Parenting is a marathon, not a sprint (although it definitely feels like running at full speed most of the time!). Even so, there are moments that stand out as being particularly difficult – like a steep hill around mile 19. These “moments” can last for days, as in a painful new tooth or stomach bug, or even weeks, in the form of a new baby or major relocation. In those trying times, we parents need to dig deep to maintain our perspective (and sanity!) to hold tight to the values we care about and let everything else slide. Sometimes, however, a rough patch is merely a moment in time, a fleeting instant where we are unexpectedly faced with a choice about what kind of a parent we want to be.
Last week, I was on my own with both kids after a long day of work. They had both been truly delightful evening – watching a new roof go on our neighbor’s house, reading books, playing nicely together and independently, and finishing their dinners without a fuss. When my 3-year-old asked if he could practice writing his name, I was proud of his initiative and quickly got him settled with a piece of paper and colored pencil. Of course, when his 1.5-year-old sister saw him drawing, she wanted to do the same. I duly chose a crayon for her and taped a piece of paper to a drawing board on the floor for her. With both kids scribbling furiously, I felt safe leaving the room to call a friend while washing the dinner dishes.
It was not even a three-minute phone call. As we were wrapping up, my daughter appeared, her face and clothes streaked with fluorescent pink marker. In her chubby little hand, she gripped the unsheathed weapon gleefully (I had no idea she could even get the caps off herself!). My first instinct was to find the cap for the pen. As I returned to the living room, I saw that my daughter’s body had been only the first of her canvases. The walls, doors, couch (formerly beige!), and carpet were all covered in hot pink swirls. She must have been working feverishly to cover so much space in such a short period of time! My daughter was delighted with herself. Worse, my son, a yellow marker in hand, was in the process of following his little sister’s lead to add some bright yellow lines to her pink swirls on our furniture and walls.
I hastily bid a fast farewell to my friend on the phone and surveyed the situation. As I removed the markers from my children (who were, as my South African husband would put it, quite chuffed with themselves), my mind raced with how to respond. I wanted to scream – especially at my son, who knows the bright line rule of art: “We only draw on paper.” But yelling at my kids causes them to shut down and not listen to a thing I have to say, and it always leaves me feeling guilty. I tried to draw upon my inner Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher in ancient Greece best known for his belief that we cannot control external events so should accept them calmly and dispassionately. Of course, it was not a natural hurricane that graffitied my living room, but my own progeny, who I – in theory – should have some degree of control over.
Trying to channel my frustration into a teaching moment, I took a deep breath, and informed my children: “I feel like yelling right now because I am very angry. You know that we draw only on paper, but you both drew on our home. I like your artwork on paper, but do not like it on our walls or furniture because it does not belong there. Do you understand why I am feeling upset?”
When they both seemed to get that I was angry, I continued by giving them each a spray bottle of water and a rag, and enlisting their efforts in washing down the walls and couch. They were not very effective, but both kids did scrub with all their might for the next ten to fifteen minutes. After that, I pointed out that I could still see the ink where it should not be, and while we’d likely have to live with it until we got new furniture, I hoped they had learned to treat our home with more respect. I then proceeded to remove the art box from the room and explain that they had lost the privilege of accessing it whenever they wanted and would need to be supervised in future art endeavors.
Then I let it go. We completed our getting ready for bed rituals as usual, and I only mentioned the incident briefly as I put my son to sleep. The next morning, however, when he came in for morning cuddles, my son promptly came clean to my husband about what he and his sister had done the night before. It was clear he had been thinking about the incident. I had already told my husband what had happened, including my response, so he just reemphasized the “we only draw on paper” rule. Then we all let it go. Today, when I see the light pink marks on the couch, I feel only the tiniest twinges of guilt (why did I leave the room?) and frustration (they should have known better!). Like the marker, these feelings are fading fast. After all, for every tough moment, there are many more fun, silly, delightful, adorable, heartwarming times.
Anyway, all of this is to say that parenthood presents an unending stream of challenges so we need to be on our toes. I think I handled the graffiti incident of 2016 pretty well, if I must say so myself, but my response would likely have been different if I hadn’t eaten yet, or if I hadn’t just had a lovely chat with a friend. Like any skill set, parenting is a muscle that requires exercise to strengthen. I feel like I am getting stronger, but still have a long way to go in this marathon.