"No" is a lot easier to say when the resulting temper tantrum has a time limit.

By Christopher Dale
Updated: March 27, 2019
Courtesy of Chris Dale

"Dada, I want strawberries."

One Mississippi, Two Mississippi.

"Dada, I want my high chair."

Three Mississippi. Four Mississippi.

"Dada, I want TV on."

Five Mississip-

"Not this show. Other show, dada."

I am getting a taste of what my wife gets far more frequently than me: the persistent insistence of a 3-year-old. Our son, Nicholas, can be more demanding than…

"I don't want strawberries. I want yogurt."

...so demanding I can't even finish a metaphor about how demanding he is.

And when he's not demanding, he's doting. He wants to read with dada, play with dada, incessantly interrogate dada. Sometimes dada has to escape to the bathroom just to get five minutes of peace.

The alone time I spend with Nicholas invariably involves a mélange of three feelings: love for my son, annoyance with my son, and guilt for feeling resentful toward my son. It's one of those unique-to-parenthood combination of emotions typically pinpointed only in hindsight, because in real-time Nicholas won't even let me finish a thought.

"Momma home!"

Suddenly, I am chopped liver. My wife, the sole member of the Nicholas Li Dale Preferred Parent Program, has returned to reclaim her undying—and unwanted—monopoly on our son's attention. On this particular day, "Mama I missed you" quickly segues to "Mama let's go color," and then to the toddler TMI that second-choice parents like me know all too well: "Mama, I love you more than dada."

Just like that, Nicholas is over me and my wife is overwhelmed—all before she's even taken her shoes off.

Wounded ego aside, I don't envy my wife for being the apple juice of Nicholas' eye. I may feel differently in a decade, but for now his unceasing adoration is more a curse than blessing. It's just too much and, for my wife, it's unfair.

It's no secret that toddlers sometimes have an A parent and a B parent, despite all noble efforts at gender-neutral co-parenting. Nicholas doesn't hate me, he just prefers her, and that manifests into a major mama headache when the three of us are all together.

And we're all together a lot. Weekends and most evenings, then, Nicholas defaults to mama with 80/20 regularity (I've heard many moms get it closer to 95/5; may God bless and keep them). Even when dada distracts him with a trip downstairs to play trains, the clock is ticking on his next for-mama's-hands-only request.

Fortunately, we're becoming well-versed at making schedules that allow exclusive time with Nicholas for one parent and child-free time for the other. My wife will have a day out with friends or family one weekend, I'll get a "writing day" (like this one!) the next. I hit the gym on Tuesday, she does yoga on Thursday, and so on.

Besides saving our sanity, two additional positives emerge from our (and especially my) scheduled alone time with Nicholas. One is emotional, the other tangible.

First, Nicholas' clinginess during dada time makes me experience what my wife goes through rather than just witness it. That goes a long way toward understanding why she's sometimes frustrated, irritable or just plain exhausted. Getting the relentless "dada this, dada that" treatment has preempted many a marital spat. I'm no fan of the hackneyed "happy wife, happy life" cliché, but sometimes mama's earned the right to vent without dada getting steamed.

The second, more practical benefit is that, as the B parent, I'm in a better position to push back against Nicholas' neediness, and to start teaching basic, toddler-appropriate discipline. Simply put, Nicholas needs some "no" in his life. Such experiments in controlled frustration are far harder for my wife to devise (when mama turns her back, Nicholas just climbs up, well, behind her!).

What my wife and I are finding is that many of Nicholas' behavioral lessons are best taught sans mama. Precisely because our son prefers her, it's less threatening for Nicholas to be corrected or challenged by me. I'm more suitable for diffusing the inevitable pushback—to temper his temper tantrums—simply because our time locked at the hip is finite.

And there have been simple yet steady successes. Little things like Nicholas fixing the train track when the pieces disconnect, saying "please," "thank you," and especially "I'm sorry" more consistently, and accepting that M&M's come after dinner rather than before are baby steps toward his blossoming boyhood.

As a result, my time with Nicholas is part cruel, part cool, and totally gratifying. As he slowly (OK, very slowly) becomes a bit better at dealing with disappointment—unfulfilled demands ranging from "No, you can't have that right now" to "You can do that yourself, you're a big boy"—I have the privilege of witnessing my baby boy earn his pull-up diapers, tear by tear.

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