Every year around Christmas time I enjoy seeing pictures on Facebook of other people’s Elves on the Shelves. I admire the creativity of it all, and I imagine it would be fun to have the elf make a snow angel in flour or fill the Barbie pool with marshmallows. We don’t have an elf. The selfish part of me is glad we don’t have one, because it would be one more thing for me to keep up with, undoubtedly forget to do, and have to explain why our elf has stayed in the same spot for three days. The real reason, however, that we don’t have an elf is because Avery does not want one. Never has, at all, ever, wanted one. Nevertheless, every year I offer her the elf and we have the following conversation:
Me: “Do you want an Elf on the Shelf?
Me: “Why not?”
Avery: “It’s creepy.”
Me: “Ok, I can see that, but you have one in your classroom.”
Avery: “Yes ma’am, but that’s different.”
Me: “Why is that different?”
Avery: “Because I’m good at school. I’m not good at home.”
It’s hard to argue her point, because Avery is one of those children who can behave much better for other people than for her mother. At school, she is a rule follower and she takes her behavior chart seriously. If her card does get flipped from green to blue (usually for talking), it’s a big deal to her. Sometimes, it frustrates me that other people get the best behavior out of her. If I comment to a teacher about some misbehavior at home (or better yet, if a teacher happens to see us in action), she will inevitably say “Avery never acts that way at school.” Well, lucky you! On the other hand, I’m grateful not to be getting phone calls from school and poor conduct grades. Often I think about why she can reign it all in at school, but saves it all — the feelings, the outbursts, the drama, the “don’t wants,” the frustration, the selective listening — for Mom at home. Could I be more consistent and effective in my discipline of her? Absolutely! I’ll be the first to admit I do the “love” part of parenting much better than the “limits,” even though I know love and limits go hand in hand.
Without letting myself off the hook on discipline (definitely top of the New Year’s resolution list), I also think Avery lets it all out at home because I’m her safe base. In attachment theory, the young child ventures out from the parent to explore the world, and he returns to the parent when he needs help or comfort. Think about the toddler in the park who runs from his mom to the swings, but rushes back to her when the bigger kid pushes him.
Even as adults, we save our strongest, yuckiest feelings to share with the person we count on the most. If you have a bad day at work, you don’t cry to your boss; you call your husband or your mom or your best friend on the way home. In a way, it can be a weird compliment to a parent that his child saves his worst for home. It means the child is secure enough with you to share the good, the bad, and the ugly, because she knows you’re going to be there and she can’t run you off. You’re safe, which makes her feel safe. Even teachers can tell when children become more comfortable at school, because their behavior relaxes a little, and that’s not a bad thing. It means a trusting relationship has started.
My dear friend Marie Romero, mother of five, has a great response to people when they see her 4-year-old daughter acting up with her and say things like, “Camille never acts that way at school.” Marie simply says: “She knows she doesn’t have to perform for me. I’m her mom, I love her no matter what and she knows it.” On a particularly crabby day at the house this year, Avery kept muttering to herself “I want to go home.” Finally I said: “What are you talking about? You are home!” Frustrated, she said: “I mean I want to cuddle with you! YOU are my HOME!” That phrase has stuck. When Avery sighs “I want to go home” during homework, her babysitter Caroline reassures her “your home will be here in 15 minutes.” Being “home” is the best gift I could give Avery.