The door at Cooper’s preschool is guarded by a buzzer. It protects the little ones from the dangers of the world as it allows the front desk to scrutinize those outside before deciding whether or not to grant them entrance. Or at least that’s the idea.
Every morning kids race to the building – elbows out, heads down, focusing like they’ve never focused before. When the “winner” smugly presses their chubby finger to the button, the rest of the kids stamp their feet and collapse on the sidewalk in fits of tears. All the parents politely laugh, then hold the door open for each other cheerfully telling their kids, “Maybe next time” or giving mini lectures on how we don’t want to unnecessarily bother the ladies at the front desk. A few kids are dragged in, the rest shuffle in petulantly, but by the time the classroom opens all have forgotten their disappointment.
Here’s the thing about my son, he’s obsessed with buttons and he doesn’t forget anything. I’d always rigged the game for him, surveying the parking lot and slowing or quickening my own speed sometimes taking an extra long time to unbuckle Ellen from the stroller to avoid any competition. The method was effective, but it couldn’t work forever. The day a kid snuck up on us and Cooper came in second place, I took a deep breath and prepared to teach him a hard life lesson. I used that tired line about “next time” and dragged him into the building. He summoned all the strength his four-year-old body could muster and tried to drag me back outside forlornly crying “the button, the button!” in a manner that may have been deemed appropriate for the loss of a loved one. As the other parents tried to disguise their gawking, I used my calm adult voice to explain the injustices of the preschool world. He continued to wail as children went to class, parents left, and I sat there trying to be the sensible parent I’d seen everyone else be. The classroom teacher said to just leave him and that he’d calm down. “Lots of kids have bad days like this.” Huge tears rolled down his cheeks and he clawed her arms as she carried him to the “cozy corner” to calm down. It was raining that morning and the seat of my pants was covered in mud from sitting on my haunches so I could be on his level. I just stood there, damp and muddy, holding my squirming two-year-old, listening to his howls turn to whimpers, and wondering if I was unfit to be a parent. When I couldn’t hear him crying anymore, I left in embarrassment, grateful for the rain as it hid the tears that streamed the whole way home.
When I picked him up he uncharacteristically didn’t ask to bring his water bottle home, which is one of the things he’s usually very particular about. I asked him several times if he wanted to get it and told him, “Once we leave the building we can’t come back for it.” The second we left the building he said, “Water bottle!” and ran towards the buzzer. My foot grazed over the stroller brake without actually making contact and I ran towards Cooper, angry that he’d played me. As the stroller rolled towards a mail truck and Cooper’s finger reached for the button I had one of those slow-motion-out-of-body experiences. I saw frazzled me, upset Cooper, and endangered Ellen all playing our role in a comical disaster. This wasn’t working. The mailman intercepted the stroller inches before impact and after thanking him profusely I collected my crafty son (who was more than pleased to push the button for the mailman) and headed home. I laughed, albeit a little crazily, the whole way.
The next morning a mom was leaving when we arrived. She held the door open wide and said, “Sorry, buddy! You don’t get to press the button today!” I gave her a look that I haven’t used since one of my high school students asked me if I was kinky and exasperatedly said, “Please, just let him press the button.” I could tell she thought I was a terrible parent, a pushover with no sense of discipline, but I didn’t care. Cooper, oblivious, pressed the button and skipped into school.*
I’m sure I’m looking down a long road of people disapproving of my parenting. I don’t expect I’ll be winning any awards and most days I’m satisfied with survival. I do believe that Cooper should learn that he can’t get everything he wants and we really do try to teach that, but the button battle just isn’t worth it and I have to learn to pick my battles. Interestingly, since I stood up for my child’s button pressing rights, I’ve noticed a few other parents’ hearts sink as I hold the door open for them and I’ve said, “Hey, do you want me to close the door so your kid can press the button?” It’s amazing how their eyes light up, almost as much as their kids and I simply say, “I totally get it” and shut the door.
* After this incident, I actually spoke with the ladies at the front desk and they said they don’t mind if kids press the button. They actually think it’s kind of cute how much the kids all care about it. Also, I’ve softened my approach to allowing my kid to press the button so I’m much more polite than I was in this encounter.