Nicholas just turned four years old. Over the past few weeks, we’ve become more confident that the tantrum stage has finally ended, but he still gets into moods where he acts extremely annoying.
Yesterday was a tough one. Nicholas and I woke at the same time, and before we were all the way down the stairs he’d launched an elaborate negotiation to watch every television program available on this rare weekday at home. We reached an agreement about which shows he would watch, and he abided by it, but at 11am when the listing said “Mister Rogers” would be on, the station was instead broadcasting a lecture about brain maintenance for aging adults. That was upsetting. Nicholas became so irrational we decided he needed an early nap, which was achieved fairly easily. He’d slept in his clothes the night before and now decided to even things out by changing into pajamas for his nap.
After napping, Nicholas noticed the nice weather and suggested he and I go out for a walk. That sounded good to me too. I pointed out that he was still wearing pajamas. He said, “I know that! Now get me dressed!” in a tone of withering scorn. I explained that I’d help him get dressed but I like to hear his nice voice. He was very hyper about getting dressed, whipping clothes around the room and jumping and twisting so that I had trouble helping with the parts he can’t do. I was annoyed and said so several times.
Downstairs, he began the most aggravating whining, “Maamaaa, puuut on my shoooes, I can’t dooo it, they’re tooo heeavy!” and falling in a heap on the floor.
I said, “Gosh, it looks like you are too tired to go for a walk. You’re so tired you can’t even pick up your shoes.”
More whining, at increased volume. It was so incredibly grating that I began to entertain fantasies of running away from home.
I said, “I see this isn’t a good time for a walk. I’m going to hang up the laundry.” I went down to the basement. Nicholas ran after me screeching, “NO!!” I said, “Because you are acting so annoying, I don’t feel like going anyplace with you. I am going to do the laundry and calm down. You can stay here until you calm down.” I closed the door to the stairs but did not latch it. Nicholas stayed at the top of the stairs bawling and screaming, “MAMA!! I WANT TO GO TO THE PARK!!”
I felt terrible that my child was so upset, but I also thought that
- his behavior was not my fault; it was not triggered by anything I had done
- therefore, probably it didn’t have anything to do with me, so I could stop taking it personally
- his behavior was so annoying that it was tempting me to behave badly in response, so it was important for me to move away in order to maintain the relatively sane response I’d managed so far
- he needed time to burn off this bad energy and get a grip.
After a few minutes, I called up, “I’m downstairs when you are ready to talk in a nice voice.” He hollered some more. I repeated the same sentence a few times, making my voice as calm and welcoming as I possibly could.
After a few minutes more, he came down the stairs, slowly, still crying but not yelling. When he reached the bottom, I knelt and held out my arms to him. He came over for a hug.
He said, quietly, “Mama, I wanted to go to the park. And we were going to go. But then you decided not to go.”
I said, “We can go to the park after I hang up the laundry, when you are ready to put on your own shoes. You can do it.” He began a half-power whine. I stood up and resumed hanging the laundry.
The whining stopped. Nicholas said, in a suddenly cheerful and helpful tone, “I will hang the small things on the rack.” He took some of his clothes and some of my socks from the basket and draped them on the drying rack. I reminded him that they needed to be spread flat, and he made some adjustments.
He had hung one of his shirts such that the sleeves were touching the floor. Our laundry area is in the unfinished basement, so the floor is pretty dusty. I suppressed the reflex to say, in a frustrated tone, “Look, you dragged it all over the dirty floor! Now I have to rinse it! Hmph!” which would put us at odds again. Instead, I said in a matter-of-fact voice, “When something touches this floor, it usually gets dust on it.” Nicholas picked up the shirt and found the dust. He handed me the shirt–he’s seen me rinse laundry that hit the floor, and he knows the basement sink is too big for him to use without fear of falling into it. I rinsed the shirt, he hung it again more carefully, and we hung the rest of the clothes. “Now we can go to the park!” he said. I agreed.
He attempted to put on his own shoes, with much grumbling about how he probably was getting it wrong. I kept saying, “You can do it!” in an encouraging voice. When he finally decided he was unable to get one shoe tongue to lie flat, he smiled and chirped in his very-polite voice, “Mama, will you please fix my shoe?” I did, and off we went to the park.
There are times when kids need to see who’s in control, to be reminded that the world doesn’t revolve around their whims. And then there are times when they need to feel their own competence.
Nicholas was talking about going to “the big blue slide park,” the Frick Park playground nearest to our home. But he was walking toward Davis Playground. I decided to follow his lead. At the corner of Murray and Phillips, I was prepared to cross Phillips, but he said, “No! We’re not going that way! Wait for the walk signal!” I said, “Oh? Okay.” We crossed Murray and started up the hill on Phillips. Now, Davis Playground is not on Phillips; it’s on Hobart, a parallel street with very similar uphill bends. We walked up Phillips to the point where, instead of seeing the playground come into view around the bend, we saw the intersection with Melvin Street. Nicholas stopped. He said, “Oh! This isn’t the way to the playground!”
I said, “Oh! I was following you!” We laughed. Nicholas looked around and saw the swing sets, visible high on the hill behind the nursing home: “Well, how do we get way up there?!” Before I could answer, he said, “We must have taken the wrong street from Murray Avenue.” We walked back to Murray, where he smacked himself on the forehead and said, “Of course! We have to walk past the pizza place and then turn!” With great confidence, he led me to the playground.
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