Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Halos and Horns

My mom used to say that as a toddler, I was like the little girl from the nursery rhyme, the one with the curl on her forehead. When I was good, I was delightful and when I was bad, I was rotten.

Really rotten.

I used to think the girl in the rhyme and I were remarkable because of our mercurial, no-middle-ground personalities.

Then the Grape hit the toddler years, and his disposition developed two distinct and opposite modes: angel and demon. Perhaps other people's preschoolers don't display such maddening Jekyll and Hyde characteristics. But with the Grape, I hardly ever have a clue from one moment to the next, as to whether he'll be sporting his horns or his halo.

It's possible this could be a genetic flaw in our family line.

More likely it's another one of the long list of things friends with children never mention to their childless friends.

Until it's too late. By the time your cooing bundle of joy morphs into an opinionated, tantrum pitching tiny tyrant, the time for refunds or exchanges is well past.

Little kids have no middle speed. This trait, coupled with their well-known ability to cycle through the full range of human emotions in under ninety seconds, can make life with a toddler resemble nothing so much as a visit to a lunatic asylum.

A lunatic asylum full of terrorists, with whom you must negotiate to get through the day.

And parenting a small child, even for the most authoritarian among us, is full of negotiation. I bribe my kid a lot more than I ever thought I would, because it works, usually in a fast-acting manner. And I admit it's gotten sort of ridiculous: more mornings than not, the Grape extorts some minor treat in exchange for getting out the door in an organized, calm and timely fashion.

This is my fault. I routinely make the judgment call to employ carrot instead of stick, because it helps me have a smooth day.

Besides, there are only so many times the neighbors will watch me drag the Grape's howling, kicking, screaming, boneless (like a protester under arrest) form up the block so poor Lila the Dog can pee, before they call child protective services.

What they don't know is that by the time they witness this unsavory spectacle, the dog has waited almost an hour since asking to go out; I've explained, calmly and rationally, at least a dozen times that we need to go outdoors before she bursts; I've given him the five minute warning that he needs to stop what he's doing and get ready to go outside; I've yelled and screamed and threatened to take away all the Grape's toy cars; I've pleaded fruitlessly with him to be a team player; and I've likely tweaked my back or knee or some other part of my not juvenile person whilst wrangling the Grape into his shoes/stroller/jacket.

I've discovered that threatening my kid with consequences works less reliably than bribery, unless the consequence can be administered relatively immediately. The Grape's demonic mode includes an utter lack of interest in loss of privileges. He not infrequently decides that his pointless meltdown is worth the loss of whatever future treat I'm threatening to eliminate.

Yesterday, he was a demon. He gave me a hard time about everything from the moment breakfast hit the table until the lights finally went out for the night. We had a three hour battle of wills over his nap, which he refused to take even though he had bags under his eyes like he'd just flown here from Asia. After the bust of a nap, he moped and sulked and fussed until bedtime. Nothing makes Demon Grape happy. Even if he just gets to ride in the stroller or play with his beloved cars, he will find something about the experience that displeases him.

"Low grade fuss" may not sound bad of you don't have kids, but I almost prefer the Grape's full blown tantrums. At least his meltdowns are so cataclysmic it cannot be sustained for hours on end. Low grade fuss, on the other hand, is like listening to the neighbor's fire alarm go off, for twelve to sixteen hours. It's not eardrum shattering, and you can work through it, but you're not going to be happy or productive, and you are likely to end the day, as I did yesterday, with a twitch and a migraine.

The other key things I've discovered about mercurial toddler dispositions are that the extremes are so disparate that it's hard to wrap one's brain around the simple fact that Angel Kid and Demon Kid are one and the same. Equally importantly, the human tot seems wired to sense the primary caregiver's breaking point. When I feel that I'm teetering close to the brink, the Grape whips out his halo and turns on the charm.

Yesterday was a brutal endurance race from one fussy freak out to the next. Today's Angel Grape has been cuddly, amenable, smiley and sweet. We had a fun morning, playing and running by the river with Lila the Dog. We ran a few errands like normal, civilized members of society. He ate lunch and went down for a nap without comment.

All I can do now is hope that when he wakes up, he won't have switched out his halo for his horns.

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