Friday, October 25, 2013

Memo to Grape: We regret to inform you that you are NOT the CEO.

The Grape labors under the dual assumptions that he is the CEO of our family, and that he has veto power over any and all parental directives.

He is bossy, defiant and sometimes masterfully manipulative. These qualities may translate into executive leadership skills, someday way down the road, but for now, I don't see them as good points.

The Grape woke up this morning and declared, for not the first time, that he wants "everything he does not already have" for Christmas. Never mind that Christmas is still two months away.

When I calmly repeated, for about the millionth time, that it doesn't work that way, and that he is a very lucky boy who has way more toys than most kids, and maybe he should be grateful for all that he already has, he pitched a fit. "It does work that way. It will work that way!" he shrieked, milky Cheerios flying from his mouth. He started listing the kids he knows who have more stuff than he does.

I poured myself another cup of coffee and smugly congratulated myself as I heeded the preschool director's advice: don't engage with a child who is having a meltdown and/or acting like an entitled little twerp. (I'm taking poetic license with her directions. She has NEVER uttered the word twerp, or brat, or any applicable swearword, in my presence.) Score one for Mamma.

After the holiday demands got him nowhere, the Grape screamed and whined (back and forth in roughly 30 second intervals) the entire 13-minute walk to school, because he does not want it to be fall.

"I can't do anything about the seasons," I said, with as much brightness as I could muster. "We live in Boston. We have at least six months of chilly weather coming up and we need to deal."

"I want summer!"

"Keep moving and stop whining. By the way, you're a very lucky boy to have that nice new jacket."

"I want to go to Bermuda and stay there!" he hollered repeatedly outside busy Back Bay Station.

Maybe his recommended solution to autumn was funny and cute the first time he proposed it, as we walked through the park on a brisk late September morning.

Let me assure you, there is nothing adorable about a four-year-old crying and screaming in front of harried commuters and shivering homeless beggars at rush hour that he DEMANDS to move to Bermuda.

Parents of many children say, find his currency, and believe me, I've tried. I'm certainly not above bribing my kid, because it sometimes works. Sometimes, but not always or even most of the time. It works when I want him to do something, but not so much when I want him to stop doing something. Also, a big part of me thinks, if I, his mother, tell him to knock it off, that should be enough. Since when is he the CEO?

The other issue with bribery is that older the Grape gets, the more I worry that his currency might be actual currency, as in cold, hard cash. The Grape refuses to work for treats. He's not food driven. He rolls his eyes and openly mocks kids who will consent to work for stickers on a chart, even if they represent some delayed reward. In the moment, he doesn't give a damn that three more stars on the chart symbolize some grand prize. He will occasionally work for a new toy, and I have a pack of Matchbox cars stowed in a secure, undisclosed location, in case I get desperate.

But something else has to change, because I refuse to bribe my son with toys just for getting to school without incident.

Despite the morning's low grade fuss on continuous loop, we did make it to school on time.

Where we promptly disagreed about where to park his balance bike.

Me: "Park your bike here, where it's less it the way."

Grape: "NO!" (attempts to shove me out of his path)

Me (yelling louder than I maybe should have, considering the preschool is in a church): "Knock it off RIGHT NOW or I am taking away ALL YOUR CARS!!!"  [NOTE: This may sound nuclear, unless you've spent your morning with us, in which case you'd be wondering why it took this long for me to lose my cool. At least you would, if you know me. Patience isn't one of my virtues, though I've made modest improvement over the years.]

Me (in my head, to myself): A kid who pulled this crap back in the Dark Ages, when I was little, would have been smacked into next Tuesday.

Grape: NO!!!!  (surveys corridor, realizes he has a big audience of other parents): "I'm sad. I just need a hug." (surveys other parents' reactions and flashes me a triumphant smirk as he climbs into my lap for the requisite hug)

Clearly I need to regain control of the situation. I can't go through the school year dreading the leave-the-house-get-to-school-drop-off shuffle.

A friend who's an occupational therapist advises that when a child protests something, like leaving the playground in five minutes, for example, the parent should present a choice: "We go in five minutes or we go right now," and then enforce whichever the child chooses. Her advice: give a choice, but do not negotiate with terrorists. And make no mistake, a hysterical preschooler is a terrorist. I give her BIG credit: her tactic worked and we had a relatively uneventful play date departure.

So, with the benefit of four hours' hindsight, I think this morning I should have said, "Park the bike where I say, or I will take your bike and park it."

If I'd had a third cup of coffee, I might have put that together in the moment. Maybe it would have spared us becoming a major spectacle.

But maybe not. The toddler terrorist is like any other terrorist: you can never reliably predict when they'll strike and when they'll sit one out.

Part of me (call me old fashioned) believes the Grape, being the kid in this relationship,  should follow directions, because I said so, not because I stepped him through some process to make it feel like obeying was his idea.

Maybe it rankles me, because I really hate the  commonly repeated belief that "the way to manage men is to make them think [whatever you want] is their idea," also occasionally repeated as "The man is the head of the family, but the woman is the neck and the neck can turn the head wherever it wants."

If I empower him with choices (albeit of my choosing), am I creating a monster down the road? One who has to think he owns every good idea? Nobody wants to work with or for that guy...

Or am I over thinking this?


  1. As a mother to a now 6 1/2 year old strong-willed child, I have learned many things. 1-Choice is key, up front and right away and MUST be enforced at all costs (however inconvenient). (I did learn, however, that I should pick the choices carefully unless I really did want to leave the play date immediately). 2-It should be a forced choice. This or that. Never more. 3-Follow through EVERY time is key. If you give a choice and don't enforce what was chosen, you set the clock back every time without the benefit of giving a choice. 5-Always give a time count down (at that age, I always tried to give a 15 min, then 10 min, then 5 min, then 2 min warning (that we were leaving, that it was bed time, that it was dinner time, that screen time was ending). Now, I only need give a 5 min warning. 6-Pick your non-negotiable battles and leave the rest. With certain things, ease up, if they are not that important to you. Don't try to win for the sake of winning. 7. You are laying the groundwork now to making things easier as he matures. Things are MUCH easier now, but by and large that is because my son knows there are rules and boundaries to being a productive/helpful/happy member of our family and of society. I used to worry that I was going to break his spirit but the opposite has happened--he's flourished as himself but knows what will/won't be tolerated. That doesn't mean he doesn't still test and push and defy, because he does, but things are diffused MUCH more quickly now.
    I hope this makes sense and I in no way mean to sound sanctimonious. Just trying to share some of what I've learned and hope you find a nugget or two that support or help you.

  2. Thanks. I feel like 1,2 and 3 are so key, and it's so easy to waver... We have done the countdown forever with about a fifty percent success rate. (I define success as any departure that doesn't involve screaming, flailing or other disgrace.) And I hear you on picking battles. I do this a lot. But when he is whiny all morning, I play into his hands and escalate over something dumb, like the bike parking that made me lose my cool Friday morning.
    Still, I like four. Four-year-olds are articulate and game, most of the time. When he's not sending me over the edge, he's a ton of fun.