My daughter and I are at the local library playing hide-and-seek in juvenile fiction. Suddenly she takes hold of my skirt and urgently pulls me close,  “I am going to shout!” she tells me as if confessing a deep dark secret. “How do you know?” I whisper. “Because I’m going to,” she says trying to match my hushed tone.

“Well we’re in the library,” I explain.

“We don’t shout here. You see that lady reading, she needs quite. And that librarian won’t like it one bit. She already got mad at mommy for letting you touch the computer. No shouting” I say. “Those are library rules.”

“Mommy,” Sage interrupts now looking extremely serious, “I’m going to shout.”

I quickly pick her up. “Count to five first,” I say and then book it towards the door. I nestle her head into my chest to help muffle the sound just in case she can’t hold it in.

“One, two, three, four, five…” I count aloud. And just as we are crossing through the glass doors and onto the sidewalk Sage releases a gigantic, “SHOUT!” She actually says the word shout as she shouts.

“I did it mommy. I shout outside!”

“Yes,” I say. “Good work.”

As we walk home I think to myself, “What was that?” and I file the event in a section of my brain that I now reserve for figuring my child out.

A few weeks later we have a similar incident. We’re in the car and I’m sitting next to her in the back seat. After waiting at a particularly long red light she turns to me and says, “Mommy I’m going to do heeyah!”

Heeyah is my daughter’s version of a karate chop (inspired by Miss Piggy) and she knows she can’t do it anywhere near people. “I’m going to do heeyah at you.” She further explains.

“But you can’t,” I say. “You can’t do heeyah at me.”

Sage is adamant. She’s got a strong urge to hit me and she’s not giving up just yet. “I NEED to do heeyah,” she says with great force.

“Are you feeling mad?” I ask.

“No” she tells me, “I’m feeling heeyah.”

“Well you can not do heeyah at me and you can not do it in the car.”

My daughter grows quiet and then calmly states, “I will do it in the car and then I will go to my room.”

“Yes” I respond. “I will send you to your room if you karate chop me.”

Sage grows very quiet. She looks up at the ceiling and closes her eyes. She is deep in thought.

I imagine she’s playing out her punishment. Perhaps she’s picturing herself behind her closed bedroom door crying in despair. Suddenly she opens her eyes and glances back down to meet my gaze. She is clearly having second thoughts.

“I don’t want to go to my room,” she says.

“Then do not karate chop me,” I respond.

She stares at me.

I stare at her.

Then slowly she takes hold of her arm and pulls it close to her side as if trying desperately to keep it from following its dangerous impulse.

She holds it there for several seconds. When she finally lets go it falls limply at her side. The urge has passed. My daughter is in the clear. “Hi Mommy!” She says in a light and cheerful tone. “Hi Sage,” I say. “Good work.”

That night as I lie in bed processing this event and the incident at the library it dawns on me that I am witnessing my daughter develop self-control. For the past two years she’s been discovering “the rules”. She’s seen what gets her in trouble, what is deemed unsafe, what is “crossing the line.” She’s watched us gasp as she runs towards an open staircase. She’s heard our lectures as she refuses to share with a friend.  Now she’s taking a stab at policing herself.  But it’s raw and awkward. It’s new and most definitely hard. It takes everything she’s got. She narrates her actions and talks through the consequences. She involves her whole body in restraining her impulses. It’s incredible to watch. Though soon her response will become automatic it occurs to me that this way, this early form of self-restraint is actually really responsible and thoughtful. It’s almost noble. I start thinking about how I might be served by such a process.

Like the other night: would I have eaten four cookies and gone to bed with a stomach ache if I had taken the time to really think through my actions and their consequences? What would have happened if I had paused on my fourth trip to the dessert platter and said aloud, “I am going to eat a fourth cookie. That will mean that there will be four cookies in my stomach. I will want to puke. I will have great regret. I will be sad.” How would it have played out differently if I had actually reached for the hand that was grasping for the fourth cookie and pulled it towards me and held it tight even when it tried to wriggle loose and grab that round morsel of chocolate?

What would have happened is that I would have gone to bed having NOT eaten FOUR cookies.

And then as I drifted off to sleep, instead of gripping my stomach and moaning into the night I could have given myself a gentle pat on the back.

“Good work” I would have said.

“Good work.”

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