I sense it before it starts, a spark in the air, a sharp intake of breath. I turn to see my daughter standing with fists clenched at her sides, trembling with anger. We’ve been going through a phase lately, one that involves a lot of screaming and crying and things being thrown. Not again, I want to plead. I’m tired and it’s been a long day. I’ve lost count of how many fits we’ve had. But before I can open my mouth, she reaches out and grabs my hand.
“Don’t let me do this,” she says, holding on to me tightly, her voice wobbling. “Don’t let this happen to me again.” There is real fear in her eyes.
And my heart aches for her, for whatever is going on in her brain, for this tiny girl bowled over by feelings and emotions that are too big for her to handle or understand. My heart aches, too, for her little brother, for my husband, for myself, all who are caught up and left trampled in the wake of her rage.
We waver for a moment, on a precipice. Then she falls. Everything is screaming and crying as she writhes and flails, choking on her anger. I’m near tears myself — it’s late, my husband is out — and I’m desperate. We’ve tried everything.
“Pico!” I shout over the noise of her screams. Something clicks in my brain, and the word is out before I’m fully conscious of its being formed.
“What’s Pico?” My daughter looks up at me, arrested by the new sound, the new word. And I suddenly remember when she was two and condensed an entire year’s worth of the “terrible two’s” into a six-week nightmare, how I would hold her and whisper words in her ear, any words, so long as they were new, different. Boysenberry. Capitulate. Tintinnabulation. And boysenberry, she’d whisper back, trying the sound on her tongue. Nothing pulls this child out of herself faster than new information.
“Not ‘what,'” I correct her now. “Who. Pico was a person, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. He was a Renaissance philosopher.”
A shudder runs through her small body but she holds my eyes steadily. More new words.
“Do you know what a philosopher is?”
She shakes her head. I go on talking, fast.
“A philosopher is a thinker, somebody who loves to think about things and ideas. Pico was a philosopher, and a writer.”
“A writer like you,” she says. My heart melts. I sit down in front of her, cautiously.
“Pico had an idea,” I continue, my freshman literature and philosophy class coming back to me in waves as I try to distill what I remember into language a three-year-old can understand. “He said that all men — all people — have the power to make choices. Choices about how we behave. Pico said that within each one of us lies the capacity to be like an insect, or to be like an angel.”
“We have the power to determine — to decide — which one we’re going to be. We have the power to choose to be like an angel, or like an icky bug.”
Her eyebrows arch as she gazes at me. “Power” — I can tell I have her attention. Later I will revisit my choice of words and backpedal, my desire to empower her as a person, as a woman, conflicting with my desire to raise her in a Christian tradition that teaches us “blessed are the meek.” Plus, I need to be able to live with her. I’ll get out the Prayer Book and read her the service of Baptism, talking about the promises we made for her when she was just a tiny baby. I’ll show her how she can echo those promises someday for herself, if she chooses, at her Confirmation. And I’ll tell her that what the Prayer Book is saying is quite similar to Pico — Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? I will, with God’s help. We choose to resist the powers of evil, choose, with God’s help, to be better than icky bugs.
I realize that invoking a philosopher to stop a tantrum flies directly in the face of one of my parenting goals, that of helping my children, these products of two overeducated and consistently over-thinking parents, blend in with everybody else. But my commitment to that goal is fading. I’d rather my children be who God created them to be, encompassing not only their unique gifts and talents and personhoods, but where and when they were born, and yes, who their parents are. And when this mother’s back is against the wall, I know my Renaissance philosophers better than I know my Dr. Spock, or T. Berry Brazelton, or even Dr. Sears.
I think of Aristotle’s tabula rasa, René Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum. I think of Pascal’s Wager. So much I could tell her. But I hold my tongue. For today, Pico is enough.
My daughter sits down on my lap, sweaty from the exertion of her anger. I wrap my arms around her gently. She leans into my chest.
“If I choose to be like an angel, can I be like the angels on Jonah? And praise the Lord?”
“Of course you can,” I say. I kiss the top of her moist head.
“I don’t want to be an icky bug,” she says quietly.
It’s a lot to take in for a three-year-old; perhaps I was crazy to even try. But somehow, Pico works where all the traditional parenting tricks seem to have failed. It’s as if I’ve handed her a key to an inner strength, a strength she didn’t know she had.
Over the next few days, “Remember Pico!” becomes our rallying cry. I find myself explaining over and over to anyone in earshot that she’s saying “Pico,” not “PECO,” the Philadelphia Electric Company. I get a few weird looks, and eventually decide to let people think my daughter is obsessed with an energy corporation.
“You can be like an angel, or like an icky bug,” I hear her explaining to her dolls. “You have the power to choose.”
“I will with God’s help,” I tell her, and we go on together, choosing each day, each hour, each minute, the people we will be.