having a 4-year-old is like playing the vegas slots

You insert your quarter and pull the arm. Every third, tenth, hundredth time, you hit the jackpot. Your brain likes jackpot. You insert your quarter and pull the arm, insert quarter, pull arm…

But the 4-year-old is easier to please.

The question is, should you please him?

Yesterday, I made the plan on my way to picking him up from preschool. I’d had a rough day already, and I wasn’t sure how the rest was going to go because I was supposed to rush home for a phone appointment, and the sleep debt of the whole vacation still hadn’t been paid and I just decided that what I needed was a trip to the frozen yogurt shop. One of those pull it and top it yourself places.

Jonah was game. Of course.

We had some negotiation over whether he was going to be allowed to eat it in the car. My plan was to buy the yogurt and rush home for my call, hoping we had enough time. But I’d also sent messages trying to cancel via phone, email, text, and carrier pigeon. I was for him waiting until we got home, he was against.

Meanwhile, another mom-child pair decided they would also like to go for yogurt. So we went together, me keeping an eye on my eyephone and the time but also fairly confident that at least this part of my day was going to work out in the end.

Normally, when we go to these yogurt places, I am a bit of a pain about the toppings. Certain ones, especially the gummy candies, I just prefer he not have. They’re worse for sticking to the teeth and causing decay, and they just have no redeeming value in my book, relative to something simple and pure like chocolate chips.

But on this day, I decided to not control him.

He asked for strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla yogurt. I gave him healthy dollops of each in his cup. And then he directed me across the toppings bar. Chocolate sprinkles, rainbow sprinkles, chocolate chips; he wanted peanut m&ms but I convinced him to go for the regular ones instead—solely on the basis of flavor, my only influencing action; and gummy bears. His cup overfloweth.

There was a low table with small chairs and several kids sat all around it, including Jonah and his friend David. On the big screen TV on the wall above the register, which was directly across from where Jonah was sitting: the movie Cars.


What’s funny is that I don’t know what my philosophy was in that moment exactly, I only knew I wanted to do it. To, as much as possible, just let him be in charge. To not worry about it. (Though I did make him promise to brush his teeth when he got home, which he promised, and we both forgot.)

He got a full-body brain-freeze from the experience but other than the shivering, he survived unscathed. In fact, contrary to popular belief and other experiences with sugar, he was completely mellow and delightful for the rest of the evening. He even volunteered the idea that he should take a bath.

Never, in his entire four years, has he requested to take a bath before bed.

The slot machine analogy doesn’t entirely hold. But there is something, maybe it’s dopamine, maybe it’s the desire to make the whining stop. Pleasing the child is seductive. And he offers so many opportunities for you to please him, if you’d only take the cue.

Today we went to the Lawrence Hall of Science. He wanted to start with the gift shop but I convinced him to leave it to the end. We had a long conversation before entering about how we weren’t going to buy anything, but that he could show me all the things that he wants for his birthday (we are still celebrating this weekend) and for Hannukah and Christmas.

He lifted this, pointed to that; Mama, I like this because it’s a race car. Look at this book of stickers, Mama. It’s all space stickers. I’m just going to sit here and look at it, Mama. I’ll be right here. I know we’re not going to buy it, I’m just looking at it. I want this dinosaur puzzle and this dinosaur skeleton. And if you get me this dinosaur grabber I’ll use it to clean my room really really fast—like THIS! (He races around, clapping the jaw open and shut.) Mama, you can get me everything in this store.

I did manage to surreptitiously purchase a couple of items which he either didn’t notice or pretended not to notice. Because he’s clever that way.

I want to get him everything. And we already have too much stuff. And nothing is ever enough. And none of it is really important. But if we look really hard and choose carefully, we find items that are special. The things he gets to decorate his life with; what he will love, what he may remember. Now that he is 4, there is more that he will remember.

I just have to be careful that I’m not going for another jackpot high myself, only to be followed by the empty crash and wanting more. But maybe that’s unavoidable.

It’s not about never crashing. It’s about being able to take care of yourself when you do hit the lows and accept that it’s not going to be three-cherries 24-7, right? It’s also about being able to get up off the stool and step away from the machine sometimes. I think that’s a jackpot too.

4 comments for “having a 4-year-old is like playing the vegas slots

  1. December 1, 2011 at 6:41 am

    That is what 4 is, still hard, but easier than 3. I am so glad you had a great day.

    I’m with you on the gummies.

  2. PopPop
    December 1, 2011 at 10:12 am

    What a great post!

  3. AKD
    December 1, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Julie, this was helpful today. Well written and good thoughts. Graham is just 18 months and is just starting to turn the corner into full toddlerhood. He used to be so malleable! Last night he spent almost all dinnertime screaming because I won’t let him eat a whole box of dried seaweed. And the screaming is so much more dramatic – like putting both hands over his face and SOBBING. Can’t wait until he has the words to tell me I am ruining his life. It’s exhausting, all this limit-setting and deciding about when it is worth it to take a stand and when it’s not. So, I appreciate your viewpoint from a couple years down the line!

  4. December 1, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Thank you, Annika!

    It is SUCH a crazy ride. Even when they CAN talk, you can’t really trust everything they say. That sounds awful but it’s kind of hard to explain. It’s still a sleuthing exercise, but with more red herrings.

    I’m a little envious that Graham WANTS to eat seaweed. That’s awesome! But probably the whole box would be too much.

    I remember that 18-months turning point. The first time Jonah threw himself onto the floor and flailed his arms and legs, like he’s just finished attending a seminar on tantrum techniques or like it was preprogrammed and a gene packet had just opened. CRAZY.

    I have to say I’m really loving these pamphlets from Hand in Hand Parenting in Palo Alto. I just read the one on crying a couple of days ago and it’s already making a huge difference in my ability to deal with and help Jonah.

    Another great resource is Meg Zweiback‘s series of books Your One-Year-Old, Your-Two-Year-Old, etc. – out of print but available for like 50 cents each on Amazon.

    Not that you asked for advice! But just in case.

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