Monday, January 5, 2009

I'm losing a battle of wills with my 3-year-old

First of all, in the name of full disclosure, I feel like crap. I've caught some sort of cold that immediately went to my chest, leaving me with a perpetual smoker's cough, without any of the fun nicotine buzz. And M, now 10 months, is teething or something and is up approximately all night long, wanting to nurse, but not really, and ideally on the other side, and plus on her stomach. So I was a little crabby. But this was the worst parenting day I can ever remember, at least for a few hours.

E is apparently outgrowing the need for a nap, which is leaving me breathless with terror. I can't tell you how much I count on that hour or two in a 24-hour period that I can kind of call my own. He wasn't napping at all well the last 2 weeks, but Z was off school, so I blamed it on having a non-napper in the house, making just enough noise to keep him up. I was seriously looking forward to today, since the husband was back at work and I would have some naptime me-time for just a little while. I got the little day care kids down and settled E and his friend in his room. We tried a new approach today: "You don't have to sleep today. There are only two rules. Stay in your bed and be quiet." Holy crap. I seriously thought that was a practical request. I got M to sleep, nursing, and just as I put her down, I realized two things: Z would be home from school in 20 minutes, and E and friend were running and yelling just above M's head. Thus followed several of the worst hours of my life.

I tried the nice approach: "You don't want your sister to cry, do you? You're going to wake her and make her cry. Do you have your book? You can read, you just have to be quiet." I tried the stern approach: "That's it. You are going to plant your butt on your bed and shut your mouth right now. And if you want a book, there's one right there. You don't get a different one." And I tried the mean approach: "You don't get a show for the rest of the day. No Baby Einstein, no SpongeBob, nothing. And if you don't shut your mouth right now, you don't get anything tomorrow either!" And while all this was going on, M woke up and started screaming--twice. (My new approach to getting her to sleep more at night--let her work it out during the day. I'm way more willing to let her scream for 10 minutes at 2 PM than at 2 AM.) And E, whom my husband has referred to as "Cool Hand Luke" and as "a force of nature," sat through it all. I swear to god, I have never actually met a more strong-willed child. I've seen the titles referring to "the strong-willed child" and always thought "I could get that, but nah." I mean, in order for you to get a book because a description of your kid is on the cover, your kid has to be diagnosed with something, right? I mean, mine must not be what they're talking about because he doesn't have Strong-Willed Child Syndrome--or something. But I think the time has come. He's a really smart kid, no question. He obviously listens closely to what people say, and then later I'm always shocked at the way he uses them in context. And when he's really engaged in listening, I can see what a great learner he is. But the strength of his will just gets in the way of his comprehension. As I explained the consequences of his behavior, he would just scream at me that he wanted to listen. And I would tell him that he wasn't listening, or that he had already lost one thing and was on the way to losing more. And he would just scream that "I WANT TO LISTEN!" I know that the idea--that a person makes a choice and there are consequences that follow that choice--makes sense to him. He sees it with his siblings and the day care kids, and even with his parents. But when he gets all up in arms, he just can't grasp that things aren't going to happen the way he wants them to. And he gets into a mode of just consistently making them worse.

By the time Z got home from school, E was in major trouble with the bedroom door closed (which he hates), M was crying her eyes out, and I was barely holding it together. An hour later, I think everyone but Z was in tears. Fortunately he was pretty into his Dora game and didn't really notice my tears--I think. But I was amazed. I am admittedly a pretty emotional person. But this was over the top. I thought I was going to have to run away for a few minutes so I didn't lose it completely. My husband has said that E is about 4,000 times better at conflict than I am, and about 4 times better than he is. So I know I'm outmatched. But if I want him to grow up into someone the rest of the world loves as much as I do, I have to find a way to deal with this insanely strong will of his. (We came up with a reward system for quiet naps, by the way; we'll see in the next week or so how it pans out.)

UPDATE 1/6: After tearfully describing my day to my sweet husband, he suggested a chart approach instead. Every day that E is quiet at nap time (being "a god listener," which is what we're always telling him he needs to be), he will get an X on his chart. If he fills his chart (6 Xs), then he will get a special big treat like going out for fast food or getting to pick a movie. Today was like night and day. The chart incentive worked absolute wonders. I realized first that I would always rather give them something than take something away; it just feels better as a parent to make them happy rather than sad. And second, he's much more motivated by working toward something than he is by avoiding something bad. Fingers crossed that it will continue to work well!

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