Cereal and Sweet Tea: On the Difficulty of Picking Your Parenting Battles

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As a parent, sometimes you have to pick your battles.

Clearly, I’m not in the business of breaking any news here. Literally everyone on the planet has heard this parenting mantra. However, as is often the case, implementing such a seemingly simple strategy is much more difficult in practice than in theory. You’ve probably noticed in your experience as parents that there is at least one rather large hole in this little nugget of wisdom.


When it comes to my 3-year-old, I feel like I’ve been picking fewer and fewer battles lately. Letting seemingly inconsequential things slide is nice in that it relieves some stress, but, weirdly, it can also add a different kind of stress: the stress that comes with losing repeatedly.

I’m a competitive person. I like winning. I like when the sports teams I cheer for win. When I used to play tennis competitively, I liked to win. When I load the dishwasher, I like to organize the items in such a way that maximizes the space available. Loading the dishwasher perfectly is a huge win.

So, I struggle every day to accept the reality that there is no winning in parenting. Parenting is more of an art than a sport. An art like finger painting—because it is extremely messy and there are pretty much no rules. If you try to make it a competition, you will certainly lose. Yet, I still try. Boy do I try, and boy do I lose. By picking fewer battles, maybe I should feel like I lose a little less, but not competing can still feel like just as much of a loss.

One morning recently my 3-year-old demanded tea to pour on his cereal. Yes, tea. Publix brand sweet tea to be exact. We bought the tea the day before at his request because he said my dad (a noted tea drinker) was coming to his birthday party and we needed something for him to drink. His birthday is several months away, but otherwise it was a solid point. I just went with it. You know, pick your battles.

Little did I anticipate that the next morning he would be clamoring to douse his Fruit Loops with the birthday tea. In retrospect, perhaps I should have anticipated it. Anything is possible around here and my 3-year-old has a history of indulging in weird foods and drinks. We used to let him have at it—ketchup and carrots, apple sauce and tortilla chips, whatever—figuring that he would discover that he didn’t like the disgusting combination and that would be that. Our approach never worked. He seemingly likes everything except hummus. So, now we take a different tact: we let him have at it with zero expectations.

However, my wife and I were both ready to draw the line at this tea on cereal thing. We held firm for what seemed like hours, but must have been about fifteen minutes. Then, my wife left to drop our kindergartner off at school and I immediately crumbled.

“Whatever,” I grumbled as I splashed some tea into a cup for him to pour over his cereal.

Based on his reaction—and his gloating when Mom came back from school drop-off—he greatly enjoyed the new breakfast combination. The injection of caffeinated sugar loops also gave him a much-needed energy boost.

“I found these invitations!” he shouted at me, emerging from the closet in our bathroom with a handful of empty red envelopes as I stepped out of the shower.

“I changed my mind. I want to have my birthday party today!” he continued. (Again, his birthday is in April.)

“Well, that won’t work. Nobody will know to come today,” I advised sagely as a I dried my hair with a towel.


I was beginning to think the caffeinated cereal was a battle I should have chosen.

“But not Santa’s house,” he was still going. “His workshop is too far away…”

He scratched his ear and looked up at the ceiling, taking a moment to think.

“I know! We’ll call the mailman and tell him to come pick up a letter to take to Santa!”

Finally, he was thinking reasonably.

Now, you might think that we got in the car and drove to everyone’s house and delivered the empty envelopes. And you are probably thinking, after that, we called the post office and asked the mail carrier to swing by to pick up our birthday invitation to Santa. And I bet you think, because I’m a complete pushover, we held a birthday party that very day, complete with the candle balloon Bennett saw at Publix the day before and immediately added to his must-have list!

Well, if that’s what you think, you’ve got another think coming, buddy. Or is it another thing coming? Whatever. Either way, what I’m saying is, you are dead wrong!

I put my foot down so hard the floor quaked a little. Also, I hurt my foot because I’m not used to stomping like that. I let him have it in no uncertain terms.

“We are not going to all our friends’ and relatives’ houses and the North Pole to invite people to come to a birthday party this afternoon for your birthday THAT IS SEVERAL MONTHS AWAY! That is ridiculous! I’m not hearing another word! Maybe tomorrow.”

And that, my friends, is how and why you pick your battles.

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