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Conversations: The Importance of Being Mean

sandwichYOU: 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…

YOU: Why?

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?

YOU: No.

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.


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.

WHAT DO YOU SAY? Continue the conversation in the comments section, and don’t forget to subscribe to the blog.

Confessions: Mean Mom

Alice (Mean Mom):  I don’t think one day goes by that my daughter doesn’t beg me to have her friends over. And…there is not one day that I want to say “yes”. It drives me nuts when they’re here – I don’t even know why. I feel so horrible wanting to say “no” all the time. And I know it’s great that she’s got friends. And it is my “turn” to host. But it just drives me nuts! Please tell me how I can get over this and be a little nicer of a mom. Of a person. I’m so mean.

Me:      Why can’t you be mean and never have the kids over?

Alice: Because there’s something wrong with a mother who doesn’t have her daughter’s friends over. It’s not right. Everything just puts me over the edge. I get so ridiculously overwhelmed – almost scared. Like any minute I’m going to start screaming at them to stop. Which I don’t want to do.

Me: What would happen if you screamed at them?

Alice: I do not want to be that mean mom.

Me: You want to be a nice mom.

Alice: Well, yes. Don’t we all?

Me: Yes, we all want to be nice. But kids are going to think we are mean anyways, you know.

Alice: You don’t think it’s possible to be a nice mom? Or to have a kid who thinks her mom is nice?

Me: Right. I do not think that is possible.

Alice:  Why? I had a truly mean mom. Like if I asked her for a drive, or if I needed something, she’d say “nope, no way that’s happening” and then she’d like…scoff. Like I was the stupidest person for even asking. And then when I’d get mad, she’d tell me how lucky I was to have everything I had. She was never wrong.

Me: You were the one who was wrong?

Alice:  Oh, yeah. If I complained about something — like that I couldn’t go to a movie because she wouldn’t drive me, or that I couldn’t buy something because she said she didn’t like it — she would say “that is NOT my problem.” She just didn’t care. I don’t want to be that Mom. First of all, I’m glad Katie asks me for things. Second, I like to say “yes.” And third, I care how she feels.

Me: You are psychologically much more attuned than your mother. You are working on having the best, most loving relationship that you can with your daughter.

Alice: That’s right.

Me: That’s wonderful. I get it. There’s only one problem. If a child wants an egg, and you don’t have one, they might want you to run out to the store and buy them an egg right then and there. What if it became your full-time job to be on constant egg runs?

Alice:  That’s a very strange example, but I get it. Chocolate eggs, maybe. That’s true. I know. Kaitlin is definitely acting spoiled.

Me: Yes, kids will suck you dry. They want what they want when they want it. At least, if they are healthy they do.

Alice: Well then my kid must be reaaaaaally healthy.

Me: Right. Kids are often very demanding people.

Alice: I know it.

Me: They want you to be nice all the time. And even if you are a really nice mommy, they are still going to be mad at you sometimes.

Alice: I try…I want to be a nice mom. I feel better when Kaitlin is happy. I don’t like it when she’s mad. I don’t want her to be unhappy.

Me: You don’t want her to have bad feelings towards you, the way you had towards your mother. You would like to have a more loving relationship.

Alice: Right.

Me: You don’t deserve to feel like you are a mean mother. What happens when Kaitlin thinks you’re mean? That must be very difficult for you.

Alice: Well, it happened the other day. It happens a lot actually. Whenever I have to say “no” Kaitlin gets mad. Like yesterday, I told her she couldn’t have candy – I’m a ridiculous health-nut – and she freaked out. Like, totally freaked out. I couldn’t believe it. I have been really worried about her being so spoiled actually.

Me: How do you handle it?

Alice:  Well I get mad at that point. I tell her that she shouldn’t get so mad. I mean, I get her EVERYTHING she wants. I do so much for her.

Me: That must make you so mad to see her act so badly when she can’t get what she wants, given all you do for her.

Alice: Yes, it does, it does. It makes me boiling mad. After everything I do for her.

Me: There really is no way to avoid making your children unhappy and mad.

Alice:  I keep thinking that I should spoil her less, but I don’t want to turn into my mother. I don’t want to turn away from her – I want us to be connected. I want to be there for her – I want her to be happy.

Me: And you should. And you shouldn’t stop spoiling her and doing as much as you can for her when you have the energy. That is not the problem. That’s love – love is not a problem, and you need it to compensate for how overwhelmed you get, which is hard for her. Here is the real problem: you don’t want her to be mad at you.

Alice: No! I don’t deserve it. I hardly ever say “no”!

Me: I know that. Even so…kids do have to be mad at their mothers sometimes. You cannot avoid being Mean Mom. You just can’t.

Alice: That is why I do not like to say no.

Me: Right. You do not like Kaitlin to have negative feelings towards you.

Alice: Oh my God, am I putting a guilt trip on Kaitlin just like my mother did to me for asking for anything?

Me: Well, I don’t think you’re trying to do that. You’re trying to teach Kaitlin that you’re a nice mother. You’re trying to get her to be more loving and appreciative of you.  You’re trying to create a loving, nurturing environment. But nobody taught you that it is OK to have a conflict of interests. So it upsets you.

Alice: Well how can I help Kaitlin be more appreciative of me? Less demanding? And less spoiled? It’s too much!

Me: You have to accept and embrace that she is not always going to be happy. It’s not your fault. It doesn’t mean you are turning into your mother. Or being a bad mother at all.

Alice: I don’t like it when she gets mad. I don’t like having the feeling that she is selfish and mean – spoiled. I don’t want to dislike her. I don’t think that’s healthy.

Me: So not only is she not allowed to be mad at you, but you are not allowed to be mad at her.

Alice: Well, I don’t think those feelings are productive. I’d rather we work to understand each other and try to respect each other and have a positive relationship.

Me: That is a great plan. Here is a positive thing for you to understand about why Kaitlin melts down if you say “no” to her: it is because she doesn’t like herself.

Alice: She doesn’t?

Me: No, she doesn’t. Because she doesn’t like the negative feelings she gets from you any more than you like the ones you get from her. That’s why she falls apart.  People think fussy kids are “spoiled” — that they are fussing because they can’t get what they want. That is so wrong. What they are really fussing about is that they don’t like themselves for making their parent feel bad towards them. They are crying because they don’t like themselves for having wanted what they wanted. We teach them to be outspoken, to tell us their thoughts and feelings, but when we get angry with them for making us feel mean, they think we don’t like them. So they fuss and then we think they’re spoiled and it’s a terrible vicious cycle.

Alice: Well why don’t they just act less spoiled?

Me: Because they don’t know when it’s OK to express themselves openly and express their needs, or when doing so will make their parents feel mean if the answer is “no.”  They have no way of knowing when it’s going to be OK and when it’s going to be inconvenient or impossible for the parent.

Alice: True.

Me: So it’s confusing for everybody when there is a conflict. Everybody feels bad. You feel bad about saying “no” and she feels bad for wanting things.

Alice: Wow. Yeah.  How can I help Kaitlin like herself? I mean – this is going to sound weird but should she like herself when she’s pushing me so hard?  Maybe she shouldn’t like herself.  Maybe she should learn to insist less…

Me: Well some people can change when they don’t like things about themselves, that’s true. But most of us just get fussy and feel bad when we don’t like ourselves. Yes, she should get to know you, and that you can’t always say “yes.” Reality bites sometimes. But no, she shouldn’t have to feel bad about herself because of it.

Alice: Kaitlin probably does feel like she’s a bad person when I have to say “no” because I get so exasperated.

Me: We are so attuned to our children we can’t understand it when they are not attuned to us. It’s painful.

Alice: Yeah!

Me: This is the most difficult aspect of parenting today, in this age of atunement to emotion: you don’t want to feel like a mean mom, and kids don’t want to feel like selfish kids.

Alice: How do I stop this?

Me: Well since you can’t avoid conflict in any relationship, or the negative feelings that are generated, you have to get OK with her feeling you are mean sometimes. And you have to be OK with feeling that you are mean and that she is mean sometimes. All your love and attention can’t clear that up. Those feelings are going to be there.

Alice: Bummer.

Me: I know.

Alice: Major bummer.

Me: Right. That’s where everybody gets into trouble. Anger is the worst.

Alice: I was hoping for a little better than what I went through with my mother.

Me:  We thought we could have more positivity if we did things differently. But it’s all about what to do with the negativity.

Alice: Well what do I do when she pushes me so hard?

Me: I told you, try not to get so frustrated with yourself for having to being mean. And try not to get so frustrated with her for wanting things so much. She’s got a strong will – don’t break it.

Alice: Her insistence really sucks though. I mean, what should I say, exactly when she acts so spoiled? Yesterday I said she couldn’t get these shoes she wanted – they were $120! And she started to beg me and beg me for them. Finally I said to her, ‘you are so spoiled!’ And then she started crying. I mean, come-on!!! She is going to outgrow them in two months! She doesn’t “need” this other pair of shoes! It’s never enough…

Me: She was acting like a child. Because she is a child. It’s not her fault she is not mature – attuned to other people, able to put you first, sensitive, understanding and compassionate, reasonable.

Alice: So what should I have said to her?

Me: Well what would have helped her feel better about herself?

Alice: Buying the shoes for her?

Me: No! There you go trying to generate positivity again. I’m asking how can you help her feel better about wanting the shoes, even though she can’t have them?

Alice: Oh! Isn’t that teaching her that it’s OK to be selfish?

Me: No. Appreciating her feelings will help her keep her sense of dignity and self-worth. When people feel good about themselves, they become compassionate and mature and un-selfish. Don’t say: “I should buy those shoes for you, if I don’t I”m a bad mother.” That would foster selfishness. You want to say to her: “I’m sorry I can’t buy those great shoes for you.”

Alice: What if she has a tantrum?

Me: Tell her she doesn’t have to be upset with herself for wanting the shoes.

Alice: Upset with herself?

Me: Right. Tell her, it’s OK. It’s OK to have wanted them. Tell her they really are great shoes. Tell her you would have wanted those shoes. That’s what your mother couldn’t do. Care about your feelings. You can care about what Kaitlin feels when it’s negative.

Alice: How will that help?

Me: She feels guilty and ashamed of herself for being so spoiled. It makes her fussy and then she loses her dignity just for wanting things…and just for letting you know she wants them. If you help her feel OK about all her wants – even the selfish and unreasonable ones — she won’t fall apart when she can’t have something. You have to find a way to say, “no, you can’t have these shoes, but…I get that you want them.” And, since she’s suffering from not liking herself lately, I would add “sorry I have to be mean.” That protects her self-worth and puts the blame on yourself for the conflict.

Alice: Like “I know you’re mad, it’s ok to be mad sometimes” and that kind of thing?

Me: Sure. And, if she melts down hysterically (since we haven’t helped her yet to feel balanced when she’s upset,) tell her you don’t blame her for fussing, but she shouldn’t feel bad about wanting the shoes. She shouldn’t feel bad about herself. “Spoiled” people are just people who feel bad about themselves.

Alice: OK. So give me some tools.

Me: Here is what you have to remember: She is allowed to think you are mean. Don’t take it away from her. You can’t avoid it. Mothers have to be mean. We can’t please our children all day long. We have to frustrate them. This is the hardest thing for us. It’s so unfair. We need them to love us. The way our parents couldn’t. We believe, if we are nice enough, we will have deeper, better feelings of love. And it just doesn’t work. We have to be mean and allow our children to want too much.

Alice: OK. Let her have her feelings, and let me have mine.

Me:  Yes. You have to appreciate all her feelings, and I will appreciate all of yours. Being a parent today, having had parents who weren’t trained to be emotionally attuned, and then trying to be emotionally attuned ourselves is very, very hard.

Alice: I know! We’re doing the best we can!

Me: Yes. So remember: all your feelings are wonderful.

Alice: No they aren’t. Not when I’m thinking my kid is selfish.

Me:  Perfect example — whenever you start thinking “she’s so selfish” that’s your cue that it’s time to help her feel less guilty and ashamed about wanting what you can’t give her. You see, you can use all your feelings to move yourself, and her, forward.

Alice: Wow, that’s hard to do.

Me: Pretty soon, if you can appreciate that she will feel frustrated and mad at you sometimes, she’ll stop feeling bad about it, and she will stop thinking of herself as “selfish.” Instead, she’ll keep her dignity when you have to say “no.” She won’t fuss or throw a fit. She’ll just beg a few times, and when you tell her to finally stop, she’ll say “OK, Mom” without falling apart.

Alice: Wow – that would be great.

Me: It’s going to take work. It’s slow. But when you can deal with the negativity you’ll be able to have all her friends over without being afraid of losing it.

Alice: Yeah. Right.

Me: You’re doing a wonderful job. You’re a wonderful mother and you’re doing a great job of trying to break the patterns that you grew up with.

Alice: Thanks. Um…you know that I’m a character that you have made up inside your own head, right?

Me: Listen…you are me, you could be a man, there is a little of you in every parent who is conflicted about saying “no” and who has to explore their relationship to all the negative feelings that always swim around.

Alice: True.

Me: Thank you for agreeing with me. I am very fortunate to have all these wonderful characters to talk to inside my own head.

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