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Parenting decisions I refuse to get stressed out about

Before I had children, I had everything figured out: the behavior we would allow, what we’d eat, how they’d sleep and with which toys they’d play. Then, kids came along and blew all that out of the water.

Life with children is punctuated by a lot of screaming. Screaming because they can’t find their shoes, screaming because someone took their toys or screaming for no reason at all. Though I’ve taught myself to ignore most of the interference, the wailing seems to affect me — particularly at mealtimes.

My husband and I keep our cupboards stocked with sensible snacks, lean proteins and leafy green vegetables, but getting it all into their stomachs has proven extremely difficult. It’s been damn near impossible. The day my son first uttered the phrase “kid food,” I knew our healthy meal days were through.

Since then, it’s potato chips this, ice cream that and cake, cake, cake, cake, cake. They prefer their mac and cheese boxed, their vegetables drowning in ranch dressing and snack-sized bags of Cheetos for breakfast. We don’t even buy Cheetos.

As you might imagine, the children tell us what they believe they should eat, and what they’ll only eat if (insert complicated scheme involving pastries). As you might imagine, I get tired, and sometimes I give in.

I find myself bartering with one, “Well, if you take three more bites, you can have dessert.” I swore I would never say those words. Then the other two chime in, asking me how many more bites they’ll need to take in order to be finished.

This may shock you, but we never quite seem to achieve three square meals at our house.

I am at least partially to blame, because I don’t fully enforce the no-dessert-without-finishing-your-whole-plate rule. I also apply different rules to each child. For example, my older son finishes his dinner, so he gets a reward. My younger son cries and hangs off of his chair, telling me he never liked that meal in the first place, asks for something else then straightens up to eat. So, he gets dessert. Then my daughter, who mutilates her food, asks to be finished, “drops” some and then cries until I ask her to leave the table. She gets dessert as well because I can’t take the antics anymore.
Kids learn — and fast. They learn that they can turn up their noses at their plates and receive a new meal. They learn how to skillfully hide, give away or drop — oops! — all their vegetables. They learn how to manipulate their caregivers in the same manner. The bottom line is it’s hard to reward one child while punishing the others.

The fun doesn’t stop there. We do the old, “If you behave, you can have such-and-such… ” Inevitably, someone does not behave, but we follow through anyway in the spirit of fairness. This also applies to trips we refuse to cancel so that we don’t disappoint those who behaved — and perhaps so that we don’t disappoint ourselves.

Why is that? Why do things we promised ourselves we’d never do? Because we want to make our children happy. Try as we will to be stone-faced, regimented, rule-abiding adults, we don’t want to see our kids upset. Also, we’re exhausted, and we grow weary of saying the same thing a thousand times.

We wake up in the morning and fight the good fight: get them dressed, fed, out the door and eventually back inside, all in the name of family. We wrestle on their soccer uniforms and dance leotards, and we shuttle them from place to place. Sometimes we don’t have time to cook, or don’t want to, or just plain want a pizza. All of our good intentions go down the drain.

Sometimes we drag them on adventures to make us happy.

That’s life. Our dreams of parenthood don’t always line up with reality. Call it lousy parenting or call it laxity. We all do the best we can as parents. Try as we do to keep the M&Ms out of their mouths, sometimes we’re not able, or we prefer the sound of crunching over the sound of sobs. We can’t stop grandpa, that scamp, from bringing over cupcakes — two weeks in a row — because that’s how he shows them he cares.

At the end of the day, all we want is our kids to grow up right, for us not to find them someday, elbows-deep in spaghetti and covered in maple syrup and Sour Patch Kids, or threatening their boss over the last cookie. We hope they’ll remember to face forward, use a napkin and say please and thank you. We want them to know we loved them, even when they didn’t get the giant LEGO castle or the cereal made with only marshmallows. We want them to know everything to which we said no — or at least tried — was for their own good.

We want them to know that sometimes we’re the ones who make unsavory choices — like hitting the drive-thru because we can’t bear defrosting something to cook, or swiping the sticks of the steel drum at the children’s museum, because we just like the way it sounds.

We have to have faith that it will all work out in the end, that what we teach them follows them into adulthood, that everything they dream comes true, and that they experience joy, laughter and the love of a family along the way.

The rest, as they say, is just the icing.

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