How do you know you’ve spent too much time alone with a toddler? You develop multiple personalities.
I jest – kind of.
My son loves a good roughhousing session. Problem is, Felix doesn’t know when to call it quits, or, to be more precise, he doesn’t know how to call it quits. After running around the house hiding and seeking, chasing, tickling, dancing, and wrestling, I’ll tell him when I’ve had enough. (Felix can do it all day, it seems.)
Like with many transitions, going from crazy to calm is tough. He’ll keep tickling and play fighting, and when I don’t engage, he throws a tantrum or, more often, drops the play and just starts attacking me. I do all the usual techniques to assist him in this: giving him warnings beforehand rather than stopping cold, moving on to an equally desirable activity, presenting a snack to munch on and recharge. But like a puppy, once wound up, Felix is hard to turn off.
(Recently our babysitter made this literal, pretending Felix has a switch on his back that she flips to “calm.” Sometimes this works. In fact, occasionally he recognizes he’s too hyper, and asks us to dial him back. Other times we flip the switch and he moves it right back to crazy. It’s like he has freewill or something!)
I came up with a bizarre yet effective tactic that’s been largely working. Cribbed from the “good cop / bad cop” routine in television interrogation scenes – where one cop presents rewards and cozies up to the criminal, while the other cop is cold and tough – I created a playful persona I slip into when we get nuts. I call this guy Uncle Cuddle, which is creepy, I know. (Felix sometimes calls him Uncle Avocado, which in his toddler speak, sounds similar.)
Uncle Cuddle wasn’t a conscious decision; he popped out one day. He speaks, for reasons unknown to me, in a faux Southern accent that sounds just a bit like Foghorn Leghorn from the old Looney Tunes cartoons. Uncle Cuddle’s loud and boisterous, makes silly jokes, calls Felix “boy,” and loves to play rough. When Uncle Cuddle has had enough, he says he has to leave, and Daddy comes back. This sounds really weird, but it works. Just like a kid acts one way with a parent and another way with an uncle, Felix goes nuts with Uncle Cuddle, and reels himself back in when Daddy returns.
It’s gotten so that he’ll ask, “Can Uncle Cuddle come to visit?” when he wants to roughhouse. And it helps, being alone with him, to have the power to signal through my voice and actions when it’s ok to get the energy out and when it’s time to contain it. Because that’s the thing: though my wife and I have wondered about whether it’s good to play rough at all, given how hard it can be to come down after, Felix has a lot of energy he needs to work out physically – especially now, when we’re inside a lot from the cold weather. I wouldn’t want to totally stop anyway. I love hearing the kid laugh when I tickle him. It’s about the most joyful sound imaginable, akin to springtime birdsong, I think.
Now, with Uncle Cuddle, I can have my tickle pie and eat it too.