Sunday, February 20, 2011

Tiger Mom (Episode 2)

Okay, so this installment has more to do with the nuts and bolts of parenting a three year old.  Not that I've mastered this art, by the way.  But it is, understandably, a current preoccupation of mine, so I'll expound on some of what I've learned so far.

First, a quick poll:  To spank, or not to spank?  Speak up, and unless you assert that you routinely pummel your child with blunt objects just because it builds character, we'll try not to judge.  I'll start:  I have spanked Ben a couple of times.  It's more along the lines of what my mother always referred to as a "love tap" -- and with only a little bit of irony.  In other words, a swat on the butt that can be felt but is nowhere near hard enough to cause damage or actual pain.  Of course, if it's just a glancing caress, then obviously it has no deterrent value whatsoever.  The other crucial thing is that it shouldn't be how I vent my anger.  That's not to say I'm not angry when I do it, but before I raise my hand, I should pause, reflect carefully on what I'm planning to do and how, calculate how to do it so that it's a formative and instructive experience for my child, and only then go forward with the spank itself.  It needs to have that element of emotional detachment, reflection, and calculation.  If it's to be done at all, it's because I truly believe that it's in Ben's best interest, rather than because I'm so steaming mad that I just have to take a whack at something.  Another important lesson I'm teaching him at this stage is that while anger is a natural and healthy emotion, it's never okay to take out our anger on people or things.  Hitting him out of anger is wrong for so many reasons, not least because it would teach him a contrary message about anger management.

I sound like an old hand at it, but honestly, I've only done it twice.  And I wasn't too thrilled about it either time.  I think it's best to avoid it if at all possible, but if there's a circumstance where it seems like it will advance the cause better than anything else, then it can be done in a non-abusive way.  And I gotta say, it was remarkably effective at adding some real teeth to my other, preferred form of behavior management.

That being the handy "Do I need to get angry?" line.  So let's talk about anger for a moment.  I have a friend who is an excellent parent of a six year old, and I have turned to her for parenting advice on a couple of occasions.  This friend is a very mellow, warm, positive person.  She told me that when she was growing up, she saw almost no anger in her household (I gather that her parents did all they could to shield her from it), and so it was quite a shock when she started encountering it on the outside, and it took her a long time to figure out how to process her own anger, especially after she became an adult.  So one of the things I've incorporated into my parenting is an authentic (but age-appropriate) display of healthy emotions. 

One of the main jobs of a three year old is to push his parents' buttons.  Seriously -- it's an important developmental phase, where the child establishes a sense of identity separate from that of his parents.  Remember that a newborn doesn't understand that other people exist, and even after he figures this out, those people are just blobs, like the crib and the light fixture, except that one of them has tasty boobs; there's no understanding that they are beings that are both similar to and yet separate from him.  That is a lesson that is a long time coming, and it's an essential precursor to developing empathy, sympathy, and a whole host of other social skills.  My point is that preschoolers really know how to make us angry, and this is not, on the whole, a bad thing.

Which is fine, but at the same time, we have a responsibility to curb bad behavior and reinforce good behavior, and therein lies the mystery.  How?!?  Your child is using everything in his procrastinatory arsenal to avoid putting his pajamas on -- not because he really has any objection to wearing pajamas, but because he knows that you want the pajamas on and, therefore, he doesn't.  His arsenal includes such tactics as whining, fussing, throwing himself on the floor, insisting that he wants the other parent to do it, insisting that he wants to do it himself, insisting that he needs help, insisting that he wants to do it in the other room, insisting that he needs to go potty, discovering an urgent need to put all of his stuffed animals into a new configuration, developing an intense interest in counting things on the dresser, etc.  And you're getting angry.  Something that should take thirty seconds is stretching out to five minutes, and there's no end in sight.  You gotta do something, but what, how, and when?  Do you come down hard at the first sign of trouble?  Do you pretend to be unimpressed and unprovoked, so as to take the wind out of his sails?  Do you invoke some system of rewards and punishments, and if so, how did you establish that in the first place?

As rookie parents, we muddle along as best we can, learn from our mistakes, and hope that gradually some method emerges from the madness.  So far, the thing that seems to work best for me is, "Do I need to get angry?"  If he's not too committed to the infraction, he'll say no immediately and the problem behavior ceases.  Otherwise, I let the anger start to ramp up, and I keep him informed as to its progression:  "Ben, do you see my face?  I'm getting angry here.  Can you hear that I'm raising my voice now?"  And almost always there's a point where he recognizes that he's pushed me too far, and he's willing to cease and desist.  But there were those two occasions where we never seemed to find this point.  Since I can't simply ramp up the anger forever without some sort of destination in sight, I warned him that he was headed for a spanking.  I explained what a spanking was.  The first time, this actually piqued his curiosity, and, well, I satisfied his curiosity.  The second time, he remembered that it was something that he really didn't like, and it was almost an effective deterrent, but he soldiered on -- with the inevitable result.  (You certainly can't make a threat like that without following through on it.)  I'm hoping that we've now learned that we don't want to go all the way down that road, but I wouldn't be surprised if we have to relearn this lesson a few more times.

This post is far too long already, so I'll seek a little closure here and take up the thread again later.  Two key things about using your anger as a behavior modification tool are that it can't come out of nowhere, and it has to be connected to the bad behavior.  You can't just play Nice Mommy until that moment where you snap and suddenly become Mean Mommy; the child has to see you ramp it up gradually, and know where it's going.  After the moment has passed, I'll usually have a debriefing with Ben:  "I didn't like yelling at you, but I was feeling very angry because you were doing X and you weren't listening to me."  Also, what does this have to do with Tiger Mothering?  Not much -- except that I wanted to explain some of my thoughts about basic behavior management and how to handle noncompliance, before I talk about some of my hopes for the future and what (if anything) I plan on doing if I meet a little resistance along the way.  Look for Episode 3, in theaters soon.

One last thing.  Imagine the whole scene with the pajamas, and throw in the fact that your child is deaf and (under the circumstances) very pleased with himself about that.  My signing is improving, but I'm not yet at the point where I can sign, "Get the freakin' pajamas on before I blow."  We haven't sussed this one yet.  We're getting much more capable and confident with discipline during the day, but when the equipment comes off, it's a whole new ballgame.


leah said...

Three is a very challenging age. Eventually you get it pretty well figured out, and then they turn four (with a whole different set of discipline issues)! Also, the second child will be entirely different than the first, necessitating an entirely different parenting plan. Sigh...

In our case, Nolan is generally fairly compliant, though like any child, he will assert his independence. Matthew is extremely difficult (extremely is a bit of an understatement). Five is going better than four, but boy howdy, Matt has been a tough kid!

As for spanking, we do use it as the final punishment in certain cases. Outright defiance after several warnings will eventually merit one. Nolan has had one spanking, and hasn't tested that limit again. Matt has a high degree of impulsivity, so spanking doesn't work well for him - he doesn't plan well and warnings always go unheeded. We have used it, but it is usually fruitless, so to speak, because he doesn't retain the lesson. He might have some other issues going on, though (still isn't entirely toilet trained at the age of five, extremely active, impulsive, can't get his attention, etc).

For Matt, the current discipline measure that works is removing a highly valued object. He loves his Legos, so we will remove those from his play options if he is really being a "turkey" on a specific day.

Someone needs to write a real parenting book.

Age 3: Expect defiance, a need to do everything by themselves and on their own time schedule.

Age 4: Dawdles. More agreeable to some tasks, but begins to develop an "attitude" and will talk back in a sassy manner. Challenges authority. Potty humor is hugely entertaining to the child.

Age 5: Generally sunny in disposition. Child has better reasoning skills. A formerly energetic five year old will become debilitated when any chore or task is required: the child will claim he or she is "too tired." May plan outright defiance and hide the evidence.

April Friedman said...

Hi Julia, It's been a while since I've read your blog, but something must have lead me here today. Your Tiger Mother posts are just what I needed this morning--Saturday morning and I've already been in the thick of things. *argh* My 3 y.o. had 2 timeouts after screaming her frustration at me and defying both mom and dad and the 6 y.o. is now on restriction after hitting his sister to get a toy back instead of being patient and asking. Thank you for sharing your discipline strategies. Stay the course! Cheers, April