When our two-year-old broke the rules, my wife and I had various consequences, the worst being an isolation time-out: he hated even short separations. But on those occasions when one of us had to carry this crying child to his room, it was not without broken hearts. Once he had even cried and banged on the bathroom door when my wife locked herself inside for her own time-out.
One night he refused to step into his bathtub. The naked boy climbed on and off the bathroom scale a dozen times, watching the needle rise and fall. I said, “I’m going to count to three. If you’re not in your tub by the time I count to three, I’m going to help you get in.” With no standard bathtub in our old house, I always situated a small plastic tub of warm water on the floor of our shower stall.
His happy grin disappeared. He came and peered into the still water as if it were shark-infested. I stood behind him. “One…two…threeeee…” He stuck one foot into the shower stall near his tub but then withdrew. “I’ll help you then,” I said, securing my hands around his tiny waist.
“No.” He squirmed and grabbed my hands with more strength than little piston arms should have. “No, Daddy,” he implored. “No…no…no…”
Was I crazy? Did I really want to give him one of those baths where he stands and cries the entire time? Did I want more broken hearts on this night? What were the alternatives? “Do you want to take a shower with me?” I said.
“Yah.” He leaned in and examined his bath water. “Dump it,” he said. So I did, discovering at the same time that there were better solutions than overpowering a child.
To our consternation, the boy didn’t seem to care whether he offended anyone when we were out in public. This was embarrassing because I thought he was an extension of me. If he displayed aberrant behavior, I was to blame. The first time my wife and I took him to a Christmas Eve candlelight service at the community church, he squirmed during a lengthy Bible reading that preceded the ceremonial lighting of the candles. The boy whispered, “When they gonna light da candles?” I whispered, “Pretty soon.
When the Bible reading failed to end within his concept of “soon,” the boy shouted, “LIGHT DA CANDLES!!!” The congregation laughed, giving thanks to God perhaps that this trouble was not their own. I had slunk down, feeling my face flush and my hands go damp.
When the boy created a public ruckus, I wanted to pretend he didn’t belong to me. I’d had a dog once, a friendly beagle, and had been able to disassociate myself from his public behavior by pretending to be an innocent bystander. Among other offenses, the dog had once bolted away from our ocean surf walk on a Cape Cod beach and run to the dunes to sniff the bac ksides of three naked sunbathers, causing them to bolt upright and welcome him with hugs and ear scratches. I had stared out at the ocean as if I hadn’t seen anything. Since I was in a swimsuit and they were not, it seemed inappropriate somehow for me to wave from a distance to apologize for my dog’s ticklish intrusion.
In most situations, the public knew the boy belonged to my wife and me. Consequently, I felt the anxiety of a clueless father who thought he might prevent such incidents with some preventative dialogue.
Prior to the next Christmas Eve candlelight service a year later, I asked him not to make any disruptive shout-out to the minister as he had the previous year. Once settled there between my wife and me, he pushed a toy truck over my leg, up the back of the pew, and down again. The service progressed, and the boy remained quietly in his world. Or was he? The minister concluded a passage with the statement, “Peace on Earth, good will toward men.”
The boy leaned toward me and whispered, “What’s peace?”
I looked into eyes that demanded an answer. If my answer was insufficient, it meant follow-up questions. I whispered, “People being nice to each other.”
He nodded and pushed his toy truck again. I breathed again.
Before the boy was born, I had observed parents on the verge of insanity when their kids misbehaved in public. Some hit their kids. Some gave idle warnings. Some ignored their kids in the spirit of free-range parenting. I’d always believed there was something wrong with parents who couldn’t control their kids with rational dialog. With our boy on the loose, I was sure observers were thinking we were bad parents.
As he approached three-and-a-half years, I thought perhaps an evil spirit had possessed him. I’d read that a young child is governed by alternating stages of equilibrium and disequilibrium, but who believes a kid can go insane overnight. Not just “Read me a book.” It was more like “Read me the truck book, not that one, the other one, sit on the sofa, not that side, the other side, wear your black sweatshirt and your jeans, not those jeans, the other ones. I want some cereal, not that one…the other one, NOT THAT ONE…THE OTHER ONE!!!”
According to the experts, the child is very insecure at this point. Avoid confrontations if at all possible. This stage will pass. Pick your battles judiciously. Leave your child with the babysitter a lot.
In their book Your Three-Year-Old, Friend or Enemy, Louise Bates Ames and Frances Ilg say, “Three is a conforming age. Three-and-a-half is just the opposite. Refusing to obey is perhaps the key aspect of this turbulent, troubled period in the life of the young child. It sometimes seems to his mother that his main concern is to strengthen his will, and he strengthens this will by going against whatever is demanded of him by that still most important person in his life, his mother. Many a mother discovers that even the simplest event or occasion can elicit total rebellion.”
Having a better understanding of the boy’s turbulent cycles gave my wife and me insight into normal periods of turmoil, making us feel less like failures. We smiled and commiserated with one another then, saying, “How many months until equilibrium again?”
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