I did something very difficult Saturday night.
I put Ella to bed early because she was misbehaving.
Trish has done this several times. For me, it was a turning point.
Ella was pretty wound up because she had skipped her nap and was tired. Her misbehavior began by trying to bulldog Tiger, the golden retriever, the dog that catches lizards and keeps them for friends until he realizes they’re no longer playing and they’re also a little squishy. Tiger doesn’t mind, he won’t complain, ever, about Ella’s riding his back or bouncing on his belly.
We warn Ella that not all dogs are are accommodating as ours. Duke, on occasion, tells her so himself, very convincingly, when she has a handful of his fluffy tail.
So when Ella started yanking Tiger’s collar, twisting his big head around and back, fairly violently, I told her to stop. She didn’t. I told her to get off of Tiger. She ignored me. I told her to let go of Tiger’s collar. She pulled on it harder. I said to stop it right then. She studied a passing jetliner 35,000 feet above her with the intense curiosity an aeronautical engineer on the verge of a major mathematical breakthrough.
I was standing on the deck, and although I couldn’t remotely control my daughter I can, most of the time, get my dogs to respond. So, I told Tiger to come.
He looked at me across the yard with his big brown eyes.
“Really?” he said. “Are you sure? I don’t mind. I could just lie here, really.”
Tiger’s often stubborn, but I think he wanted a good excuse to get out from under the demon child.
Tiger leaped up quickly and trotted my way.
Ella rode the wave up … and came crashing down. Several seconds of silence ensued. Then the screaming.
She fell pretty hard — all of about 10 inches, but it was sudden. I was worried about her and I felt a little guilty. I didn’t expect Tiger to move so quickly. So I went out to retrieve her. She, of course, ran around the backyard, squealing through her tears, “I want Mommy! I want Mommy!”
She never really settled down after that. I don’t blame her. She was whiny and demanding. She threw food. She pinched her mother. She knocked over her milk. I gave her a warning, then reminded her of the warning.
Ella’s been testing boundaries a lot lately. “Don’t play with the dog food,” quickly becomes “don’t eat the dog food,” then shifts into “spit the dog food out,” and speeds toward “spit it out now, I mean now, I mean right this minute … all of it!” in the blink of an eye.
The “experts” say that maintaining boundaries is a very healthy exhibition of love. It’s saying, “yes, I really care that your behavior might hurt you, or others,” or “if you keep behaving like this you’re going to grow into a high-maintenance, bitter young woman, dependent on others for your happiness, constantly searching for satisfying love, and you’ll marry a lawyer who won’t be good enough, then a banker, then a vet, and you’ll develop a heroine addiction because your kids hate you and the vet’s doing the tech and you’ll start to sell puppies to the animal research black market out the back door of the vet’s office on you’ll wind up in prison with a girlfriend named Shayneeqwa.” Of course sometimes it’s just saying “you’re bugging the crap out of me. ”
Armed with all this wisdom, when Ella continued to act out I picked her up and carried her upstairs. We passed Trish, said a brief goodnight, and I put her in the tub for a quick scrubbing. Of course she cried miserably. Horribly. Her world was crashing down around her.
But once in bed she fell fast asleep and slept late the next morning.
After she awoke she came to get me out of bed (Trish had gone to an early mass). We ambled back to her room and I lay down on her bed to finish gaining consciousness. She was fiddling with something in her closet, and then she started in a sing-song voice:
“I love daddy. I love MY daddy. I love DADDY. I love MY daddy. I love daddy, I love daddy, I love daddy.”
She’s never done that before, not without greasing her palm with a cookie. (Maybe she was also quietly poking and prodding a voo-doo doll in my image, and that explains my sore shoulder, but I doubt it.) I think this boundary thing is really important, and I believe that Ella does, too.