The Give and Take of Control

When we were in Maine we had to give Gabe showers because there wasn’t a bath tub. Gabe hates showers. HATES. He doesn’t like the water shooting at him, he doesn’t like having his face wet, he hates them. Even when one of us is holding him in the shower, he tries to escape the jets of water with all his strength. But what is a parent to do? Dude has to get bathed – not every day, but like a couple times at least? We only did it twice during that trip because the trauma was palpable. Imagine a child screaming while having their limbs chopped off, and that would be an accurate depiction of Gabe in the shower.

We also encouraged him to play in the ocean which he was very resistant to. We’d carry him over to the shallow shallow shallow waves and as he said “No? No? No?” and clung to us for dear life we’d plunk his feet into the water. He was not pleased.


(Much happier times in the bath)

On paper this sounds like horrible parenting, but you have to understand – babies and toddlers are afraid of LOTS of things because they haven’t been exposed to them enough. There was a time when Gabe was afraid of apples. Legit afraid of apples in the grocery store. He is still totally terrified of the blow dryer and equally as spooked by my hair brush.

So sometimes it is my job to expose him to stuff! Even if it is at first scary, often he’ll come back to it on his own no longer afraid. Well… I guess that didn’t quite work in regards to water.

When we got back to Seattle Gabe had complete water aversion. He would SCREAM even sitting in his bath and before long he’d climb out of the tub and straight on to me, clinging to me like a terrified koala. I could have walked around with him naked, stuck to me front, completely hands free. Talk about inconvenient – and guilt ridden. I was sure we totally fucked him up. I mean, I knew it was something we could probably undo, but I wasn’t 100% sure how.

By this time Gabe is old enough to take baths sitting in the tub alone, so he’s been doing that since he’s been around 1. I mean, we’re there on the side lines, washing him and making sure he doesn’t die, but he’s the only person actually in the tub. Well, after 2 or 3 baths where he was crawling out directly on to Kamel or I and then sobbing uncontrollably on our shoulder, we thought – ok, maybe we need to get back in the tub with him. but that was only making things maybe the tiniest of fractions better. Any time any water would touch his head, he would freak the fuck out. Even if it was the back of his head, even if it was just a washcloth. Game over.

In baths before Maine we would often wrestle him backwards so that we could wash his bottom and rinse his hair, he would fight us, preventing himself from leaning back with his arms. We would, effectively, strip him of all of his personal control, tip him back anyway, and scrub a dub dub. Well in the new world of Gabe being a mess about water that was out of the question. So we went back to basics. For a while baths were purely fun. No getting his hair wet, just toys in the bath with daddy.

Then as he got happier just being in the bath, I started to wipe down his head with a washcloth, but no pouring water. Then Kamel taught him how to pour water on himself by playing with the bath toys. Gabe would splash his own face, drench his own head, like it was a silly game. I was able to soap him up without any protests. I also started opening up the faucet while he was in there. At first he would be afraid and say “No? No? No?” and I would turn the faucet off at his request. Then he’d start to play in it for a second before asking me again to turn the faucet off. Eventually he never wanted me to turn it off because splashing was fun, but it was also under his control and on his time.

As a parent it is really really hard to always be able to distinguish when and where you need to give your kids total control and when and where you need to step in to just get shit done because toddlers argue about everything! And often do not have their own best interests at heart – because they are tiny belligerent, irrational humans. But Gabe had been screaming at me, “I don’t like this!” he just didn’t have the words to say it, and I had been ignoring him under the umbrella of, “this is a chore that just needs to get done.” It wasn’t until I surrendered that I was able to really hear him.

It only took a few weeks and Gabe was back to being able to bath alone without any drama. And then in Vancouver he was able to swim around in the pool (with the help of a boogy board and Kamel or me) like a champ!


Babies come into this world having no control over anything. They don’t even have control over their own limbs! And then slowly, slowly, slowly, they demand their independence. I need to do a better job hearing that.

6 thoughts on “The Give and Take of Control”

  1. Ear infections caused bath time to become stress time for a while here a couple of weeks ago – so we did just like you – reverted back to just playtime. At the moment, baths are still all sitting up because of his ears, but thats ok.
    I’m hopeful he’ll start liking the beach more this summer. He hated it last summer

  2. What a good method for getting him back to being able to tolerate water – offering him control and listening to him! Ok, filing this away for future reference… Cheers to ya’ll on the parenting front!

  3. We’re about to start swimming lessons, and I’m hoping it helps the water-on-head thing because at the moment we can’t wash his hair unless he’s wearing goggles. But, with his goggles on, he’ll tip the water on his own head. It’s always such an awkward balance between forcing by necessity (when their hair’s full of sand or their noses are dripping like taps) and letting them be autonomous and make their own decisions about their bodies, etc.

  4. This is so hard for me!! I struggle so much with when not to force something and when forcing it is good for them. Good to hear I’m not the only one.

  5. Sounds like you handled it beautifully. I’m struck by how different kids are– we just spent a week on the (Oregon) beach with our 1-yr-old and he kept running as far into the (freezing) ocean as he could get before we scooped him up when bigger waves came. Kid has no fear, even when his antics get him hurt. So I have the opposite issue of trying to respect what he wants to do while also keeping him safe!

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