Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Conversations with my three-year-old son


A typical conversation with another mother in the nursery school queue:

Me: He won't eat pasta with any sauce on it. The pasta cannot even have a tiny bit of sauce on it and if it does, he says it is 'dirty' and he refuses to eat it
Other mother: Yup, my son does the same thing
Me: And if I hand him something and open it for him, a toy, an ice cream, a banana, he totally freaks out and says he wants to do it, even if he cannot possibly do it. And then I have to wait for him to see he cannot do it before he hands it back for me to open
Mother: Thank god, I thought it was just my son
Me: And do you get the random acts of violence too?
Mother: Sometimes, but he's OK with his baby sister, thank god
Me: And if he naps even for 20 minutes during the day, he won't go to sleep until like 10pm and he is bouncing off of the walls
Mother: Yup we've had to get rid of the nap and keep him awake even though he is sometimes really really tired, and I feel really bad. But it's either that or tired and wired at school the next morning right?
Me: And when I ask him who his friends are at school and who he played with today he says Buzz Lightyear
Mother: Er ....

And then there is a moment of silence where we look at each other like we just want to hug as a form of relief that there is someone else out there that has to put up with the same stuff.

My son is going through the terrible threes right now, not a social personality disorder, but it's easy to worry sometimes that it is the latter, especially if you've read the DSM and are a bit paranoid. My daughter was the same – the two's were OK actually, so much so that I thought: 'Why do people go on about the two's being so terrible?' Either that or I had really really low expectations. But as much as I want to romanticise her toddlerhood and polarise my kids as 'the good one and the crazy one' having kept a blog means I know she was no walk in the park at this age either.

This time in children's lives comes with some really difficult irrational behaviour plus clinginess to the point that I now refer to my son as 'my jealous boyfriend' because he reminds me of the boys you date when you are a teenager who are so insecure and joined at the hip with you that it almost requires a surgical procedure to separate long enough to go to the loo alone. Actually as a teenager I didn't have a boyfriend for any sustained amount of time to base this on, but I studied the type closely because my sister had several and they were all like this. It actually put me off having one of my own, but I'd be lying if I said I had much choice in the matter. But I digress.

Children of this age are also incredibly impatient because they have no concept of how time works, i.e. the whole waiting for something, even if it is mere minutes.

A typical scenario:

My son: I want an ice cream
Me: OK, I'll get it for you
Him: I want and ice cream
Me: I heard you I'm getting it (I'm actually getting up and heading over to the freezer and he sees me doing this)
Him: I want an ice cream
Me: Yes I know, I'm opening the freezer as we speak
Him: I want an ice cream
Me: Yes, for god's sakes, here it is

(I try not to swear in front of my kids, but I have an unfortunate tendency towards profanity.)

Now if you don't know my son, you may make the very foolish error of taking the wrapper off of the ice cream before handing it to him (which actually happened yesterday with Janet) in which case the following happens:

Him: (Totally losing his shit) Noooooooooooo!!!!! I do it! I take the wrapper off!!!
He then hurls the ice cream across the room

The correct protocol would be as follows:
You have to hand him the ice cream in the wrapper that you know he cannot actually open, and then give him a few minutes to turn it over in his small dictatorial hands first. He then looks at you, and you have to grab that precise moment (not too soon though) when you can see he is ready for help, but won't ask for it.

You: Would you like help opening it? Your tone has to be totally non plussed totally non 'I told you so' and certainly nothing accusatory. Just easy breezy - like the thought just occurred to you.

Him: Yes please

And then the world is set to rights. *Breathe out*

This is a fairly pleasant and easy exchange, but don't get led into a false sense of security, because it can just as easily go like this:

Him: Can I have an ice cream
Me: Sure
Him: Can I have an ice cream
Me: Yup – I'm just getting it for you
Him: Can I have an ice cream
Me: I am at the freezer as we speak
Him: Can I have an ice cream
Me: Yes, for christ sakes, here it is
Him: (Starting to cry) But I want the rocket one
Me: (Incredulous) We don't have any rocket ones just these
Him: But I don't like these, I want a rocket one
Me: We don't have any
Him: I want a white one
Me: What are you even talking about?
Him: Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!
Me: So do you want this or not?
Him: Not!
(I put the ice cream back in the freezer)
Him: Whaaaaaaaa but I want it!!!!

And then I say a prayer to the person who grants patience, but evidently this person isn't granting me any because of all the profanities I'm guilty of, and so I have to count to 10 or hope it's past 6pm so I can have a glass of box wine. This is my own magical thinking ritual - no wine before 6pm, so I stave off becoming an accidental alcoholic. Completely irrational because I can just as easily drink to excess once it is 6pm, but I don't (unless I'm on a proper night out). But it's a ritual I cling to regardless, like saluting a solitary magpie or not walking on cracks in the road.

But getting back to my son and the crazy ice cream situation – following something like this, I sometimes think: I am so not cut out for parenting. But when you have these kinds of exchanges you wonder who is? And it can also cause you to get all kinds of messed up superior ego issues, like when people who have paying jobs tell you they've had a tough day at the office dealing with irrational assholes you retort, 'Really? Try an hour in my day, and then we'll talk.”

Then there is the throwing of stuff – sometimes largish heavy things, that inevitably hit someone in the back of the head on their random trajectory across the room. Or levelling an unexpected wrestle maniaesque attack when I am cooking at the stove or transferring the kettle full of boiling water to the stove. Or taking a box full of crayons or lego and just chucking it all over the floor and then looking up at me with a huge mischievous grin. Likewise breaking things, biting the windowsill in his bedroom (actual teethmarks when we left our rental recently -wtf? I wonder what the inventory person thought). And generally trashing the place for no apparent reason.

And I've checked with other parents and apparently this is completely normal. So, I assure myself, I can really stop worrying; my son does not have a social disorder – he is just a small boy. Apparently they have a lot of physical energy that needs release preferably outdoors, otherwise they set upon your house or you with destructive vigour. A friend of mine has a trampoline that she tells me she sticks her son on, even in really cold weather (with ski jacket, gloves and wooly hat), so he can jump it all out of his system. “Boys are like dogs, you've got to run them every day to get that energy out otherwise you, their siblings, or the house gets it.” And when she told this to me I thought: “Man that's so harsh,” but now I think the woman is a genius and when I return to London and our garden is less wild kingdom I'm going to get one.

This morning I was holding my son and he slapped me in the face – no real reason, but he thought it was hilarious. My instinct was to hit him back, because that's how we are wired – it's that 5 second thing. But I put him down, counted, prayed, did whatever ritual I do when I am soooo angry, and said to him: When you do that to me my instinct is to do it back. Do you want to get hit too?
Him: No mommy, I'm sorry
Me: OK, so lets make a deal – you don't hurt me and I don't hurt you back ok?
Him: OK mommy

Of course I'm not going to hit, but he needs to learn that if he goes about hitting other kids, there's a good chance he's going to get hit back.

Moments like these I think it was wise that I made the very conscious decision before having children that I would never smack or hit them. I am fundamentally against this practise for various reasons, but sometimes when he really makes me angry or tests my patience I think to myself: If you hit a child or smack them when you are really mad or fed up, how do you regulate just how much so you don't really hurt them? I think it's dangerous territory and I avoid it all together. As a friend of mine who has the same view said to me this morning: “I totally agree, my daughter really pushes boundaries all the time, and if we did smack her she would be black and blue on a daily basis.”

I also think smacking doesn't work. My mother likes to share an anecdote of being on the phone to my grandmother when I was little and telling her that I had gotten three smacks that day for bad behaviour, “Breakfast, lunch and supper,” she muses. And I'm like “Three huh? So at what point did you realise that just maybe, that was an ineffective means of deterring negative behaviour?” But it's an entirely different generation and way of thinking and I don't believe I will ever entirely change my mothers's conviction that some kids (not mine, she always assures me, not mine) would really benefit from a good smack.

Small children, toddlers specifically, are completely incapable of reason and cause and effect thinking. It's actually been studied and proven. Which is why they will repeatedly, for example, get their fingers trapped in a drawer, or in my son's case, get sent to his room (which he hates) for throwing things or hitting his sister. So I could hit him each time he did something like this, and I know I'd just land up hating myself and feeling guilty and it wouldn't make an iota of difference to his actions.

So how do you stop them from doing crazy stuff? I've found changing the scene, taking them out of the context or away from whatever it is they are doing, or distracting them is best. Also keeping anything you value or could cause mortal wounds out of their reach is also a good idea. The world is one big interesting place to them and they have no idea that chucking your brand new iPhone into the toilet is really really inconvenient and expensive – it's just something they do, because, well they can. Last night I was working on this piece for 10 minutes in the kitchen and my son was very quiet. I looked up to see he had dismantled the keys in my iPad keyboard. When I asked him why he had done it he thought for a moment and replied in a heartfelt way: 'Because I broke it.” I mean, what could I say to that? I honestly don't believe it was out of malice. It was there, it's interesting to pull stuff apart, and he did it. It shouldn't have been within his reach, and that was my responsibility to ensure, not his.  So what would spanking him have accomplished in this instance? Sometimes, when I think about it, hitting small kids feels a bit like hitting a mentally disabled person because they are simply incapable of understanding or doing something that you expect of them.

I also really don't want my kids to learn that hitting someone is a way of exerting your will over someone else's, and it would feel totally hypocritical to me to do the one thing to them that I totally disallow and disapprove of them doing to each other, or any other child. But it's possibly also true that people like me that don't smack or hit their kids probably also drink a bit more wine than those that do, even if it is post 6pm, But I feel it's a small price to pay for, you know, teaching non violence. I think the world would truly benefit from more of this kind of thinking as would the wine industry.

Which isn't to say that I have this whole thing figured out. Most days I am pulling my hair out with frustration with a child that doesn't seem to listen to me and continually does the same shit over and over again despite threats to remove favourites toys, time outs etc. I'm going out on a limb here and hoping it is an age thing, a phase thing, and that if I employ the patience of a saint (while gritting my teeth), and a great deal of understanding, he will grow out of it into a lovely boy that is smart, kind, and courteous, and one that helps old ladies cross the street instead of throwing them across. It's all about faith and keeping an end goal in mind. 

We took the children to this indoor play place on the weekend. You know, the kind with zealous mothers clapping and shouting 'Wow, that's amazing!' every time their kids comes down a slide or climbs a few gym blocks, while the fathers sit around looking at their phones.

My daughter was inside a kind of tube thing and this little kid who was building some sort of fort pushed her over so he could get the tube and add it to his grand design. I saw him do it, she got annoyed, he went off to muscle something off of another kid and she reclaimed the tube. I didn't feel the need to step in. A few minutes later his mother appeared and he did it again, only this time I wasn't actually looking. My daughter started crying because in the process of him pushing her over while she was inside of the tube, she hit her face on the floor and she came and told me as much. The mother looked me in the eye and said: “Oh she just fell.” Like totally randomly out of the blue – nothing to do with her little Donald Trump over there.

Now my daughter doesn't lie, maybe one day when she skips school to hang out with her friends for the afternoon or steals the car for a joy ride, but not now. Even sometimes she'll start talking about something that is evidently made up, like “My friend Nutty, who is a nut and who lives in a packet talks to me when I am on the toilet,” and I'll play along and say, “Really and what does he say?” And she'll be like, “Mom this is just pretend – it's not real.” And when she tells me stuff that happens at school - it's always in a fairly matter of fact reporter-type fashion even if it puts her in a bad light. So I knew she was telling the truth. If the other mother had said: 'I'm sorry my son pushed her over – he's a bit over excited with this thing he is building' – I would be totally fine, but it really got to me that she lied. And yes, in that moment I judged her her Gap jeaned ass.

But I'm on holiday and I'm working on being more relaxed and less angry so I just let it go. Had this happened during my near nervous breakdown crazy bitch building house period, well, I think she may have been relieved to have all those gym matts around. Says the woman who doesn't believe in violence as a means of exerting one's will over another's.

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