Conversations: The Importance of Being Mean
YOU: So…yesterday I took my son Charlie to my friend Alice’s house. She has a two-and-a-half year old too. Little Jeffrey. We all sit down and Alice starts asking Jeffrey what he wants for lunch. “Do you want the tuna, Jeffrey?” she asks. “Or the peanut butter and jelly, or a cheese stick with an apple?” And then, she asks my Charlie what he wants. Everybody wants something different, so lunch takes like, an hour and a half — I’m thinking…why not just put out one flipping sandwich? Instead, I say to Alice – cuz I don’t know her that well yet — “boy, you sure are good at giving choices!” And she says, “well, I like to involve Charlie and get his help. I like the connectedness. And they say it builds character.” Wow. They are two years old. I only give Charlie one thing. And you know what, if he doesn’t like it, he goes hungry. ‘Till he’s hungry enough to eat what I’ve got. But we are there at Alice’s house, and I see my Charlie looking so happy munching on his tuna which he loves, and now I’m thinking…maybe I should give Charlie some choices. Which…is going to make me crazy. I just want to make one flipping meal! Not three! But I feel so selfish and mean.
ME: Peer pressure is rough.
YOU: Should I be giving him more choices?
ME: If you want to be more simpatico with Alice, maybe.
YOU: But do you think it’s mean or selfish of me not to give him the choices if that’s what’s good for him?
ME: Not everybody thinks that’s good for toddlers. But…what do you have against being mean and selfish, anyway? Do you think you should be nice all the time?
YOU: Well, I try to.
ME: Being mean isn’t so bad. You have to be willing to feel like a mean person to have close relationships — with your partner, your child, your friends, your family…
ME: Because why should you always put other people before yourself? That’s not fair. Then people are just going to walk all over you – you’ll be a dishrag. Either that, or you’ll get really pissed at some point, and then say “no” out of righteous anger, which is also no fun for anybody. Why not avoid the anger, avoid being a dishrag, and just settle for feeling like you’re mean and selfish sometimes? As long as you’re not sadistic. Because being sadistic is bad.
YOU: So what is “sadistic,” then?
ME: Being sadistic is when you see that being mean is hurting someone too much but you do it anyway.
YOU: What a minute, wait a minute…you’re telling me I have to be mean, but I can’t hurt anybody? How can you be mean and not hurt anybody?
ME: It’s a matter of degree. If the person is going to be mad, that’s fine. But if the person is going to be hurt, that’s different.
YOU: I don’t get it.
ME: Here it is: if your kid is going to say “you’re mean, Mommy,” and stomp their feet a few times, but forget about it in the next half hour, they can handle your mean selfishness. A tantrum is fine. But if the tantrum goes on, and they are starting to scream “I hate you,” at the top of their lungs, crying, throwing things, banging their head on the ground, then you know you’re meanness and selfishness has gotten too much for them. Then you have to stop or it’s sadistic.
YOU: Oh my God, I think I’ve been sadistic to Charlie. The other day, he WOULD NOT leave the park. And I totally lost it. I shoved him in the car, and strapped him in really hard, and he was screaming, and I told him if he kept crying I wouldn’t let him use the i-pad and then he really started screaming. I was desperate. But he can’t always get what he wants.
ME: Right. It’s hard to see when we’re being sadistic when we feel righteous. And we get righteous when we’re stressed out. Because we want to get less stressed out.
YOU: Did I fuck him up?
ME: Well did you apologize for losing it?
ME: So apologize! Nobody’s perfect. It’s a process. Apologies teach children that you feel bad about getting sadistic. That way, they can feel bad when they get sadistic.
YOU: OH I DON’T WANT TO BE SADISTIC!
ME: You know, mothers who feel like they can never be mean get crazy trying to be so nice all the time. Being too nice can make you crazy. Then you ooze that craziness and the whole family gets weird.
YOU: Lord Almighty. I just wish I could know when I’m losing it. I don’t want him to think I’m sadistic.
ME: You can’t always know if someone is going to experience you as sadistic. Because sometimes, our meanness feels justified, and therefore good. Everybody is hard-wired for that righteous pleasure. Or the opposite happens, and we scare ourselves with how mean we feel and get paralyzed and feel upset. So the whole mean/sadistic thing is hard to recognize in real-time.
YOU: So what’s the answer, then?
ME: There is no answer. There’s only an act of negotiation.
YOU: What negotiation?
ME: Whether you are allowed to be selfish and mean, or whether it isn’t going to go over well with your particular kid who may find you sadistic. If your kid is the insistent type, it’s harder. Some kids can take mean and selfish mothers more easily. You may have to sacrifice your selfishness with Charlie, and serve him. When and if you can.
YOU: How do you know when to “serve”?
ME: You use your emotions to gauge how frustrated your kid is getting.
YOU: I am so confused.
ME: EXACTLY! You have to tolerate confusion. The more you can tolerate not-knowing, doubting yourself, feeling insecure and confused, the more you can stay in that state of openness, and find the right answer for how to be with Charlie.
YOU: How does that help?
ME: Because there is no “right” answer!* It’s not about choices or no choices. It’s about staying sane so the family is happy, which is a constant negotiation of your energies versus their energies.
YOU: There have to be some rules.
ME: Yeah, you discover them. But kids don’t come with a manual. All you have is a searchlight and a prayer.
YOU: I need a better searchlight!
ME: Yes, that’s all you need — a way to observe, gauge and figure out whether you are going to sacrifice your own comfort for the sake of Charlie, or allow him some discomfort so YOU can feel better. It’s called A RELATIONSHIP.
YOU: OK, just one thing…I have to ask you this…What if Charlie can’t take what I need at all? Like…can’t handle me being mean or selfish in any way?
ME: I guarantee you that you will ask for too much sometimes, and upset him.
YOU: Oh, great.
ME: That’s what apologies are for. Love means having to say you’re sorry.
YOU: I feel bad.
ME: Get over it.
YOU: That’s not a very nice thing to say.
ME: Well, I would never say that to a patient, but since you are a character inside my own head, I can say that. And now, everybody can know what I really think about mothers who feel bad about being mean. Get over it…it just…has to happen.
YOU: OK, well thank you, you’re wonderful.
ME: You’re welcome
*Thank you to my excellent advisory board, as follow:
Advisors to this blog: what do YOU say?
Loren Starr: I have long held a personal opinion that it is good to avoid mixing the process of feeding your child at an early stage of life with emotion-laden, stress filled situations. Feeding someone is the ultimate form of control over someone and you are sending a message whenever you feed your child, even if the message isn’t obvious to the adult. I fear food showdowns have potential negative psychological repercussions. When food and fighting or food and loving (rewards) get confused I worry that eating disorders could emerge later in life. My son was a picky eater early on and he eventually branched out on his own. We provided him with choices and the ability to decline food. I think his relationship with food (at age 12) is about as good as it gets now as a result. He seeks out healthy food, doesn’t like or indulge in over eating. This is, of course, just one data point.
Martin LaPlante: In my opinion, toddlers are a little young for a la carte. But planning a menu with them in advance and giving them a role in helping execute it can give them the predictability and involvement that is good for everyone, while giving them insight into how that meal came to be.
Monique Ponsot: In my experience offering three choices to a toddler is a recipe for disaster for all concerned. It says nothing about a parents flexibility, rather it puts the child in the position of having to make a decision like a rational adult. Decisions about choices takes years to develop and is not what a toddler should be expected to have to do, just to eat! If you feel you must offer choices, two is easier to manage; for instance: “pb&j or cheese”.
Simonetta Barzanti Dixon: Definitely the latter, otherwise she risks being at the child’s beck and call more than she already is as a mom, and also raising a kid who is fussy about food. with our daughter she got what she was given and we always said that this was what mummy and daddy were eating too, and there was nothing else if she didn’ t eat what was in front of her. as a result, she’s always eaten everything and we could always take her to restaurants and peoples’ houses with no fuss or trouble. What would happen if this kid started demanding menu choices at other peoples houses in a couple of years?
Elizabeth Mailer: I think a choice between 2 foods is reasonable; and why not if it isn’t inconvenient?
Cara Hanoum: I always give two choices i make them laugh and tell them this isn’t “Cara s kitchen”
Susan Cottrell: She should be who she is. Every mom is different and that is OK!!!!
Matthew Ponsot: Not a problem we ever had! LOL! We always had 2 choices: eat or not!
Andrea Cohen: My take? It’s more about peer pressure than offering a kid choices. Nothing wrong with offering choices if you have the time and things in the house. Life is full of choices and this way kids are introduced to a variety of foods. Besides, there’s no need to be consistent – if you give choices one day, you can choose not to the next.
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