Why does it happen? Why are things with kids sometimes suddenly difficult? Marriage is like that — mostly wonderful and easy and energizing and then for no reason, everyone in that marriage is cranky and difficult at the same time and nearly every conversation tangles up into a tight little knot and you can’t pull it apart. Traffic works the same way. So does dog training, meal preparation, creative work, family relationships, and… well, and the weather. It’s all that same thing, things mostly flow along fine until just the right amount of this lumpy problem here, someone tapping the brakes just for a second, a slight hormonal shift, running late, a little pressure, background changes, something lines up just exactly right to throw everything into turbulence and it sucks. But then, you wait a little while and oh! Everything smooths out again and goes on.
Graham has been a huge challenge for us over the last six months. I know, we KNOW that every kid goes through phases of development. They have to do it. Their brains make them do it. Children can’t NOT do these things, and in fact they shouldn’t not do these things unless you want them to grow up to be unhappy because you never let them progress naturally through whatever any one particular phase was doing to shape their brains.
So you have to roll with it to some extent. But the reality is that some of these perfectly natural, very common phases are annoying as pee. As parents it’s our job to help him find appropriate outlets for his energy, and if that isn’t possible then it’s our job to buy a bunch of whiskey and then take up heavy drinking and then run out of the whiskey and go buy a bunch more bottles of whiskey and drink them all.
Because I don’t care what Neil DeGrasse says about how developmentally healthy a rules-free parenting style might be, there are times when seriously oh my crap if you don’t stop making that sound right this absolute instant, I am going to EAT you.
And every kid is different, right? so it’s not even something you can ever fully brace for. Different developmental changes will be more difficult for some kids, might last longer for some, and you never know until you’re already in the middle of it trying to figure out what happened to your life. Maybe your toddler was picky about food textures for just twenty minutes one morning and you barely noticed it… or maybe yours ate nothing other than that one brand of macaroni for two years. Some kids are the biters at preschool, some try their hand at lying, some whine even when there’s no reward for doing it, some panic over minor things, some splash in every puddle and wave their hands in the air like they just don’t care. But hey, some of the biter kids never happen to be in preschool, so it doesn’t come up and no one notices. Some of the kids who screech have parents who don’t mind noise at all, while yours might screek-growl-howl in the exact particular octave that happens makes you suicidal.
It’s all stirred in there like that. For most parents, maybe a phase of screaming the word “SQUEGEE!” in a gutteral falsetto wouldn’t even register as interesting. But for me, well, it sounds like nails on a chalkboard has a new and improved formula that makes it talk. If Gilbert Godfried himself were sitting at my dinner table I’d tell him to knock it off with the voice already and just talk like himself. That’s my kids’ lot in life I am afraid. They were born with parents who don’t like a lot of pointless racket and/or obnoxious fake voices.
I did know about these phases before I had kids. In college I babysat a very cool couple of kids until the older child, a girl around age nine, somehow got it into her head that quoting Shakespeare was super charming. And it is! Only she only knew one line and she refused to learn more, so she said “ALAS POOR YORIC I KNEW HIM WELL!” over and over in a million different dramatic ways until I finally told her okay, that’s enough of that forever. A few weeks of non-stop alas poor yorick and she went from being my favorite babysitting gig to oh man, sorry, I can’t, I have plans.
And when my brother was about eight he went through a thing of quizzing us about the prices of every piece of retail space we passed. “How much would that building cost?”
Which sounds really NOT annoying at all! It sounds charming, in fact. And it was charming until we couldn’t have any other conversations in the car because we were passing so many buildings and had to speculate on the probable price range of each one. And even then it would have been amusing as a single real estate-focused car ride but oh this conversational fixation lasted almost a YEAR and let me tell you something about me: I do not know how much that building would cost. And I do not like to spend energy talking about things that we have no way of settling by just talking. This was before we could look things up, so you know. Just imagine it.
It’s even more upsetting when your own child is the one with the annoying thing he does because now you have to deal with the twin hassle of being annoyed AND feeling guilty for being annoyed because you are supposed to love your child no matter what and never ever wonder whether you could put him out with the recycling.
So Graham. He switches into crazy mode and won’t back off, won’t get out of people’s faces, won’t stop making abrasive sounds or saying random words which are no longer random now that he has a list of favorites. He likes: Mop. Squeegee. Spatula. Vacuum Cleaner. Woozel. Chicken bottom. Wombat. Wayne.
And he’s not wrong! Those words are all 100% hilarious. That’s what makes it so difficult; most of the time when we want him to stop something, he is not trying to be mean or annoying. He is trying to be funny. And he IS funny. But then you have to stop being funny when people want you to stop.
This is the number one thing that gets him in trouble. STOP means STOP.
We’ve talked to him about how when you’re a grown up and someone asks you to stop something and you keep doing it, that’s called harrassment and it’s illegal.
And you can go to JAIL.
You just really have no idea how hard we have tried to get him to stop acting like a lunatic over the last six months. He’ll be himself, mellow Graham, easy and funny and sweet and engaging. Until something happens to make the switch flip. It can be a few minutes of boredom. It can be that he saw his brother’s eyes flutter awake in the morning or a friend coming over or until a waitress smiles at him. An audience! I will impress them with what a lunatic annoying random word generator I can be!
We give him time and places in his day where he can make all the kooky racket he wants. But there are times and places where being very loud and falsetto-hilarious isn’t okay. In the car, at mealtime, at someone’s house, or right in people’s faces when they have asked you to stop.
Time outs, asking, telling, demanding, yelling, taking things away, offering bribes, natural consequences, on and on and on and — no effect. Do you know about the Singing Bush? That’s my son. My son is the singing bush. Scolding, frowning, everything just pings right off of him. He’ll feign hurt feelings but you can tell that a lot of times, he’s only pouting on principle. He recovers instantly and forgets the grievance and goes back to being very cheerfully obnoxious.
A few weeks ago, in a moment of absolute frustration, I grabbed a huge white cardboard box that was waiting for me to cut it up and recycle it. Grabbed a marker and drew a big sad face. Above the face I wrote THE NAUGHTY BOX.
The boys were fascinated with it. Ooooh a box! A box for being naughty! That sounded great to them. I explained how it would work, but they were mainly worried about the sad face on the box. Why is the box sad? Will he ever get to smile?
Four minutes later, Graham was back to shouting Wayne!! at the dog right in her face. I asked him to stop, and reminded him about the naughty box. He paused for a moment before going back to his rousing game of Doggie Wayne-Face.
I went into his room and came out with his favorite pajamas. And to his complete, miserable horror I dropped the pajamas into the sad-looking box.
“What? When do I get them back?”
“What am I going to wear tonight?”
I shrugged, “I’m not sure. Different pajamas or a shirt or… I don’t know.”
We’ve taken things away before, but something about the giant sad-faced box makes it profound and awful. No, wait. Not awful. Something about the giant sad-faced box makes taking things away more magically authoritative and wonderful.
Is it ideal? Should we have to defer discipline to a stand-in cardboard parent with only one technique? No, no, nope. But holy heck, if you had a singing bush in your living room you wouldn’t care about ideal.