His eyes are bloodshot. Cheeks red. Tiny sobs escape the bathroom as he spends too long in the shower.
This is the hardest part of parenting. It's also the most important.
The parenting books remind us we shouldn't try to be their friends. That we are the authority. That is easier said than done. We made this little person. We love him so much it hurts. So it hurts us to see him hurt. It hurts us to make him cry. It literally takes our heart and smashes it wide open when we are the reason he can't catch his breath. The reason he locks his door. Buries himself under his covers when we try to say goodnight.
How did we get here? Where did our sweet, loving, Lego-playing, bike riding, fort-building little boy go? He's still in there. And we can still draw him out sometimes, but sometimes he seems to be on auto-pilot, driven not by his own desires and longings, but by something else entirely. Something dark and scary. Something that causes him to choose it over things he used to enjoy more.
He was standing at the top of the hardwood stairs. Halfway between running away, and taking just a few steps to obey and return to his room. Halfway between obstinate preteen and little boy with a fear of getting in trouble. He was arguing with my husband, each one trying to get the last word. My husband and I are on the same side. He is not the enemy. But I looked at him in that moment and I couldn’t help but be mad at him. He told me once that he feels like he is arguing with the younger version of himself. That he knows he used to get in these same disputes with his own parents, rationalizing his way out of or into things. I also know my husband is the one who passed along many of the amazing qualities our son possesses, but that’s not what was on my mind right then. I tell Justin this later, how I sometimes get mad at him for passing along certain traits. He smiles a devilish smile. What goes around comes around, I guess. Maybe he’s the best person to do this kind of exchange with our little guy. He can dish it back—he’s kind of a pro.
And then he takes it away.
We take it away. Their beloved Fortnite. It was a problem from the very beginning. Bullying at school because kids didn’t have “wins.” Mentions of kids that were the ONLY ones in the class who didn’t play. Arguments about whether they were going to switch off or set the timer to determine whose turn it was. Calls for dinner answered by, “can I just finish this game?” Seriously the most dreaded six words in the history of forever.
I once read a book about a woman who just walked right out of her front door and out of her life as she knew it. She moved to a new town, took on a new name, and simply disappeared from existence to the ones she loved. I'd by lying if I said this concept hasn't crossed my mind a few times this summer. I would never go through with it, of course, but looking the other way when every fiber of my being says there is just something wrong with that game feels like walking away from my kids. I have to do this. We have take it away. Call it instinct, call it a gut feeling, it just has to go. As painful as it is. And I know that this is only the beginning of the hard decisions. But how we get through the years, what we say, what we do, what we don't do, will be a part of our kids' stories.
Something Justin said in the heat of the moment last night stopped me in my tracks. I was lobbying for one of our kids, explaining that he seemed better at self-regulating and monitoring his own playtime. Justin looked at me and said, “ok, let’s keep the heroin in the house, since one of our kids seems not to have a problem with it.” Ok, wow. He’s right. It’s not ok to keep the addictive substance within reach of our child who can’t handle it, just because our other kid doesn’t have a problem with it.
We go to bed feeling defeated. Worn down. Sad. This was not how we wanted our evening to end. We’d gone to a movie as a family, held hands and blessed our dinner together at our solid wood table, the place we convene to share meals, to laugh over games, to piece together puzzles, dog eared from use. But from there it had gone downhill. An ask to play Fornite, followed by a reminder that chores had not been done, followed by an all out toddler style tantrum.
The next day, I got confirmation that we did the right thing. I know it's cheesy, but I couldn't help but think about Psalm 30:5, "weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning." There was not a word spoken about Fortnite. The day went on. We ate breakfast. We went to the dentist. He built Legos. Later in the day, after he had changed the sheets on his bed and put away the groceries, he played Minecraft with his cousin. And it was enjoyable. There was no anger when the game didn't play out how he wanted it to, and no begging to play another game when time was up.
I hear it all the time. Parenting is hard. Seriously, there has to be a better word than HARD. Hard just doesn't even touch it. There are so many decisions we make in a day. What to feed them for breakfast. What camps to sign them up for. Whether they can spend the night with that friend. If they should see that movie. If we should do their laundry still. If they should make their own lunch, their own beds. These decisions, made each day over the course of their time in our house will meld together to make our kids who they are. Will determine how prepared they are for the real world. Will influence how they make connections with others, how they relate to their friends, to their teachers, to authority.
The parenting books remind us not to try to be their friends. As hard as it was, we learned through all of this not to be afraid to make a move and put a hold on something when it feels like the right thing to do. Not to ignore our parenting instincts. And not to look at what everyone else is doing, but to do what is right for our kids. All of them. Each step of the way.