By Gregory Keer
My son is going through a grumpy stage. And a selfish stage. And a tantrum stage. He has enough sulks, brooding looks, and dagger I am going through a stage myself. It’s called the I-am-a-weak -minion-of-a-3-year-old stage.
What chance do I have against a boy who can be so confoundingly difficult and so darn adorable at the same time? Every request I make is met by a “no,” or a creative alternative. Take this classic episode from “Scenes From the Dinner Table”: “How ‘bout some more broccoli,” I encourage. “No,” he fires back. “You used to think it was as good as dessert,” I respond. “No, I didn’t,” he says, giving me his best “You’re tearing me apart!” Rebel Without a Cause impression. I then try to explain to him that, “I am your father and I distinctly recall that you preferred broccoli to cookies when you were younger.” “Well, I don’t like it anymore. It sticks in my teeth,” he offers, indicating a green sprout with his tongue.
Then I try getting mad, “You cannot leave the table until you eat something healthy!” I say, pounding my fist on the table. How does he respond? He laughs himself off the chair. How else do you respond to a pushover who tries to act tough?
All of this is a result of what some of those smug, know-it-all child development experts (my wife included) call the “first adolescence.” This is the time toddlers/early preschoolers bombard their parents with an arsenal of defiance, manipulation, and emotional see-sawing that rivals that of teenagers. All of this is in the name of gaining dominance and independence.
It’s a valiant battle for power, and he is really good at it. Take this little nighttime conversation for example: “Let’s brush your teeth,” I say. “OK, let’s do it with the tube of toothpaste,” he says as he ingeniously saves time and effort by rubbing the Tom’s of Maine Silly Strawberry tube over his baby teeth. This time, I laugh, and thereby lose all credibility as an authority figure for at least a week.
I constantly teeter between bemusement and frustration in the face one-liners that any teenager would be proud of. “It’s not fair” is a favorite he uses. It’s the utility fielder of sayings that comes in handy whenever he’s not allowed to watch any more <i>Land Before Time #148</i> or told he needs to wear a jacket because it’s colder than ice cream outside.
There’s the “I’m not tired/I’m tired” combo platter. This involves saying he’s not tired when it’s 10 at night (don’t ask how he gets that far). We especially love it when he says “I’m not tired,” then promptly crashes into slumber like a KO’d heavyweight. He uses “I’m tired” when he doesn’t want to put away his toys. He also uses this excuse to try to stay in bed late (a time-honored sign of a teenager). And then there’s the now-famous “I’m tired of taking naps at school.” Try to untangle that one, why don’t you?
Other links between the age of 3 and 16 are his fussiness about his wardrobe, the way he struts like a tough guy around the girls in his class, and his repeated cry of “I don’t want to go to school” (my wife and I have visions of him cutting from circle time to go shoplifting in the candy aisle at Ralphs).
Lost in all of this are my feelings. I’m the one who feels like throwing a tantrum when I offer to put on his shoes, only to be pushed away. “I want to do it!” he says. Patiently, I watch him struggle for a couple moments. Then he says, “You do it, Daddy.” So I start putting them on before he barks, “Not these shoes. I want my <i>other</i> shoes.” And that’s not to mention the bruised ego I suffer when my little angel rebuffs me whenever I ask him how his school day went, “I’m not going to tell you.” Ouch!
But while teens are on their way to the adult world, where power and independence are vital to survival, a 2 to 4 year old is on his or her way to the playground. So the experts recommend that parents be “firm in a gentle manner.” But what exactly does that mean? It sounds like they suggest I whisper when I say, “Don’t poke your baby brother in the soft spot on top of his head.” And, should I give him a snuggle while I warn, “Sit on your tush in that chair or you’ll fall and break your arm”?
For the most part, I follow the experts’ advice (toning down the violent imagery) and have modest degree of success, despite my occasional meltdowns into immaturity (“Fine, if you won’t sit still for this picture, I won’t color with you later!”). What’s important is that I see my son for what he is — a little boy who has a healthy quest for independence and the most glorious giggle for me when I come home for dinner.