How to Get a Five-Year-Old Out of the Car

It was an unexpected detour up into the hills, although I should have expected it since our weekends typically involve seeking out some sort of trail on the outskirts of the city. I had left my hiking boots at home. The dusty, berry colored beauties I'd gifted myself earlier this year were under a jumble of flip flops in the wicker basket by the front door.

I slipped off my new ankle boots and laced up a pair of old tennies I found on the floor of the car. If there's one advantage to never cleaning out your car, it's that there's always extra clothing hanging around to give you that much-needed layer when the temperature drops. And in this city, depending on what hill is currently in front of or behind you, the temperature can drop a good 10 degrees without warning, leaving you a shivering mess. I grabbed an extra layer for good measure.

We scrambled out of the car and onto the little parking lot at the mountain top, the radio towers all around us reaching skyward, lessening the emotional impact of being up so high above the land. Even so, the city glittered below us in the sunlight and the buildings downtown reminded me of a model train village. I gazed for a minute, admiring the day.

With a start, I realized that my husband and eight-year-old were up ahead on the trail already charging out into the hills. My five-year-old was lying face down next to the rear window of our hatchback. I cajoled him. "Come out, little one. We'll be on top of a mountain! It's so beautiful out here."

There was a gorgeous, clear blue sky overhead with a misty haze off in the distance. Can children even see these things?

"I don't care," he mumbled.

"We'll look for rocks and sticks along the way." This is like only his favorite thing to do, ever. It's my constant enticement. Usually all I have to do is say is "Sticks!" and bodies fly out of the car, ready for action. I imagine that someday they'll wise up, but I think we have a few years left. No need for magic, Harry. Sticks are good enough for us just as they are.

But this time he didn't bite. "Nah." He squirreled further in and curled his fists in defiance.

Should I reach in and haul him out of there? I've done it before, launching myself into an awkward pose, then wrestling with a scratching, biting feral creature. Usually the parent wins, breathing hard, battle wounds dripping, victory marred by the wet blanket of a child who visibly hates you. 

Sometimes my five-year-old even says it to my face. "I hate you," he mouths, barely uttering the words with chilling intensity, "I hate you." I bear those scars not with pride but with the determination to just get him through the next few years.

Power Struggles

In parenting books, we call this the "power struggle". It's not fun. Avoid at all costs. "Don't get into a power struggle," the haughty book authors say, while looking down at you from much higher ground - a ground which is typically stood upon by people who have children already in college. "There are better ways to get children to do what you want." Ok, then.

So I wait a bit. And as I wait, I'm reminded that sometimes waiting works, and sometimes waiting becomes what parenting book authors call "permissive". By allowing him to stay in the car for longer than I like am I giving him ample opportunity to make the right choice? Or am I letting him know that he can prevent our family from having adventures by choosing to be surly? What happens when our family needs or wants to do other things that are important? Will he think he can get away with this behavior?

Trial and Error... and Error

Sometimes we aren't able to meet our child's needs and the needs of the rest of the family at the same time. That's life. Sometimes we have to try several strategies before we find something that works for us, and guess what? The same words are not going to work all the time for every situation. In the end, there's just you, your child, and your relationship with one another.

It was time to be honest. Honesty is, after all, usually the best policy.

Biting my lip and looked out into the hills again where my husband and older son were fading from view. My favorite five-year-old's bright blue eyes were narrowed and lips still pulled together in a pout. There was nothing left but to dredge up what was left at the bottom of the barrel, the gritty truth. "Daddy is way out there. I'm getting worried. We need to get to Daddy now. I want to be with Daddy." 

The tension melted, and his entire body went limp. I almost felt guilty for using his complete and utter gooey-eyed adoration of my husband for personal gain, but relief won out as he clambered toward me and slammed the door.

Together, we faced the land.