Learning together

I didn’t get far into Alison Gopnik’s The Gardener and the Carpenter. I might revisit it later. There’s probably good stuff in it, but the central metaphor started to bug me. Is your role as a parent to shape your child into something predetermined, or give them the tools to flourish in their own way? OBVIOUSLY THE SECOND ONE. But this big picture philosophy doesn’t help a whole lot day to day, where my dilemmas are more like “how many maltesers is too many maltesers?” and “how do I get the Sarah and Duck theme tune out of my head?” and “what happened to the banana I put in the nappy bag?”

Even my own philosophical questions about parenting annoy me sometimes:

  • How do I set limits while being respectful of his autonomy?
  • How do I encourage him to be considerate and kind to others, in a world where well-off white guys are often given a free pass?
  • How do I meet his needs and find time for my own?

I ponder these things briefly, but too much time dwelling and I become convinced that overthinking it is part of the problem and I should just hang out with him and not stress. He’s trying his best to learn how to live in this world, and I’m trying my best to learn how to be his guide. It’s an iterative process, figuring that out together.

He’s closer to three than two now. Two and three quarters. My little big kid. Big wants, big needs, big impulses, big ideas; contained in this kid who still can’t pull up his own trousers.

He’s his own person. While there are a lot of unique aspects to the mother/preschooler dynamic, there’s no one-size-fits-all parenting insight that can override this. As with any relationship, there’s the core of two people spending time in each other’s company, sometimes joyfully, sometimes with frustrations. The mutuality of parenting is often understated, parenting is seen as something you do to your child, the child a passive recipient of parenting philosophies. But with the little dude, even as a baby, it never felt like that. It doesn’t feel like that with bub either – small as he is. Once you recognise that their behaviours are a form of communication, the back and forth is clearly there from the start. Any parenting advice that ignores this is pointless, whether it’s putting the parent’s needs foremost and ignoring the child, or vice versa.

The other day I was trying to get him to wash his hands and he said “NO MUMMY DON’T DO DAT MUMMY DON’T HARPT ME”, and I thought he was telling me not to hurt him, “harpt” isn’t a word, right? The surgery and post-op recovery was hard on the little dude, giving him medicine was a major ordeal, and in the past few weeks I’ve felt a huge need to focus on reassuring him that he is safe. I said I wasn’t hurting him, Mummy doesn’t hurt him, kinda worried, and he laughed “Silly Mummy, not say ‘hurt me’, I djust saying ‘not help me’, dat what word I mean!” Oh good, phew, you were having a tantrum because I was assisting you to roll up your sleeves. Because you want to do it yourself.

One night recently my husband was home late and I don’t really have a good system for sole charge bedtime. The little dude kept getting up and interrupting my attempt to settle bub to sleep. I put him in bed for the umpteenth time, go to change bub into a night nappy, and then I see his little face at the door “um, um, um, Mummy, I djust gonna HELP YOU get Ben weady for his sleep!” Flash memory of my childhood, lying in bed, trying to think of a plausible excuse to get up with the grownups. Then fast-forward vision to when bub is big and they’re a little pair of rascals in bunk beds, and I’m bargaining with them that they can have one more song, and they’re saying two more, and I’m relenting – which is all part of my cunning plan to start with.

He tells me he’s a big boy but not a very big boy, just a little big boy. His emotional needs are huge at the moment. Being two is hard. He runs up to me and says “Mummy I djust want a tuddle Mummy!”, or, even more tender “Mummy I weally need you dto tuddle me wight now”; or “I djust exhausted Mummy you djust tuddle me”. He calls me over when he’s watching videos “you maybe sit on da couch widt me Mama and I sit on you knee for my wideo?” I’ll be sitting on the floor with bub in my lap, and he’ll come over and hug my back. He’s like a puppy a lot of the time, all boisterous energy and exuberant love and bright eyes.

He is often overwhelmed when things don’t go the way he expects. I can see it building, see the triggers, and I usually manage to get in at the early stages, but sometimes the explosions burst out and he flails his little arms and says “NO NO NO NO NO NO I DON’T WANT DAT TO HAPPEN”

It occurred to me that whenever I try and teach him how to manage his emotions, I’m also teaching him – through example – how to help other people manage theirs. Sometimes when bub cries, he goes over to him and says “it otay, it otay, Mummy is djust over dere!”, and gives him a toy, or sings a song, or plays “Peter Boo” (he misheard peek-a-boo and he’s sticking with it). This morning, bub was grizzling just as Mr Daddy was leaving, and the little dude said “he’s sad betause Daddy dgoing to work!”, and he jumped down off the couch and gave bub a cuddle, and then said “it otay, I dstill here for you!”. TEARS IN MY EYES, GUYS!

Being aware of how sensitive he seems to be to his world, I try to remind myself to focus on the subtle messages I’m sending him. It’s kinda complicated though. The big picture is fine, treat him with respect, meet his needs, but the detail can be hard. I’ll think that things are going great, then out of nowhere, he’ll bite me or hit the baby, and I’ll be flustered and I’ll react and then I’ll think is there some way I could have reacted differently that would have been better? 

It’s a strange parallel. Raising a toddler and a baby is a bit like being a toddler, it can be overwhelming, you’re still learning, the terms of engagement keep shifting. If I don’t get enough of a break, sometimes I snap. I don’t know what will trigger me snapping until it happens. I hasten to add that it’s usually my husband, not the little dude, who is subject to the snapping. It’s weird, I can hold it together all week and then as soon as Mr Daddy walks in the door on a Friday night, those unmet needs burst forth. Everybody has limits, and when we’re pushed past them it’s not good, it’s like a balloon blown up too big, it’s going to burst, and telling the balloon to just stretch further isn’t a solution. At first, you think it might be a solution – it’s stretched this far, just a little more, just a little more, but eventually BANG. Lucy at lulastic has written a few times about how unmet needs cause explosive behaviours: whenever I lose my patience with my husband after a long day, I think of that. And try and find empathy for the little dude, who must feel overstretched a lot, by things I don’t always notice.

I’m constantly trying to find a more comfortable equilibrium to my days with him. Experimenting and misjudging and re-calibration. I’ve been wanting to write down some of the things I’m trying to do and trying to remember. They always seem important when I first think of them, and trite only a few weeks later. But this morning we had a rocky start to the first day home alone with both of them after a week’s holiday, and it reminded me that my tips for making the day go more smoothly are hard won.

(Our rocky start went like this: I let the little dude watch a video while I had a shower, then he wanted to keep watching, and eventually when I said it was definitely the last one and we were putting the laptop away he had a major tantrum, then he decided he wanted an iceblock and I said no to the iceblock, and he rejected my compromise suggestion of a piece of frozen fruit, and then we had a stand-off in front of the freezer, and then I said “if you don’t stop asking for iceblocks I’m going to throw them all away!”, which was a stupid thing to say and I knew it as soon as I said it and he went absolutely hysterical. Siiiiiiiiggggghhhh. This is when I remembered why I usually have the rule of no videos in the morning.)

So, despite the threat of the inane, I will write these half-baked thoughts. It clarifies my thinking, and other parents at the same stage may find it useful (in much the same was as I return over and over to Thalia’s pieces on this sort of stuff). It’s not advice in any sense. One person’s easy compromise might be another person’s ridiculous pandering.

General points

  • The phrase “it’s attention seeking” is always discussed as pejorative, like, oh you don’t need to respond to it, they’re just winding you up on purpose. I’ve been considering how completely screwy that attitude is. Attention is a very powerful need, and the behaviour we label “attention seeking” is them trying to get their needs met. If they make overtures for attention, if they request nicely that you come play with them, and you brush them off, it’s not surprising if they have a meltdown later. I’m trying to make sure I respond when he positively seeks my attention.
  • The better I’m feeling, the better I can cope with his needs. It is really hard to carve out that space though and this is the one that most often slips.

Positive attention: things that are working well

  • Giving him as much one-on-one attention as I can when bub is sleeping.
  • Being strict with myself about how much videos he watches by himself. If he wants just one more and I decide he can, it’s good for the final video to be a cuddled together video.
  • Low-stakes opportunities for him to decide whether to co-operate.
    • Often parents see things with small children as basically like this: why is it so hard to get them to comply with very reasonable things? But from their perspective, it’s like this: why are they always interrupting me to ask me to do stuff?  My first response was to minimise the asking. Which didn’t change anything, I was asking him to do stuff only when I really needed him to do it, and a lot of the time it’d be a mission to get him to go along with it. I wondered what’d happen if I mixed it up a bit. I had been saying “do you want to?” when the stakes were low, and adults perceive that as a polite request but I don’t think he did, I think he saw it as a suggested activity. I tried asking “could you please?” in situations where I didn’t particularly care either way. Just to see what he’d do. For example, asking him to pass me the pegs when I’m putting washing on the line, asking him to sing bub a song when bub grizzles in the car, to carry his backpack in from the car, etc. I’ve noticed that he’s actually very willing to please, so it’s shifted my attitude a bit, and he gets the chance to say no and have that be heard. And if he says yes, it gives me a chance to thank him for co-operating, which helps teach that concept, so in other situations I can say “I really need you to co-operate with me now”.
  • Making the most of boring time, like car trips. I can ignore him in the car, but it’s also a great opportunity to talk with him!
  • Thanking him for being a good big brother, saying that bub is lucky to have such a nice big brother, engaging him in activities with bub.
  • Games for burning off energy inside. Our favourite is “bed attack”, he sits on the bed and I thrown his soft toys at him. He loves it. He thinks it’s the funniest thing ever. He catches them and throws them out, and I throw them in again, etc. It’s good because it’s a rough and tumble game where he’s on the receiving end, so it’s useful for teaching him not to go all-out in rough and tumble games.
  • Games for connection:
    • Mimicking facial expressions (and “guess the feeling”)
    • Looking at each other and trying not to laugh.
    • Being turtles (this is a great calm down game, get them to pretend to be a turtle all curled up on the floor).
    • Tickling – tickling is also great for teaching boundaries and consent, because as soon as they say no, you stop.
    • Silly dancing together.

Disagreement without explosion

  • Pre-emption is good, knowing his triggers (too many big kids at Tiny Town always leads to bad behaviour, for example). But I also think it’s important not to get too preoccupied with managing things so that he never plays up. It can be 80% – 90% of the time but there’ll still be occasions when I don’t pick up on how close he is to his limit until it’s too late. Which means I’m also trying to teach him safe ways to communicate that his limits have been reached. Ways other than biting me or hitting his brother.
  • Naming feelings
    • A common tip is to help kids name their feelings, and usually this starts with the emotions that are easy to say and spell and draw – sad, happy, grumpy. But those aren’t necessarily the most relevant emotions. He would sometimes tell me he was tired when he meant “overwhelmed”, and so it seemed an obvious word to teach, he was trying to communicate that emotion anyway. I also taught him “hōhā”, and with “overwhelmed” and “hōhā”, we have 90% of the challenging toddler emotional states covered.
    • If he were to tell me he’s feeling hungry, I’d offer food – but he doesn’t usually say he’s hungry, he usually just asks for the food. At two, he’s too little to reliably know what he needs when he’s feeling a big emotion, that’s my job. But he can start to learn. Since I’ve been telling him “you’re a bit overwhelmed my darling, we need some cuddles and some quiet time”, I’ve noticed he will sometimes say “I owerwowmed, I need a tuddle”.
  • Translating him into “considerate adult” or “polite older child”
    • This is my attitude towards teaching social codes and “good manners”. A lot of their challenging behaviour is really reasonable once we translate it with a considerateness filter. They’ve only just learnt to be able to make themselves clear, of course they need a lot of help to subtly shape their message so it is more pleasing to others!
    • If he’s having a little hissy fit, I try and imagine what he’d say if he were older, and then I respond with that in mind (him: “NO NO NO NO NO DAT ONE IS NOT BEN ONE DAT ONE IS MY ONE, I WANT DAT ONE, DAT ONE IS FOR ME!!!!!!!!!”, me: “it’s ok, I know you want some stewed apple too, no need for a big fuss, you just ask nicely and tell me ‘oh that looks yummy, could I have some of that as well please?’ Sit up in your seat and I can get you some.”).
    • Letting him have his reaction is sometimes part of this. Toddlers are still learning “reluctant acquiescence”, and “mild protest”, and “half-hearted complaint”. If they’re going along with it but also whinging, let it go.
    • There’s a strong gender thing here too. All kids need to learn that it’s ok to communicate their feelings, and they need to do it in a way that respects others. But I’m especially focused on this because he’s a boy and might not pick it up from the rest of society if he doesn’t get it from me.
    • I’ve been trying to give him some phrases instead of “NO” and “NOT WANT IT” etc (see this post at sacraparental). It’s been working well. I get irritated when he says “DON’T YIKE IT” when I offer him food, and I realised one day that he didn’t know any ways to politely decline. Now he knows “I’m not a fan of that”, “I don’t feel like that right now”, and “I’m a bit unsure of this one”. Tension (mostly) gone.
  • Knowing when not to give him options.
    • Give your kid options! That’s what the advice usually says! Ok, but maybe I was giving him too many options, because he started saying “I djust don’t know Mummy, you djust tell me”. So. Um. Not all the options all the time? Options can be stressful.
  • Back down quickly and gracefully with a face-saving compromise.
    • This morning: “I’m sorry, I’m not really going to throw the iceblocks in the bin, that was not a nice thing to say and I didn’t mean it. We’re not having any now but you can have one after lunch, sound like a good deal?”
    • A more general example: “Let’s go to the supermarket!” / “NO NO NO NO NO NO NO WE GO TO DA PLAYDOUND DAT’S WHAT WE DGONNA DO!” / “The playground sounds like a great idea! We need to go to the supermarket too though, which should we do first?”

Shifting the attitude on the bad bits

  • Trust in the parent you are going to become. It’s hard now. It will get easier. Learning curve, etc.
  • Allow for mutuality. Learn from them. You’re still getting to know each other.
  • Have reasonable expectations. THIS ONE IS SO SO HARD. Extra hard because the reasonable expectations CHANGE as they grow. But when I think of the parenting areas where I feel like I’ve managed stuff fairly well, 99% seems to be down to a match between my expectations and the reality.
  • Use the things that go wrong as learning opportunities. Whenever I snap at the little dude I try not to be hung up on it, and see it as a chance to quickly model apologising. He also tells me off now for raising my voice, “Mummy, no loud gwumpy dtalking, use your nice dentle voice when you say tings to me!”, which is funny and cute.
  • Keep an eye on the secondary message. For example, the little dude is going through a phase of enthusiasm for vacuuming. And I’m a bit over it. But I don’t want to discourage the interest in doing chores. So we’re vacuuming the hall a couple of times a day at the moment.

This one doesn’t fit into any of my categories but it’s super important. Notwithstanding all the things in the list, when the kids are with other people you love and trust, let it all go. They’ll do stuff differently – and that’s good. They might be more lenient on some things and stricter on other things, and that’s ok, that helps kids learn the subtleties of behavioural expectations. They might figure out something that works really well for your child. Even if they screw up it’s a good learning experience. Like when my father-in-law gave the little dude a bowl of icecream before bed, forgetting that he’s lactose intolerant, and the little dude woke at 5am with diarrhea, well, that was not great at all, but now when I tell him he can’t have this or that thing because it’ll make his tummy sore he knows what I’m talking about.


2 thoughts on “Learning together

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