What to do when you don’t know what to do

Where is the hilarity, you might ask? Where have all the funny conversations gone? Where’s the real stuff of life? (Wait, it was just Jimmy Durante asking that one.) I dunno, really.

Mabel has calmed down, a bit, but Dash has ramped up the anger management issues, and it’s not so funny when he goes all hulk smash on me, because I can’t just hold him at arm’s length and let his not-so-little legs windmill around without connecting. They get my kneecaps every time.

This boy has never been physically violent in his life before. Even as a two-year-old, he’d throw things and rip up books but not hit people. So I’m hopeful that this is a phase; I just hope it burns out soon, before somebody gets hurt. And the rage is always directed at us, the parents: at school he’s doing wonderfully; everyone else thinks he’s the “easy” child – but right now, not so much.

However. As threatened, I took How to Talk so Kids will Listen out of the library, and I think it might just be saving my bacon. I even got B to read the first few chapters, though he’s still not as convinced as I am by it – he feels they’re presenting a one-sided argument, while I’ve been totally brainwashed and have decided this is the One True Way. It certainly offers a parenting technique that fits my style and personality, and even now that the initial Come-To-Jesus-ness of it has worn off for me, I’m trying my best to use it, and it’s working often enough for me to remain convinced.

If you don’t know the book, its basic message is empathetic parenting. That sounds all wishy-washy and lovey-dovey, but they give some examples of how you would feel when things aren’t going your way, and people in authority talk down to you, try to coerce you, or ignore you, and I found they really rung true. If I want to teach my children to respect other people and think of their feelings, then I have to start by parenting them that way. The book helps. It gives me tools that I can pass on to them. It tells me what to do when I don’t know what to do. I don’t know about you, but I really like that in a parenting book.

For instance. At least three times lately I’ve been faced with a boy who is determined not to give in. Whatever the original issue was, it has come down each time to a refusal to get ready for bed. There is no way to force this with him, and it’s very hard to get a graceful exit. Or any exit, come to think of it.

One of the problem-solving techniques in the book is to make a list of options. Even with a non-reader, you say “I’m going to make a list of the things we could do to work this out” and you sit down with a piece of paper and start writing. You list what the child wants, and what you want, and any number of options in between and around about and totally unrelated. Somehow, the act of doing this, giving his plight the weight that a written list denotes, and appearing to (yes, you’re allowed pretend) seriously consider what he wants to do, helps ground the crazed beast and draw him into the process. With a little luck, you’ll even think of some totally ridiculous options to inject a little levity into the situation.

Then you go through the options together and cross out the ones that aren’t acceptable to you, and the ones he doesn’t agree with. And eventually, magically, something appears that is not remotely related to the matter at hand, and you write it down and draw a big circle around it and he does it and then the whole thing goes away.

I know. It sounds as if it couldn’t possibly work every time. I’m not saying it will. But I am saying that several times now this has got me out of a totally boxed-in corner with Dash. Today I spent an hour asking him to sit down and do his homework. He never did. I told him that he could do double on Thursday (the week’s homework is due on Friday; we don’t have time for more than one day’s worth on Wednesdays), or he could find out what happens when you don’t hand in any homework. But either way, he wasn’t getting to watch his favourite TV show today, because he didn’t do it. He went outside to play after dinner, and when he came in he was under the impression that he could still do his homework and watch his show (on the Internet).

Dash tends to think that time is elastic and that the evening will stretch to fit all the things he wants to do, but bedtime is not so forgiving. When I told him the window on homework, and therefore TV shows, had closed, he had a total meltdown. It wasn’t pretty, but he still thought that his will would prevail. Now, I’m a pushover, but not that much of a pushover, and his way was not an option tonight. We were utterly stuck.

I got out my trusty notebook and a pen, and wrote:

How to get Dash to bed

Then I listed some options, like “Watch his show,” “Watch a 2-minute snippet of his show,” “Go straight to toothbrushing and bedtime stories.” I asked for more suggestions: “Watch ten episodes,” he said. “Watch 16 episodes.” I wrote it all down. “We sit on him until he falls asleep,” I added, for good measure. And “Run naked around the house five times,” since he was refusing to put on his pyjamas.

We started crossing things out. I had no idea where this was going, because we hadn’t yet hit on anything both of us liked. He grabbed my notebook and ran away. I sighed.

Then, out of nowhere, he came up with a new one. “I put on a puppet show of my TV program, and you make a movie out of it [with my camera] and I watch the movie.”

“Oookay,” I said, “but it has to be all done in five minutes, because we’re right up to bedtime now.”

“Okay,” he agreed. We got the camera. His father set the timer for five minutes. Dash picked up two random objects to be the puppets and started making them talk before I’d even found the movie setting. I filmed until (luckily) the camera memory was full. He watched it play back. And then he put on his pyjamas, brushed his teeth, had two very short bedtime stories, and was done.

It took time and dedication, but we resolved the stalemate without violence, without shouting, without tears. I don’t know exactly why it works, but it works. It might just save our sanity.

9 thoughts on “What to do when you don’t know what to do

  1. Thrift Store Mama

    The techniques outlined in the book work for me often now that Ramona & Beezus are older – I found it really helpful when they reached around 3.5 or so. I still think that there are times where kids need to have a tantrum to blow off steam.

    When adults have an argument (or at least when I have an argument) it is incredibly, incredibly frustrating when you feel you aren’t being heard. When I feel that way, it makes rage build inside me. So I could totally understand what the book is talking about.

    But whether it’s this book or any other book, the most important thing, I think, is picking something that makes sense to you/your kid, and trying it consistently for a few days.

    I’m so happy for you that you’ve got something figured out . . .

    1. (Not) Maud

      Exactly. I think I first read it when D was a toddler and a lot of it just wasn’t relevant. This time, it was exactly what I needed. (Though I found it interesting that I already do/say quite a few of the things they recommend, so I think I did take the first chapter or so on board even at that early stage.)

  2. bethany actually

    I’ve never read that book, but there’s this thing that some (a lot of) adults do to kids that just infuriates me. A child will come running into the room upset about something, or will fall down and burst into tears even though no blood is visible, and without really even trying to find out what happened, an adult will say some variation of, “Oh, you’re FINE, you’re ALL RIGHT, you’re getting all worked up over nothing.


    1. If you were genuinely upset about something, and a friend or your spouse waved your concerns away with an airy, “Oh, I’m sure it’s all in your head, quit whining,” you would rightly feel that they weren’t paying attention and weren’t taking you seriously.

    2. Telling a small child who is clearly upset, “Oh, you don’t have anything to be upset about,” teaches that child that her feelings don’t matter, or aren’t real, or aren’t important. It may seem like a small matter to minimize a two-year-old’s distress over a bumped elbow, but those moments are exactly when kids learn how to understand what they’re feeling, and why, and how to communicate those feelings to others. If you shut a kid up every time she starts to explain herself, eventually she’s gonna stop trying. Or she’ll turn into one of those bedridden invalids who thinks she’s dying every time she stubs a toe or catches a cold—anything to get the world to pay attention to her and validate her feelings.

    (Of course there’s a difference between listening to a child explain why she’s upset and then reassuring her that things will work out, and just waving off someone’s fears or worries.)

    All of this to say, I think the list-making is GREAT. It helps defuse a fraught situation (for both parties!) and encourages communication and creative thinking. All of those are GOOD THINGS. As I remind myself daily, sometimes several times, isn’t it better to have a kid who thinks and asks questions and tries to blaze her own trail, rather than a kid who just unquestioningly obeys authority and meekly accepts whatever fate hands her?

    1. (Not) Maud

      Bethany, exactly. That’s just what this book is talking about. I really like the attitude of treating children like humans, giving them the respect you’d give a grownup; but also recognizing that they’re not miniature adults and we/they have to work things out in ways that make sense to their minds at this point.

  3. JeCaThRe

    I just tried the list-making with W this afternoon. I wrote down a series of absurd ideas. W suggested things which were outside of the realm of civilized behavior. Most of the time was spent in discussion of the rules of the list-making process.

    We didn’t end up using any of the ideas, but it did give us both a chance to redirect the extremely negative energy in the house without me losing my schmidt or having to physically restrain W, at least not after I had taken him by the hand and led him away from the center of the conflict.

    Both boys are now much calmer and I didn’t burn the lasagna sauce, so I think it was successful all around. Next time I try the list, it might even be productive since everyone has an idea of how it works now.

    1. (Not) Maud

      Glad to hear it helped.

      The official rules say that you write down all suggestions first without discussing any of them, like brainstorming. Only then do you start to strike some out. That way everything gets due consideration, even if it’s completely uncivilized.

      I was afraid it wouldn’t work after the first time because the novelty value would be gone, but that didn’t seem to be an issue. Though he sort of rolls his eyes now when I say “Do I need to make a list?”

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