I described last week the challenge that Daniel is presenting. “Contrary” is not sufficient to describe this boy. All two-year-olds are contrary, or at least, go through a contrary season. Dealt with effectively, however, the contrariness does not extend past that year, often doesn’t even last the entire year.
I am certainly not used to seeing compulsive contrariness in three-year-olds. Not the ones who’ve been in my care all along. I did wonder for a while: Daniel’s mother returned to work in September after her year’s mat leave, and for that year, Daniel was with me a day a week, on average. Not enough time for my lessons to take root. Was that it? Was it just that a year of a soft-hearted mummy sufficient to create this demon of opposition?
I don’t think so. I do think he’d be better-behaved with me if I’d had him full-time all along, but, as I said to his parents when we met one evening to discuss Daniel, the things they’ve been doing would be working just fine with another child. I think there’s something in Daniel that compels him to resist, and to resist to a degree that is far, far greater than any other child I’ve ever seen. In 17 years. Because, usually, no matter how poorly behaved they may be at home, the children learn in fairly short order that that nonsense does not fly at Mary’s, and we work out an allocation of power and authority (it’s mine, but I share) that keeps everyone happy.
Well, there are days that Daniel is just fine. Sunny, happy, cooperative. These days are the minority, but they happen regularly enough that you know he’s capable of sunny cooperation. It’s in him! The other days, though, it’s one long, steady stream of defiance. Big ones, little ones, outright “no!”s, verbal defiance, physical resistance, evasions, resistance, alternate suggestions to every single directive. All the live-long day.
Monday was such a day.
However, When I wrote about him last week, Hannah made a suggestion. Daniel should get one chance, and one only, to comply. Now, I know this, but somehow, in the Supreme Exasperation in which I was floundering, I had lost sight of this lovely, simple, conflict-clearing principle: Say it once, then act. Now, if he were younger, some explanation and/or clarification might be necessary. Daniel, however, is three and a half. He knows the rules and expectations. They are very consistent and clear here at Mary’s. He is not tripping over the rules unaware; he is deliberately kicking them to the curb and daring me to do something about it.
Though he will cry in a conflict, he’s also a bit addicted to the adrenaline rush, I think. He seeks conflict out. And it’s not because he’s not getting enough attention. He gets as much as everyone, often more. But I’ll be damned if he was going to get more for defiance! Except that’s exactly what I had been doing: lots of face-time when defiant. Silly Mary. Thank you, Hannah, for the reminder!
So, Monday. Monday morning, he arrives, says goodbye to daddy, races to the window to wave. All this is happily done. Then I point him to his boots, scattered around the front hall.
“Time to put your boots on the mat, Daniel.”
“I don’t want to.”
Pause. Not to gather my rising temper, because I’m calm. I knew we would get here, and pretty quickly. In fact, I’m almost pleased, because I get to put The Plan in action. We are going to lick this thing! We are going to get sunny-cooperative Daniel to become the primary, default Daniel. Yes, we are!
I pause to let a beat go by so he feels the significance of this exchange. My voice is calm, steady, matter-of-fact, the pacing a little slower than normal.
“Daniel, from now on, I will tell you something one time. If you don’t do what I say the very first time, you will sit on the quiet stair. I asked you to put your boots away. You said no. Quiet stair.”
He looked startled, but, with my hand on his shoulder, he went. And sat.
That was as much explaining as he ever got.
“Okay, everybody, time to tidy up! We’re going outside.”
Daniel leaves his toys scattered and takes his coat.
“Daniel?” I give his toys a long look. “Quiet stair.” (And of course, he has to put those toys away before he can get his outdoor gear on, even if that means the rest of us are delayed.)
It’s story time, and we’re arranging ourselves on the couch. As we do every day. We all fit: we’ve done it daily for … forever. Daniel believes there is no room. (Meaning, Daniel is not getting to sit where his whim demands.)
“You sit here, Daniel, and Rosie will sit there. Everyone can see, don’t worry!”
Daniel shoves Rosie.
“But I can’t see the book from there.”
I don’t answer, merely escort him to the stair. And raise my voice sufficient to be heard over the howls.
There are at least ten such events before lunch. At least. But! I’m counting the morning as a step in the right direction because:
1. He’s going and staying on the quiet stair, with only verbal resistance. (If he didn’t stay there, the time-out spot would be a high chair where he could be strapped in, or the front hall, which is small and can be secured with a baby gate, making it a time-out room. I have options, but I’m pleased I don’t have to use them.)
2. I’m keeping my temper in check, easily, because I’m not getting into it with him.
3. The time-outs are brief, usually — and this is something he controls. When I use the Quiet Stair, there is almost always some way a child can earn their way off the stair that’s within their control. “You may get off the stair when you are ready to pick up your toys.” That sort of thing. Normally when I send a child to the stair, I make this condition clear in advance. Because of Daniel’s extreme defiance, any such pre-condition would only be an opportunity for further argument with me as he was escorted to the stair, and will also make him less likely to comply with the instruction, even though compliance will free him from the Stair. So, in this case, I’m sending him with only two words — “Quiet Stair” — and will approach after a minute or so to ask: “Are you ready to [whatever] yet?”
On almost every occasion, the answer is “Yes!” And, moreover, the answer is given with a sunny smile, and he trots off quite happily to do whatever. Sunshine and storm, this boy.
Not every occasion, mind you. Two or three times, he said “NO”. My response was a casual shrug, a quick “that’s fine,” and a prompt turning on my heel to rejoin the FUN TIMES we’re having a few feet away. When I approached again, this time two or three minutes later, he was ready to comply.
4. The time-outs did become less frequent as the day progressed. The afternoon was better than the morning.
5. After each compliance, he gets a warm, beaming smile from me, and a hug. He’s returning both enthusiastically.
So I’m curious: will today be better than yesterday? Or will we be back to square one?
I have two dogs. The older is a largish (about 60 pounds) husky-lab mix with gorgeous amber eyes and a gentle demeanor. The younger is a mid-size spaniel mix of some description, with long feathers and a feistier disposition.
Little Ms Feisty gets in trouble a whole lot more than Ms. Biddable. You would not know that from their respective responses to the scolding.
The big one (Indie) snoozes on the window seat in the living room. The small one is counter-surfing in the kitchen, tip-toeing on her hind legs, nose at the edge of the counter, trawling for crumbs. Someone was making a ham sandwich there earlier, and maybe they left some in reach???
“Daisy!” I bark. “Down!”
Daisy immediately gets down and slinks away looking guilty. Indie slumbers on, unperturbed.
Nope. Not like that. Not at all. What really happens is this:
Daisy gets down, yes, but fixes me with a “What’s YOUR problem?” look, and casts looks back at the counter that indicate that the second my attention is diverted, she intends to be right back up there. If she had a middle finger, I’d be getting it. Indie, on the other hand, slips down off the window bench (where she is absolutely allowed to be) and slinks away. Her whole body radiates: “I’m so sorry, I’ll never do it again! Please don’t hate me!”
Dogs … Dogs, and toddlers. I have precisely the same dynamic with Daniel and Poppy.
Daniel slams a car into the table leg again, dinging the wood and making an unholy racket. “Daniel, I’ve told you before not to do that. I told you if it happened again, you would have to stop playing with the car. Now you need to give me that car and find something else to do.”
And we’re off. By the age of three, with two years of Mary-training under his belt, any other child in the daycare would hand over the car. Reluctantly, perhaps, but they’d hand it. But this is Daniel.
“Give me the car please, Daniel, and we’ll find you something else to do.”
“I don’t want to.”
I hold out my hand, he hides the car behind his back.
“I know you don’t want to, but I didn’t want you to keep bashing my table, and you did anyway. Give me the car.”
“Daniel, you can either give me that car on your own, or I will take it from you.”
“I don’t want to! I don’t want you to have the car!”
I pull his arm out from behind his back. He tightens his grip on the car.
“Then I will have to take it.”
I take the car from him and send him to the quiet stair — for defiance, not for bashing my chair.
“When I tell you to do something, Daniel, I expect you to do it on your own. If I have to make you, you sit on the quiet stair.”
Exit Daniel to the quiet stair, howling. (Where, surprisingly, he stays. The one rule he keeps without resistance. Weird, I know.)
So Daniel is Daisy — feisty and defiant.
And Poppy? Poppy is poor Indie, slinking away to hide in a corner. When Daniel is being scolded, or suffering some natural consequences, or howling in outraged indignation that Mary actually followed through on the promised consequences (which should not come as a surprise, geez) … Poppy suffers. Daniel is probably suffering too, in his own way, but that doesn’t bother me. That’s self-inflicted and well-deserved. But poor Poppy? She doesn’t deserve this level of stress and angst. And no matter how calmly I deal with the situation, it’s a conflict, and Poppy is stressed.
Nor am I always calm. Most times, I manage all this calmly. But some days, if it’s been the 47th repeat of this pattern in a single [expletive deleted] morning, my intensity cranks up jest a titch. Yesterday afternoon, I actually shouted.
If you knew me in real life, that would tell you a lot. I never shout.
I shouted. Daniel howled. Poppy ran to the far corner of the room, yipping out a strangulated, “O-oh, dear!”, and burst into tears.
Oh, the guilt.
I leave Daniel howling on the quiet stair. He’s had all the attention I have any intention of giving him for a while. It’s arguable he got more than he should have. His howls are not distress, anyway, but astonished and angry regret at having lost the battle. I take Poppy gently to another room where Daniels roars are somewhat muted. We snuggle. I comfort and soothe.
I promise her — and, more importantly, myself — that there will be no more shouting.
Tonight, when I have time and space, I will strategize.
For Poppy’s sake. For my own.
And, whether he believes it or not, for Daniel, too.
I know I promised you a follow-up to the book I discovered, Beyond Time-Out, but I can’t! I’ve already lent it to a parent. Obviously, I need to buy my own copy. Or two.
However, the book did get me thinking about a few things, and I’m going to muse on one of them today.
“Oh, I never get into a power struggle with my child. You just can’t win those!”
Have you heard this? I have, quite routinely. The parent who says it is generally quite pleased with herself. She (less commonly he) seems to view it as a point of pride. A rueful one, perhaps, but a point of pride nonetheless. It’s a thread in the parenting ether out there, a parenting meme: Avoid power struggles. They’re costly, they’re exhausting, and, more to the point you just. can’t. win. Why dive into the stress and the mess when you know it’ll only result in humiliation and frustration?
I agree with a lot of that. Avoid unnecessary power struggles, of course. Don’t foolishly set yourself up for one, because they are indeed costly and exhausting, emotionally and physically.
“You just can’t win?”
Are you nuts?
You have to win. In the first three or four years of life, establishing your role as authority in the child’s life is one of your primary parenting job. You do that all sorts of ways: by caring for their physical needs, by being emotionally available and supportive, by loving them to itty-bitty bits.
And by winning power struggles.
I think the resistance to the idea of winning these struggles has three sources.
1. Many people don’t like the idea of “power” in a family context. It smacks of authoritarianism, of oppression. They read “win” and “power”, and they think “power tripping” and “bullying”.
2. When in a power struggle, your toddler will, along with the raging, almost certainly cry. A loving parent hates to see their child cry, and many loving parents respond to the tears by backing away from the conflict. They may even feel guilty at having provoked the tears, and never want to do that again! What kind of a parent, they wonder, is willing to trample roughshod over their child’s feelings just because some toys need to be picked up?
3. Many people have tried to tackle their toddler … and have lost. Ignominiously. They have skittered from the fray, tail between their legs, uncomfortably and humiliatingly aware that not only are the toys still not picked up, but they have been bested by someone who comes up to their belt buckle and who still says “yeyyow” instead of “yellow”. (And is probably pointing to something orange when s/he says it.) Who wants to repeat that experience?
Given these points, why do I insist that you must win power struggles?
The short-term answer: Family harmony.
It’s your job as the parent to be the authority in your family. If you let your child think you’re afraid of power struggles, they will set them up. You won’t have to worry about seeking out a power struggle — they’ll be thrown at you. What’s the end result of a parent who can’t or won’t see a power struggle through and prevail? Chaos. And conflict. Continuing, unrelenting conflict.
The long-term answer: Your child’s happiness.
Toddlers like to vie for power. They want to be in control … but they aren’t developmentally ready for it. They have no idea how to wield power constructively. They are impulsive, short-sighted, impetuous, selfish. They will choose to do things that are just not good for themselves. You cannot trust a child to know what is in her or her own best interests.
A person who has never learned to share power, to defer to others is not going to get along well in life. They will likely be ostracized by their peers, because who wants to be friends with a person who always must have things their way? They will likely experience more conflict, as their peers push back with more vigour than their parents ever did.
Sadly, loving but misguided parental efforts to avoid tears and conflict … results in long-term conflict and dissatisfaction for the child — who is, one day, going to be an adult. Unless they can learn those life lessons elsewhere — from more rough-and-ready peers, from some good teachers, from other family members — they will not be happy people.
If it’s so bad for them, why do they do it?
- they don’t know it’s bad for them. No point in asking the child why. They don’t know! If you step back a pace, it doesn’t take long to see that no toddler has the cognitive and emotional maturity to know why they do what they do.
- it is developmentally normal for a toddler to be testing the boundaries. Who are you? Who are they? Are they a separate person from you? YES! And how do they express their autonomy? PUSHING BACK! SAYING NO! RESISTANCE! DEFIANCE! Wheeee… However, just because something is developmentally normal does not mean that a parent does nothing to shape and direct that stage. Besides, the purpose of this stage is to establish their autonomy and your role as a strong resource. If you’re not strong, they are undermined. Ironically, what they need at this stage is the exact opposite of what they want.
A further irony here is that if a parent consistently backs down from power struggles in order to avoid tears, they only ensure ever more of them. You must see them through.
What is “seeing it through”?
- it does not mean humiliating or brow-beating your child
- it does not mean frightening your child
- it does not mean pleading, coaxing, negotiating
- it does means ignoring the protests and calmly but firmly seeing that the request is accomplished
- it is often entirely possible to do this with a light touch; I regularly use humour
What is gained by consistently seeing power struggles through to the end?
- the conflict ends
- the child is calm
- the damned toys get picked up
- there will be fewer and fewer power struggles
- you can say something once, calmly and cheerfully, and with only occasional exceptions, that’s what happens
- your child feels secure, knowing they can rely on you to be their safe harbour when their emotions get the best of them
– your child trusts you
Okay. So let’s say you’ve all bought in to this idea. Power struggles are inevitable. The parent must see them through. They are not to be avoided at all costs. And you will never, ever again say, “Oh, I never get into power struggles with my child!” as if this is a parental accomplishment instead of a) an impossibility and b) a mistake.
You’ve bought into all that. Now you’re saying, “Okay, but how? How do you respond? What happens next?”
That’ll be for the next post in this series, when I get my hands back on that book! This might not happen until next week, but we’ll get there!
Jazz and Grace are painting toilet roll tubes. Each of them securely bibbed, their brushes seeped in green paint. They are making Frankenstein’s monster heads, which will become napkin rings for our Halloween party later this week. Each of them has several tubes in front of her, but it is not until we reach the last tube that I realize I have provided them with an odd number of tubes.
Oops. Nine tubes for two girls, means that one girl will get to do ONE MORE tube than the other! This, as you all know, is a toddler catastrophe.
In this case, though, it has an easy fix. We’re going to be cutting the tubes in half anyway, so I’ll just cut the last one in half. Then they can each have one!
“I don’t want you to cut it in half.” Jazz, who finished her last tube before Grace, eyes the now-intact tube. Obviously, she’s working on the “first come, first served” principle, so close in mindset to the other toddler favourite, “finders, keepers”. Neener, neener to you, Grace. That’ll learn you to be so contemplative and careful, immersing yourself in the experience. Serves you right for putting quality above SPEED!
I set a long, level stare on Jazz. “Okay. I won’t cut it in half. I’ll give it to Grace. I’ll give it to Grace, and you won’t get anything. Is that okay with you, or shall I cut it in half?” My tone isn’t hostile, pushing, or sarcastic. Nor am I trying to coax or wheedle. I’m just stating facts. This is What Will Happen, missy.
Jazz recognizes Implacable when she sees it. Her eyes widen, she smiles and nods. “You can cut it in half, Mary!!”
Good on you, kid.
A mother stands in my front hall at the end of the day.
Her daughter reaches for the latch of the front door. Now, this is Not Allowed at Mary’s house. Children are never, ever to open the front door. Never, ever, ever. I shudder to think of the chaos and potential tragedy that could result from children wandering out the door. Most of the time, the screen door is kept locked to prevent escapes, but this is the end of the day, parents are coming and going. The door is unlocked.
Nonetheless, locked or not, the door is Off Limits to the children, and SuzieQ knows this. However, she has obviously weighed our respective authorities (who’s the boss? mummy or Mary?) and our potential to act (who’s standing closer to me?), and figures it’s a risk worth taking. Mother notices.
“Suzie. Leave the door, please.”
Suzie looks at mum, and puts her hand on the door knob. Without breaking eye contact, her jaw set, she carefully places her hand on that knob. OOoooh, the defiance! I’m itching to take action, and I would, I would, were mother not standing between us. But of course, mum won’t let her get away with that, right?
“Suzie. Leave the door and come here, please.” (And I sigh, inwardly. Here we go!)
Suzie unlatches the door.
Now, her mother is within arm’s reach. There is absolutely nothing to prevent mother from stretching out her arm — she wouldn’t even have to lean! — and pulling the door firmly shut. Instead, she merely tosses more words, more pointless words, into the air. Tosses them into the air, where they dissipate into nothingness. Ineffectual, meaningless nothing.
“Suzie. Leave the door.”
Suzie opens the door.
(Gee. I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming, huh?)
“Suzie. I said leave the door.”
Suzie steps out onto the porch.
“Suzie. I said … oh, okay. Okay, you can go out, but stay on the porch!”
We’ll stop here, shall we? You can see the trajectory. I think none of you will be surprised to know Mum and I didn’t get to finish that conversation.
Suzie’s mother is impressed (and truth be known, I think also a little pissed off, some days) at how readily, and without any fuss, her daughter does as I ask. Had I been standing between Suzie and the door, there is absolutely no way at all that she would have touched the latch.
What’s the difference? Is it that “children always behave better for others than their parents”? Suzie’s mother’s been known to cite the truism.
Oh, puh-lease. No. It’s because Suzie’s mother does not consistently monitor and maintain the boundaries she attempts to set. I do. I do, not just with Suzie of course, but with all the children. I do, because I’ve been doing this for years, because I know the enormous difference it will make and because, as Hannah expressed it so well not too long ago
I do it because I’m in the business of raising adults. I do it because I want these children to become all they can be.
But I also do it because if I didn’t, I would have FIVE children all ignoring me and dashing every which way, doing exactly what they wanted in every moment, all day long. Can you imagine? The chaos, the noise, the screaming, the violence, the mess?
That? Is my idea of hell on earth. Lordy.
If I had issued the directive, Suzie would have dropped her hand. Period. I might, because her mother was there, have gotten a considering look as she weighed the possibility that Mummy might trump Mary, even in Mary’s home, but even so, I am reasonably confident she wouldn’t have. Had mum not been there, there wouldn’t have been a second’s hesitation. The hand would have come down.
Suzie, however, is three and a half, and well schooled. Cast back a year and a half, though. A year and a half or two years. Cast back that far and re-run the tape with an un-trained Suzie.
Suzie stands in the front hall as we all get out coats on to go out. She’s ready first, and reaches for the door.
“Suzie. You don’t touch the door knob, remember? Only grown-ups open that door.”
Suzie, being the feisty little thing she is, gives me a considering look and grabs the door knob.
“Suzie. I said no. Only grown-ups open the door.” And as I speak, I move close, lift her hand off the knob, and, if she seems inclined to reach for it again, lift her to a different area of the floor.
Suzie, being the feisty little thing she is, would probably kick up a bit of a stink at this point. I suspect it was all the stink-kicking a year or two ago that now prevents her mother from taking firm, decisive action. Mum doesn’t want to provoke a fit. (A wry comment about letting the terrorists win flits through my brain…)
Which is why, when I take that essential firm, decisive action, I reward her with a very warm and sunny “Thank you!” and a distracting task.
“Thank you!” because it’s good manners to thank someone when they help you out. The fact that the help wasn’t voluntary is completely irrelevant. The point here is not to punish her for her attempted disobedience, the point is to teach her a Better Way. So, a warm and sunny thanks. Which very often throws them off their disgruntled emotional trajectory, and they’ll smile right back at you.
And then, quickly, give her a task. “Here, sweetie. Would you give Sam her hat, please? Sam needs her hat so she won’t be cold!”
That usually does it. Usually, but not always. If Suzie were determined to throw her fit, if she refused to be distracted from the joy of rage, then I would move into my standard tantrum response. (If you are interested, check out the Tantrum Series tab at the top right.)
So. Issue an instruction, make sure it’s been heard, then FOLLOW THROUGH. Calmly, firmly, politely, implacably.
That’s it, that’s all. The caregiver’s “secret” to co-operative children.
Follow through, physically if necessary, and it often is at first. (By ‘physically’, I mean hand-over-hand helping or preventing whatever it was, of course. I do not mean spanking. If you can produce considerate, obedient, kind children without it — and you can — why would you?) Follow through despite the protests, despite the tantrum. Follow through, every time, and it will not be long before there are no tantrums because they just don’t work.
I’m sure a lot of the time when I see lack of follow-through, it’s happening because the parent doesn’t want to subject the caregiver (and themselves) to the struggle that might ensue. But please! Don’t fret! Don’t worry! She won’t criticize, she will applaud! Go for it, because I promise you: When you tell your child to do something and then don’t follow through? You are making your caregiver twitch.
“I want to trade dollies with Grace,” Jazz informs me. Grace is right beside her on the kitchen floor. Jazz has a baby doll, Grace has a Groovy Girl. Seems Groovy Girls are the doll to have today.
“I don’t want to trade,” Grace responds, calmly playing with the dolly of desire. Neither girl looks at each other. I could transmit Grace’s response to Jazz, but I would rather teach Jazz to deal direct with Grace. I have no desire to be the intermediary in all their encounters, and why should Jazz want one?
“Well, I don’t have the dolly. Grace does. You need to ask Grace if she would like to trade.”
“I don’t want to trade.” Grace is not alarmed, she is just informing us of her position. She continues to play, not bothering to look up.
Given this, it’s rather surprising when Jazz goes along with my pointless exercise. “Grace, do you want to trade dollies?” Jazz asks, in her best, perky, friendly, let’s-DO-this voice.
“I don’t want to trade.” (Surprise, surprise.)
I look at Jazz, who is standing, staring at Grace as if she’s expecting something more.
“Well, Jazz. What did Grace say?”
Grace answers the question, yet again. Her tone of voice is level and not particularly interested, same as it’s been throughout all this. Her position has not changed. “I don’t want to trade.”
Jazz looks up at me, her face happily alight.
“Her said YES!”
Why fight reality when you can just re-write it?!?
(Her didn’t get that dolly. Mary is such a poop.)