The secret ingredient is pectin
Last night before dinner I told Charlie I'd made an exxxxxtra-delicious dessert and said that if he cooperated until the end of the meal, he could have some. Iiii know. I know everyone says not to use food as a reward, but I kind of think that might be bullshit. I am not so far divorced from my hard-wired rat-in-a-maze nature that I won't hustle for a piece of cheese, you know? And so it is with my older son.
Only he's been slow to catch on about dessert. I don't offer it frequently, and when I do there invariably dawns the moment when Charlie realizes that instead of the tower of sugary delights he's obviously been imagining, all I'm giving him is fruit. His stricken look of disbelief is equal parts tragic and ridiculous. But because I'm not totally heartless, I give him his choice of fruit. And although we always have applesauce and berries, it's not that easy to keep durian on hand, so I do expect some credit for that.
So last night's understanding was that he'd get dessert if he cooperated. Part of the deal was that he'd set the table without complaining. This is his nightly job and he knows it, although he never likes it; most evenings I ignore his muttering about it because it's fun to eavesdrop. Did you know he wants a robot? To set the table? And that when he is a man he will invent one? But right now he can't because he's not allowed to use wires or experiment with electricity? But when he's a man? Solder city, baby.
Last night, though, after a long day of This parade is boring (it was) and I don't feeeeel like it (me, neither) and Why do I have to wash my hands? (because you've been handling a decomposing badger) and You never let me photosynthesize (fine, try it, see if I care), my tolerance was low. I told him he'd need to do it without complaining, and reminded him that dessert was in the offing. No, it's not an obvious logical consequence, but then I'm not sure there is a direct, observable consequence of what boils down to thoughtcrime. When the questionable act involves making yourself unpleasant to be around, the eventual consequence is that people aren't going to want to go out of their way to do nice things for you; engineering an immediate, tangible demonstration of that fact seems to make as much sense as any other approach. Help me out here, if you're into logical consequences: what's the most productive response to a plain old crappy attitude?
Anyway, he eventually set the table, and with every utensil he placed, he issued another complaint. I reminded him three or four times, but by the time he'd gotten to the oyster fork I'd had enough. Without any more commentary, we sat down to dinner and ate. After picking at his food, Charlie looked up with an expectant look on his face and said, "I'm ready for that exxxxxtra-delicious dessert!" And the very earth shifted beneath his unsteady feet when I regretfully told him that, alas, he had forfeited his dessert earlier.
That didn't surprise me; indeed, I'd counted on it. Here is what he said, alternately howling and weeping:
I am so very angry about this! I really wanted that exxxxxxtra-delicious dessert! You should give it to me! I am mad that I won't get some! [Pause.] Are you going to give me some?
And when that didn't work,
Please! Please give me some dessert! I really, really want some! Please! You must! It's required! Why are you not doing what I say?
I know you really love me and care about my feelings. If you want to cheer me up, the very best way to do it is to give me some dessert!
Which is kind of awesome, really. And totally ass-hilarious.
We moved straight into bath and bedtime, no quarter given, no dessert consumed. He eventually felt better. I felt fantastic. I was really proud of him. It's progress. He hadn't lashed out. He hadn't lost his mind. And he hadn't even used ugly words about it. He didn't threaten bad behavior; he tried to motivate me in a positive way by appealing to my good nature. To me, that suggests that when we do the same for him, he notices, and maybe — possibly — agrees that that's the tactic most likely to produce the desired result.
Not that it worked, of course. And in fact that's probably a good thing. I think he'd have been good and pissed had he realized that the exxxxxtra-delicious dessert I'd made was, in the end, still more fruit. Baked. With granola. But fruit.