When I discovered my two-year-old daughter covered ear to chin with the new lipstick I'd just spent days and a tidy sum in the procurement thereof, believe me when I tell you I was not amused. Not one tiny bit.
At the time I was the full-time mother of not only one but two two-year-olds, plus a four-year-old. Intellectual stimulation was a thing of the past, any semblance of lasting order, you guessed it, a thing of the past. I was still a virtual newcomer to the wacky world of motherhood. (You think you know so much after four years in the trenches, but you don't even begin to be more than an absolute beginner until your child is 10. At least now I'm proud of my amateur standing.)
So there she stood grinning up at me, with my precious, new outrageously expensive lipstick not only covering her face, but also her hands, the sink, and the wallpaper in our rented house.
But you can't discipline a two-year-old the way you can an older child. Two-year-olds are basically the human version of a Labrador retriever - full of energy and eager to please with zero comprehension of the English language. Sure they fake knowing what "no" means, but do they really? I don't think so.
So what's a mother to do? Yell, get upset, and make an even worse mess, emotionally as well as verbally? Been there, done that, seen it doesn't work. Not on a two-year-old. Not on an any-year-old. Who responds well to being yelled at? (I don't see anyone raising a hand - probably because you're afraid I'll slap it.)
Instead, I did the only thing I could do. I laughed. Then, I grabbed my camera, which for some reason is the one thing I can always find no matter how messy the house is, and took two pictures. One shows her beaming triumphantly, ever so pleased with her mess. The other photo, shot after I'd given her the classic "I'm not amused" stare shows her with an "uh-oh" look on her face. (You have to learn to cultivate your disapproving look. Sometimes it's your only line of defense.)
The passage of time has made me even more aware of how wrong it would have been to discipline her any further. The "whoops" in her eyes shows only that she's sad, not that she has any idea why.
After that we had a whopping good time cleaning her off, and cleaning the sink and the walls too. She said, "Sorry Mommy," in that earnest way that two-year-olds do, and I told her she couldn't wear lipstick again until she's 37.
But I was so glad then, and I'm even gladder now that I snapped a picture and didn't snap myself. Thank goodness for the saving grace of humor. It gives perspective on those trying little moments in life, that without a good laugh, or at least a sigh and a giggle can mushroom into anger and regret. Laughing at my children and myself has saved me on many occasions from saying and doing the wrong thing. Yes, of course, there's time for serious talk and correction, but I've found that most effective time-outs are the ones I enforce with a smile on my face. And no I don't always have a smile on my face. I'm a mother, remember?
But I also have photo proof when the chips are down I know how to take a joke. And a picture.
Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting solutions, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Parenting, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115.