Always Playing By The Rules?

Today I set a very bad example for my son… or a very good one… I can’t decide. Rules that, if broken, harm no one and bring great enjoyment to the breaker, seem to me to beg to be challenged. At least every now and then. But at what age is a child capable of understanding when and where this is appropriate. I mean, if Mommy breaks the rules sometimes… You get the idea. Let’s say (hypothetically) that a very pregnant mama desperately wanted to go swimming today – to be able to, for the first time in months, not feel like a two hundred pound lunk and do something completely different and fun. And let’s say that the only club with a pool that I, I mean she, had access to was closed today but this was not discovered till after getting completely dressed and ready for the pool with (her) two-year old and driving up to locked, dark doors. What would you do in this situation? Why, walk into a nice local hotel, of course, with a kid in one arm and a phone in the other, act like you belong there, and harriedly ask the janitor to please get the door to the pool for you. I mean, what harm could there be in taking advantage of an already heated and treated pool being used by no one. In reality we were doing them a favor because at least all the effort and money they spent on keeping up the pool was not completely wasted on disuse. Did my little man understand the concept of crashing a hotel pool uninvited? Probably not. Will he look back and remember and understand? Maybe. Do I regret it? Definitely not! We had a grand-tastic time and memories like these are priceless and could never be traded for a lifetime of always playing by the rules.

Overlooking the Bad – Empathizing with Toddlers

One of the dominant principles of positive psychology, which I speak about often, is the concept of acknowledging the good and beautiful things around you, no matter how small, and learning to appreciate them as integral parts of a bigger picture. Another key principle, which I don’t address as frequently, is the idea that we must also learn to overlook the negative, not so lovely parts of our daily lives and refuse to let them bog us down or preoccupy our thoughts. These two go hand in hand. It is very hard to successfully accomplish one without the other. I am more prone to seek out the good – acknowledge it, fight for it, hold onto it. Overlooking the bad does not come quite as easily. I am a natural worrier and am far too easily bogged down in everyday struggles. I know this about myself, yet I find it difficult to overcome. And sometimes it’s murkiness clouds my barrage of affirmations.

Recently, I realized that I have this same struggle with my son. I do not think I am negligent in any sense of the word in praising or affirming him. I constantly point out when he does something well or try to get him to notice all of the unusual and beautiful things that surround him every day. Together we discover all sorts of new ways to appreciate life. But when it comes to ignoring the bad, that is where my positive parenting philosophy too often breaks down. Toddlers whine. It is what they do. There are two ways to feed the whining and give it attention – by giving in to whatever is being insisted upon, or by constantly scolding and correcting the whining. Even negative attention is attention. So either way we teach our toddlers to crave the attention they get by whining at us. When really, as many behavioral psychologist will readily tell you, the best way to curb excessive whining is just to ignore it. Overlook it. Don’t let it preoccupy you. Go about your business. This, however, is VERY hard. Studies have shown that whining is one of the most annoying and distracting sounds in existence. Go figure. Most of us who are parents didn’t need scientists to tell us this. But sometimes even separating myself from the whining, giving both of us time to recoup, collect, and move on, I find it hard to walk away and ignore the screaming tantrum that ensues because I’ve asked my son to play by himself in his room for a little while. Every fiber of my being wants to tear into the room, put him in his bed and put him in his place. I mean, HOW DARE he scream like that at me! (As if it was ever even about me.) But this course of action accomplishes nothing. It makes him combative and yell back. And then how can I, in good conscience, tell him not to yell, when I’ve just finished doing the very same to him. Any child witnessing this reaction, with their vast stores of untapped intelligence, will know immediately that you are a hypocrite. So what should I do? Walk away. Not let it overwhelm me. Go back to him immediately when he has regained composure and praise him for doing so. Remember that very few, if any, of his behaviors have anything to do with  me or my parenting. Just as it is true in my own life, I know that all of the positive things I consistently share with him would mean so much more and sink so much deeper if I could simply overlook the bad and refuse to give it the credence it doesn’t deserve.

Instead of featuring my son in some of his less than flattering moments, I decided to feature myself! It somehow seems more fair.

I have to continually remind myself that toddlers lead frustrating little existences. They are still in the process of discovering their entire world. Every day they encounter new things with no box created yet to put them in. Every action is a science experiment designed, in their minds, to figure out ALL the rules. What will a nice big spoon of spaghetti look like if I drop it on the floor? How will the cat react if I try to ride him? What sound will my fork make if I drag it across the glass table? How high can I balance this stack of Mom’s books before it falls? If it’s fun to jump off a stool, wouldn’t it be even more fun to jump off a table? Very little, if any of the stunts they pull have any malicious intent. Toddlers aim to please and jump at every opportunity to help. And yet they have these giants following them around and constantly correcting them for no real reason that they can understand. No, sweetheart, don’t drop your spaghetti on the floor! STOP, you can’t jump off the table! Don’t sit on the cat, you’ll hurt him! No, no, NO! I always said that I wanted to say yes whenever possible because there are SO many reasons to say no. I had no idea! And these poor little people are forever thwarted in their experiments to better understand their world – and then told not to show any signs of disappointment, frustration, or anger. What gives?!? This is what I try to remember while dealing with whining and tantrums. I try to put myself in their shoes. Empathize. Show them a better way to express those emotions instead of mirroring their own tantrums back at them. I try. I do not always succeed. (For more thoughts on this concept of empathy with toddlers, check out this wonderful article by Melissa Sher. It was my inspiration for many of these thoughts.)

“Say what?”

Balance. Life, parenting, work, psychology, they’re all about balance. Often the pendulum swings too far in one direction or another before it finds a peaceful middle ground. I’m hoping that by the time my boys leave the house, I might have this parenting thing figured out. Or at least the pendulum swing won’t be quite so dramatic. It’s a long road getting there . . . but I think I’m ready for the ride.

“What is that thing he’s pointing at us and what is he doing?”

The Development of a Sense of Humor

I am continually amazed (and amused) at my 2 1/2 year old’s development of a sense of humor. It’s astonishing to me that in such a short amount of time he has gained enough of a grasp of reality and the world in which he lives to understand irony and a sense of the ridiculous. It began with a firm grounding in language that enabled him to recognize which were “real” words and which were “siwwy.” He would then make up the most absurd combinations of words such as opisnook and manganash and as soon as he said them he would bust into hysterical laughter. He didn’t need anyone else to confirm that it was funny. He knew. And we could go back and forth for half an hour making up outlandish words in turn and breaking for bouts of laughter. It is so refreshing that something so simple and silly can make even a grown up laugh.

Then, as his handle on the world grew even stronger, he began to appreciate the foolish hilarity of slapstick. Recently, as I was making him lunch, I let him watch an episode of Sesame Street on Netflix. As I was getting everything ready I heard him start laughing in the other room. The laughter grew into a rolling, un-self-conscious, un-contained giggle as though someone was tickling him mercilessly and he was about to fall out of his chair. And what was causing this display? Grover continuously tripping on a banana peel and it eventually landing on his head – the first door leading to the world of the Three Stooges, Mr. Bean, and even Jim Carey. And as I watched him from the doorway to the room, I was struck by the independence of his humor. No one was in there with him giving him queues about what was “supposed” to be funny. No one was making him laugh with tickles or funny faces or any of the other gimics we’ve been using since before he could see our faces clearly. He just knew, deep in his belly, that Grover was being ridiculous and it was funny!

And last night, before bed, he told his first joke. Daddy read him a story that had a joke in it and he remembered it and told it to me when I came to tuck him in. “Who goes to bed with their shoes on?” I don’t know Aiden, who? “A HORSE!” Bahahahahaha! I know, I know, it’s a terrible entrance into his world of joke telling, but he was so proud of himself, I couldn’t help but laugh with him. I fear we are in for many more corny jokes before Daddy teaches him all the subtleties of a dry wit.

The development of a sense of humor is not one of those things you see on developmental milestone charts at the pediatricians office or in popular parenting magazines and websites, but it is one of the most sophisticated changes I’ve seen in him so far. One that marks him distinctly as an individual and a kid, and not just a needy baby or toddler. I am excited to see how it grows!