Parenting On Demand: How Do You Tell the Difference Between a Child's Wants and Needs?
This is within the first 45 seconds of Mary's* waking up in the morning. I suspect she spends her 10 hours of sleep each night coming up with her list of demands for the following day.
I need some water. Can you get me a tissue? Can I have cookies for snack today? Can we go out to dinner tonight? Can I watch TV after school? Could I ride my bike to school? I need more syrup. Can I have some more pancakes, please?
She's not even through breakfast yet.
I think of how Em* and I spent five years preparing for parenthood, how we read and talked and processed and listened and learned. We discussed the various ways we might form a family, what kind of parents we'd be, what issues we might face raising children who'd spent their early months in an orphanage.
My hands are sticky, can you clean them? Can you help me brush my teeth? I don't want you to comb my hair, I want to do it myself. I want to wear my baseball jacket, not my raincoat. I don't want to ride my bike -- can we drive to school? For my birthday, can we go to Chuck E. Cheese's?
We attended a six-week-long discussion group for lesbians considering motherhood. We went to seminars on adoptive parenting and listened to lectures on the medical and emotional issues faced by children adopted internationally. We learned that a child who hadn't experienced love in her first year might not know how to accept it from her adoptive parents, and talked about how we'd deal with that.
So when our first child, Ann*, came home to us, we were ready. We charged into Early Intervention to help her overcome her developmental delays. We researched feeding techniques to help her catch up on the growth charts. We were delighted that she was a veritable love sponge -- this child had no problem accepting affection and soaked it up as fast as we could deliver it.
Can I watch TV now? How come Ann is getting a play date but I'm not? Could I play Wii? I don't want to pick up the toys. Can I have ice cream? When I'm 10, can I have a TV in my room? Can we go to Build-a-Bear this Saturday? Can you snuggle me?
I had always known that I wanted more than one child, and I was ready to start the paperwork for No. 2 before the ink was dry on Ann's immigration papers. Em wasn't so sure, so we agreed to wait until Ann had been home a year before we made the decision.
Over the course of that year, Ann thrived -- she grew, gained weight and began to walk and talk. We had a great kid, and we were doing a great job. Everybody told us so, and we believed it. Ann was doing so well, and was such a sunny, easygoing child, that we had the hubris to think we were pretty awesome parents. So we began the paper chase again, and spent a year assembling the dossier we needed for baby No. 2.
And then came Mary.
I don't want fish for dinner, I want chicken nuggets. Can I have a napkin? Can you pour me some seltzer, please? Can I have a treat? Can I watch TV after dinner? When it's Halloween, can I be a Power Ranger? Can I be excused?
From the first meeting it was clear she was the exact opposite of Ann. In coloring, body type, everything, they were completely different. But Mary seemed like a happy, placid baby who would be the perfect second child and fit right in to our family.
The placid part lasted a few weeks, before Mary seemed to realize her world had changed and she had some control over her life now. For months before she could talk she could make her demands known. They were myriad -- and constant.
She wanted to be picked up, she wanted to be put down. She wanted to eat, she wanted to play. She wanted to go for a walk, she wanted out of the car seat. She wanted a new diaper, but she did not want anyone to change her.
She wore us out with her wants, and we realized our awesome parenting had a lot more to do with how easy Ann had been, not so much about our own imagined awesomeness.
I remembered something I'd read or heard from somebody along the way -– I don't know who or where, who could remember anything anymore? –- that your job as a parent, simply put, is to meet your child's needs. You don't have to give them everything they want, but you do need to give them everything they need. The tricky part is knowing the difference.
Let me tell you, that is some trick, and, in five years, it hasn't gotten much easier. With every demand Mary makes, we over-think it -– does she just want more pancakes, or does she need them as proof that we'll always provide for her? Does she want to go to Build-a-Bear because she likes it, or is it because Ann went there and Mary needs to know she'll get her equal share?
I want a bath, not a shower. Can I have the ducky towel, not the fish towel? Can you help me brush my teeth? Can you read me a book?
I find myself in an ongoing defensive posture against the demands, ready to be Judge Judy at a moment's notice: Was that a want or a need? She's 5-and-a-half years old, do I really have to pick her up and carry her when we're in line at the bank? Is she just being whiny and cranky because she's tired, or is she feeling anxious about something and in need of a little reassurance?
Is either one of those reason enough to pick her up for a quick cuddle, even though I'm tired and cranky, myself, and she's been at it all day and I really need for her to just stand still for another two minutes and then we'll be out of here? I love to snuggle her, but doesn't she need to learn to wait, to keep herself occupied and well-behaved for a bit -– isn't that a skill she needs to practice?
Can I have some water? I want to wear my Scooby-Doo pajamas. Can you read me another story? Can I sleep in your bed tonight? Can I have a playdate tomorrow?
I guess I won't know until she's all grown up and can tell me exactly how I failed her –- as she no doubt will –- whether I was too hard on her, or not hard enough. If she doesn't learn to delay gratification, to wait, to be still, will it be my fault because I didn't set my expectations high enough for her to develop the maturity and independence she'll need?
Or, if she grows up with an adopted child's tiny seed of doubt about where she belongs, about whether or not she's really loved, will it be my fault for not picking her up in the bank or taking her to Chuck E. Cheese's?
If we go to Chuck E. Cheese's, can I have a drink? And no, this paragraph is not supposed to be in italics.
*All names have been changed to protect my family's privacy
Veronica Rhodes writes about gay parenting under this pen name; read her blog on RedRoom. She and David Valdes Greenwood alternate weeks writing the Family Gaytriarchs. Look for them on ParentDish every Wednesday.