Learning Who She Is

A few weeks ago I had a knock-down drag-out fight with my daughter.

She's 16-months-old.

It started when Karen removed her near-empty cup of goldfish crackers from her hand so that she could get ready for bed. Ellis lost it, just completely lost it. It wasn't one of those "I'm devastated that just happened" kind of cries. It was a "How dare you" kind of cry. A mad cry. A tantrum.

Tantrums don't work in our house.

I sat her down on the end of the twin bed in her room, and once she had calmed I explained that if she could say "please" she could get down and, perhaps, even have another goldfish cracker or two.

Now, I know this sounds ridiculous. She's 16-months-old, so she's not going to bat her eyes and say, "Please, Daddy, may I have my goldfish back?" But before you judge, the girl does know sign language. For at least four months now she's been able to sign the word "please" just fine when it means getting what she wants. But not that night. No, on that night you would have thought I was some kind of crazed circus clown with the look she gave me each time I tried to "remind" her how to sign the word. She was having none of it. I upped the ante.

I took away Bear-Bear. She's had him since the day she was born, and they're rarely separated. This was meltdown number two. Once again, I explained that she could get down, she could have goldfish crackers, and she could have Bear-Bear if she would just please say please. With tears streaming down her face she'd reach out for her bear, and when I'd say, "Say please, Ellis" she'd clasp her hands together, pin her elbows to her sides, and stare off to her right as if neither I nor Bear-Bear had ever existed. She was doing all she could to make sure I didn't interpret any momentary movement of her hand or arm as a concession to my demand.

This went on for an hour and a half. Finally, Karen and I decided she had to go to bed, but the war wasn't over. We removed her favorite blanket from her crib, and she went to bed without her bear. This had never happened before.

She woke up four times that night, something she never does. Each time she woke crying I went in with her bear and her blanket. She'd desperately reach for them until I repeated the request she'd already heard a million times. No dice.

The next morning negotiations were still at a standstill until finally, 45 minutes after she'd woken up—and after my fifth visit to her room to re-iterate my stipulations—she relented. With the weakest and quickest was-that-or-wasn't-that motion of the hand the embargo was lifted and she got her bear, her blanket, her breakfast, and a whole lot of hugs and twirls around the room. Moments later it was as if nothing had happened.

In all, the whole thing lasted thirteen-and-a-half hours.

I think we can safely say that she's testing the boundaries. And that's a good thing, really. Everyday, as she pokes at the fences of what she knew yesterday—wandering a bit further, running a bit faster, shouting a bit louder—she's making discoveries, learning what she's capable of.

She's learning she's beautiful. And she's learning she thinks she's even more beautiful when she wears her butterfly shirt. She's learning she loves to play tag. And she's learning that she loves it less when she's the one everyone is running from. She's learning that she finds her brother unbearably funny. And she's learning that she'll need to stand her ground with him now and then.

She's learning who she is. But perhaps more importantly, she's learning who she's not. She's learning she's not the one in charge.

And neither am I. Neither are we.