out? “I NEED A BIG HUG!!!” At first, I tried to comply when I could, if I wasn’t driving, or holding Joey, or peeing. But pretty soon it just became a standard part of each tantrum. Mommy won’t do what you want immediately? Play the hug card. It’s no longer a plea, it’s a shrieking demand. It doesn’t even mean “give me a hug” anymore, it means “DO WHAT I WANT AND DO IT NOW!!!” I’m about as likely to pull over when she says she needs a big hug as I am to pull over for a hitchhiker.
Of course, your average innocent bystander has no way of knowing the storied history of “I Need A Big Hug.” All they see is the tiny blonde person, tears running down her face, imploring her mother, in the middle of Shaw’s, to please give her a big hug. Who wouldn’t be appalled when said mother snaps back, “I am not giving you a hug!” or “No more hugs!!” or even, “Naughty girls don’t get hugs!!” I can see their blog posts now. “What kind of mother refuses her child’s impassioned plea for a bit of tenderness!?!” Tenderness my ass. She just wants me to buy her a box of Dora Fruit Snacks. She doesn’t want a hug any more than I want a romantic evening with Dan “Do you not realize the incredible and powerful bond that skin on skin contact with your daughter will give you?” Pearce.
I can’t possibly interpret every public interaction for you, so you’re going to have to check your scathing judgement and realize that what comes out of a two-year-old’s mouth is so often light years from what they really mean. Their parents know this; they are skilled interpreters of toddler bullshit. In case you happen to come across me out and about with Klara, here’s a cheat sheet:
“I eat a healthy lunch?” – Awww, she’s asking for some sustaining nourishment. Nope, not even close. She wants a treat. She knows if she asks for a treat, I’ll tell her she needs to eat something healthy first. She’s asking me if she ate a healthy lunch, i.e., “Can I have a treat?” Sometimes asked sweetly, sometimes screeched with an exclamation point instead of a question mark:
“I eat a healthy lunch?”
“No, you didn’t eat a healthy lunch. It’s 9 A.M. You had half a muffin and some cheddar bunnies for breakfast. You’re not having a treat.”
“I EAT A HEALTHY LUNCH!!!!”
“I’m going to take that ugly orange pumpkin-shaped bucket of treats and dump the whole thing in the trash if you keep screaming like that.”
“I’m ‘TARVIN'” – “I am trying to delay going to bed/delay putting my shoes on/keep you from accomplishing anything meaningful today.”
“It’s ok Mommy! It’s ok!” – “I have done something naughty; please don’t investigate further.”
“Who do you need to feed?” – “Are you going to nurse Joey now? Because I really want you to give me some food and turn the TV on and stand next to me while I use the potty even though I’m fully capable of doing it myself.”
“You need to tell me” – Said in response to a question. No, she’s not looking to me for parental guidance. She wants me to list every option available to her, as in:
“I’m ‘TARVIN’. I need some food.”
“OK, what do you want?”
“You need to tell me.”
“OK, how about an apple?’
“The kind you bite?***”
“Klara, that’s all we have. You need to pick something.”
“I eat a healthy lunch?”
“NO! NO HEALTHY LUNCH!”
“I NEED A BIG HUG!!!!”