Thursday, December 22, 2005

Dear Stooped

Recently, my son threw a major tantrum. He knew and had been told that after the piano recital that he played in, his sister would go with his mom to a birthday party for another preschooler, while he would go home with me.

I reminded him of this before the recital, and asked him if he would cooperate. Calmly and responsibly, he said he would.

My wife and I had to fight him to get him into my car after the recital. He wanted to go to the party, and it wasn't fair that his sister got to go to all the parties and he got to go to none. In the struggle, I fell down on the sidewalk but did not get hurt. Son, if you're reading this when you are older, let me just say that you were no worse than most kids. All kids do some cranky, unreasonable things sometimes. I remember enough of my childhood to know that I was often the same. More often than you were.

When we got home I had to fight him to get his shoes off at the door. It's the house rule. He was extremely upset and retreated to his room. Smart move.

Trying to talk to an upset kid is like trying to dialog with a tornado. Or trying to put out a fire with gasoline. But I had noticed the week prior that when I gave him a written note to address his jealousy over his sister's birthday presents, his whole attitude changed. He seemed to "get" it.

So I slid two pieces of paper under his door, with a pencil. On the top paper I had written, "When we're upset, sometimes it helps to write down what we're feeling."

He wrote the note shown above. Typical that he would sign it, "Love," but it probably just indicates that he thinks all letters end that way. I often correct his pronunciation and spelling, but I don't think I'll teach him how to spell "stupid."

He's often very good and empathic, as I have said before. But on Tuesday night some combination of hunger, germs, school deprivation, material jealousy, lack of sleep, and perhaps sublimated anxiety over my disability caused him to go from sweet and cheerful with his sister to angry and violent -- in a matter of seconds. One second they were singing and laughing together, and the next thing he was the Justice League, fighting to rid the world of evil. Something about the stickers in goodie bags they'd gotten at the dentist.

His mom took him up for bedtime and asked me to bring the girl up for her bath. He wound up kicking and screaming at the top of the stairs, and when his sister reached the top step, his fervor trebled and he writhed over on his back to kick her. She fell backward down the stairs, but I happened to be right behind her, and because she fell toward my right arm, it reflexively reached out and stopped her fall. She could have been seriously injured or killed if I hadn't been there. It's pretty ironic that the reflexes of a guy who has ALS saved her.

Then there was plenty of yelling, but instead of whacking him, which was my initial impulse even though we don't spank, we banished him to the kids' room. I told him I was ashamed of his action. I tried to think of appropriate consequences. For one thing, I sequestered the Battleship game that takes up so much space on the shelf downstairs. But he didn't see me do that. I'll take it to Goodwill. He needs to know that he's lost something forever because of what he did. But a mere game isn't enough. I wanted him to feel it more clearly. So I took all his pajamas out of the special drawer in my bureau that he has been able to share. I also ripped off and threw away the note he'd taped there, labeling it as his pajama drawer. I went into the room where he was whining and kvetching and threw the pajamas on the bed, telling him again that I was ashamed of what he'd done, and informing him that he was no longer allowed to keep his pajamas in my drawer. I hope that every time he puts on his pajamas in the next few months he thinks about how it's not OK to kick your sister down the stairs.

Eventually he came out an apologized to his sister. Eventually they went to sleep. I went to bed utterly exhausted. My wife helped the girl with her coughing at roughly 3 AM. The kids both woke up bright and early.
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