“I want to be in the MIDDLE!!!” Rosie’s shout is indignant.
It’s also pointless.
Three children, Daniel, Poppy and Rosie, are running in circles through my home. Living room, dining room, front hall, living room, dining room … Over and over and over again. It’s been -25C to -30C (-13 to -22F) for a week now, you see. Very cold and windy, which pulls the temperature down a further ten (Celcius) degrees. We’ve barely been outside, for the better part of a week. I have pulled out all my indoor rowdy games, and when I want a cup of tea, I let them run. Run and run.
Today, it’s a mere -15C (5F), and we could be out in that glorious sun and those Christmas-card heaps of fresh, puffy snow. We could, except that Poppy’s baby sister (6 months old) is with us. Baby Sister is sleeping. And Baby Sister? She does not take her napping lightly. Two hours, three hours, are standard. (The dear, sweet, wonderful child.)
But that Olympic-calibre napping does mean we’re stuck inside for the duration. So I let them run. And run and run and run. Around and around.
“I want to be in the MIDDLE!!!” Rosie works on the assumption that if she was ignored the first time, it was merely a matter of volume.
“Rosie, my love?” She pauses and looks up at me. “Rosie, you are in the middle. Look: Daniel is ahead of you, and Poppy is behind you. You are in the middle of Daniel and Poppy.”
“Rosie is not in the middle!” Daniel is clear. “I am in the middle!!” Daniel didn’t care one whit about “in the middle” before. Daniel is much more an “I’m first” kind of guy. But if being in the middle is important, if someone else really wants to be there, well then, middle is better. And he’d better be it!!
“Well, my love, guess what? YOU are in the middle, too! Look! Poppy is ahead of you, and Rosie is behind you. YOU are in the middle of Rosie and Poppy!”
(Because, hello, you’re running in circles. Everyone is in the middle. And at the front. And behind. Because, CIRCLES.)
“NO! I am in the middle!!” Rosie is indignant.
“Yes, you are. And Daniel is in the middle, too.”
Poppy chimes in, delighted. “And I’m in the middle, too! I’m in the middle of you and Daniel!!” The penny has dropped for one of them, at any rate. And she’s happy about it.
Rosie is less impressed.
“NO! I am in the middle!!!”
“Yes, you are. You are in the middle.”
“Not Daniel and Poppy in the middle.”
“Sorry, schnookums. They’re in the middle, too. And that’s okay! They’re in the middle, and You are, too! EVERYONE is in the middle of some other people! EVERYONE’S a winner, kiddo!! Isn’t that good?”
“No. I am in the middle.”
Everyone’s a winner? Pfft. Toddlers are not down with that egalitarian shit.
I have long said that there are marked similarities between toddlers and dogs.
(And thus is it terribly ironic that the woman who can take 5 toddlers pretty much anywhere with no fear of public embarrassment can’t get her damned dog to stop trolling the kitchen counters. I know who to blame for the poor behaviour, of course. And it’s not the dog. On the upside, her recall in the dog park is about 95%!!)
But this? This! Replace “puppy” with “toddler”. Same thing. Exactly. You know it is!
(Thank you, Carol, for the link!)
Daniel continues to be a challenge. The “one-chance-you’re-out” system of responding to defiance and aggression is working well, but he’s still a lot of work. A lot.
Daniel sits in the front hall, struggling to put on his snow pants.
“If you use two hands, sweetie, it’ll be much easier.”
“I tan do it yike dis.”
“You think so? It looks like you’re having a lot of trouble. If you put one hand here, and the other here, and pull, it will be easier.”
“I tan do it yike dis.”
I turn my attention to the other children. Five minutes later, he’s still struggling, though he’s managed to get one foot to the bottom of that pant leg. Now, however, the elastic on the inner liner is hooked on his heel. He is still only using one hand, and that hand is gripping the pants well above the knee. Destined for failure, this approach.
“Still having trouble?”
“Yes.” Well. That’s a step. At least he admits his master plan is not working for him.
“If you put your hands here and here,” I say cheerfully, indicating the side seams of his pants close to the cuff, “and push with your foot, the pants will POP right on!”
“I tan do it yike dis.”
I shrug. “If you say so.”
Now, there are two things going on here. One is that he wants me to put his snowpants on him. However, he is three and a half, and perfectly capable of putting on his own snowpants. Rosie, a full year younger and less physically coordinated in general, can pretty much get into hers, with only minimal assistance. He’s being deliberately helpless to force me to do it for him. I am willing to help, but I will not do it for him. ‘Helping’, in this case, is coming in the form of pro tips … which he is refusing to heed. So there’s that.
The other part of it, though, is that Daniel hates taking direction of any sort, for any reason. It does not matter to him that my way will save him time and aggravation. What matters is that my way is not his way, and so, even though his way is manifestly NOT WORKING for him, it must be resisted.
What happened, eventually? Well, everyone else was ready to go. Daniel was still struggling with the first leg of his pants.
“Are you still stuck?”
“Did you try using two hands, like I showed you?”
“Okay. Then we are going outside. Here is your coat and your boots. When you try using two hands, I will help you. I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”
(n.b. We are playing in the driveway, I can see him through the front door, and though Daniel doesn’t realize it, my son is in his room upstairs. (My 24-year-old son, quite responsible enough to be left in charge of one recalcitrant toddler.) Once outside, I will text my son and have him keep a discreet eye on Daniel. But really? It completely suits my purposes to have the boy think he’s been abandoned, just a bit.)
Daniel LOVES playing outside. Suddenly deprived of the satisfaction of defying me, and possibly losing out on outdoor play which may include SHOVELLING, he is galvanized to action.
In approximately 3 minutes he comes onto the porch, dressed in pants, coat, boots and hat, needing only help with zipper and mittens. Crying a bit, but dressed.
There was absolutely no attention given to either the tears or to his appearance. No soothing for the tears, which we a result of his own poor decisions, no cheering for his dressing, which is well within his capabilities. A nod, a quick smile, an “Oh, good, you’re ready to play. I saved you a shovel!”, and he was off.
I presume he used two hands to push his foot through his pants, too. Certainly the way he was
not trying to do it was guaranteed to be unsuccessful. However he managed it, he did so expeditiously when there were no other options. So we weathered that incident with minimal fuss, no direct conflict, and Daniel eventually complied with my expectation that he dress his own damned self.
Still. With that sort of resistance to each and every directive, no matter how innocuous, you become aware, as an adult, of how very many directives you issue in a day, and, to be fair, how many of them are unnecessary.
So I need a new approach with Daniel. Not so as to avoid giving direct instructions entirely. Life’s not like that. He needs to learn to accept guidance, instructions, even outright orders, and to do it promptly and graciously. I expect all the children in my care to follow instructions, take guidance, and obey direct orders. No exceptions.
And really, that suggestion I made about his pants was simply a helpful tip. There was absolutely nothing in it to get his contrary little back up … except that he has a contrary little back. Any other child would take that instruction with cheerful good humour. “Oh, great idea, Mary! Look at my foot popping right out the end of my pants! Who knew it could be so simple??”
I am quite capable of sticking to my guns. I can see to it that Daniel’s defiance doesn’t carry the day. He won’t win the power struggles he so determinedly sets up.
However, we don’t need to have so many of them. We don’t need to, not only because it’s exhausting for me, but because it taints the atmosphere of the daycare for the other children. (It may be exhausting for Daniel, too, but I worry less about that. If the conflicts carry a negative weight for him, well, that’s all to the good.)
Still. The conflicts are tedious, and many of them probably avoidable. I can undoubtedly structure our day to as to reduce what can be a constant stream of directives. I can think of a few ways to achieve this:
1a. Let him struggle. Don’t offer assistance until he asks.
1b. Don’t attempt to coax/encourage: If he asks, I give assistance/offer a suggestion. If he doesn’t accept this, ignore him.
2. Ask, don’t tell. “I know a neat trick for that. Want to know what it is?” He’s allowed to say no, of course. Then I offer him the possibility of asking me later, and in the meantime, let him get on with it without further interaction from me.
3. Vicarious Learning. Show the strategy to the kid beside him. Don’t tell Daniel how to put his feet through his pants, show Rosie or Poppy.
4. Prepared Environment. This taken from Montessori. Have crafts and other activities set up in such a way that instruction is not required. The children can explore with the toys, craft, manipulables, and figure out for themselves how to get the result.
It’s not that I don’t do these things with the other children, but the emphasis is different. If I stand back when I see Poppy or Rosie truggling with some task, it’s because I want them to wrestle with it a bit, to learn persistence and/or to discover, hey, they can do it themselves! With Daniel, there’s more to it than just that, but I think it’ll be effective.
Teaching. Encouraging independence, persistence, autonomy. And making our environment calmer. Ah, yes. I’m all for calm.
Daniel, who, at three and a half, doesn’t necessarily need a nap every day, has a “little lie-down” on a small cot in the kitchen. He’s put there with a couple of books and a soft doll and told to lie quietly for 20 minutes. If he hasn’t fallen asleep after 20 minutes, he’s allowed up to indulge in quiet activities.
(This is what I do with all borderline nappers. Sometime between two and a half and three and a half, generally, children give up their naps, but of course this is a process, not an overnight event. What to do while they’re transitioning from napper to non-napper? They get a quiet lie-down instead.
Now, they have to actually be quiet, and the first few times they’re given a quiet lie-down option, we learn what that means. Kicking your feet around in the air, tossing and turning, chattering and singing, well, that’s not quiet. If they do those things, they have to stay on their cot longer, until they manage quietude … or until naptime is over, whichever comes first. They usually sort it out within a week or two.
When the nap vanishes depends primarily on their bedtimes. A child who goes to bed at 7 p.m. is going to give up their nap sooner than a child who goes to bed at 9. Stands to reason. When the family only manages to screech into their home, all together at the end of the day at last at 6:00 or so, you can see where parents might actually enjoy having some family time before popping the little ones into bed. So, naptimes persist later for children with later bedtimes. I can’t say I mind: naptime is happy time for caregivers and parents alike. Hand me that teacup, will you?)
The “quiet” of quiet time, once he’s out of his cot, is a relative term with Daniel. All Daniel’s activities are accompanied by a steady stream of chatter, and Daniel? He is not so good at the inside voice. Whispering, in fact, he manages better, so we usually go for that, but, as with all things Daniel, there is a HIGH ENERGY LEVEL to it. So he’s reminded to whisper, he manages it for two minutes or so, and then whispering gradually increases in volume through murmur, to soft voice, to inside voice to … “Daniel. It’s quiet time, remember. Whisper, please!” Lather, rinse, repeat.
But today, Daniel has had a nap. Not a long one, about 45 minutes or so. Now a steady stream of of tossing and turning, small bumps, rustling, sighs and yawns floats through the kitchen door. From where I sit in the dining room, I can see his legs, but not his face. Those legs are in steady motion. Oh, he’s got to be awake.
“Daniel? Are you awake?” This in a loud-ish whisper. Just in case he’s not quite awake. Also, hello? It’s quiet time!
No answer. With my soft question, all sounds from the kitchen abruptly cease. I move to the door to the kitchen. Daniel is curled on his side, still and quiet, but rigid as a board. This is not the relaxed abandon of sleep. His eyes are screwed tight shut. This is a wide-awake toddler faking sleep.
“Daniel? Are you awake?” A rhetorical question, obviously, but I’m entertained. Besides, when he tells me he’s awake, I can tell him he can get up.
“No. I’m sleeping. My eyes are shut.”
It was tempting, you know, to take him at his word and go finish my tea…
Another fine idea from Pinterest! I saw a few variations. This is mine:
A large triangle of clear Con-tact paper, sticky side out, taped to the wall with green painter’s tape. (To get the width I wanted, I overlapped three panels of the plastic. Easy to do. If you only have one child, a tree cut from a single panel may well be enough.)
A container of likely ornaments to stick on the tree:
Daniel found some plastic candy canes to stick onto the tree. I thought they’d be too heavy, but let him try. It’s all in the interest of education, right? Turns out they did stick to the tree. For a while…
At the end of the first day, our tree looked like this:
We had several days of play with it. Foamy shapes — stockings, ornaments, elves, and snowflakes — went on an off. Ribbons. Sequins.
And then, one glorious day, after a trip to the dollar store, tinsel! Green tinsel. Lots and lots of green tinsel!
The tree lasted about a week before all the sticky had been worn off by constant rearranging of ornaments by four pairs of sticky hands. It was a great week! We have a different tree planned for next week, but this one’s a quick and easy set-up, if you want to try.
This kid is the happiest tot I’ve had in care for a long time. She has her moments, sure. She struggles a little with anxiety, though much less than before. She can pout and whine — she’s three after all. But all in all, the most consistently upbeat little human it’s my pleasure to know.
She’s also verbal. (She’s three.) Very verbal. Ceaselessly verbal. A steady stream of chatter flows from this girl, but because it’s 99.9% happy chatter, it’s utterly charming. Yes, my ears do get tired, but my heart? Never. (And does Mary feel a little goofy for expressing herself with such sentimental cheesiness as ‘heart’? Yes. But it’s true, nonetheless.)
The children are wrestling with some Big Problem. How to move a chair around the dining table so they can all sit on the same side, I think, and one chair leg had gotten snagged on a table leg. Daniel is frustrated, and Rosie is shouting at the chair.
“It’s okay, guys!” says Poppy, full of confident positivity. “We can fix it! We are the Solution Gang!”
Adorable, I tell you.
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?