Last winter, I took my daughter skiing for the first time. I am the kind of skier whose stopping method is a fancy maneuver I like to call Falling Over on Purpose. Still, it seemed like a fun way to spend a Sunday. The thing is we hadn’t realized that the day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the busiest day of the entire ski season. We wound up waiting hours for skis.
The weather was not on our side, and I didn’t blame Sasha for complaining about it. She was cold. I was cold. Everyone in line was cold. But after a while, her whining started grating on me, and I worried that it was getting on other people’s nerves, too. At first I told her that I heard her — I knew it was freezing. But all we could do was hop around, wiggle our limbs, hug each other. Anything to stay as warm as possible. She quickly cycled through those things and ended with a prolonged “I’m booored.” Well, so was I.
I started thinking, “How can I make whining more fun?”
“If you’re gonna whine,” I told Sasha, “you’ve gotta sing the blues.”
She grabbed my arm and hung from it with all her weight, groaning at my suggestion.
“Duh-nuh-nuh-nuh,” I sang, determined to make this work. She dragged me around in a circle by the hand, kicking at pebbles. But I kept going:
I was standin’ outside
Waitin’ on skis
Freezin’ my butt off
Someone help me, please!
I’ve got the freezing-my-butt-off blues.
At the word “butt,” Sasha lit up. Giggled. She was hooked. “Again, Mommy,” she said.
I sang another verse of the “Freezing-My-Butt-Off Blues,” this time with a slight variation — something about how waiting’s the worst… and when you’re in line, you wanna be first.
“Now me, Mommy,” Sasha said. She chimed in with her own verse, which I’m sure didn’t rhyme. But it didn’t matter. She was well distracted from the situation at hand — the very situation she was singing about.
Imaginative solutions require being well-rested enough to recognize that you should be using your imagination in the first place.
It’s one of my favorite, most memorable parenting experiences. The triumph was brief — it lasted maybe 15 minutes — but it was major. I had figured out a way to transform misery into fun, and Sasha had learned a new musical form as a way to creatively express her emotions — and, perhaps most important, she was entertaining me.
Imaginative solutions, though, take energy. They take headspace. They take being well-rested enough to recognize that you should be using your imagination in the first place. When you’re so sleep deprived that you can’t even remember the last time you brushed your teeth and another person starts screaming in your face, all you can think is “Nooooo! Just, no more. Stop.” You don’t have the patience to take one more step and think, “How can I make this situation more fun?”
In my early days of motherhood, that’s certainly where I was at. I wanted Sasha’s cries to magically stop. I mean, if I could soothe her, great. That was the warmest, fuzziest maternal feeling in the world. But when I was spinning my wheels and the screaming kept going, I was left with nooooo!
Once things started to normalize for me a bit and I was able to sleep four or five hours in a row, my creativity started coming back and I was able to work some sorcery into getting my kid to calm down. A lot of my wins happened in the car, which was a necessity, because screaming plus driving is a dangerous cocktail.
Before my daughter could talk, I used to battle her car screams by getting her to… well, scream. Just a different kind of scream.
See, I used to play this one song a lot. The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” but the Al Green cover version. During the bridge, I’d sing along with Al on the “I get highs” — and then, after the last one, he lets out one of his signature high-pitched aaaahs. Those I’d leave to Sasha. The song lasts only a couple minutes, so I’d put it on repeat so Sasha wouldn’t have to wait long for her next scream. We once did this the entire way from our house in New Jersey to my parents’ place in Connecticut. In traffic.
It’s a testament to how good that song is that I still like it.
In the eight years since I started my podcast, The Longest Shortest Time, I’ve learned that most parents have their own weird strategies for calming kids down. I invited listeners to share theirs with me for my book, Weird Parenting Wins. Here are some of my favorites.