A Frightening Responsibility


On Thursday, when I came home from grabbing a take-out dinner for everybody, I found that Vivian was in a bit of trouble. Erin and grandma Rosemarie were looking firm and serious because Vivian, at the end of her ballet class, had playfully snatched Nora’s favourite blanket from her little sister’s grip, and had run out into the parking lot. I had to admit that this was serious stuff.

Erin and Rosemarie were trying to impress on Vivian how serious this was, and why what she had done was wrong, and Vivian was trying her level-headed best to worm out of the responsibility. At one point, my little girl actually said “But I didn’t get smooshed by a car. So that’s good, right?”

Very quickly, I realized this was a moment that required parental discipline. In other words: not pleasant. Vivian is a passionate person. A more succinct description would be that Vivian is “a handful”. She’s smart, and I am beginning to communicate to her person-to-person, but arguments can be tricky, and forcing Vivian to do something that she Does Not Want To Do (tm), especially when the girl is stressed or tired, leads to tears and sometimes even screams. And I don’t want to change that. Vivian is Vivian because she is passionate. Even though it leads to some fraught moments, I don’t want her to stop being her.

But hoping that I could improve on previous, I tried a slightly different approach. As in previous times, I sent her to her room, but this time I went up with her. I didn’t raise my voice. We sat on her bed and talked about what happened, and I explained to her why what she had done was a mistake that hurt her sister’s feelings and, more importantly, scared the bejeezus out of her mom, her grandmom and myself. She seemed to accept that. So I told her that to impress upon this point, she would stay in her room for ten minutes — and that I would stay with her — and that when ten minutes was done, she would go downstairs, apologize to her mom and her grandmom, and we would be done with the matter. And although she complained a little about having to wait ten minutes, she took this in stride and seemed happy enough when the time was up, and she went downstairs.

Except that, when I went downstairs, I found that she hadn’t apologized to her still perturbed mother and grandmother. Showed no inclination of ever doing so. Now, more than a little upset at having this promise broken, I took Vivian back up to her room and told her that she’d have to wait there for fifteen minutes. Now she started to yell.

But what was interesting was her reaction when I told her that she would have to go downstairs and apologize to her mother and grandmother. The girl folded up into herself and said “I’m scared! It’s scary!” And this flummoxed me. What was there to be scared of in apologizing? I asked her this, but she couldn’t elaborate. And pressing the matter significantly increased the tears and the wails such that Erin had to intervene and cool things down.

I know that Vivian never likes to admit responsibility when she’s wrong. When confronted on bad behaviour, she offers up excuse after excuse. Now, I understand this is fairly normal behaviour for a four-year-old, but it goes further: if she asks for something, only to be shot down, she laughs and says “it’s just a joke!” If something goes wrong, she either gets extremely frustrated or quickly suggests that what she’d originally wanted wasn’t what she actually wanted.

And, now, Erin put forward a theory: Vivian is a perfectionist. This makes it very difficult for her to confront any task that requires a lot of practice, since she expects that she’ll do it right the very first time, or it’s either not worth doing, or it’s the end of the world. She hates flaws. She hates being wrong.

And apologizing means admitting the fact that she’s wrong. That she’s imperfect. That, basically, she’s human. And she’s simply not ready to accept that fact.

Being a father is a learning experience no matter what you do. Being a father to Vivian requires blast shields. But at least the rewards are considerable.

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