How Sneaky Can A Four Year Old Be?

Single dad and writer Eric S. Elkins shares the victories and challenges of parenting his young daughter while trying to get back in the dating scene after divorce.
Eric S Elkins

An early start
Don't you think not-quite-four is too young to start active manipulation of the adults in one's life? I mean? isn't that supposed to wait until, I don't know, the pre-teen years?

Simone rarely seems to struggle with splitting her life between two households. When her mother first moved out and we worked our way through the new life schedule, my daughter often seemed to handle the transitions better than her parents did. Her mother and I had to work out all kinds of logistics the hard way -- snacks before the switchover, what happened when there was inclement weather or bad traffic, how to not talk business during the switch.

There was too much anger between us to stay terribly civil whenever we saw each other, which happened almost every day. It was easy to push each other's buttons, and I know my ire was just below the surface. So being kind, or at least polite, to each other while passing our daughter between us was a struggle at first.

Like the time the ex put Simone in my car at dinner time with a bag full of popcorn. I took it away as we drove off, which was ill-advised. But my bigger mistake was calling my former wife on the phone from the car, with Simone wailing in the background, to tell her how angry I was. The better choice would have been to send an email later, but this was early on, and I was too strung out and angry to think things through.

Anyway. Simone has always done pretty well transitioning from one parent to another. What I didn't realize is that she has found sneaky ways to thrive on the disconnect between her parents and the other adults in her life.

The sneaky four year old
Here's what happened a couple of months ago. I take Simone to preschool every morning. If I have her the night before, I get her up and fed and dressed and in the car (oh man, I'll save that fun for another column). If her mom has her, I drop by and pick her up on my way to work. Then we alternate days taking her home in the afternoon. So if Simone had a toy in the car, and she wanted to keep it for the afternoon drive back, we'd put it in her blue Hello Kitty backpack, where it would ostensibly remain until the end of the school day. The problem was that Simone couldn't forget about her parasaurolophus or Komodo dragon or My Little Pony. After many notes and phone calls from her teachers, we finally got the message and stopped sending toys to school. That was last fall.

In January, Simone started telling me that her teachers said it was okay to bring a toy in the blue backpack, if she was getting it from her house to her apartment or back. It sounded perfectly reasonable, so I started allowing it to happen.

Then we had parent-teacher conferences in February.

As a former teacher, I can relate countless horror stories of split-families and the merriment we'd have at conferences -- the parents who'd snipe right there in front of their children, the ones who'd insist on separate conferences, or, best yet, the parents who'd bring their new spouses/girlfriends/boyfriends/live-in lovers/hetero life partners along. Now that was a party! Simone's mom is still a teacher, so we see eye-to-eye on how to handle conferences. Still, hanging out in the same room with the ex isn't terribly fun.

But the teachers seem to love Simone, and they told us right off how happy and well-adjusted she is. They said that Simone knows we both love her, and is great with her classmates.

Of course, as a former teacher, I also know when I'm being set up for the big kablammo. "But, please don't send toys to school anymore. They're too distracting for her, and she screams if we try to take them away."

I smiled, a bit perplexed, but started to see the bigger picture. I explained how Simone had told me that her teachers said it was okay to bring toys if she was transporting (Simone's word) them from one home to the other. My former spouse agreed that she'd heard the same thing.

That's when the teachers looked at each other and shook their heads ruefully, the hint of grins on their faces. Apparently, Simone had told them that we said it was okay to bring toys to school for the same reason. We all had a good laugh over it, and I felt a guilty sense of pride that my pig-tailed daughter had managed to get her needs met. It's a good survival skill.

But it kind of frightened me, too. If you're a parent, you're probably shaking your head and thinking, "Boy, Eric, are YOU in trouble!" If Simone is capable of playing adults against each other at four, what will life be like when she's 16? I'm not talking about the usual stuff that even happens in fully-functioning nuclear families ("But Mom said I could!"). I'm thinking she'll, like, convince her mom and me that the chief paleontologist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science said she could take trilobite fossils home from the lab, or that her teachers said it was okay to do a research project on the effects of playing violent video games in the presence of potted plants. And I don't even want to think about slumber parties. Oh, and worse, dating.

Living in two homes will allow Simone to bend more rules and find more loopholes as she starts to realize the possibilities. This means that my ex and I will have to communicate more often and in more detail as Simone grows older.

Great. I'm already losing sleep over it.

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