“Dad, come turn on the TV for us!”
“A, I’m making lunch! Turn it on yourself!”
“But I can’t find the remote!”
“It’s next to the couch!”
“But I looked and it isn’t there!”
“Yes it is!”
“No it isn’t! If you love us, you will turn on the TV for us!”
I grit my teeth as I set six freshly buttered slices of bread on three individual plates, and I turn the stove down so the oil doesn’t heat too fast. I walk into the living room, where both my sons are looking at their small computer screens, sitting against the far wall. I look at the couch, where the remote control is sitting on the arm.
“A!” I rarely get frustrated with them, but today has been one of those parenting days. “The remote is right there!”
He doesn’t look up. I yell louder.
“What?” He says, nonchalant.
“You just called me in here to turn on the TV!”
“Yeah, thanks, dad.”
“The remote is right there!”
“Okay. I’m playing my computer.”
“It’s right there! You said you couldn’t find it! It’s right there!”
I walk out of the room in a huff and return to making lunch, laying out freshly sliced turkey, cheddar cheese, and Miracle Whip on the bred, then closing them to make sandwiches. I grill them one at a time, flipping them over in the pan so the edges will be perfectly brown and the cheese softly melted. I cut them into four triangles and arrange them on each plate around a handful of Cheetos, next to a small cup of applesauce, and pour a half cup of milk for each boy. I set the table, ignoring the multiple shouts over a few minutes of tattling “Dad! J looked at me!”, impatient protests “Dad! Why isn’t lunch ready!”, and mindless reports “Dad! The cat on my computer ate a treat!”, and then call the boys in for lunch.
My four year old, A, is adorable, a small tank of a child with a love of all things fanged and ferocious, but he has a very delicate palette lately. He basically has four food groups: cheese pizza, McNuggets, pancakes or waffles with thick syrup, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Oh, and anything chocolate or doughnuts. He’s a bottomless pit with an endless appetite but only for those things. Anything else takes extreme effort to get him to eat.
And so, no matter what I make… chicken and rice, ham and mashed potatoes, eggs and bacon, lasagna and French bread… he scoffs at it with disgust and derision, and then picks at it for an hour, taking bites the size of a comma on a piece of paper, until he finally concedes and eats the meal without complaint. It is an exhausting prospect, and I’ve been working with him for weeks at being gracious instead of difficult. But today, we are already frustrated with each other when he sits down at the table.
A takes one look at the plate in front of him, surveying it like it’s roadkill, then looks up at me. “Yuck.”
J, his seven year old brother, who is sweet and a bit overly sensitive, already knows this will be a disaster. “C’mon, A, it’s a yummy lunch and Daddy worked really hard on it for us. Try some, you’ll like it.”
“Well, I don’t like it.”
I breathe out both nostrils. “A, you do this every meal. Eat your food.”
“I’ll eat the Cheetos. That’s it. The rest is gross.”
“Do you like bread?”
“Do you like turkey?”
“Do you like cheese?”
“Okay, well, that is turkey, cheese, and bread.”
“Eat your lunch, A.”
“Only the Cheetos.”
He gives me a stare down, that defiant look in his eye that says he is prepared for all out war. Fifteen minutes pass, and I tell him he can’t have more Cheetos until he eats some of his sandwich.
“I don’t like it.”
“You haven’t tried it.”
“Well, I don’t like it. I like Mom’s cooking better. Yours is gross.”
“A, you’re being very rude right now. Eat your sandwich.”
He picks it up and takes the merest morsel of a bite, literally a crumb of the bread.
“Buddy, you need to start eating or we won’t be able to go to the aquarium this afternoon like we planned.”
“I don’t care, the aquarium is stupid, everything is stupid.”
I give a deep sigh and stand up, then walk around the table. There is a tension in the room, and J tries one last time to get his brother to have the bite.
“Come on, A, try it! It’s yummy!”
I kneel down next to him and give him an ‘I’m sorry for what is about to happen’ look, then reach over and break off a small portion of one of the sandwich fourths, about the size of my thumb. His brother has already finished his plate, as have I.
“Listen, A, you need to eat this part of your sandwich. Right now.”
“I don’t like it.”
“You haven’t tried it.” I can feel my frustration building. I’ve been out of patience for two hours now. “You will eat it. Now.”
“I’ll just eat the bread.”
“I don’t want it.”
“I don’t care. Eat it.”
“It’s too big.”
“You can either eat this small bite, or the entire sandwich.”
“I don’t want it.”
I pick the small bite up and move it toward his mouth which is now wedged closed. “Open your mouth, A.”
“I don’t want it!”
While his mouth is open, I place the small bite between his teeth.
I push it back on his tongue, barely a morsel.
“Now chew it.”
“No, I don’t want it!”
“A, it’s been nearly 30 minutes. You will eat this bite. You will not spit it out. Now chew.”
“I don’t want it!” He yells, and I can see the bread from the sandwich start to dissolve on his tongue, showing the turkey and cheese underneath.
“Come on, A, eat it, it’s good!” J steps in, trying to encourage.
“J, why don’t you go into the other room and watch a show. This is going to take awhile. Now listen, A, you will sit in that chair until that bite is eaten, do you understand me?”
He clamps his jaw shut and gives me that stare down look, prepared for the battle of wills ahead.
“I can stay here all day, buddy.”
And for the next 20 minutes, it is full on war. A kicks, he screams, sandwich saliva runs down his chin as he calls me mean, yells for mommy, says he wants pancakes or a doughnut instead. And for the entire 20 minutes, he holds that dissolved bite of cheese and turkey and bread on his tongue, refusing to chew it. I sit against the wall calmly, asserting over and over that he must eat the bite.
And the finally, he opens his jaw wide and screams, the scream of the hell hounds, shrill and ear-splitting, as he kicks his legs in a full on tantrum.
And I clench my hands at my sides, press my back against the wall where I’m sitting, kick me feet against the kitchen floor, and look him in the eyes, and scream back, loud, at the top of my lungs, a true show of dominance at the four year old level. When the grizzly bear roars, you roar back louder.
A appears to be in shock. His eyes widen, his legs relax against the chair, and he closes his jaws and slowly begins to chew, never breaking eye contact. He swallows the soggy mass in his mouth. Still looking at him, I reach over to the plate and grab another bite of food, handing it to him. He takes it from my hand, puts it in his mouth, and eats. And within seconds, he is grabbing bites of sandwich off his plate, taking big bites, muttering how good it tastes and how he likes turkey. I think perhaps he is frightened of not liking it, but I know he actually does like it or I wouldn’t have cooked it in the first place.
A few minutes later, it is all over. The sandwich is gone, the tantrum is over, and A asks permission to get up from the chair. He gets up, hugs me tight around the neck, and squeezes.
“I’m sorry, daddy. That was a good lunch. You’re a good dad. Is it time for naps now?”
And a few minutes later, the kids are sleeping soundly, the table is cleared, and my hands are in the dishwater, wondering how much I’m screwing up my kids and if I’m fighting the right battles and pondering about how much work parenting is, but how it pays off in the end.
It’s then I decide I’ll probably make pancakes for dinner, and maybe I can sneak something healthy into the batter unseen, because I don’t have another fight in me today and I know he does.