Last night, my partner and I were bested by a two-year-old and an orange. It’s not that it was Night 9 of self-isolation. We can’t blame COVID-19 for this. Hell, it wasn’t even due to overtiredness or teething or toddler-onset Conduct Disorder. It was just plain old, run-of-the-mill Toddler Behavior, thrown in the face of two child psychologists; and it won.
Here’s how it went down:
It was a basically successful dinner: A vegetable or two were consumed. The kid was tanked up on protein. Even the parents had each eaten a few bites and exchanged a few pleasant words. We were 42 minutes out from bedtime—not home free, but close enough to smell the freedom. (As all good parents know, freedom smells like a crisp IPA just poured into a chilled pint glass.)
Alas, it was not to be.
The plates were cleared and the Toddler hadn’t requested “down” yet, and so my partner said, “Do you want an orange?” Like a chump.
The Toddler said yes.
The orange was supplied, and the Toddler requested the customary self-peel procedure, which requires an Adult to initiate the peeling with a thumbnail and then to immediately relinquish further peeling to the Toddler. Ongoing attendance, however, is required should the peel prove intransigent and the Toddler require further assistance. Regardless, the process ends in a wedged orange, a sticky-chinned child, and a few minutes in which my partner and I are able to move plates to the dishwasher or hose down the stove.
On this particular night, however, we must have waited a moment too long before resupplying our attention, or the seed of a new social experiment sprouted in the mind of the Toddler, or perhaps Venus was in the Ninth House; for the Toddler side-eyed their parents and fingered a piece of orange peel and dangled it (threateningly, it goes without saying) over the edge of the high chair.
My partner—for whom food waste and dirty floors are Achilles Heels 1 & 2—fixed the Toddler in their gaze and said, “If you drop it, you will have to pick it up.”
The Toddler’s face lit with a fiendish smile. Their sticky fingers released the peel and reached for another. Two and then three and four peel-chunks sailed to the floor. Parental gaze grew increasingly severe as the Toddler’s grew increasingly gleeful.
“Remember,” my partner doubled down, “whatever you drop you will have to pick up.”
Now, what I should probably share at this point is that my partner and I have between us 15 years of training in child psychology. To earn a living, we teach other parents how to keep their children from doing what they don’t want them to do and get them to do what they do want. We cure what ails childhood—or, more precisely, what ails parenthood.
And the Golden Rule imparted by this (apparently useless) education is this:
When you issue a command with a clear expectation and logical consequence, you must follow through with it. If you don’t, you’ve eroded your authority for next time. You have, in essence, fucked yourself. And for that reason, we are in our house—theoretically—very selective in our delivery of commands. …In actuality, we say stupid shit all the time.
Therefore, with the issuance of a command, both Parents stood at the ready.
And naturally, with double parent attention successfully secured, the Toddler maintained eye contact and swept their hand across the tray, sending the remaining orange peels careening to the four corners of the kitchen.
We were off and running.
“OK,” my partner said. “Time to pick them up,” and set the Toddler onto the floor.
The Toddler proceeded to do everything but pick up the orange peels.
They stepped on the orange peels—delicately, painstakingly, lovingly even—toeing each one.
They danced among the orange peels.
They laid down and swam in the orange peels.
They leaned against a chair arm and contemplated the orange peels.
But throughout, they carefully avoided any hand-to-orange gesture that might imply some degree of intent to pick up an orange peel.
The oven clock ticked forward: 6:53. 6:57. Bedtime is 7:30. Witching hour can be counted on to commence by 7.
My partner and I packaged leftovers, stacked dishes into the dishwasher, wiped down counters, swept floors (around the peels, obviously). We congratulated ourselves silently on our consistency, our commitment to Behaviorism.
And then, with rising blood pressure, we compulsively avoided eye contact with the perpetrator—or even each other.
At 7:03 I snapped out of my manic cleaning episode, slapped myself (figuratively) about the face, and grabbed my partner by the shirt collar. “Listen!” I said. “We have a decision to make. Shit is about to get ugly. Are we going to be good Behaviorists and wait the kid out? Or are we going to give in and have a peaceful bedtime?”
“It could take hours,” the Partner said. I nodded.
You could just help them, whispered the rather seductive voice of my inner Sensitive Parent, who tends to emerge in the face of guilt or fatigue. You could pick up some of the damn peels. After all… they’re only two. And the literature clearly shows that requiring your two-year-old to pick up their orange peels interferes with the parent-child attachment.
That is ridiculous, I whispered back, while making a mental note to Google Scholar this. But she went on:
Plus… if you rallied, you could still get back on schedule. You could have those IPAs cracked by 7:40, 7:45 at latest. That bitch knows the way to my heart.
My partner might have seen me losing ground to the Sensitive Parent, because they took me by the face, pressed their forehead to mine, and said, “Fuck it. We stand firm.”
We both swallowed. Girded our loins. Eyed the enemy encampment (where the Toddler was once again toeing orange peels—practically dangling a cigarette in their scarcity of fucks).
I turned back to the stove-spritzing. The Partner turned back to their pot-scrubbing. We waited. A haunting tune drifted at us from across enemy lines: “dee-DEEEEEEEE! Doo-doo-dooooooooo! Doe-DOOOOOEEEEE!!!!” We sucked in our breath; waited. The onslaught was imminent.
And then it came—showering down upon us, first pleading (a classic battle tactic)—
“Maaamaaaaaaa! Help, Mama, help!”
“Baaaaammmaaaaaaaa! Help pease! Help! Help!”
“Mama! SLEEPY! Pa-see-fi-ers! PA-SEE-FI-ERS!”
— and finally violent:
The Toddler hit the floor with the force of a (rather melodramatic) cannonball. Tears leapt to their eyes with an immediacy and authenticity that Meryl Streep would kill for. Mouth contorted. Limbs flailed in agony. “EEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!” they wailed, and then “NoooooooOOOOO!!!”
My partner and I looked at each other, frustrated and ashamed. We were wholly ineffectual parents. Failing to successfully shepherd one typically-developing child through a normal day. Moreover, we were heartless—torturing this poor innocent, who was clearly exhausted, at wits end, pushed once again past the point of reasonable expectation.
And Behaviorism? It was dead. It had never lived at all. Here we had been leading parents astray all these years: “Ignore them,” we said. “It will work wonders,” we said.
And the IPA? Its edges crystalized in the freezer. Sweet crispness turned to brutal ice—not unlike my cold, unmaternal heart.
“Should I—” I whispered at my comrade.
“No—” they said. “Stay strong.”
“But what if I just—”
“No—” they said again. “This would be the worst time to give in.”
I turned back to the stove, the Toddler’s screams carving away my heart-innards like a melon baller. I considered joining the Toddler on the floor.
And then, by the grace of the Goddess (or B.F. Skinner), they stopped. Tears evaporated and limbs stilled as their eyes focused on a dried ankle-height droplet of tomato sauce on a nearby cabinet.
A moment of stunned silence followed and then the Toddler announced, “Uh-oh!” They pointed at the droplet. “Uh-ohhhh!” they said again, and sat up, scooting closer to the offending drip. “Mama, clean!”
Still wielding my spritz bottle and cloth, I summoned my remaining parental authority and turned to them. “You want to clean that?” I asked.
“Yeah,” the Toddler said, and nodded. It really is a good thing that we have them to uphold the standards of cleanliness in this house. Nevertheless, I asked:
“When can I help you clean that?”
“Uhhhh… After clean orange!” They looked as I imagine Einstein did when he first articulated the theory of relativity.
“Yes! After you clean up the orange peel!”
The Toddler sprang up. They pattered over to the scattering of peels strewn underneath their high chair. And one by one, they gathered them up, into a neat pile in their hands.
Our enthusiasm was unfeigned when we said: “You’re doing it! Yay!”
The toddler pattered to the trash and lifted the lid.
“Yes! You’re doing it!” we continued, like assholes, intermittently airborn.
And with the same turn of the wrist and opening of fingers that had started this whole shitstorm, the Toddler released the peels into the trash can.
“YOOOUUUUUU DID IIIIITTTTT!” we shrieked and ran to the Toddler as though they had just scored the winning goal in the World Cup.
They looked about that pleased.
They allowed us to celebrate them for a few minutes before soberly leading us back to the tomato droplet and supervising its removal.
Now, in situations like this, I think that there is about a 50% chance that we are Master Geniuses of Parenthood; but there’s also a 50% chance that we are raising a manipulative narcissist.
Of course, there’s also still that 50% chance that we are heartless assholes… and a 100% chance that I’m a piss-poor statistician.
But then, we all came out of it with our dignity more or less intact, and a floor free of orange peels, and a not-half-bad IPA slushy.
We still face the menace in about 60% of clean up situations… but that’s probably because I continue to “help” in 65%.
And so, somewhere in hell, B.F. Skinner is shaking his head in disgust at my weakness, and John Bowlby is wringing his hands at my cruelty. What can I say? I doubt either of them spent that much time fighting the orange peel battle, between writing their books and torturing their lab rats.
But their wives—they’re probably looking down on me about now, raising their frozen IPAs, and saying, “yeah… that looks about right.”