The Path of Most Resistance

“No more camp,” Emma said, sitting near my face on the bed. It was sometime between 5:30 and 6:00 AM — my morning wake-up call.

“Camp all gone. Get on the plane, go see grandma,” she added hopefully.

“No Emma. One more week of camp, then we get on the plane and go to the hospital, meet mommy, then go to grandma’s house,” I corrected her.

Then came her inevitable follow-up: “Pancakes?”

I’m guessing she really misses mommy and Nic from her first-thing-in-the-morning declaration that camp needed to be over right now, and it was time to get on a plane. I’m flying solo with Emma this week. Actually Joe is my copilot, working the day shift, taking her to camp until we fly to Panama Sunday and meet up with Ariane.

We spent the morning après pancakes getting ready for our Central Park outing. I’d offered to take her to Coney Island but she surprisingly passed, opting for Victoria Gardens instead. We rode the rides, had lunch and then Emma wanted to “go to the sprinklers” – which meant a nearby playground with a water spray.

On the way over we passed by the carousel, which was closed for repairs. She took it well, no crying, no screaming, no meltdown – she seemed to ‘get it’ that it was closed and that was that. I thought of all the times I’d been in the park with her and she had one of those spectacular tantrums because she wanted to do something and I said no, because we had to do something else or go home. She was so well behaved this time, and we had such an easy day in the park thus far that I wondered if maybe those tantrums were a thing of the past now – that she had mastered another level of growth and maturity — that she had learned how to cope with frustration and disappointment without going haywire.

We went to the playground. She splashed and romped for quite a long while then said she wanted to go home. As we left she started walking north toward 72nd street. “No Emma, we’re going this way,” I said, pointing downtown.

“No this way!” she shouted, almost instantly frantic. “Take the orange train!”

“Emma, the orange train doesn’t run on weekends, we have to take the red train,” I said, trying to sound as reasonable as I could, but already feeling a tsunami of dread cresting above my head.

“NOOOOOOOO! TAKE THE ORANGE TRAIN!” she screamed, then followed it up with an instant cascade of crocodile tears followed by ear-splitting screams when I said, once again as calmly as I could, “Emma there’s no orange train today.”

And so it goes.

That was always one of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut lines. Such a perfect synopsis of life’s ceaseless challenges, fleeting success and predictable disappointment.

She kept screaming for the next half hour while I weathered, for what seemed like the millionth time, the looks of panic, concern, confusion, irritation and scowling judgment, or more accurately, indictment. Why was this pretty little girl screaming like that? What is that awful man doing to her? Who is he? Why isn’t he comforting her? Is she crazy? Some kind of spoiled brat?

And on and on and on. I could have ended it all instantly by simply doing what she wanted, walking where she wanted to walk, doing what she wanted to do, whether there was an orange train running or not. It sure would have made both our lives easier, not to mention the lives of all the traumatized onlookers.

And then what? Emma is a smart little girl who wants what she wants, like any other kid. But if I rewarded her tantrum with the gift of doing exactly what she wanted when she wanted it, the only lesson that would be learned was that screaming works, and the louder you scream, the more you cry, the better it works. I could have taken the path of least resistance, and believe me, I would have definitely preferred to — if my comfort were the only thing that mattered. But my comfort was as expendable as my desire to look virtuous or shield myself from embarrassment. I had to do the right thing for her and for me, regardless of the incriminating glares and withering head shakes.

I went to the nearest bench and sat down. Eventually Emma followed and sat next to me, still crying and screaming. I asked her if she wanted to take a taxi or the red train. More screams and crying. I explained over and over that the orange train wasn’t running and it made me wonder whether she is capable of understanding something even that simple. Ultimately she calmed down and said, “Take a taxi?” Part question, part capitulation.

“Okay Emma, we’ll take a taxi. Do you want to listen to your iPod?”

“Yes daddy.”

And so it goes.

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