Recently my family was out to dinner, and as we were waiting for our food I pulled out my phone so we could play Quizzler. Quizzler is a fun iPhone app my friend developed. You shake the phone to get a question like “If you discovered a new planet what would you name it?” and “Would you rather live in the desert or the jungle?” and “Which do you like better, roller coasters or ferris wheels?” I went around the table, asking each child a new question. The girls really got into it, even the teenager. Sometimes I could predict their answers, and sometimes I was surprised.
So when I shook up an especially provocative question, I made a big show of it.
“Ooh,” I said to my teen, “I’m glad you didn’t get this question!”
“I’m glad you didn’t get it too,” I said to my second seven year old, who has the charming propensity to say exactly what she thinks followed by immediate demonstrations of remorse.
“It’s a good thing you get to answer this question,” I said as I leaned in close to my first seven year old. She’s my tender-hearted girl. The daughter who can’t give me enough hugs before she falls asleep at night. The daughter who says “I love you” to me with such passion my heart aches. The daughter who likes to be so close to me that if she can’t sit on my lap she’s leaning into me. You get the picture.
“I’m sure glad your sister is answering this question,” I teased my other girls.
My husband had rejoined our table by this time and was listening with interest.
Ahem. Now I had everyone’s attention. I read the screen.
“What’s one thing you wished were different about your mother or father?”
I need to say at this point that I think we all expected the answer to be directed at her father. I know I did. “I wish daddy didn’t yell at me in the morning.” “I wish daddy were home more.” “I wish daddy wouldn’t leave his socks balled up on the bedroom floor.” (Whoops, that’s what I would change, she probably doesn’t notice the socks.)
But things didn’t go that way.
My dear, affectionate daughter looked straight at me and without hesitation answered “I wish mommy were nicer.”
I ignored my gloating husband. Really, I didn’t think it was at all appropriate for him to experience such mirth at my expense.
My daughter’s response raised two issues for me.
First of all, I’m a modern parent. I read lots of parenting books. I try to discipline with a soft hand. I only yell and act unreasonable when I’m completely pushed over the edge. I pride myself on my extraordinary patience. How could she single me out for improvement?
But the bigger issue was how she could look me in the eye and suggest that I should be nicer. Why wasn’t she afraid of repercussions? I’m her mother, why don’t I inspire fear and awe?
I blame the rear-seat DVD entertainment system in our minivan. You see, when the little girls were born we needed a vehicle that could carry our older daughter, along with a friend or two, and give us easy access to two car seats. A minivan was our best option, and among other features it included a built-in DVD player. So when our family embarks on a road trip, our three daughters, sitting in two rows, don their wireless headphones as we pull out of the driveway. My husband and I enjoy a quiet ride in the front seat. (We consider this a date.)
It was different when I was a kid. My three sisters and I shared the backseat and looking out the window really only works for the two on the end. It was inevitable we would bicker and torment each other. My parents, undoubtedly at wit’s end, would threaten us. “Somebody’s going to end up crying back there!” “Don’t make me pull over!” And sometimes our mother would even reach into the backseat and try to smack somebody.
We grew up with a good healthy fear of our parents. We were in awe of our parents. They had power! It would have been, frankly, presumptuous to critique their parenting.
But in my 21st century family, everybody got a good laugh at my expense. Even me. And then our food arrived and the game was put away. Next time, though, I’m going to stick to the questions about animals and planets.