Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing. Watch any toddler who has learned these words: “no,” or “mine” for all the proof necessary to validate the claim. Call it a “war of wills.” Call it the “clash of incompatible desires.” Call a spade a spade, and recognize that the singular desire to be right and to hear someone else admit it lurks in all of us. Tyrannical dictators instigate wars to assert their superior authority. Mega-moguls institute hostile takeovers to amass ever more wealth and direct a greater market-share. The kid who chirps, “may I take your order please?” outplays his cranky, disdainful customer by deliberately giving him a plain Whopper rather than a Whopper with the works. The T-Ball coach who dreams of coaching a team in the Little League World Series argues every call with the volunteer umpires. The need to assert control and mastery of the situation at hand, be it one of world domination or merely one of french fries, makes itself apparent from war rooms to board rooms, and from fast food counters to community ball fields. Conflict. It’s everywhere. Often, it’s a family affair.
I am a mom. Once this fact is established, conflict is readily understood. Think back fondly to a recent trip to a grocery store. Hear the whining? See the stern-faced, finger-pointing woman with frazzle written all over her? She’s a mom too. Her little one is asserting his will, and growing more confident with each new wail that his mother will capitulate. Then, listen to the silence. You know she caved. Look. See that grin? See that box of sugar-coated cereal? Conflict resolution. Public peace-keeping and face-saving trump principles. But you know, on the inside, that mom is thinking up a hellishly long ‘time-out,’ and later, there will most assuredly be no dessert for that little guy at the dinner table.
I had my own little guy to contend with. Correction. Three little guys. But Luke, the elder twin of my first-borns, believed that his calling and sole responsibility in life was to ask questions, challenge answers, try my patience and assume dominance in our relationship. Some parents use ‘time-out.’ Some parents lecture. Some try to crush self-esteem. Some get out the wooden spoon. But no mom ever wants to say, “Wait until your father gets home.”
Disciplining techniques vary widely, and what works for one child often doesn’t work for another. I thought ‘time-out’ was a great concept, but what I really wanted out of the deal was to give myself a ‘time out’ – sort of a “Calgon, take me away” moment in the midst of spilled milk and missing Mickey Mouse Underoos. An arguer myself, I would often forget that there’s no reasoning possible with a 4-year-old, and so I’d attempt to lecture them into right behavior. As for spanking, I’d listened to Dr. Dobson – I acknowledged the wisdom in never using an open hand to spank a child, so instead I chose the time-tested method of using the good old-fashioned wooden spoon as my instrument of consequence for childish misbehavior. I could sometimes hear a nebulous voice from my past (or someone’s past) intoning, “this will hurt me much more than it hurts you” as I gave one of my boys a sharp swat on his backside. The infrequent spankings I doled out didn’t seem to have an adverse effect on me (or on my boys, as I discovered). We passed through our days with the usual childish hijinx followed by the requisite discipline – count to 10, time-out, dreaming of a Calgon moment, reason/lecture, last resort wooden spoon threat, with the necessary follow-through if threat proved ineffectual. These were the days of our lives. Mistress of the house, often challenged but never thwarted – I ruled. In the war of wills, the score was definitely Mom: 2469 – Kids: 0. Until that day. That “terrible, horrible no good very bad day.”
Luke and Matt, his twin, and Jake, their younger brother, were going about the morning as they had countless mornings before. I was no doubt going about the morning in similar fashion. As is the way with most life-altering moments in history, I don’t remember a single detail of what became the moment that changed our lives, but I do remember this: I found it necessary to discipline Luke. I tried the usual: reason, explain, threaten with the spoon. Follow through became my ‘final frontier.’ Luke had apparently discovered the thrill of not backing down, so to the kitchen I went. I forced myself to walk slowly, hoping the anticipation of my return would give Luke the proper perspective on his behavior. (Yes, I know he was only seven) With spoon in hand, I resolved to maintain my composure. Luke resolved to talk himself out of a spanking. I steeled myself against his wheedling. When he realized his reasoning wasn’t going to convince me, he reacted in self-defense, putting his hands behind him to shield his backside from the spoon’s thwack. In mid-thwack, while prying his shielding hands away from his cute little butt, I managed instead to make solid contact with my own thumb, and somehow broke the spoon at the same time. Luke, unscathed and unhurt by the altercation, laughed. He laughed. I could have screamed with frustration. I did yelp from the sting, but Luke’s laughter at my ineptitude left a deeper bruise. My thumb would recover far faster than my ego. When I regained control of my ability to speak actual words, the first ones out of my mouth were the only ones I’d vowed never to speak. As his laughter trailed off, I played the only ace I had, feeling like a joker as I lamely imparted “Wait until your father comes home.” I’d definitely lost the battle. I wondered who might win the war…