This morning I had a moment of Great Parenting Wisdom, in which I decided to bribe my children with candy if they would clean up their toys in a reasonable amount of time without freaking out about something. I know, I know. I know. But lately getting my children to clean has been an absolutely miserable experience every single time. They have wept copious amounts. They have thrown things. They have sat on the couch in the agony only a child can feel as he watches Daddy put untidied toys into the garage sale box. They have made me want to pull every rapidly-graying strand from my head.
This has to change.
So today I brought out the big guns: M&M’s. I carefully put forty little colored balls of chocolaty goodness into a bowl for Ryan, and forty little colored balls of chocolaty goodness into a bowl for Sam.
“Sons,” I said, using my Serious Mommy Voice as they looked at me with their big, innocent-looking eyes. “These candy jewels of delight are for thee, when thou hast fulfilled thy quest of cleaning up thine many belongings from the surfaces of our dwelling place. Shouldest I, thy beloved Princess, see that thou hast done thy job well, I shall reward thee gladly with these rarest and most precious of gems. Shouldest, however, I see that thou hast stopped thy good work, and hast begun to play with thine toys, and hast chosen that wrong path of throwing thine toys at thy brother, I shall with hardened heart look upon thee, and I shall take from thee thine candy, one shining chocolate bit at a time. Dost thou understand, oh princelings?” (Of course I always talk to my children like that. Don’t you?)
“Yes, Mommy,” they chorused, ignoring all I had just said in single-minded Chocolate Induced Greed. And off they ran to do their duties for Mommy and mankind.
I turned on the radio in the kitchen and began my personal quest to find the kitchen counter so that I could lose it again at lunchtime. A few moments went by and I went to check on their progress. Both boys were meandering through the living room, a vacant look in their eyes, clutching a toy. I gave them each specific direction. Ryan was to clean up blocks. Sam was to clean up books. I returned to the kitchen, listening to them argue over who had to put away the block with a picture of a book on it.
Hmmm. I smiled to myself. This might actually work.
This is where, if this blog had a soundtrack, you would hear either canned laughter or ominous music, depending on how sadistic you are feeling.
I was putting a bowl in the dishwasher when I thought perhaps I should go check on the children again. Sometimes they tell on each other, but I can’t necessarily count on them to keep each other honest. I tiptoed back to the living room. Ryan was half-heartedly putting Lincoln Logs in a bucket. Good, good. Sam was sliding a Lego down a car ramp. Not so good.
“Sam, I’m going to have to take a piece of candy out of your bowl.”
The world fell apart in that instant. It was as though I had told him I was going to remove one of his arms. He cried. He argued. He cried. He screamed. He called me a few words I didn’t actually know were in his vocabulary. With loving tenderness and infinite patience, I took him to the kitchen to show him that his bowl still had some M&M’s in it. He snarfled and snorted and wiped his snot on his shirt and he was back in the game.
So was I. The dryer was buzzing and the Princess of Laundry was on the job. Just as I finished bleach-penning one of Sam’s t-shirts and tossing it into the washing machine, I heard a little voice at the top of the stairs.
“Mommy! You are going to have to take a piece of candy out of Ryan’s bowl, Mommy. MOMMY! MOMMY!!!”
“Sam, go clean up. I’ll be up in a minute.”
Upon entrance to the living room, I saw my red-eyed older son picking up toys like his life depended on it. I asked him why he was crying.
“Because I thought you were going to take one of my M&M’s away.” I looked at him long and hard and told him to come to me.
“Ryan, you need to tell Mommy the truth. Were you playing instead of working?” Ryan contemplated me for a moment and then slowly nodded. “I am so happy you told me the truth, Ryan. It is very important for us to be truthful. But I am going to have to take away one piece of candy from your bowl because you weren’t cleaning.”
Without a word, my son flung his arms around my neck and sobbed onto my shoulder. I hugged him tight and loved on him until I felt that he was just hugging me to get out of cleaning, and then I told him he needed to get back to it. I instructed him to pick up Legos and Sam to pick up Tinkertoys and returned to my own pressing business of scrubbing out a pot.
The next time I checked Sam was playing again. This resulted in the loss of one sad little green candy and a shocking amount of wailing. In disgust I returned to the kitchen. This wasn’t exactly what I had had in mind when I enacted the Brilliant Candy Bribery Act of ’08.
A few moments later I returned to the living room to find both of my children carrying around stuffed animals, crying their little hearts out over the cruelty of the world as shown by a loss of three eightieths of their candy supply. I believe this is when my need for a time out began to claw its way out of the recesses of my mind.
“Put your stuffed animals away and get these toys picked up!” I commanded in a voice that would scare the inmates at a maximum security prison. “If you can’t stop your crying and get your work done I am going to put ALL your candy back in the bag. AND I’m going to tell the babysitter no trip to the park tonight! AND I’m going to send you to bed without lunch. AND I’m going to have Daddy come in here and put all your toys in a bag for the garage sale!” It’s possible this was a slight overreaction. I watched my progeny as they slinked to their bedrooms to put their stuffed animals on their beds and slinked back into the living room. “Clean. Up. Your. Toys. Or I will give you a REASON to cry!”
(Aside: One time when Ryan was pretty small he was crying about nothing and I told him to stop or I would give him a reason to cry. He looked at me with his big tearful eyes and said that he did want some raisins. That threat is still working about as well now as it did then).
I marched my indignant self back to the kitchen and scrubbed dishes with a vengeance. Where had I gone wrong? Who knew the loss of one M&M out of forty would be so traumatic to a five and a half year old boy? The children were still crying in the living room, but I turned up the music and turned on the dishwasher to drown them out.
When my husband came in from mowing the lawn, I ranted to him about the injustices of my life as he drank his water. “Can you go talk to them?” I finished. “I need a time out.”
“Daddy,” a sweet little voice called from the living room, “We were being naughty, but now we are cleaning up very well.” Ha. That’s because they know Daddy will take their toys away. My darling husband had a few quiet, patient words with his sons (he is everything I am not) and returned to his mowing. I finished cleaning the kitchen and started lunch. One of the boys came in.
“Mommy, we’re all done.”
“Go check again. I don’t want to see any toys on the floor.”
Finally the living room passed inspection, so I handed the boys their bowls of candy.
“But Mommy, what happened to all the M&M’s?”
“You were very naughty to me and were throwing fits and crying. Mommy couldn’t let you have all that candy. You should be thankful there’s any left at all.” Sam immediately burst into tears, because his heart had been set on forty M&M’s and anything else was just not going to cut it. I sent him to his room to contemplate the concept of a-little-is-better-than-nothing. I sat Ryan at the table to eat his chocolate. Then I sat down to finish off Sam’s bowl of M&M’s, because, after all, I had done my work.
Brilliant Parenting Strategy #4598– FAIL.