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Remembering Promises. Dang It.

When Maddie was only a couple weeks old,
our friends Matt and Sandra came by for a visit/pep talk. They
brought their son Stephen, who is a year older than Maddie. An
active then-one-year-old, Stephen politely showed us all the areas
of our house which were not yet baby-proofed. Matt wrestled our
television remote away from Stephen and stowed it safely on top of
our entertainment center. Ten minutes later, Stephen was pointing,
clearly asking for the remote again.

“He’s just gotten the object permanence thing,”
Matt explained. I watched, awestruck at the small body that could
remember things ten minutes after they happened. I looked at my
newborn, who couldn’t remember where she’d left her
fist, and longed for the day when she’d have the ability to
remember stuff like that (and, of course, shower thanks on me for
all those remembered favors.)

I know, careful what you wish for.

Having mastered object permanence –
the ability to understand that objects exist even after they
disappear from your field of vision, and remember where they were
last time you saw them – several months ago, Maddie’s
moved on to a much more dangerous kind of memorization:

Promise permanence.

The other evening, Madeleine slipped and fell, cutting her lip open
on her teeth. Though it was only 15 minutes before bedtime, I gave
Maddie a “Popsicle” – pureed strawberries poured
into a Popsicle mold – to try to ice the bleeding lip. Happy
for the late-night treat, Maddie joyfully smeared strawberry all
over her face, going almost 20 minutes past her bedtime and getting
wired on the fruit sugar. When she finally seemed to slow down on
the Popsicle I gently pried it from her fingers. Big mistake.

A tired-but-wired, screaming toddler is not a fun one. I stood firm
on my decision to take the treat away – we’re working
hard to teach her that throwing a fit won’t get her what she
wants – but promised her that she could finish the Popsicle
the next day.

Slightly mollified, she went to bed.

The very next morning, I heard the usual wake-up call over the
monitor: “Mama! Mama!” Walking cheerfully into her
room, I was greeted with these first words:

“Popsicle! More Popsicle please!”

I couldn’t believe she remembered, but a promise was a
promise, so Maddie had Popsicle and oatmeal for breakfast.

That same day, my daughter began asking for her Play-Doh after
lunch, a time reserved for quiet play since it’s quickly
followed by naptime. I told her no, but that she could play with it
after her nap.

What was her first word upon waking from her nap? Yep, you guessed
it. Play-Doh.

Even worse than that, though: “Play-Doh, mama. Mama Play-Doh
after nap.”

How can I argue with that logic?

I can’t figure out when exactly she mastered such fluid
concepts of time; her understanding of “later” or
“after such-and-such” is really impressive to me. If we
have to go for a diaper change, she’ll get worried it’s
signaling a nap and will say, “Right back, mama!” If I
agree she can come “right back” after the change,
she’ll go happily.

So we’re having to be very careful with what we say to
Maddie; gone are the days of, “You can play with the sharp
knife later, honey,” or some such ridiculous promise,
followed by a clear diversionary tactic such as “Look,
there’s Kitty!” This longer-term memory is forcing us
to actually (gasp) be honest with our child and learn how to calmly
break the bad news to her that she won’t always get what she
wants. But as hard as it is, the option of going back to the old
ways just doesn’t exist.

Because these days, I’d have a peaceful half-hour, followed
by a determined Maddie saying, “Later, mama. Sharp knife now,


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