Charlie Gets an Earache: Charlie’s Parents Get a Lesson on Power, Freedom and Choice

family on beach

By Teddy McGlynn-Wright

The night before coming home from visiting family in New York, my daughter was diagnosed with a double ear infection and prescribed that lovely pink liquid familiar to all whose baby has been on antibiotics.  Five minutes later I’m holding my daughter upside down and trying to grab her hand while she does her damnedest to paint the walls pink with amoxicillin. During this struggle the medical assistant tells us “you know you’re going to have to do this for 10 days!” and I’m thinking, “I’ve only had to do this twice in 2 years, what’s your excuse?”  What neither of us said was, “this is an entirely reasonable reaction to being held down and force-fed by a stranger.” Eventually my partner asked to try and we got about half of the medicine into our daughter, 25% on her clothes, 15% on our clothes and 10% on the walls.  This episode left Charlie scared and angry and both of her parents sad and exhausted.  Thus the inevitability of the twice daily fights and multiple changes of clothes settled over me like a big, wet baby blanket.

Back in Seattle, my genius partner had the idea that Charlie could hold the medicine, and even administer it to her stuffed animals.  I like to think that my years working with young people has taught me some things about children and motivation and influence, and it has, but being a parent reminds me daily that I have a lot to learn.  It seemed that giving a dropper full of foul tasting pink slurry might not be a great idea, but after the episode in the clinic I was open to anything.  It turned out that giving Charlie some power worked like a charm (and WAY better than the straitjacket approach). We told Charlie that Bunny and Baby were sick and needed some medicine to get better.  Then we let Charlie decide whose turn it was to take it.  She put the little dropper in the mouth of whomever she chose (Mama! Papa! Baby! Charlie! Bunny!) and each time it went  into Charlie’s mouth we’d push the plunger.  Every day, twice a day, for ten days, and the results are in: 99% in her tummy, 0% on the walls, floor and clothes and 1% on Bunny’s nose.

There are lots of lessons here for me.  About power and agency, how restriction (and fear) can turn discomfort into pain, about how a little bit of time and a big dose of creativity help the medicine go down. The one that’s sticking with me right now though, is that creating a sense of agency as opposed urgency, can make all the difference in the world, especially when someone is feeling vulnerable, especially when someone has power, especially when someone is a parent.

Two weeks after we got home and Charlie had finished her course of antibiotics we gave some feedback to the urgent care clinic about their practices.  We were feeling sad, hurt, misused and not a little self-righteous.  Writing this has given me some space to pause and consider my own habits and practices.  I started to think about all the mornings when we’re rushing out of the house and instead of letting Charlie walk, hop and slide down the steps, I scoop her up onto my hip and fly out the door.  All the times when I—purposefully or inadvertently—compromise her agency for little or no reason.  Yes, she’s a toddler now, but there are still lots of things she can do and lots of choices she can make.  As her father, my job isn’t to have my urgency (real or imagined) trump her agency.  My job is to give her agency, get out of her way, and be there to back/pick her up.

As much as we give Charlie choices that we think are age appropriate (e.g. which jacket to wear, which snack to eat, which pajamas to get into at night), when push comes to shove we fall back on the same efficiency equation that the MA did: adult urgency trumps child agency.  This simple cost-benefit analysis that tells us that the benefit of getting to the car two minutes more quickly is worth more than the cost to Charlie’s self-efficacy in getting down the stairs on her own.  Who am I to say that her sense of accomplishment at getting down the stairs by herself or the fun she has hopping down them, or the wonder of touching the flowers or pointing at the ducks isn’t worth my two minutes?   That MA was measuring Charlie’s momentary discomfort against her desire to get home (we were there 15minutes before the clinic was closing) and her need for this course of antibiotics.  What we saw were the immediate costs to our daughter and the potential long-term (lifetime!) fear of doctors, hospitals and the color pink.

The reflective moment for us is to consider where those opportunities for spaciousness really are and allow Charlie to fill them.  I think that’s a big part of our role as parents. Yes we have jobs and yes we have to get out of the house and yes we need our children to take their medicine and put on diapers or take off diapers, or not wear that bee/batman costume for the 4th day in a row.  Daily the two more minutes it takes her to get into the car is measured against her sense of agency and our commitment to being more easeful.  It’s a tricky balance, I know we can’t ever see all the costs or benefits. One thing we can do is lever our stronger commitments against our ‘weaker’ ones.  As parents and as partners, we can remind one another when we’re making decisions that are counter to the parents we want to be and the child (and adult) we want Charlie to be.  We can commit more time to fostering her independence and cooperation.  Her adventure and spaciousness. Her agency and vulnerability.  That’s the childhood I want for her, that’s the parenthood we want for us.

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