Theory vs. Practice: When Simple Parenting Advice Isn't So SimpleBrian Gresko
“Let him cry for a bit,” the doctor said in response to our tale of woe our son Felix, at ten months, had went from sleeping like… well, a baby, to freaking out when we put him in the crib. Like, Linda Blair in The Exorcist freaking out. Speaking in tongues. Flailing about. Dropping f-bombs. The whole bit, minus the projectile vomiting.
“Really, it won’t hurt him,” our doctor assured us. “He’s just testing boundaries, and you need to let him know you’re in control.”
So we tried it.
Felix’s cries didn’t stop once we left him unattended. And after a while they were accompanied by a strange thumping, the sound of two hard objects striking one another with great force. “What is that?” I wondered. And then his wails went up a notch, taking on the high-pitched edge they get when he hurt himself, bad.
I rushed into my son’s room in time to catch Felix banging his forehead against the side of the crib. Seemed he wanted my attention so much he was willing to do whatever it took to get it, including blunt head trauma. Still, my wife and I resolved not to give in. “We do not negotiate with terrorists,” we said, though we were terrified.
The next day Felix sported a purple bulge between his eyes, developed diarrhea, and staggered around the house like a zombie, his gaze hard to read, mood running to anger, and balance off — quick to fall and slow to get back up. We all had bags under our eyes laden with exhaustion. His violent antics had kept himself, and us, up all night. Because we’d heard that the second night would be exponentially easier, we tried agin. Ditto. And then we returned to the doctor.
When the doctor heard what happened, he shook his head. “This is no good. If he’s endangering himself, you must stop.”
But he had no other ideas. In theory it seemed so simple: cry it out. But in practice? Our son went to extreme measures to get his way.
Now we’re at another impasse, though a related one. Felix continues to demand constant attention from adults, almost as much as he did as a baby. Again, the theory is clear, at least from a certain school of thought. (Perhaps an old school of thought, I’ll leave that for you to decide.) Ignore him. He’ll figure out he can’t have mommy and daddy’s attention all the time.
Yesterday we took a trip to Stone Barns, about an hour outside of New York City, in the town of Pocantico Hills, New York. The weather was lovely, so we packed a picnic. There were animals to see — sheep and lambs, chickens and chicks, pigs and piglets — and grassy knolls to run up and down. There was also a friend of ours, a woman who works there, excited to have us visit and give us a private tour. In other words: a threat to Felix, because her presence meant that we couldn’t focus on only him the whole time.
It meant that when she said “Let’s go look at the newborn lambs!” he replied, “No thanks! I want to go home!” Ok, so that’s impolite, or rather, politely rude — he did say “no thanks” — but nothing a four year old doesn’t do. But he also pinched, punched, stepped on our feet, and slapped our butts the entire afternoon. Behavior that, to some extent or another, he’s done his whole life. Only now that he’s almost four, he can really hurt us.
Television was promised as a reward, then it was taken away when he didn’t behave himself. Desert after dinner met with the same fate. The bottom line? Though the farm had everything an active, animal-loving, good natured boy like Felix would enjoy, he just wasn’t feeling very good natured. Not when we weren’t doing just what he wanted, which, as far as we could tell, meant not talking to our friend, even though she’s a lovely person (and experienced educator, no less!) who went to lengths to engage with him.
Once she left, Felix’s mood swung up, and the crazy-sociopathic “Look at me! Look at me!” part of his personality crawled back to whatever psychic hole in which he dwells. Seriously, it was like being with two different kids.
The problem is that the advice we have on how to deal with this — ignore him — doesn’t work when he attacks us. How can you ignore a kid who punches you in the privates or wields his jacket like a whip?
One solution would’ve been to pack up and go home. But who suffers then? He wanted to go home, while we wished to enjoy the sun, livestock, and good company. So we pushed through, reminding him again and again to be gentle, feeling like we were the ones with an animal, this unreasonable little being who, though he has a good and gentle heart, becomes really nasty when things don’t go his way. What to do, we wonder.
In theory, we’ll find our way. But in practice? It’s a hard slog through these developmental stages.