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08/19/2009

Help me civilize my son and I'll let you ride in the front

Oh, you lovely Internets, you always pull me through.  You always give me just what I need: sympathy, ideas, company, different points of view, the occasional decisive ass-kicking I'm sometimes just begging for.  Thank you so much for your warm words on my last post.  Blogging has given me a lot of pretty amazing gifts — why, I defy anyone to improve upon the smooth, smooth ride and practical luxury of the brand new seven-passenger minivan given to me by the kind people at Honda USA.  Do I make myself clear, Toyota? — but above all it's shown me that however hard I find the going, I never need be alone.  Thanks for coming through, friends inside the computer.

I treasure the support, and I especially love hearing your stories, even the sad ones.  See, I came kind of late to empathy.  (Some might say I've only partly arrived.  To them I say, fuck off.  Who cares what you think?)  Your stories, shared on blogs and in comments, have been instrumental in helping me develop some.  It still doesn't always come easily, but with every story I read it's impressed upon me again that whatever the work, it's worth it — the payoff is so rich, that knowledge that we're all in this together.

And speaking of empathy!  Because we were!  And the helping me!  Because you do!  I need some advice, if you have any.

Charlie's been going through a rough patch lately.  If we lived in an earlier time and place, we might be inclined to say he'd been possessed by the Devil.  And then, post-diagnosis, you'd call me Goody Julie, and I'd call you Goody Internet, and we'd all get together and maybe raise us up a barn or concoct a batch of small beer or, I don't know, band together and disapprove strenuously of something before pressing my sweet small son between two large, flat stones to squeeze the very evil clean out of him.  And then maybe we'd search a neighbor for vestigial nipples, just for fun.

But since I live in 21st century America, I'll say instead that he's been embroiled in a flirtation with being wicked.  He's experimenting with badness as he understands it: speaking rudely to adults, refusing to do as he's told, peeing on toys — which, I mean, hahahaha — and just generally making himself unpleasant company.  All that I can live with; I think it's normal and age-appropriate and even kind of funny a lot of the time.  (Charlie shouts, "I won't do what you say, and you can't make me."  And then I go all Blofeld and say, in a detached, amused voice, "Oh, I think you'll find I can, Mr. Bond."  And then I stroke an exotic pet, if one happens to be to hand.)

Those impulses are disagreeable but manageable.  What worries me more about his recent behavior is his inability to control his anger, his tendency to lash out physically when something pisses him off.  In the last week he's had two incidents at preschool involving striking a teacher.

Oh, my God, y'all, my kid hit a teacher!

I can't even describe the way my stomach lurched when I heard about it, or how embarrassed I am even to type those words.  And how flummoxed I am when I think about what to do.  (And how ambivalent I am about posting this.  Attention, employers of 2029: I am speaking to you from the paaaaaaast.  Sure, he behaved like a creeeeeeep.  But hiiiiire my sonnnnnn regardlessssssss.)

What we've told Charlie, time and again, is that it's not okay to use your body to show you're angry.  I hoped this formula would make it clear that while we're perfectly willing to talk about it when he's mad — and he is terrifyingly good at using his words, and several other people's worth, too — hurting other people or damaging property won't be tolerated.

And it's not, within the framework of discipline that we've established.  But that framework seems to be inadequate right at the moment; something is going on with him that keeps him from considering, in the moment, the consequences of making his anger physically felt, and I don't know how to respond.

We've been feeling our way, trying to come up with a strategy, some approach that involves both punishment — consequences, schmonsequences: my kid hit a teacher — and discipline.  Something that will make enough of an impression that even in the heat of the moment, it'll keep him from doing it again.  Something, and I say this with all love, that hits him where it hurts.

I have hopes for the latest idea, one shared with me by Julia, which is to delete his favorite program from the TiVo.  I talked with him about this plan on Sunday, and reminded him of it on Monday morning.  When Monday afternoon rolled around and it happened he'd done it again, I told him it was coming; walked him into the den; and ignored his pleas for mercy as I touched the cursèd clear button.  Taste my steel, Super Why.  I never liked you one bit.

(I make it sound like I enjoyed ripping out the heart of my vulnerable child and stamping it under my jackboot.  Not exactly so.  It's kind of like how I'd feel if lightning struck my house, ripped through the roof, and demolished my stackable front-loading washer and dryer in a highly localized column of destruction.  I'd be terribly distressed overall, and daunted by the inconvenience, but I'd find some small solace in choosing a new machine to replace the lemon of a washer that even after repairs makes my clothes smell like vomit.  Electrolux, are you listening?)

Anyway, that made an immediate impression, down to his reminding me for the next few hours that he was so angry that he didn't love me anymore.  "Oh.  Well, I still love you," I assured him pleasantly.  And then shortly before dinner, a meal planned for his enjoyment, he volunteered that he was still angry, but he'd decided he did still love me.  This Stockholm Syndrome thing kicks ass.

And so, more reminders.  We sent him off to preschool this morning with a reminder — behave, or Word Girl's worm food — and some small hope that this, at last, had made some impression.  I sure hope it does, because I'm running out of ideas.

Here is where your help comes in, if you wouldn't mind sharing your experience.  How do you impress upon a four-year-old — who, as the book warns me, "not only kicks and spits (if aroused) but may even go so far as to run away from home if things don't please him," so if you happen to be at the bus station please keep an eye out for my disgruntled Super Why-less son — that it's really, really not okay to use his body to show he's angry?  How do you make that clear?  How do you handle it when you need to make a punitive point?

And here is where we come around to empathy.  I'm concerned that Charlie's not especially concerned with it, if you see what I mean.  Charlie's teacher — D., who remains thus far unsnared — has let Charlie know that even though she's a grown-up, her body can still be hurt.  And we've let him know, time and again, that to hurt someone, either her body or her feelings, is a serious matter, and that other people's feelings are important.  I try to demonstrate this, to lavish the benefits of it on him, every time I apologize for a mistake, or thank him for doing something that makes someone feel good, or exclaim sympathetically over his stubbed bare toe instead of rolling my eyes and muttering, "You know those shoes I kept telling you to put on...?"  (Employers of 2029!  Make him wear steel-toed worrrrrk booooooooots!)

But I've yet to see any real understanding of this on his part.  I don't know that all the "how would you feel if...?"s and "do you remember when you were upset that...?"s and "did it feel good when your teacher kicked you in the face?"s are getting through, and I don't know how to make them.

So, Internets, I ask you, with humility and gratitude: how have you approached similar problems?  How do you crush your child's fragile spirit through punitive consequences, and how do you make him understand that other people's fragile spirits must not be likewise crushed?

Wait, that didn't come out right.  Be patient; I am still learning.  Let me try again: What have you come up with as a really meaningful, effective consequence for physically lashing out?  And how do you teach your child to care enough for others that they avoid doing so in the first place?

Pull me through this one, friends, and I'll let you ride in the Lexus I'm sure I'll be getting next week.  (Toyota, this isn't a bluff.)

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