My daughter will be two in a few months, but it's safe to say I'm still a relatively new hand at being a mother. Every phase she goes through, I have to learn new parenting techniques. When she was an infant, all I had to do was figure out how to feed and clean her in a sleep-deprived state. ("The diaper goes on the other end, honey." "But it's quieter this way.") When she was just learning how to crawl, I only had to make sure things were up out of her reach and keep her from putting things in her mouth. ("I didn't even know we had weapons-grade plutonium! Who left it on the floor?") Now my daughter is almost two, and she climbs with more agility and runs both faster and longer than I was able to at that age. Or in high school. Or in college. Or now. She knows how to move chairs so she can climb to get things placed deliberately out of reach, so "child-proofing" the house would have to involve moving all our possessions out and padding the walls. We've made the transition to resorting to actual discipline.
I don't mean spanking. I'm not necessarily opposed to corporal punishment. I used to get the wooden spoon when I was little. Never hard enough to hurt, but for a child with as much dignity as I had (I was the kind of stuffy little soul who would read Miss Manners over Dr. Seuss), being turned over my mother's knee was mortifying and offensive. My daughter is a completely different kind of person, however. My nightly prayers have become pleas to God that she doesn't decide to become a professional in any of the highly dangerous "extreme sports" because she is the type of child who will run around the patio at full speed, crash into the solid brick barbeque, and, upon regaining consciousness, laugh and do it again. There's no sense in spanking that kind of child. It would only be a matter of time before I would hear, "Good one, Mom, but you need more follow through. Put your arm into it."
My daughter is generally well behaved, especially for her age. She doesn't challenge the "don't touch the fireplace" rule. She picks up her toys very thoroughly for someone with the attention span of a fruit fly. But her great weakness right now is a sport we call "couch diving". This activity involves climbing up onto a windowsill and then flinging oneself onto the sofa. Bad for the windowsill. Bad for the couch. Bad for Mommy's heart. Potentially very, very bad for the young sportswoman. How do I break this habit?
Master the technique behind "the Mommy Voice".
Rare is the soul who doesn't know from their own childhood what the Mommy Voice is. I recall clearly that sharp tone that could curdle my soul and those of my friends even in high school. I listen to the more experienced mommies use it on their own children at the park when we have playdates. "What's wrong with you?" they'll grate, and you can see the first seeds of self doubt planted in the psyches of previously carefree children. Their little eyes widen as they suddenly stop and wonder what IS wrong with them, looking at the dried dog dropping clutched triumphantly in one little hand as if maybe it isn't the most fascinating thing in the world after all. It's sad to see little souls bruised and budding interests crushed. But every mother knows the alternative is a child who grows up to be a poop-fetishist with prosthetic replacements for every major bone and organ in their body.
Since I want my daughter to still have her original skull when she graduates from high school, I've started using the Mommy Voice on her. It took a couple tries to get it right, but I'm really getting it down now and wow, the power rush! What an effective tool this can be. As soon as I see my daughter heading for the windowsill, I rip out a "MADAM!" and my daughter falls over herself looking for something legitimate to play with. I feel like a member of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood from Frank Herbert's Dune. ("Muad'Dib or not, Paul Atreides, you get out of that spice cabinet this instant!") I think Darth Vader would have had more luck turning Skywalker to the dark side if at the famous pivotal moment, he had used that certain tone of voice and said, "Luke, I am your mother."
Yes, The Mommy Voice is a good trick. I've seen my daughter trying to use it on the dog. I've been guilty of using it on my husband now and again. ("Jonathan! Can't you see I need a foot rub and taken out to dinner? What's wrong with you?") I even tried using it on my own mother once, just to see what would happen.
She has mastered a complete arsenal of Mommy weapons that I am only beginning to explore. In response to my use of the Mommy Voice, she turned around and fixed me with the Mommy LOOK, which still causes my kidneys to drop out my bottom and try to run away in fear. Still Master Kan to my Kwai Chang Caine, she said, "When you can snatch the wooden spoon from my hand, then you can use that tone of voice with me, Grasshopper."
I wasn't about to argue with her.
This article first appeared in the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin
Originally appeared in the Piker Press 2004-03-27