Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Night of Ten Thousand Time Outs

So Big and I had a show-down the other night.

All signs were beginning to point in that direction, but it happened on a night that BioMom "wasn't sure" about how long drinkie-poos would last with a friend of hers.

It could just as easily have been on a night on which my patience could have been likened to a full-bladdered puppy upon seeing his adult-companion drive up after a long-day's work, or say, a seven-year-old, two days before her birthday, knowing she's getting the American girl doll, "Kit" (read: little or no sleep). But it wasn't. I was as patient as the spring is in taking a hold of Minnesota this year.

Between around 5:15 p.m. and 6:15 p.m. depending on timing and length of his nap, Big begins to transform into a werewolf, irrespective of the waxing or waning of the moon.

Of course, this transmogrification correlates with lots of other transitions: Seven coming home from school, me (sometimes) coming home from school, Big coming home from Mother-of-Four's, dinner needing to get on the table, BioMom heading home, piano practice needing to get done, baths needing to get taken and all other sorts of requisite happenstances du jour occuring in the average American household during the gloaming.

He doesn't melt down, exactly. Rarely is there a tantrum. He doesn't pick on Seven or vice versa, so, infrequent is the sibling rivalry (yet. . . . I know we're not free and clear of that).

He takes, instead, to what I've now labeled: "dumping".

Big had dumped my glass of water with ice, dumped his dinner, dumped the collective bowl of sugar snap peas, and gone on to dump his bucket of cars under the table, as well as the box of Girl Scout Samoas that waited for us on the counter (yeah, they all broke as a result, too).

But it was the cat food that broke my camel's back.
I didn't freak. I just decided that enough was enough. I had gotten to THAT point. You know the point I'm talking about. The point where you look at yourself in the mirror and instead of your face you see a scratchy mat with the word "Welcome" on it and you know something or someone's about to change.

He was going to a) help me pick it up and b) not do it again. Ever.

We parents get tricked by this whole development thing. First they're babies, then toddlers, then kids and there are all these gray areas in-between the stages. Gray areas in which we aren't sure if they exactly know what they're doing. Areas in which we cannot ascribe purposefulness or intent.

He's in the "thinking" stage now (18 months to 3 years)-- exploring cause and effect. At first, I think he delighted in the fact of gravity.

If I lift up this bowl of cat food and turn it over, its contents will fall to the ground at some rate, he might suspect, related to the density of the object and the distance to the ground. . . Will it happen again if I turn over the bowl again? Will the food fall as fast or spill as broadly onto the floor? Into the hallway? Down the stairs, perhaps?

But his "thinking" about cause and effect has seemingly moved from gravity to parental response.

Oh! Look! When I lift up this bowl of cat food, Baba looks over at me. No. Clarification: she looks over at me abruptly. Yeah. That's right. Now, what will happen if I start to turn it over? She RUNS toward me! Wow! Look at that! I got her up off her ass and on her feet! Damn! That was easy! Now, what happens to her if the cat food spills all over the floor? What will happen if I start throwing the dumped cat food all around the kitchen?. . . Yeah! Like that song: All around the kitchen cockadoodledoodledoo! I finally get the MEANING of that stupid song!!!

So yeah, that shit-eating grin he gets on his face has enabled me to attribute actual MOTIVE to your actions!

So that night, I decided I had picked up one too many cat morsels.

Alfie Kohn sat on my shoulder judging the whole process. He is generally against the use of time outs in favor of "nonpunative strategies". His argument is that time-outs end up feeling like a withdrawal of the parent's love rather than a way to support your child in an obviously difficult moment.

Instead of a time out, he suggests that we should "offer a child the choice of retreating to a comfortable and comforting place when he's going berserk" or to "gently remove him from the situation and the place where the problem is happening--but not from you."

I tried a hybrid-parenting technique: timeouts in comfort, with my full attention. Kohn reminds us to "attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts".

I watched Big dump the cat food, and then after I had cleaned it up, dump it again. Motive? Not malicious to be sure. But at that point, motive didn't really matter. Outcome mattered.

Essentially I took him to our comfy chair where we usually cuddle together in the morning, and told him that he was in a 'time out' for a bit and that after he had calmed down, that we would, together, clean up the cat food.

At first he thought it was quite a little joke. He would come out and try to simply get on with his evening. When I insisted that it was time to clean up the cat food, he would refuse. So, back to the chair we went.

This went on and on.

And on and on.

At one point he came out and we had about half of the cat food picked up when he dumped it again.

After about a half hour of this pattern, after hearing Eight splashing in the bath tub, he relented.

We picked up the cat food together, hugged, and headed down to meet her.

Kohn concludes that:

"[S]ome new research demonstrates that 'the terrible twos' transition is not universal'; its existence seems to depend on how much 'parents attempt to assert their authority' and perhaps, on what their ultimate goals are for their children."

He's not too terrible of a two, I guess I'm just hoping that means that I'm not too much of a fascist.

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