The things that will never make it in the baby books and other musings from a stay at home mom

Sunday, May 15, 2005

In need of an attitude readjustment

We never went through much of a limit testing phase with Julia. She accepted the word "no" cheerfully at 1 and was motivated to please us with good behavior at 2. The "what to expect" books kept telling us to expect conflict and tantrums, but very little of that ever materialized. The small amount of disciplining we did have to do was accepted and adhered to fairly easily. We had it made, and don't think weren't damn smug about it.

And then, in the past week or two, it all came crashing down. After 3 1/4 blissful years of cheerful cooperation, Julia turned overnight into... an average kid.

It's not like she's been doing anything all that shocking -- refusing to nap, taking toys away from her brother, forgetting her table manners, ignoring my requests, not cooperating... all little stuff, really. But our expectations of her are so high at this point that it all seems terribly naughty, and the fact that it's been clearly willful, obviously calculated and rapidly escalating was both upsetting and concerning. I've always been terrified of raising a poorly behaved child and I wanted this nipped in the bud. So I went right to the hard-lined approach. Julia's logged countless hours in time out this week, had quite a few toys and privleges taken away and been the recipient of numerous lectures and stern looks from me. How's it been working? Not at all, thank you very much.

It's easy to understand at least some of the motivation behind this little phase -- Julia's (incredibly drop dead cute) little brother is 15 months old and thinks the word "no" means "smile charmingly, giggle and then go do that naughty thing." He gets a lot of immediate attention when he embarks on his life-endangering antics, so it's not difficult to understand why Julia decided to give the disobedience thing a whirl. Intellectually, I know the best tactic here might be to give Julia lots of individual time and love and show her that there are better ways get my attention. And I am trying to do that. But when Evan has scampered onto the picnic table again and is attempting to practice his swan dive technique, saving his neck has to be my primary goal. Julia is old enough to wait until he's been safely retrieved, reprimanded and moved to safer pastures before I return my attention her way. And if she chooses to take that moment to look me in the eye and then deliberately spill my drink? Her frustration is understandable, agreed, but the behavior is simply inexcusable. Time out.

If this sounds like me making excuses for punishing my kid so much, it is. I hate being a hard-ass. I wasn't having any fun anymore and neither was Julia. Even worse, all of this punishing wasn't changing the behavior -- it seemed to be making it worse. So the other night, I laid down with her for a heart-to-heart. "I hate that we're not having any fun any more," I told her, "but we just can't have fun together when you're being naughty. What do you think we can do to make it easier for you to be good? And why do you think you've been so naughty lately?" She thought for a good long minute and then offered up an answer. "I don't think I'm getting enough opportunities to be silly," she told me.

Count on Julia to stop me dead in my tracks. Was I being manipulated by a 3 year old or was I really expecting so much of my well-behaved kid that I'd stopped letting her just be a child? Hard to say, but I was willing to give the idea a try. "OK," I told her, "fair enough. Starting tomorrow, whenever you feel like you've got the urge to be naughty, stop what you're doing and tell me that you need to be silly, and we'll come up with a better plan than misbehaving."

In the past 2 days, Julia and I have made up silly sound effects as we hustled to get in the car, raced back and forth to the fence in our back yard to let off steam, made up new song lyrics to describe our actions as we got chores done and competed to see who could make the smallest mess while eating. It's been a hell of a lot more work for me than usual, but it's paying off -- the time outs and bad behavior aren't completely gone, but they sure are drastically diminished. It's still unclear to me who's manipulating whom here, but I'm not sure I care. Julia's behaving better and we're both having more fun. It's pretty obvious that an attitude readjustment was called for here. Whether it was the child or the parent who needed it remains up for debate.


At 2:09 PM, Blogger Kristy said...

You know I've recently been going through this (at least, I think you know). It's all an artful dance. A little of hard-ass, a little of the sillies. (remember Frahnk?)

Anyway, I think you've also discovered what I've discovered. Don't be so smug when you skip the terrible twos entirely...because, when they tack on another year, they have all the more tools to be naughty with. And a girl? God help us. I've got a name for it: Three.M.S.

Glad it's gotten better for you, though.


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