Do parents have favourites?

Catching leaves

The Girl is really doing my head in at the moment, and to be honest, I’m kind of relieved.

For the first three years of her life, I cuddled her, carried her everywhere, dressed her, slept in her bed with her if she had nightmares or growing pains or just wanted company in the night, let her off eating the rest of her dinner if she didn’t fancy it. My husband, the Fairy Godmother and I even sing to her in glorious three part harmony if we are all around when she wakes up at night. (As you can imagine, this has done nothing to decrease the frequency of nightwaking.)

In short, I have doted on her. She is simply the cutest, squidgiest, most adorable little person to ever dance around on two legs and then fall flat on her face.

Meanwhile, the Boy was difficult.

When he was two, I had a baby to deal with and I had to push him to be more independent. He got on with it and worked out how to dress and undress, climb into the bath by himself and learned to read himself stories for good measure.

When he was three, he started developing a will of Valyrian steel. It drove me nuts. Mainly, I was just outraged that he would defy me at all. For what seems like ages we locked horns. I would lay down the law – he would pursue his own, clearly superior plan. It took The Husband and I over a year to work out the best ways of challenging his behaviour and leading it down better, more acceptable paths.

It seemed to me, on a daily basis, like my interactions with the Boy were mostly negative and my time with the Girl was full of hugs and delight.

I started to worry that I had let myself develop a knee-jerk, negative response to the Boy.

I started to worry that I had A Favourite.

When I was in my early teens there was a period of a few months when I was convinced, with searing jealousy, that my Mum loved my brother more than me. I would catch her looking at him with an adoring look in her eye that spelled it all out plain as day, to my mind. Meanwhile, I felt I was getting all the jobs, the reprimands, the disapproval.

And you know what – maybe I did, at that time. He was a tween and still had a bit of the cute chubby cheeked look while I had just shot up and sprouted spots everywhere. Not so cute. Also, I was a teenager and did more stuff that deserved reprimanding. Also also, I was older and could handle more jobs.

Perhaps, at 3 and 1, the Girl was my favourite of the two. She said adorably cute things and let me dress her and she (mostly) did as I asked. If she was naughty, it wasn’t deliberate.

Fast forward to present day. The Boy at 5 is a delight. He is actually helpful: he can feed the cats, wash up, set the table, pour milk into the Girl’s cereal and has intelligent comments on multiple choice reading exams. He is fascinated by everything, and you can have amazing conversations with him about science and art and religion and you end up feeling like a genius because you know so much (compared to a 5 year old). His favourite pastimes no longer require my input or much supervision: he will play school by himself, he develops and executes craft projects with minimal help and he builds Lego intended for 7 year olds from the “inconstructions”, as he adorably calls them.

The Girl, on the other hand, clearly thinks Valyrian steel is for wimps and sissies and has developed a will made of diamonds. It sparkles so brightly, endears you with its determination and then BAM: she is on the floor wailing, refusing to move when you are already ten minutes late for school pick up.

When she does not want to do something, she will a) ignore you, then b) go limp on the floor refusing to move and c) start crying like you are taking her to prison. And believe me, there are many, very reasonable things that she does not want to do.

The Husband and I are working on strategies, but it may take a year or more to train this one. This time we are more upbeat though. At the table is a 5 year old building Lego, living proof that the threenager can be defeated.

So: do parents have favourites? Yes, yes we do. But who that favourite is depends entirely on who is the most pleasant to be around at the time – which may be different every day.

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No matter what

Anger never featured much in my life up till now. I would get upset, frustrated, indignant, offended, hurt – but rarely did I encounter rage. Not the kind that makes you want to break things and hurt people. I think I can maybe remember one or two occasions in my first 32 years when I felt like that.

Now, rage is a regular, almost daily feature.

The Boy, currently 2 years and 9 months old, can wind me up to a point where I  want to scream and shout and smash plates in a matter of minutes. How does he do it? Simples!

* He ignores dire warnings to put that down, no it’s dangerous, I mean it, NO! STOP! Listen to Mummy, why don’t you listen to Mummy? Usually this happens while the baby is screaming/I am changing her nappy/I am handling hot pans.

* Nappy changing (oh can he just be potty trained overnight?) is a frequent flash point, with him kicking me away, or trying to roll off and escape while covered in poo.

* Bedtime delay tactics are getting more and more elaborate, and trying to navigate them and cajole him into tooth brushing, getting in and out of the bath, in and out of a nappy and pyjamas while simultaneously trying to stop him screeching and crying and waking his sister is… a little stressful.

* He ignores me.

* He ignores me.

* He ignores me.

* And finally: he ignores me.

(I don’t like being ignored.)

I barely know what to do with my anger. Or really, model student that I am, I know exactly what I should be doing but am struggling to put it into practice.

I know anger is normal and what is important is to model for him how to deal with it in a way that doesn’t hurt people or things – and yet I end up shouting at him and then feeling terrible for having been angry at all. 

I know a lot of the situations that wind me up can be prevented by stepping in early and pretending to be Miss Piggy/Coco the train/The Puzzler – but aside from the fact that this takes a measure of patience I often do not have, I find that I almost want to get angry with him, that I want him to have to apologise for ignoring what I say. I want him to stop ignoring what I say and start listening to me.

I know that he is more likely to respect my authority and eventually learn to listen to what I say if I stay calm and in control – but every time it happens, it seems to get easier to head down the slippery slide into rage.

We find ourselves in a phase where our goals clash and our tempers flare, the Boy and I. 

So I have started reading this book with him at night, to make sure we end the day on the right note. For him and for me.

"No Matter What", by Debi Gliori

“No Matter What”, by Debi Gliori

We have had this book for a while, but it is truly coming into its own now.

Small was feeling grim and dark. "I'm a grim and grumpy little small, and nobody loves me at all."

Small was feeling grim and dark. “I’m a grim and grumpy little small, and nobody loves me at all.”

A small fox (Small) is having a bad day and feels as if nobody loves him. Large reassures him: “Grumpy or not, I’ll always love you, no matter what.” Small goes through all the most likely looking scenarios (“If I was a grizzly bear, would you still love me, would you care?”) and Large reassures him every time that her love is unconditional. It ends on quite a serious note: “What about when we’re dead and gone, would you love me then, does love go on?” This is a topic perhaps a little beyond my not-quite-3-year-old’s understanding, but the answer is not:

“Small, look at the stars –
how they shine and glow,
but some of those stars died a long time ago.”

"Still they shine in the evening skies, Love, like starlight, never dies."

“Still they shine in the evening skies,
love, like starlight, never dies.”

We look at this book and I hug him close. Large and Small have no gender and could be Mummy and son or Daddy and daughter or any combination. But my imaginative little boy knows that right now, it is us. After the first time we read it together, he greeted me the next morning with: “Hello, Mummy Fox!”

I am trying to learn how to deal with my anger, and how to deal with his new defiance. But while we work on that, at least at the end of the day I can reassure him that my love is completely unconditional, and however much he makes me want to kick the sofa and throw nappies around the room in frustration, he is my son and I love him – no matter what.

 

Images from the book and quotes all (c) Debi Gliori. This book was bought with my own money almost a decade ago and I mention it because it is relevant and I love it, not because someone paid me to.

A new independence and all that comes with it

I was feeling quite smug up until recently about having discipline sorted with my 2.5 year old. It was an area of bringing up children that I had not been looking forward to: as a teacher, classroom management was probably my weakest point and I was sure I’d be a terribly weak, inconsistent mother who would let her son run rings around her. But I surprised myself. In fact, having found behaviour management hard in my job, I had gone out of my way to educate myself in the tricks, techniques and philosophies of discipline, and so I started motherhood with a toolkit at the ready, fresh and in the forefront of my mind. Also, the element that I had been lacking in class, I found in myself quite naturally in this new situation: confidence in my own authority.

So after some initial start-up problems (when are they old enough to understand time-out?), I found my groove and things were going along swimmingly. I did ‘natural consequences’ (“if you abuse this toy, I am taking it away”), redirection (“no darling, you can’t play with that in here, but why don’t we play with it in the garden”) and for extremer cases there was the Time Out Chair. The Boy was often exuberant but rarely purposefully naughty; he was eager to please; he was easy to distract.

One of the ways in which I can tell that my little boy is no longer a toddler, is that his “naughtiness” has become more deliberate. The risky experimentation and exploration of the toddler days has been joined by a purposeful defiance: hearing Mummy say “Stop!” but seeing if it really matters if he chooses not to.

Over the past few weeks or so, he has started hitting and kicking. It is clear from his rather shoddy technique that the purpose behind the flailing arms and legs is not initially to hurt, but to keep people away. He starts kicking his legs when I try to change his nappy, wanting me to stay away and keep off him. He pushes or lashes out with his arm if I have thwarted his will and he wants me to leave him alone, or he wants to show how annoyed he is.

Hitting is not okay.

I have tried various things to sort it, but although they usually solve the issue at the time and result in apologies, none of them have so far resulted in preventing a repeat offence.  What gets me most of all, is that he finds it funny if I tell him he has hurt me, and he does it again. This I cannot abide. When I tell him that it is not a funny joke, he laughs all the more and says “funny joke!”, hitting me again.

As you can tell from how I started this post, I have not yet found the answers, but I thought I’d share my thoughts on the situation.

1. The brain does not process negatives. 
This is a bit of wisdom that I picked up from Derren Brown. When you give someone negative instructions, all you are really doing is planting the idea more firmly in their heads. My son is doing quite a lot of parrotting at the moment, and the way he does it shows that Derren Brown has a point. “We’re not going to Gran’s today,” I say. “Going Gran’s today!” the Boy sings gleefully from the back seat. Or perhaps he is holding a felt tip pen and considering it, his finger poised over it. “Don’t draw on your finger!” I say, trying to prevent the inevitable. “Draw finger!” he says, his mind now made up, and proceeds to paint all his finger nails.

So: “Don’t hit Mummy,” is probably the worst thing to say when he is cross. All that does is fix what he is doing more firmly in his mind. Better to make a positive statement that gives him an idea of what he could do instead. Perhaps: “Why don’t you calm down and we’ll talk in a minute.”

2. Why is he getting angry in the first place?
I also thought it was worth thinking about why we were having these temper tantrums in the first place and whether at least some of them could be avoidable. I started to notice that at least half of the incidents started with me trying to do something for or to the Boy: tooth brushing, nappy changing, putting on shoes, sunscreen, helping him into his car seat etc. The kicking and hitting of the past few weeks has gone hand in hand with a new quest for independence. The Boy puts on his t-shirt by himself. He wants to climb into the bath himself. Instead of just asking me for milk, he now opens the fridge, gets the milk out and brings it to me.

Of course, I can’t prevent all confrontations and it would be foolish to try. But it is worth giving him more of the independence he craves and seeing if that makes him feel a little less frustrated.

3. Take up time + distraction
Part of what frustrates me is his defiance. Previously, telling the Boy to stop doing something wrong would at least cause him to stop and think. Now, it makes him laugh and do it again. This shouldn’t surprise me, as part of the problem is that he is trying to become more independent and assert his will.

One of the tools I collected in my teaching days is called “take up time”. In a classroom full of teenage boys, the last thing you want to do is make things into a power struggle. If you pitch your will against a student’s in a room full of their peers, they are unlikely to do what you want. So if someone is playing with their mobile in class, you go up to them and say: “Joe, phone in your bag or on my desk. Thanks.” And then you walk away, assuming that they will comply. This gives them a chance to do as you ask while you’re not looking, without losing face.

I decided that perhaps the Boy needed an almost-3 year old equivalent. Instead of saying: “If you kick me again you will go into time out, you understand?” and then staring at him, daring him to do it again, I should perhaps follow the threat with a jolly: “Now, let’s go and build a really really long train track!”

 

Those are my thoughts of the moment. Hopefully, given enough time, I will catch up with my son and adjust my parenting to meet where he is at – just in time for him to hit the next developmental stage…