I made a parenting mistake the other day. (Just one, you say?) (Shut up, I say, before realizing that those voices in my head are not real.) There was a teachable moment dangling right in front of me and I missed it. Just totally whiffed.
Here’s what happened. I got Josie the hat of her dreams back in December. She needed a nice warm one, and I’d admired this particular little number on the Hanna Andersson Web site, which is like crack to me, if crack were made out of pixels and/or fine Danish cotton. This particular hat is called the Fluffypuff Skater Bonnet, and it looks like a giant pink Hostess Sno Ball. It is made of luxuriant faux fur and ties under the chin with two smaller Sno Balls on strings. The minute it went on sale ($6!) I bought it. I knew my pink-crazed princess would love it, and I knew I would enjoy the fact that she looked like a tiny jabbering Edie Beale in it. Josie loved it as much as I’d hoped, literally screaming with joy when I pulled it out of the mailing envelope. Grandma Betsy loved it so much, she bought her the matching Fluffypuff jacket. Josie strutted around the East Village like a proud, pink, gay yeti.
And then, a few weeks later, our babysitter washed the coat and hat and put them in the dryer. The label says to dry clean or hand wash and dry flat. Oops.
Honestly, I didn’t even notice anything was wrong. But when I pulled out the coat for Josie to put on for school, she took one look and let out a wail.
“It’s ruined! It’s ruined!” Fat tears rolled down her cheeks.
“What are you talking about?” I demanded.
“It’s not fluffy anymore! It’s all smooshed!” she managed to say between sobs. “It looks stupid! I’ll never, ever wear it again!”
And then I noticed that yes, the long silky fur was now short and matted and nubbly. But c’mon, did it really look that drastically different? Apparently it did. I took Josie onto my lap. “Let’s see if we can fix it,” I said. She calmed down a little at the prospect. We got a comb and tried to comb through the matted fur. No dice. “Can you get me another hat and coat? Just like these used to be?” she asked.
I stalled. “I’m not sure,” I told her. “We got these a while ago, and after things go on sale they usually sell out.”
Josie’s lip quivered. She was quiet for a few moments. Then she said, slowly, “Well, I guess now if I eat a lollipop, it won’t get stuck to my jacket.” She’d remembered getting red slime on the coat and pink fur fibers in her mouth during a nosh session a couple of weeks earlier. If the fur were much shorter and squashed together into little clumps, this would never be a problem again.
Still, the next morning, while Josie and Maxine bounced around the playground like crazed electrons, I asked a friend whether I should buy Josie a new coat. He looked at me, dumbfounded.
“Why wouldn’t you?” he asked.
“Because maybe I’m denying her an opportunity to cope with disappointment.”
“But why should she have to cope with disappointment? She didn’t ruin the jacket! The question you should be asking is whether to make your babysitter pay for the new one!”
He’s not usually such a schnook, I swear. But he’d said the magic words. I didn’t want Josie to have to cope with disappointment. She had her whole life for that! If I could make her happy now with such a simple act, how could I not do so? As soon as we got home from the playground, I put Max down to nap, set Josie up with her art supplies, and checked the Web site. Sold out. So I called the nice customer-service lady and explained my dilemma. She found a bricks-and-mortar store in Maine that still had the coat and hat in stock, in Jojo’s size, at the sale price. I whipped out my credit card. (The shipping cost nearly three times as much as the hat.)
Ooh, look how I ruined that paragraph by adding the parenthetical. The point here is that I rushed to fix a situation with money; the point is not how much or how little money that was. See, I pride myself on my cheapness. The way some people flaunt a Marc Jacobs bag, that’s how I flaunt my frugality. I love Marc Jacobs’s bags, but I only want one if I can find it in a thrift store in Sheboygan for two dollars. And if a genie were to swirl out and say I could only have the bag if I never, ever told anyone how much I’d paid for it, I would put that bag back on the musty shelf next to the smelly-old-man fedoras and the acrylic Freddy-the-serial-killer striped sweaters. When I’m being honest with myself, I know I’m just as prideful as the label whores I mock. My pride just manifests differently.
And my kid doesn’t miss a trick. We recently walked by a schmancy children’s clothing store in our neighborhood (ah, gentrification!) and Josie spotted in the window a black-and-white-striped sweater with a giant skull and crossbones appliquéd on it, paired with a red tulle ballerina skirt.
“You like that, don’t you, Mommy?” she asked. (She knows me so well.
“I love it,” I told her.
“If they had it in your size and my size, could we be twins?”
I laughed, imagining us all punk-rocked out at kindergarten drop-off. Josie quickly added, “What if it were on sale for only one dollar? Could we buy it then?” (She really does know me so well.)
Because Josie understands frugality, doesn’t beg for toys, doesn’t have tantrums when denied a purple plastic purse, I’ve always congratulated myself for having a non-spoiled kid. So why the hell did I buy her a brand new coat and hat to replace one that was only a few weeks old, perfectly wearable, with flaws only a 5-year-old girl or a Seventh Avenue garmento would notice?
Because I wanted to see Josie’s face light up again the way it did when she saw that hat for the first time. It made me feel powerful, loved. It was thrilling. It was a drug, and I wanted more. (Which is why we keep going back to Disneyland, by the way. It’s not for the kids; it’s for us.) Here was my dirty little secret of domestic life: I’d do anything, even things I know I shouldn’t, to see that delighted grin. Now I know why parents try too hard to be their kids’ friends: We want their approval. The hard thing is resisting our own desires for their greater benefit.
In her new book “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids” (HarperCollins, 2006), psychologist Madeline Levine writes, “Parents who persistently fall on the side of intervening for their child, as opposed to supporting their child’s attempts to problem-solve, interfere with the most important task of childhood and adolescence: the development of a sense of self.” Josie had already started to work through the loss of her perfect hat and coat, by looking at the candy-eating upside. Then I derailed her healing process, spiked her opportunity to learn that though the world isn’t always fair, she could cope. Levine writes, “Parents who have difficulty tolerating their child’s distress, who are quick to step in and take over, hamper their child’s ability to continue climbing. Kids who have not had repeated experiences of finding ways to manage frustration may give the appearance of moving forward, but they have not accumulated the necessary self-management skills of self-control, perseverance, frustration tolerance and anxiety management that will allow them to address the more complex challenges they will encounter as they climb higher.” No one likes to see her kid unhappy. But only by letting a kid stew in unhappiness for a while can he or she develop resilience, self-management skills and a sense of competence.
I donated the clumpy coat to Josie’s Hebrew school’s clothing drive. I kept the hat, which fits me, because Josie has a head the size of a small planet. I think the matted fur looks very rock ‘n’ roll on me, a reminder of my younger, cooler self, as well as a reminder of a parenting mistake I’ll try not to make again. When Jo and I go out into the winter together, she says we look like twins.
Write to Marjorie at firstname.lastname@example.org.