i’m refusing to call it the "terrible threes"

Back when I worked as an engineer I served on interview committees screening and hiring for my employer. We had a structured interview process with about a dozen different categories you’d use to score an interviewee – including Work Record, Safety, and a category I liked called Organizational Compliance. The latter category asked, would the interviewee likely follow corporate rules and conventions smoothly once introduced to our work culture? Did the interviewee have a history of shrugging off rules and standards based on their own set of values, rather than adhering to the employer’s conventions? (Sounds vaguely Orwellian, eh?) But since my experience there, I have thought about people in those terms – those who follow rules nicely and those wild cards who decide for themselves what rules to bend, break, or go against. Over the years of being a parent I have noticed my daughter Sophie is “organizationally compliant”.

My son Nels does exactly what he wants and will strike at you like a cobra if you attempt to interfere.

I am proud of Nels that he is ferocious, that he knows no fear, that he knows what he wants. I have not however enjoyed his tendency as of late to yell demands, or to defy orders. I especially have not enjoyed his very mean tone of voice when he says, “Just leave me alone!” (pronounced, “Juss reave me arone!”) or “Whatever!” (pronounced perfectly and with a rather adult, withering delivery).

I have decided to handle his meanness, his kicking, his yelling, etc. by being patient, by repeating to him, “Please do not yell at Mama. You say, ‘Thank you, Mama!’ and ‘What a good idea, Mama!'” As goofy as this sounds, it actually seems to work; his brow will instantly clear and his voice turns to sunshine and honey (my mom posits this is because he literally repeats almost every word Sophie says when they are together; they are like some whacky two-part robotic sibling unit) and he brightly says, “Thank you, Mama!” I have even seen him, upon correction by me, begin to give me sass or say something mean then pause and instead say, “Thank you, Mama.” (often, he will then wander away and I hear him saying to himself, “I don’t say ‘whatever.’ I say, ‘Thank you, Mama'”). In any case, the repetitive kindness model seems to have far better results than when I get mad and scold, shame, grab him up for an abrupt time-out. I do employ time-outs as they are rather effective; I just don’t want to be mad and browbeating him (or really beating him) as I take him to his room.

My mother, father, and husband seem to support my model to a much lesser extent. They are likely to scold, shame, or mock my son and his anger or displays of defiance. I mostly let them do this without comment, but I have at times offered up my desire they don’t belittle him. First off, I think no one should be belittled, least of all when they’re having a hard time. And I can relate to Nels on so many levels; he is, after all, at the mercy of almost any adult’s pleasure. In my view, he needs models and teachings of compassion and self-control to balance out his increasing personal power as he grows. And perhaps most importantly I do not want to teach Nels that his anger is either SO UNACCEPTABLE or, on the other end of the spectrum, that he is silly when he gets mad. I am instead focusing on teaching him impulse control, gentleness, and setting my own boundaries before I too get angry – in other words, I’d rather employ a calm and firm disciplinary action in timely manner than a now-i’m-totally-pissed-off-you-little-monster tirade five minutes past my tolerance limit.

Still, I do sometimes get tired of him kicking my shins or just over and over not coming to me when I ask him to, or chasing the cat repeatedly (until she wisely scratches him, at which point he is as upset and betrayed as if there was no reason to expect this), or shouting, “I need milk!” the minute he sits down to dinner.

I will say this: I am so glad that with my first child, when I’d see other kids kick or yell mean things I never, *never* credited myself smugly as parenting properly. I know in my heart of hearts Sophie and Nels have both been parented similarly and (relatively) gently and we are just seeing the difference in his nature from hers; I believe Nels needs us now to provide guidance we can be proud of, not feeling last-resort about.

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