Every so often, when I'm out and about with the kids, someone asks me their ages. "Three and one," I say. The look of profound pity I receive always startles me a bit. Sometimes I wonder if they'll hug me in commiseration. Sometimes they just say, "You must stay busy." Which, of course, I do.
One, I knew was hard. Marko was hard at one. From twelve to eighteen months he was unstoppable and into everything and wouldn't take no for an answer. And then from eighteen to twenty-four months he wouldn't nap and wouldn't go to bed and collapsed in a puddle of tears if you said no to him. He threw tantrums lasting into two hours. I thought he must be a difficult toddler to make up for having been such an easy baby.
Nope. Michael was a much more high-needs baby, and he is even more into everything than Marko was! He's fifteen months today, and he never stops except when he's sleeping. He can scale onto the couch, over the arm of the couch, and onto John's desk to grab his computer in about four seconds. This morning I heard yowling coming from the bedroom, and then Michael toddled out carrying the cat. He pulls vegetables and likes to take a single bite out of every unripe plum. My one consolation is that he cannot yet open doors, but I am sure he'll figure it out very soon.
But with all that, he is very good natured, usually happy (unless you take away something he wants; then he flings himself on the floor dramatically and wails) and relatively predictable. He doesn't yet talk much, but he makes himself understood well enough and isn't often frustrated with his vocabulary of "ba" and "shyah," which two words he manages to use to describe everything. He certainly understands us fine. For instance, he'll go to the door and say "shyah," which in context must mean outside. So I say, "No, you can't go outside, you're not wearing any clothes." Next thing I know he toddles into the bedroom and comes back with a shirt and pants. "Shyah!"
Michael is exhausting, but he's cute and charming and likes to hug, so it's not so bad.
Marko, though, is hard in completely different ways. I wasn't expecting this. I thought three was supposed to be easy. My mom said it was. But then she said two was hard, and Marko was delightful pretty much the whole time he was two. I guess he's on an opposite schedule from my siblings or something.
All I know is, the kid who used to get very excited every time I asked him to do something, now has learned to say that no, he will NOT clean up this mess. And furthermore, he will empty out the diaper basket onto the floor. And then come up and spit on me.
It's something of a shocker. I have been off balance for a couple of weeks, so startled I am at my formerly agreeable kid. He hits, he makes guns out of everything, he pushes Michael to the ground. He empties drawers and bookshelves onto the floor. In the middle of a standoff with me about something else, he pees his pants while laughing maniacally. Sometimes he is so far in fantasyland he seems not to hear what I am telling him at all.
At first I just tried yelling louder, being firmer, taking all his toys away, sending him to his room. The trouble with the room thing is that he universally dumps out anything that can be dumped in there, and then he pees on the floor. This is a child who has been (more or less) potty trained since Christmas. I can't figure out if he's doing it to be defiant, or if, in all the screaming and sobbing and raging about how he doesn't like being in his room, he just loses control. But at any rate it does not help my patience. And anyway it wasn't helping at all. The second he got back out, he was right back to the misbehavior.
So I tried to step back and observe. To try to be absolutely calm, and to watch. When was he doing this annoying behaviors? What was I doing when he was doing them? How was I reacting, and was that helping?
Well, what I learned was embarrassing. It would go like this. I would ignore him most of the time. Michael would be getting into everything, dumping everything, digging in the litterbox, dancing on the table, and I was paying attention to Michael, getting him out of those things, and then trying to get back to whatever I was trying to do (computer, housework, whatever). But the more I dealt with Michael and his mess, the more frustrated I got, so my temper would be eroding more and more. Then Marko would make a mistake, usually something really unintentional like spilling something or having an accident. And I would snap and scream at him. I wasn't keeping track of who was doing what bad thing, so I would think "the kids are being bad, this is the millionth awful thing they've done." Only it would only be the first thing Marko had done.
Once I started yelling at Marko, that's when the bad behavior would come out. It was like he was practicing passive resistance on me. He would tune me out, ignore me, sing when I was trying to talk to him, wander off. And if that didn't work, he'd try being actively destructive or aggressive. Obviously he wasn't getting very much out of this approach, but he was getting some attention and he was getting back at me for yelling at him.
I've figured out the calmer I am with him, the better he listens. I have to be calm, or his brain shuts off and he just opposes me. This has been very difficult, because with the amount of trouble the two of them make, I get very frustrated very fast. When I've spent time cleaning, it's hard to see spilled dirt as an innocent mistake. It feels like deliberate sabotage, and I start shrieking.
But children are little mirrors and they reveal to us all our faults. Marko hasn't just learned phrases like "what the freaking heck" and "I hate this." He's also giving me back the level of negativity and anger that I give him.
Now, that isn't all of it. Some of it, I think, is just boundary testing. I am not really sure what to do about that. Do I step up the "punishment" side of discipline and send him to his room more? It seems to backfire. Or do I try to give him more control -- won't that create an even worse monster than I have?
I've been experimenting with different approaches, and finding a few that work. One is giving him a choice. At two, he collapsed in indecision if I tried to make him choose between a red shirt and a blue shirt. At three, he will readily pick between walking to the bathroom and being carried there or between putting his truck away himself or having me do it.
The other is basically the trick I did when he was a toddler Michael's age. I didn't punish him -- I made it impossible for him to misbehave. If he was misbehaving with a toy (i.e. hitting the dog with it) I took it away. If he was misbehaving in a certain room, we left the room.
That sort of thing isn't the main issue now; it's more a question of him following instructions, like "clean up the diapers you just dumped on the floor." I decided that cleaning up messes he makes on purpose is a non-negotiable. First, because I will be tempted to violence if he spends his time dumping stuff and watching me clean it up. And second, because he'll dump less stuff if he has to be the one to pick it up. So I'm resorting to a technique I thought I'd never use, "hand over hand." In other words I take his arms and "make" him do the chore.
This could be awful, and I thought it would be awful. I thought he would fight me and it would be a huge battle. But in fact he always cooperates with this. I give him a choice, "Clean it up, or I will help you clean it up." Usually he chooses to do it himself, but sometimes he chooses to have me help him, so I hold his hands and "help" him. I'm not sure what the appeal in this is for him. Maybe he felt uncertain about how to do the chore, and having me direct him makes things clear. Or maybe it's like a game to be operated like a puppet. And maybe all he really wanted was my full attention.
Which leads me to the preventative stuff, which means giving him attention proactively instead of only reactively. There have been stages in his life when he didn't need a whole lot of attention, and if he needed it, he would come and demand it. Lately if I wait for him to demand it, it's already too late. These days he really does better if I spend Michael's nap reading to him, like I used to when he was a new big brother. I realize that sibling rivalry is becoming a bigger issue lately, as Michael gets into his toys or interferes with his games. He needs extra love right now, and he's getting it. I'm also trying to get out of the house more, heat not withstanding, because he is somewhat bored and understimulated (which leads to a lot of destructiveness right there, as he tries to find new uses for old toys).
I also have to supervise him a lot more closely when he's playing with Michael. Michael is no longer the easygoing baby who readily gave up one toy for another. He now has demands and can be rough. I often see (now that I am watching carefully) Michael grab a toy from Marko, right before Marko decks him. While the aggression isn't okay, it's not out of nowhere. So I'm hovering a bit more, trying to prevent Michael from encroaching, and trying to coach Marko: "See, he's not trying to take your toy, he's trying to show you his. Maybe he would like to trade? Uh-oh, he's tugging at yours -- would you like to go into your room so he doesn't try to take it?" I am not trying to remove the conflict so much as teach Marko what responses are and aren't okay. He's getting much better at it.
For the rest, I'm trying to go to bed early, drink tea in the morning (I am afraid I am now addicted to it, sigh), get breaks when I can, do housework early in the day while the kids are mellower so I'm not scrambling to finish it in the evening when they're being awful, stop getting into Facebook debates so much, and overall nourish my mental health. Because lately I've needed to have a LOT of patience, and I can't be running on empty.
Together they weigh 70 lbs. This is not the sort of thing you can do while running on empty.
(Oh, and in this picture you can see that I have recently gotten a new haircut AND a new cat. The cat is named Keva and she is John's cat. Sadly she does not get along well with my cat.)