The other night at dinner, I asked Sunshine to please use her fork not her fingers. She looked straight at me, and with this look in her eye that can only be called "challenging," proceeded to pick up her rice with her fingers. I asked her again to use her fork, not her fingers, and said if she used her fingers again, she would be excused from the table until she was able to make better choices. And what do you know? She did exactly the same thing as before. Obviously, it was a test. I rose to the challenge.
Sunshine was promptly excused from the table. She wailed, she moaned, and she finally settled down. We talked, then she came back to the table, finished her meal. And went on to test me on several other points throughout the evening. It was an exhausting night.
At every phase, new tests
Late that night, I thought about what had happened. Sunshine always has been very good at testing boundaries (learned from her brothers, I'm sure, in addition to it being a natural part of development), but she seems to be entering a new phase of testing, one that is more overt and deliberate. I could see it in her eyes, not just her actions.
I wondered for a nanosecond how long this phase would last - then laughed at myself. Alfs and Woody still test me, and daily. So the real answer to that question is that I'll let myself know!
At every age and phase of development, kids test the boundaries with parents, and on every possible boundary, from bedtime to mealtime to everything in between. It's their job, really. Sometimes it's more obvious than at other times, and occasionally it's very subtle, but it's always there in some way.
As parents we need to be careful about what we will and will not allow ourselves to be challenged on. This can be a significant challenge in and of itself! We parents have to decide what we are going to be strict about - and what we can just let go.
This line is very different for each family, and can be very different for each child. What works for or is important to one family or child might not be the same for another child or family. This is, of course, the source of many "not fair" declarations by our kids, but it is what it is. You as a parent have to decide what is important to you. Table manners feels important to me, among many other things.
Consistency, consistency, consistency
No matter the challenges, no matter the battles, perhaps the most important part of the scenario - and yet possibly the hardest to achieve - is consistency. Consistency in response, message, consequence, the works. When I talk with my older friends whose children are grown and gone, they talk about this, and about how hard it was to maintain that consistency. The kids always seem to know when you are tired, and your guard might be down, if only a smidgen.
These same parents also remind me to give myself a break, because no parent can be perfectly consistent. As long as we keep striving for it, though, seems to be a big part of the battle.
Kids will test you. They will. In every possible way. As parents we must do our best to be consistent in response to this very normal part of their development. And when I figure out exactly how to do that, how to get it right every time? I'll let you know.