By every standard I can think of Pip was a wonderful two-year-old. At home, he was talkative and playful. He loved to read books. He loved to run and climb. He was always interested in helping me with yard work or cooking or cleaning. He was very gentle and cooperative with Polly when she came along. That’s not to say that he did not have his moments, and unfortunately, its those moments that come to my mind first whenever I think back to that time in his life. The brief periods of a given day where Pip was whiny or irritable or stubbornly uncooperative triggered in me some of the worst emotions I have ever felt. I learned a great deal about myself during the six months surrounding Pip’s second birthday and much of it was ugly.
Now Polly is entering into this same period of her life. As is normally the case, she is doing a boat load of new, fun, and astounding things: stringing four and five words together into coherent thoughts; doing simple shape puzzles without any help; building block towers that go ten or twelve high; engaging in all manner of creative play with Pip. She is also getting coyly rambunctious at bedtime, periodically tossing silverware at the dinner table, banging things repeatedly on the oven, head butting, climbing on tables, and requiring regular reminders to keep her feet off the table during meals. Last night she was showing some rare form around bedtime by first being decidedly uncooperative while we were brushing her teeth and then by giving Pip a few swift kicks to the head just before it was time to turn out the lights.
None of this behavior is malicious or mean-spirited. Sometimes it is just the result of being tired or hungry. Other times it is spurred by boredom or impatience. Regardless, it is all very experimental. Even the head kicks from last night were enacted while looking at me with a half-smile and a wide, searching look in her eyes. She knows when she is crossing a threshold and pushing out into uncharted lands. And, with each step she takes, she is watching us to see what happens.
When Pip started doing such things, I had no strategy for handling them. I had read some parenting books that made me aware of what was happening, but the books did not offer me any tools to manage these experiments in the context of getting things done in daily life. “Avoid getting into a battle of wills” is a fine suggestion but does me little good when I need to get clothes on a recalcitrant child. Walking away and coming back later was not a good option. I needed something more interactive to get me through such moments, a couple of strategies to fall back upon when our family train had jumped its metaphorical track. I didn’t really get them.
With the six to eight months of experimentation with Pip and the subsequent eighteen months of reflection time, I think I am now positioned to better handle whatever may come with Polly. My strategy is based on two principle ideas:
1. Adrenaline is my enemy
I was a competitive swimmer in high school. In college, I got into long-distance hiking. In graduate school, I ran a couple of marathons. As such, I am friends with adrenaline. It brings me a rush when I’m at the peak of exertion and follows this with a period of latent joy when I’m all through. It makes me feel more alive, confident, creative, vital, and potent. It tempts me to go running even when the temperature outside is ten degrees.
Unfortunately, adrenaline – or whatever cocktail of chemicals that are actually at work in all of this – also complicates my attempts to manage an uncooperative child. The pattern is very predictable. An initial moment of frustration with the child’s behavior prepares the stage. As I repeatedly fail to alter the child’s actions, a pressure builds up. I can feel it pulsing in my brain and pushing against my skull, crowding out all other thoughts, calling for me to explode, to shout or stomp or do something violent that will create an ecstatic release of adrenaline into my bloodstream. I can sense that the child is feeling this too, its body seeking the release that comes with unshackled tears. When we reach this point there is no painless way out. Most of the time I can hold it back, but this effort leaves me a simmering wretch for hours afterwards. Every once in a while, the beast slips loose, and I must deal with the recriminations - both external and internal - that follow.
The first few times I went through this cycle I had no idea what was going on. I would get frustrated with something and then before I knew it I would become a barely caged monster. Then, somewhere along the way, Ava suggested thinking about the role adrenaline was playing in all of this. At the time this suggestion just made me more frustrated because I had no idea how that was supposed to help me. But, gradually I came to see that by focusing on heading off my own adrenaline build-up at the outset of a potentially frustrating situation, I could keep these situations from spiraling out of control on me.
One of the early products of this realization was a modified time-out method for bringing Pip back into balance when he gets out of control. With Polly I am attempting to deploy an even more pro-active strategy. This consists of trying to be as boring as possible whenever I need to correct or alter her behavior. For example, Polly likes to climb on tables. From time to time she will sneak up on one and wait for one of us to notice. Now when Pip would do something like this, I would first politely ask him to get down. When he didn’t comply, I would ask again and again with my tone of voice getting increasingly more strident with each repetition. This would set the whole adrenaline cycle in motion. With Polly, I will start by asking politely for her to come down from the table. When she doesn’t, I walk over to her, pick her up slowly, and place her down on the floor. The key to this action is to make the picking up and putting down process so slow and so long that it become boring for both of us. This way there is no rush that might make the removal process ‘fun’ or ‘interesting.’ Polly usually kicks her feet around a little bit and hangs out without too much aplomb. By the time she makes it to the floor she is happy to run off and find something else to try.
2. Counting is my friend
One of our neighbors has a son who is about the same age as Polly. Every once in a while when we are out in the front yard, they will come over to talk and play for a few minutes. During one of these visits, the boy’s mother mentioned to me that she was having a harder time lately getting him to do what she asked of him. In particular, he would become very agitated whenever it was time to leave a place or go inside. We chatted a bit about this and then a few minutes later it was time for her to go. She went over to her son, who was playing on one of Pip’s bicycles, and told him it was time to leave. This set off a cascade of tears that eventually concluded with the mother picking up her son and hauling him away.
As they disappeared through their front door, it struck me that this mother had failed to do one simple thing that might have completely changed how the situation played out. She had not given her son a five minute warning. She had waited until it was time to go to tell her son that they would be leaving. As such, her son had not had a chance to prepare himself for the coming change. He had not had a chance to wrap things up. He had not had a chance to mentally say goodbye. The kid was basically whiplashed from one state to another. It’s no surprise that he was so upset.
Fortunately, I learned this trick early on with Pip, and we have hardly ever had a problem leaving one place for another. It doesn’t even matter how much actual time passes. Sometimes five minutes is really two. Other times it can stretch to ten. The point is to create a moment for him to get ready. Once that is accomplished, changing states has usually not been that hard for him.
I also learned over time that I could use this process for smaller state changes by announcing a number and counting up to it. This started out as a sort of threat along the lines of “I’m going to count to 10 and if you don’t come here by then you are going to be in real trouble.” Eventually I realized that there was no need to use it as a last resort. Instead, it could be a game. Whenever I required Pip’s attention or needed to move him from playing with something to getting a task done, I could tell him what action needed to happen and announce a number upon which that action would commence. Then, instead of angrily counting, I could make silly noises with each passing number. This way the counting would be fun. I could use it to get his attention, give him time to change his state, and maybe, down the road, facilitate his ability to count.
With Polly, I have started employing this strategy for almost everything – eating food, going to the bathroom, brushing teeth, putting on pajamas. Any time I need to move her from one thing to another or just move her along in a process that we’ve already started, I tell her what we’re going to do and pick a number that I am going to count to. It’s astonishingly effective. I can tell her over and over to do something without success, but if I give her the silly counting terms she will at the very least allow me to pick her up and carry her along to whatever it is that needs to be done.
These two principles and the strategies they encompass are obviously not full-proof. They work within a context of established and predictable patterns where both parent and child know what is going on and are comfortable with what will happen next. This will not always be the case with a two-year-old. At the same time, having them at hand gives me a first step, a place to go when things start to break down. They give me confidence that I have something to try and sometimes that confidence is all I really need.
I am looking forward to the next year of Polly’s life. It will be interesting. It will be fun. I imagine I will learn things good and bad about both her and me. My biggest hope when it is all said and done is that the good things will be what comes first in my memory.