It’s Not All Mary Poppins

It’s not the ‘what’ but the ‘how’

Sometimes, in my job, the trick is to look beyond the facts under my nose to the larger picture. Seeing the forest for the trees, as it were. Nowhere is that more obvious than in conflict.

Because toddlers and conflict? People have done studies to track the number of conflicts a toddler has in a day. Staggering. And also inevitable. The thing we’re after is not conflict avoidance (no, no it’s not), but conflict management. Not me managing them, either, but them managing their own selves. Stop snorting. We’re in the business of raising adults, remember? It’s a long-range project, with long-term goals…

My old mantra: “You may be angry, but you may not [insert anti-social behaviour here],” which I start when they’re about 15 months old, and which, applied unceasingly over the years, reaps enormous benefits when they’re 15 years old. Trust me on this.

Whereas once I might have tried to explain how they didn’t need to be having this particular conflict, maybe even that it was a silly thing … waste of air. And not in the best interest of the larger picture, which is to teach them how to manage their anger and to manage their behaviour in conflict.

I’m sure there are things I get annoyed about that wouldn’t bother you at all. I’m quite sure that if you tried to tell me why I didn’t need to be annoyed, I would probably only get annoyed…

So. We don’t often get into the substance of the conflict. But we do worry a lot about the style.

Noah and Nissa are squabbling over toys. This is routine. Nissa is a strong-willed little thing and Noah much milder, but even mild-mannered Noah can be pushed only so far. Today he’s decided to stand his ground.

“No, no, no! It’s mine!”

Nissa’s response is instantaneous — a long, loud howl. She is not saddened, she is OUTRAGED. She wants the toy he is playing with, and she wants it now! How DARE he thwart her will???

The howling is all the more aggravating because this girl has been talking in sentences since she was 16 months old. Sentences of three and four words. Now she’s up to… um… lots of words. Lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lo…

Let’s just say that, for little Ms. Articulate, the issue here is not an inability to express herself verbally.

“Nissa. Use your words.”

“AAAAAAA…”

It takes four and a half minutes on the quiet stair, during which time Noah gets to play with BOTH toys — both toys directly in her line of vision — (what? twist the knife? me???), but she does finally concede to speak rather than shriek.

“I can has a toy, Noah, please?”

“Sure!” (Told you he’s a mellow little dude.) “You can have this one.”

“No. I want DAT one.” (And Nissa’s not. She’s made one concession already, dammit, she’s not making another!)

Noah looks at the toys in his hands.

“Okay. Here you go.”

She snatches it. I take it from her and give it back to Noah. “Take it gently, Nissa, and say thank you.”

We try again. A civilized transition is accomplished. Each tot settles in to play, Nissa with her blue plastic wrench with a yellow screw mechanism… and Noah with… his blue plastic wrench with a yellow screw mechanism.

Yes. Yes, I know.

Big picture, big picture, big picture…

January 5, 2010 Posted by | aggression, manners, Nissa, Noah, parenting | , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Empathy 1, self-sacrifice 0

“And one for you!”

Timmy beams as he cuddles his small brown teddy. Anna has a mid-sized fuscia teddy, and Noah a teeny white one. I can’t find our other bears. Good thing Emily’s not here today.

“We all have teddy bears!” Timmy is delighted.
“Yeah! You have one, and Baby Noah has one, and I have one!”

“What about me?” My voice oozes confused dismay. “Anna has a teddy, and Timmy has a teddy, and Baby Noah has a teddy. Where’s my teddy?”

(What am I up to? Well, it could be I’m fostering awareness of others, or nudging them in the direction of compassion. I might be encouraging generosity, setting up a social game to raise their emotional IQ. I could be doing any or all of those thoroughly noble things, but really? I’m just playing with their heads. You all do it, you know you do.)

If Emily were here, I know what would happen. She would hand me her teddy. Without hesitation. Because Emily is exceptionally, amazingly, genius-level (for a not-quite three-year-old) empathetic. Good thing she has that cruise director streak to keep her from being a total pushover.

Baby Noah is oblivious, of course. He’s busy poking his teddy’s shiny eyes, miles away from the emotional conundrum I’ve just tossed into the room.

“You don’t gots a teddy,” Timmy laughs. Funny, silly Mary! (Emotional conundrum? What emotional conundrum? ‘Oblivious’ must be such an easy way to glide through life…)

Anna is not oblivious. She suffers with the dilemma. Her gray eyes dart from her bear to my empty hands, then at the other childrens’ teddies, and back to my empty hands, her brow wrinkled in concern. She sees the problem. Then her face clears. She has the solution!

“Here, Mary. Here is a bear for you.”

Aw. Isn’t that so sweet? She heard what I said, she understood the problem, she is concerned and wants to resolve the dilemma. Houston, we have empathy!

“Here, Mary. Here is a bear for you.”

Too bad it’s Timmy’s.

November 3, 2008 Posted by | Anna, Developmental stuff, individuality, socializing, Timmy | , , , | 8 Comments

You’re outta minutes, son

“In a minute!”

It sounds polite. In fact, it’s a strategy that I carefully teach the tots. When someone asks/demands a turn, they can hand the toy over immediately, or they can choose to defer for a minute or two. (The demanders are required to adhere to the rules of Making Civilized Requests first. Of course.) Sometimes we actually time the minute; often, it’s a fairly nebulous bit of time.

Reasonably often, the children will hand the toy over immediately, but it’s nice for them to have a little time to adjust to the notion of giving it away. “Finishing up” is rarely an issue at this age. Their play is so loose, there is hardly ever never any clearly defined “ending” they’re working toward. It’s mostly a matter of giving them the mental space to change gears.

And then there’s Timmy.

“In a minute.”

It sounds polite, but it’s his only answer. Ever. A playmate asks, is told “in a minute”. The playmate asks in a minute or two, and is again told “in a minute”. No matter how much time elapses, Timmy will always share “in a minute”. In short, “in a minute” does not mean “in a minute”, it means “over my dead body”, or perhaps even “&%^ off”. The fact that it’s said with a cheerful smile and a encouraging nod does not alter the reality.

It’s a bit of a dilemma, though, because of course I’ve taught him to say this. I don’t want to discourage the boy from using a perfectly acceptable social tool. It’s just that he can’t be using it to dodge sharing entirely. It’s a helpful phrase, a little verbal grease to the social wheels. I don’t want to tell the boy not to say it, but he just can’t be doing this every time. The devious little wretch.

Well, with Timmy, I doubt it’s deviousness. He’s just discovered “in a minute” is a terrific way to make that whole problematic “sharing” business go away. Simple!

I mull it over a bit … then the answer hits me like a 2×4: “He can’t be doing this every time.” Simple!

“In a minute.”

“You know what, Timmy? You’ve said that to Anna three times already. You can’t say it every time. Now you need to give it to her.”

“In a minute.”

“No, Timmy. You said that last time. Now you have to say, ‘Okay, Anna’.”

He pauses, considering whether I really mean this, and if there’s any way out. I wait a beat, then repeat.

“Last time you said ‘In a minute’. This time you have to say, ‘Okay, Anna’.”

I really mean it. You can see the mental gears whirring as they shift. He smiles and holds out the toy.

“Okay, Anna!”

Simple! Good start, Tims.

August 7, 2008 Posted by | manners, socializing, Timmy | , , | 4 Comments

Enough is enough. At least for today.

Timmy arrived a few days ago with two toys clenched in his slender fists. In one hand a bulldozer that, with the press of a button, would chug its way industriously across the room. In the other, a perfectly respectable, but non-motorized loader.

Guess which was the preferred toy?

The children are allowed to bring toys from home. Toys from home are an even greater challenge for sharing than Mary’s toys, of course — which is exactly why they’re allowed to bring them! It does complicate my day, however.

We have some ground rules:

1. When someone walks in with a toy you may NOT swarm them.
1b. Or grab the toy.
1c. Or verbally grab the toy.
1d. Or shove an inferior toy at them and demand a trade.

In short, you must exercise … patience. PATIENCE??!? Good lord. And as if that isn’t bad enough…

2. The toy-owner does not have to share. However, if they don’t want to share, the toy is put away for the day. Toys which are not share-able (apart from very specific lovies) are not allowed at Mary’s.

3. The toy-owner gets to decide who plays with the toy first.

4. The toy-owner gets to set the timer for 2, 3, or 4 minutes. (We don’t always use the timer, but some children really like it.)

5. After everyone in the daycare has had one turn, the toy-owner gets it back.

6. After this, they are not obliged to share it any more, though they certainly can if they wish. Knowing they are assured of getting it back, and that they determine how long they are to be deprived of it, they very often do. This varies from child to child, of course.

They are empowered in that they get to choose who and how long. They may even choose not to share. What they may not choose is to wave the toy under the other children’s noses and refuse them a try.

Okay. So them’s the rules. And Timmy was reeeeasonably willing to share. He didn’t want the toys in his bucket all day, so he complied with the expectation that he share, but it was a bit of an effort. Every.Time.

For him, and, by extension, for me.

The next day, we got to practice some more! Because he brought them again! And the next day, MORE practice! And then even MORE!!

I am weary, boys and girls, weary, weary, because Timmy is not getting any better at this. Every day is a long, tedious series of reminders and reassurances and “when the timer dings, it will be your turn”, and “Anna hasn’t had a turn yet. In a minute, she will want one.” And more reassurances that yes, the toy will return to his anxious arms in just a minute.

My encouragement that sharing can be fun, because TWO people get to play instead of just ONE fall on deaf ears. My ideas that you can play WITH the other person playing with your toy is equally unwelcome.

So. Long days. Not frustrating, because I know it will come. Just Boooooring. The same thing, over and over and over again, waiting for comprehension to dawn, waiting for maturity, waiting for him to “get” it. I know, having done this with dozens of children down through the years, that he will get there, that it just takes time, that each of us grows into it in their own way.

I know all that.

But gracious, it can be tedious.

And today, when he brought those dratted things AGAIN? I waited till mummy had departed, and then with cheerful and implacable firmness, I put.them.away.

I’m NOT going to help Timmy learn to share his toys today. And do I feel any guilt about this? Not in the slightest.

See, I’m allowed to cut myself some slack once in a while. I’m allowed to say, “Not this, not today.” I’m allowed to give myself mental health breaks. And so are you. It’s a sound parental strategy called Conserving Your Energy. (Hoarding your Resources? Saving your Sanity? Stepping back from the Brink?)

They spent the morning playing; dancing Ring Around the Rosy; marching teeny plastic teddies through a castle; stomping about with blankets over their heads, pretending to be ghosts; building block towers and knocking them down; building long meandering tracks of Brio leading nowhere; playing Hop, Little Bunnies and Three Little Monkey; playing, laughing, playing, squabbling, playing, dancing, playing, playing, playing …

And not a single dozer in sight. Thank God.

March 4, 2008 Posted by | behavioural stuff, manners, parenting, power struggle, socializing, Timmy | , , , | 5 Comments