Monday, December 20, 2010

1...2...3! Mommy needs a glass of wine.

Some days I truly detest my life.  On these days, I loathe the screaming, fighting, wiping of bottoms, and most of all I hate being in charge of it all.  Last weekend I had one of those days.
The exact moment a calm afternoon turns to chaos.
We began the day by attending a holiday/football party at a friend's house.  My husband Ted, who, as I mentioned earlier, is completely obsessed with all things sports (he even considers the World Series of Poker a national holiday) was in his element, surrounded by good friends and Sunday morning NFL.  After he absentmindedly offered our 20-month-old an open package of dry Fruit Loops for lunch when she pointed to her mouth and said "eat", I realized that I was in charge of the children for the immediate future.

The kids were both in funks.  Elana, who hadn't napped in two days and woke up that morning at 5:45, was extremely and monotonously adamant that she would only eat chocolate chip muffins.  Maisy determined that it was a good day to learn how to get her way by emulating her sister.  When I tried feed the girls a more balanced lunch of cheese, hot dogs, and fruit salad, Elana picked at the strawberries and pretended to eat the cheese, before declaring "Yuck" and spitting it onto the carpeted floor.  Before I could reprimand her, Maisy decided that this looked like great fun and joined in with the spitting.  Elana was put in a time-out in the front hall (which she thought was just awesome), and Maisy was redirected.  Following the lunch debacle, Elana proceeded to hoard all the good toys from the other kids playing quietly, while Maisy ran around the living room screaming "Mine, mine, mine."  After rubbing my temples with exhausted hands and glaring at Ted with contempt, if not complete despise, I packed up both children and the spouse, and headed home.
Elana learning to form spit bubbles.
(Photo courtesy of Karin Asensio.) 
Bedtime consisted of Elana earning three more time-outs for 1) spitting on me, 2) ransacking her room, and 3) refusing to clean the mess.  Needless to say, as soon as the door to her room was shut, I was ready to retreat to a dark closet with a bottle of gin.  We happened to be fresh out of gin, so I settled for a cup of hot chocolate and banging my head against the coffee table until I passed out.

Why is discipline so hard?  Ted and I have been struggling with toddler misbehavior for nearly three years.  It started when Elana learned that she could drive Mommy mad by tossing her food on the floor, and then over the months gradually progressed to tantrums, biting, hitting, and the general obnoxious toddler behavior. When trying to find a disciplinary approach to implement, I learned that the prevailing views on this wearing matter are vast and very diverse.

New Age parenting encourages parents to talk to their children, to promote empathy, and use reasoning.  Have you ever tried to reason with a 3-year-old?  (I'd rather attempt to teach a labradoodle chess than reason with my toddlers.)  To look more closely at this approach, I consulted Dr. Sears' (our ever-loving, let's all co-sleep and breastfeed our children until they pass their driving test) website.  The good doc offers these tools for toddler discipline.
  1. Guide little hands.  Help your little one discover what he can and cannot touch/poke/place in mouth.  "Here is a nice ball to toss," and "No, don't throw the antique vase." 
  2. Respect little grabbers.  Be polite and respectful of your child.  Do not grab the jar of Tylenol PM from his explorative hands, he's just learning!
  3. Get behind the eyes of your toddler.  Try to see things from your child's view.  When you enter her room and see her ripping pages from a library book don't think "Oh no, now I will have to buy this book."  Instead try thinking, "That looks like a lot of fun to destroy things that aren't your own!"
  4. Distract and divert.  As soon as you see your child cruising towards misbehavior, distract him by yelling "Let's all jump on the couch."
  5. Offer redirectors.  Find a word or two that signals your child to start a new activity.  For example, when I yell "Elmo," Maisy immediately stops in her tracks and scans the horizon for a red, furry monster.
  6. Set limits.  All children need and want to know their limits.  Limits provide security and comfort.  Try starting with "No James, you can only have three cookies before breakfast."
  7. Take charge.  Be a safe, secure, and loving authority figure.  Let the children make mistakes, then talk with them about how to fix these.  "Little Noah, my love, I know you wanted to slam your brother against the refrigerator because you were mad, but that hurts him."
  8. Provide structure.  If these strategies haven't worked, you probably haven't provided enough structure for your child's needs.  Bad mommy!
    Living in our progressive community, these are the prevailing approaches to misbehavior.  A child who is hitting other children on the playground will not be spanked, but redirected to hit the swings instead. A toddler biting her mother will be told "Teeth are for chewing food, not for biting."  I faithfully tried each method, numerous times, but in the end, Elana still determined that yes, hands are for hitting, and teeth are indeed for biting.  It was time to try something less progressive!

    Last year I devoured Beth Lisick's hilarious book, Helping Me Help Myself, about her year of self enhancement.  In this book she tackles a new self improvement project each month.  She spends one month working on her financial problems, another month is spent getting into shape by climbing aboard Richard Simmons' Cruise to Losepreschooler's errant ways using 1-2-3 Magic, by Dr. Thomas W. Phelan.  After realizing that my own methods in toddler management were producing little progress, I decided to follow her lead and give Dr. Phelan a try.
    Dr. Phelan's approach is pretty simple: whenever a child misbehaves count from 1 to 3, leaving five second pauses between each number for the child to regroup.  After getting to three, a consequence must occur (usually a time out of one minute for each year the child is old).   There is no counting in fractions or decimals (That's 2.6!) and both the counting and the implementing of the consequence must be done without emotion.  The time-out itself is not necessarily a punishment, but a removal from the situation, and most importantly, a removal of the offending demon spawn from the parent's presence.

    I've been working with this approach for nearly a year, and I have noticed many advantages.  Foremost of which is that this method provides a solution for every possible behavior.  Dr. Phelan made me feel that I wasn't alone in my personal hell, and that there was a dim light at the end of the long, dark tunnel.  Every time Elana misbehaved, I patiently counted to her.  After getting to three, I would take her to her room for three minutes of time-out.  (These three minutes usually consisted of Elana standing by her door literally screaming, kicking, and tearing her room apart.)

    The second benefit of the method is that when the time-out is over, you don't discuss the misbehavior any longer- you start anew.  When the timer in Elana's room would beep, I'd call her out and say, "Come on, Elana, let's play!"  I have to admit that most of the time the chirpiness in my voice was very forced; what I really wanted to do was sit her down and lecture her about her terrible naughtiness that was slowly leading to my early demise.  However, not continuing the argument ended up saving me a lot of energy, stress, and wrinkles.

    The third advantage is that my year-and-a-half old, Maisy, learned to count.  As soon as I would say "That's one," Maisy would chime in "two, three." 

    You may be wondering why, after a year on the Dr. Phelan's program, our lives are still in complete bedlam.  The fault lies entirely with us (and by "us", I mean my husband).  There is little consistency in our behavioral plans; basically, Ted plays "good cop", and I get to be "bad cop".  While I try to stick to 1-2-3, Ted likes to talk.  "Now, Elana Badana, please don't dump liters of water onto the bathroom floor."  Ted insists that once the girls are teenagers, he's going to turn on his authoritative parenting persona, but right now, they are just so damn sweet.  Hmm... maybe he needs to spend more alone time with them.  I should go to a spa!

    It is probably unfair of me to lay all the blame on Ted- I admit that I am not a model disciplinarian in the least.  In fact, Dr. Phelan would most likely be physically repulsed when he sees me implement his method.  Instead of the firm "That's one... That's two... That's three," my approach can often be more like "That's one... That's two... Do you want me to get to three?  I'm about to say three.  Okay, that's it, THREE!" Then, every time I relapse into this softer, less authoritative approach, I admonish myself for the error of my ways and vow to be more strict.  I then spend the next few hours on the lookout for misbehavior so that I can properly count to three.  This irritates Ted and confuses the children.

    Some of you may be wondering why we haven't tried a third common approach, yelling and spanking.  I want to start by saying that I do not, in the slightest, judge parents that can correctly utilize these punishments.  I have just found that I am not one of those scary authoritarians.  When I was "saving the world" as a Teach for America, inner-city, middle school math teacher, I learned in the first year that I wasn't very effective as a yeller.  I guess that my students didn't find me all that intimidating, at five-feet-two-inches, standing in front of thirty kids, many of whom were over six feet tall, stomping my foot on the floor and screaming "I said sit down!!!"  Instead of retreating in fear, the students would laugh, and I would silently cry.  I had to develop a different approach that allowed me to keep my composure and the respect of the students.  (Whenever the volume of the room would reach unsuitable levels I would lower my own voice and start giving directions for the next assignment.  Wayward students were immediately shushed by their peers who wanted to hear the instructions.)  Now as a parent, every time I yell at my children, I worry that instead of reacting with the appropriate amount of terror, they may find it amusing. And, if I tried to spank, my weak biceps would produce something closer to a love pat than a punishment.

    I've concluded that effectively managing toddler behavior is nearly impossible.  Maybe Ted and I should just hide in our bedroom until the kids enter elementary school?  This approach sounds the most doable!


    1. Sometimes a glass of wine is just what you need! Mostly because I can be a yeller (and sometimes a spanker) and it keeps me in check to be a little more mellow :)

    2. You made me laugh so hard, I feel like we live the same lives! Wait, we basically do!

    3. Reasoning with toddlers doesn't work. They are still concrete thinkers. Dr. Phelan's approach is a good one. Whenever possible, avoid losing control and try to find some humor in the situation. Yogurt in the hair is messy, but it is also pretty funny.

    4. PS. That photo of Elana and Maisy is awesome!

    5. A neighbor just recommended this book on discipline: "The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child." I think I will check it out along with "1-2-3 Magic."

    6. While at the library this past weekend, my toddler decided to throw himself on the floor and throw one. He is 20 months old. I was in the toddlers play room with another mother and her little girl who was probably about 9 months. Now you know the scene, here's what happened. As my son started to throw himself down I caught his arm and lowered his head down to the floor gently while saying, "watch your head baby". Then he started thrashing while I calmly stood there. THis only lasted about 3 seconds for him to see he wasn't getting a reaction from me. At the end of the three seconds he quieted enough for me to say, "go ahead and throw your tantrum baby and when you're done then we can go." After I said this, he just lay on the floor. THe other mother said, "oh I really like that approach". I looked at her and smiled and said, "Thank you". Then I looked down at my son who was laying there quiet. I smiled and said, "are you ready to go baby?", and held my arms out to him. He reached for me to help him up of the floor and we were done. It's all in the application. Also considering that he to is entitled to express himself. This is the way he knows to express himself now so I don't want to tell him he's wrong or I could teach him inadvertantly that it is not ok to express youself. It doesn't always go this well but I feel confident that if I can do it this time then I have a shot at making this habit. I am a single mom, sometimes I thinks this hinders, but more and more I feel this is actually a blessing. I treat my son with respect and you know what, at 20 months old he does little things to help me. I am always sure to say thank you when I can see he is trying to help. It must be working because he consistantly helps me.

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