Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Adam Makes a Sharp Distinction

Like all two-year-olds, my son Adam sometimes gets frustrated. He is growing, and developing new abilities and strong opinions, but his ability to communicate is not quite as developed as his desire for self-determination. He gets frustrated when he really wants something, but can't make himself understood. And, like his father, his frustration is quickly translated into anger.

I don't want to give you the wrong opinion. He is a sweet kid, and he has a very well developed concept of justice. Often when he breaks our rules, he asks to go to time out, understanding that behaviors have consequences, both natural and contrived. But sometimes his anger gets the best of him, and, like most two-year-olds, he tantrums. And, when he tantrums, all bets are off. I wonder, in fact, if his tantrumming isn't somehow connected to his sense of justice. When he has crossed a line, he acts like there is simply no returning. If he's going to be bad, he's really going to be bad. If he's going to get in trouble, then, by God, he's going to earn it.

Consequently, sometimes he hits. We've talked a great deal about this, because like most parents, his mother and I find hitting problematic. Violence may be a form of communication, but it isn't a form of communication that we want to encourage. So we keep trying to find creative ways to curtail Adam's use of physical violence when he gets frustrated by his inability to express himself and make his voice heard.

When he starts to act out, we try to help him find words, impressing upon him the value and power of language. "Use your words, Adam," we often implore. We help him find words to express his emotions, and try not to judge the words he chooses to use, understanding that anger and sorrow may be defined by most as negative emotions, but they are universally experienced, and far better expressed in language than in most other media. We teach him to say, "I'm sad," or "I'm mad." We also try to teach him to explore why he feels the way that he feels, and to communicate that as well. "I'm mad [because] you won't let me jump on the bed," or even, "I'm mad at you."

Like most other parents, we also consistently use timeout as a way to discourage inappropriate forms of communication, like hitting or flopping to the floor or screaming. We understand these behaviors as forms of communication, and try to replace them with more appropriate forms of communication. Both of these points are vital:

1. For us, violence and other forms of acting out are forms of communication, an example of self-expression that serves some purpose for the child (or the adult, for that matter, as we see these behaviors in ourselves, as well), and

2. We must be consistent in our use of disciplinary tools like timeout, because for Adam to learn to replace an inappropriate or maladaptive form of communication with a more appropriate one, he will have to be able to predict the consequences of his behaviors.

Anyway, as you can tell, we've been wrestling with his use of violence as a form of communication. When things in his world get out of control, he lashes out as a way to reassert himself, and regain some kind of power over the direction of his life. He's been getting much better at using his words, and so he has been less inclined to hit lately, but I'd say that he still slugs somebody a few times a week.

This morning, as I was getting him out of his crib, he didn't want to get out. At first he started to tantrum, but he very quickly moved to his words.

"Daddy, I don't want to get up yet. I want to jump in my crib!"

Part of being consistent, for us, is honoring his requests whenever we can, so long as he makes those request appropriately. If, in other words, he uses his words to communicate, and it won't cause some disaster to give him what he wants, we do our best to grant his request. So, he and I made a deal, and I set the kitchen timer. He would have two minutes to jump in his crib, and then he would get up and get dressed.

The timer went off, and I reached into his crib to get him out. He smacked me twice on the chest, and started laughing. I wasn't amused. After talking it over with Sami, I informed him that for hitting me he would have to get dressed immediately (if he hit because he didn't want to get dressed, it wouldn't do any good to send him to timeout straight away, because that would have accomplished his goal of avoiding getting dressed) and then, as soon as he was dressed, he would have to go to timeout.

"But Daddy, it wasn't mad hit, it was fun hit!"

We've never made that distinction before, but I think that he just made it as his creative way of saying that he wasn't angry or trying to fight, he was trying to play, and was just a bit too wound up.

Impressed with his ability to make distinctions and form a kind of argument for why he should avoid timeout, I let him off the hook. I still don't know if that was the "right" thing to do, but I felt like I had to honor both his communication and his intentions. I'm beginning to see that in parenting there is no "right" thing to do, there is only a kind of halting mediation between varying degrees of risk.

1 comment:

crystal said...

I don't have any children, so no advice to offer, but from a remembered kid's point of view, I'm impressed - you guys are great parents. My own childhood was kind of a horror story compared to Adam's :-)