I don't know how long we sat there, husband and I, staring across the coffee table at one another, unblinking.
Our expressions were almost identical. A mirror image.
“What should we have done?” he asks in earnest. “There has to be consequences.”
The pounding of small feet still echoed in my head, though Ittybit and The Champ had stomped up to their rooms and slammed their doors at least 15 minutes prior.
It had happened so fast.
Just an ordinary Friday night, with dinner and a family movie on the menu. But first, a meal was on the table and the children were picking through it deftly. So skilled have they become in the art of fork wrangling that they are able to conceal whole servings-full of vegetables in the print of their plates' design before anyone says “dessert” let alone “You may be excused.”
Dessert has always been a bit of a free-for-all in our house. One can't be certain there will be any chocolate ice cream left, though the carton sits temptingly in the freezer.
Still, the two of them were standing in front of the open door, mulling their imagined ice cream choices when the room just seemed to erupt. First with the rapid-fire bursts of bickering, then an escalation of accusations – first he said, then she said – and, finally, a father reaching for the nuclear option.
It came in the form of a thunderous yell and then a moment of silence before … “Up to your rooms,” said none-to-kindly.
Dinner was ruined.
The movie, a lost cause.
The only parts left of this day were the brushing of teeth parts and the going to bed parts.
Oh, yes, and the “talking to,” part.
Oh, how I hate the “talking to” part.
It's the part where it seems we go and bludgeon the children with the same words that we've already hammered home. As if it will extract apologies and meaningful change. It only seems to damage the parts that were holding everything together.
“Why?” we ask ourselves, “do they not listen?”
“Why?” we fret, “can't they just get along?”
I say WE, but I don't really mean me.
Not because I am immune to frustration. But I know they can't just get along. They are kids, and bickering this is what kids do. They argue and fight and drive their parents mad. They can't see the consequences in the heat of the moment. They don't sense a threat until it's no longer a threat but a reality, taking away their television privileges for the rest of their natural lives.
Not that it ever happens that way.
My husband understands this, but he doesn't fully accept it in practice.
He thinks there must be a concrete plan in place. Rules of engagement that are set in stone. Our failure is the failure to be follow through.
There has to be consequences. But it has to be fair. How many warnings should we give them before they lose their desserts? Two? Three?
I don't really think the number matters. In fact, perhaps it's the number of warnings that just makes it worse.
By the time the third one comes around his temper is a three-alarm blaze.
“How many times DO I have to tell you to stop?” he bellows. “I'm sick of sounding like a broken record.”
No. I think the consistency that matters has little to do with having the same reaction, every time, no matter what. That's more like the definition of insanity if your expectations are to extract different results.
We aren't getting different results. We're just getting the mirror image of our own frustrations gazing back at us.
“How many times has she yelled at the dog the way I've yelled at her?
“How many times have you noticed him yelling at his sister the way you yell at him?”
“So we should just let them fight and bicker and do nothing?”
No, of course not. There should be consequences, but we shouldn't lose our cool when we hand them out.
He was silent for a while, but he finally agreed. Then, together, we trudged upstairs to knock on doors and have a different sort of talk. One that started with an apology and ended with promises all around to try and be kinder when we are reminding ourselves to be kind.
And in time, maybe – just maybe – we'll start liking what we see in the mirror.