Taking a car ride with The Enforcer

"Mommy, stop!" Stephanie yelled from the back seat.

Panicked, I slammed on the brakes, sending the driver behind me into a flurry of rude hand gestures.

"What's wrong? Are you hurt?" I shouted, as I turned to look at my daughter.

"The light is red," Stephanie informed me. "You have to stop."

I looked at the traffic light. It was, indeed, red. It was also half a block away.

Just another car trip with a 3-year-old.

When she was 2, I couldn't wait for Stephanie to start following some of the rules my husband and I were trying to teach her. I got tired of repeating, "Don't touch the VCR," and "No running into the street," over and over again, day after day.

I didn't think she would ever get it.

Well, two weeks after her third birthday, she got it, all right. Suddenly, she not only internalized every rule, but she also became what my husband and I refer to as The Enforcer.

Even the simple act of driving became an impossible task. I began to regret all the times I had pointed out stop signs to Stephanie in an attempt to relieve some of her

boredom in the car.

"No, Mommy. That's a stop sign," she said one day as I began to pull into the intersection.

"I know, sweetie," I assured her. "I stopped, and now there are no cars coming, so we can go."

"But we can't go! The sign says 'Stop!' "

"But it doesn't mean we have to stop forever!"

And so it went - back and forth - as only a debate with a preschooler can, until we got home.

But I couldn't escape The Enforcer, even when we were out of the car. At

snack time, I was admonished to hold my glass with two hands, to take small bites so I wouldn't choke, and to sit facing the table.

Soon after, a friend called to talk about an ongoing problem she was having with a co-worker. As my voice raised in sympathetic anger, I blurted out, "What a jerk!"

"Mommy!" Stephanie said with a gasp. "Talk nicely, and never call people names."

I have always been the type of person who has great respect for the laws of God, country, and society. Basically, I am a law-abiding citizen who has never been in any real trouble.

Until now, that is.

Now, everything I do seems to violate one of the rules I have taught my daughter. But I am not the only offender.

One Sunday afternoon, my husband took a bag of potato chips into the family room to eat while he watched a football game.

When I was a kid, I would have seen this as the perfect opportunity for me to grab a snack.

Not Stephanie. She ran right after him, but instead of begging for chips, she told him, "We don't eat in the family room. Food belongs in the kitchen."

So my husband and I tread lightly, trying to set a good example for Stephanie while avoiding her stern reprimands.

It isn't easy.

I don't run up and down the stairs anymore, and I always hold onto the railing.

And I never, ever put anything remotely recyclable into the trash.

Our "rules of the road" problem, however, still persists. I live in fear of the day Stephanie discovers the speedometer. And I try hard to remember that, for her, the rules are simply black and white.

So I drive along, practicing a type of preemptive move by constantly pointing out traffic lights: "See the red light way up there?" I ask my daughter. "It's very far away now, but when we get to it, we'll stop."

Stephanie seems to accept this. We have even had one or two long drives recently when she hasn't screamed for me to stop.

So, even though I haven't made a right turn on red for three months, I think we must be making progress.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting experiences, send an e-mail to: home@csps.com.

Carol Sjostrom Miller lives with her family in Clermont, N.J.

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