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?