Tuesday, March 20, 2012
THIS is the terrible twos
Every month or two, I find myself saying, "That thing that was going on a few months ago? The thing I called "the terrible twos"? Well, that wasn't it. THIS is it." I am hoping it doesn't keep going on like this till the kid's third birthday!
There are a few things going on right now, not all of which are Marko's fault. He has a bad cold, which makes him not always sleep very well. He's also cutting molars. The other day, when he was screaming his head off, I caught a glimpse of two of them peeking out. Until those two are all out and two more join them, he's going to be a little crabby, I assume.
So for the past week or so he's been melting down at the slightest provocation, raging for up to an hour, saying "no" to every conceivable option (do you want your pants on? NO! do you want your pants off? NO!), and being generally difficult to please. I don't blame him, though, because he doesn't feel good. It's just wearing.
What really gets to me is his other new thing, which pops up when he's feeling a bit better and starts running around and playing again. He goes straight up to something he knows he's not supposed to do, and does it. Take the most common example, pulling up seedlings. I've explained to him many times not to touch them. For awhile, he seemed to get it. He would stare at them, mesmerized, whispering, "Just look at them. Don't touch them." Then his little hand would reach out and yank up half a dozen of them. What the heck?
I've tried different things. I stop his hand as it comes reaching out .... but he struggles with me, brings in his other hand, and is soon engaged in a full-fledged fight with me, trying to get those seedlings. I yell at him, but he thinks that's hilarious and keeps going. In fact, the bigger a deal I make of it, the more eager he is to do it.
Finally I landed on the method of very simply and quietly saying, "Don't touch the seedlings. You touched them, so we're going inside now." He doesn't care for this at all, and will scream and cry and grab at the doorframe to stop from having to go inside. But I have discovered that I do NOT want to kneel on the edge of the vegetable bed for half an hour trying to stop him from getting those seedlings. The second I take my eyes off him, he's back at them. A little break inside helps him forget about them, and we can get ten minutes or so of good playtime in before he is drawn inexorably back to the seedlings again. By then, hopefully I've finished whatever I was doing in the front yard and we can go play in the back, where there's nothing he can't have (at least, nothing that tempts him).
Still, it's puzzling. Like yesterday. We were having a grand old time playing on my bed when he reached for my hair and pulled it hard. I moved my hair away from him a bit and said, "No, that hurts Mama. No hurting Mama." He laughed hysterically and dove for it again, yelling "Yes hurting Mama!" I stopped him again and he dissolved into tears. "Marko WANT to hurt Mama." Why is not hurting Mama such a tragedy to him?!
I know he's more fragile about this kind of thing because of how he's feeling. But on the other hand, this level of willfulness is new. I can't help but worry that I've created a monster -- by taking the gentle approach that I do, I have made him into a little tyrant. Since he didn't use to be like this, I fear I've ruined him. And yet -- and yet. For one thing, several of my family members were just the same way at this age, despite having a different discipline system than what I use. For another, I hear it's normal toddler behavior. And for a third, the closer I get to a harsher disciplinary system, the worse it gets. If I get into the ring with this kid, he will fight me with everything he's got. So doing it more often, about more things, can't possibly be the answer.
I have never mentioned this on the blog before, but we did try a more punitive system almost a year ago now. When we would tell him not to do something and he did it anyway, we'd slap his hands back away from the forbidden object. I was sure this would have the Pavlovian effect of -- obviously -- making him not want to touch the forbidden thing. But it actually made it worse. He would laugh hysterically and keep doing it over and over. It was a game, and the pain was minor compared to his love for the game. It was only when we would refuse to play, walk away, ignore him, or move him away from the forbidden object that he would look down at his hand and start to cry, realizing for the first time that he was hurt.
That just broke my heart. On the one hand, I just HURT my kid. Which makes me miserable, because I gave birth to him and spent a year trying to keep him from getting hurt ... my instincts are against hurting him in any way. And on the other, it made things WORSE, not better. I believe that a parent has the right to do things that cause pain to their children -- like shots -- if it is truly necessary for their well-being. But if it's causing harm and not good, I could not believe we had the right to continue on that path. So we didn't.
But the result of this is that our child is not "obedience-trained" in any way. He knows what "no" means. Usually he listens -- especially if it's said in a panicky voice as I lunge for him. With the dangerous stuff, he instinctively knows to listen up. But sometimes he tries to turn a no into a yes. And if he can't get us to change our minds, he just does what he wants to do and waits to see what we'll do.
It's a terrifying thing. I've got a small, unformed person looking to me to find out what I will do if he disobeys me. And at least half the time, I have no idea what I will do either. Will I calmly show him how to do gentle touches? (No dice.) Will I yell at him? (Backfires horribly.) Will I just physically remove him from the situation? (Works, but I keep wondering, "What will I do when I can't do this? What will I do when I have two children? What will I do when he's too big to carry? What will I do when it's big stuff? Am I setting a terrible precedent for his entire future because he doesn't snap to it when I say something?")
I don't think I'm ruining him. I don't think so because I believe there are only two ways to go with a strong-willed child like this one: either dominate them so completely that they are incapable of resistance, or don't go head-to-head with them at all. And I also have gotten a lot of comfort from the parenting books I've read lately (specifically, Parenting With Love and Logic and How to Talk So That Kids Will Listen). Sure, they're not for a kid the age of mine. But they assume that I already have a school-aged child, and that school-aged child is not obeying me. And then they have solutions for that, based on reason, which the kid possesses by that age. When he is rational, there will be so much more I can do.
Even now, there are a few things he obeys me for perfectly because he knows why. He leaves the kitchen when I am going to open the oven because the oven is hot. He stays away from the broken cellar door in the back yard because it is dangerous. And today, when I thought I was going to rip out my last hair over his insistence on banging on my new wall mirror, I thought to say, "Don't bang on it that hard, or it will fall, and you will be hurt." What do you know, he immediately stopped and started banging it gently. If I can always get my child to avoid dangerous situations because he knows that they are dangerous, do I need to have him "obeying" me? Some would say we've failed at raising our children if they only obey when they know why, and don't obey when there's no discernible reason to obey. But ... it kind of seems reasonable to me, especially once he's built up the ability to understand more complicated explanations, and has learned to trust that I don't ask him to do things for no reason.
So, for now? I guess I'm just sticking it out. Every day is a learning experience for both of us, as I try to get through to him and he tries to understand what I want. It's hard, because he used to be so eager to please that if I could manage to explain what I wanted, he would do it, nine times out of ten. Lately he hasn't been. Maybe he feels pushed around and is pushing back (I happen to know at least one person to whom he is related who does the same thing). Maybe he's just feeling contrary because he doesn't feel good. Maybe he's trying to get even with me because I'm not fulfilling what he sees as his needs -- constant carrying, allowing myself to be climbed on, and complete access to my hair.
But I am finding ways to cope, in order to make sure he doesn't hurt me or destroy things while we're waiting for him to be more rational. If he pulls my hair, he has to get down. If he hits me, either I am going to have to go to another room, or he is. If he pulls seedlings, we go inside. These are, on the one hand, logical consequences that hopefully will (someday) make sense to him. And, on the other, they keep me sane because I'm not sitting around getting hit while trying to reason with a "knee-high Neanderthal." Yes, he screams and throws a fit every single time. He acts so surprised. I'm willing to comfort him, to give him another thing to do, and even let him try again at being outside or on my lap in a few minutes, but he isn't much consoled.
Last night he was furious because I had to make dinner instead of playing with him. He demanded so many things: go outside, read books, pick up, hit Mama. I nixed those and suggested others: have a piece of tortilla, play with Gilbert, play with your toys. He said no to all of those, and there was a lot of crying. But eventually he sniffled, "Mama sing a song?" Finally something I could do for him while cooking dinner! He was much comforted, and I realized he is successfully navigating his limits, trying to find something that is good for him and acceptable to me. In the midst of my frustration over his tantrum-filled evening, I felt hopeful. Maybe, despite my horrible, weak-kneed, hippie parenting, he is actually learning something.
I've been afraid to open up or ask for advice about our struggles for fear I will get one of two answers: either "You have to smack him/put him in the corner, or you WILL raise a monster and it will ALWAYS be just like this," or (and I saw this just today on Peaceful Parenting's facebook), "He must have some need unfulfilled. When you fulfill his unmet needs, the behavior will disappear." The first one, I don't believe, because I know people who have raised great kids without that, and because, well, it just doesn't feel right to me. And the second one, it wouldn't matter if I did believe it. What if his "unmet need" is to still be nursing? To be carried around more? To not be teething? I can't give him everything he wants and needs, much as I would like to. And I really think his "unmet need" in this case is "to find out what will happen if I do what Mama said not to." So I don't think I would win that way.
Still, I'm putting it all out there for you, so if there are any words of wisdom or advice that have helped you, I'd love to hear. What do you do with a strong-willed toddler, if the behavior is one you can't ignore but you don't want to smack him?