BERRY: Even a battling 7-year-old can be sweet

Mar 1, 2012

Evien knows how to successfully manipulate with both sweetness and aggression, and she knows just what buttons to push to infuriate her little sister and to frustrate her mom and dad. 

At times, it seems that parenting is merely pitting the child’s tactical maneuvers of manipulation against the parent’s strategic methods of retaliation. It’s a battle, and sometimes there is no clear winner.

Something as simple as telling Evien that it’s time to brush her teeth and get ready for bed can turn an otherwise quiet evening into a war of wills. 

“I can’t brush my teeth,” Evien says.
“Why not?”
“Um, um, I’m hungry.”
“You can’t be hungry. You had supper and a snack.”

That’s when the whining starts, with the pitch and volume of her voice going up and down as if it were being carried by ocean swells. “BUTI’MSOooohungryandINEEDSomethingsweetor IWON’TBeabletoSLEEP.” 

Then comes the sorrowful weeping.

I know it’s just a stall tactic. She couldn’t possibly be hungry, but Evien has successfully put me at odds with myself. If I give her a snack, she gets more time and delays her teeth brushing. If I don’t give her a snack, I’ll have to live with a full-blown tantrum and the guilt of sending my kid to bed hungry.

“OK, you can have a snack, but it has to be cucumbers and you have to put your pajamas on first.”

Evien grins smugly. She chews her cucumbers slowly and purposefully.

OK, sometimes there is a clear winner.

Like many kids, Evien can be a bit of an attention hog. If she feels like her little sister, Maggie, is getting more of my wife’s or my attention, she’ll talk over her until Maggie retaliates physically. 

“It’s my turn!” Evien demands.
“Is not! I was talking first!” Maggie shouts back.
“So what! It’s my turn!”

Out come the claws and another scratch on Evien’s cheek. Both girls end up in their rooms, wailing like speeding police car sirens.

Just when I begin thinking that parenting is just a long string of battles all strung together — and that Evien is completely self-centered and selfish, and I am a horrible parent making every possible mistake — my combative second-grader surprises me.

Evien earned “classroom money” in Mrs. Greene and Mrs. Wright’s class for being on task and for generally good behavior. The pretend money could be used to purchase real toys and trinkets. One afternoon, Evien showed me what she bought.

She had purchased a Spiderman puzzle for her cousin, Tyler; a “Princess” puzzle for her cousin, Sami; a ring pop for her cousin, Jaelyn; a toy horse for her cousin, Alex; and an eight-pack of crayons for Maggie. 

“Didn’t you get anything for yourself?” I asked.
“No.”
“Why would you spend all your money on other people?” 
“Because I love them and miss them,” she said.

Suddenly, I looked beyond the arguing, complaining, pouting and selfishness, and realized what an enormous heart my little girl has. 

That same week, I had to bring my cat, Abby, to the vet to be put down. I had that cat for 14 years, and losing her was hard for me. Evien sensed it. The next day, she handed me a poem she had written:

“It was my time to go.
I left you standing there.
But all my time was up, and all my job was done.
I knew it would be hard to say goodbye, but I did.
So all my memrys are yours, and all hope and love is brout to me.
Love, Abby”

OK, there’s a sweet, sensitive, loving child underneath all that battle armor. It made me realize that in between all the arguments, tantrums and friction, there are many small moments of tenderness between Evien and I. 

Several times throughout each day, Evien will say, “Dad?”
“Yes?” I respond.
“I love you.”

When she says that, I  know I must be doing something right. But for now, I’ve got to go. It’s time for Evien to brush her teeth and go to bed.

— By Grant Berry, a Tribune community columnist

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