Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Pop Boils Over

It's very easy to get angry at a two-year-old.  Even with all their charms, toddlers really are three-foot-high tyrannical, violent, self-centered punks.  And I say that lovingly.  My own two-year-old was especially difficult last week, and I had some trouble putting together a blog entry as I spent much of Kyle's nap times with my head on my desk, trying to unwind.  Who knew that someone with less than three years' experience in the world could know just how to make your blood bubble for hours?  Apparently anyone who has had a two-year-old knows.  "Terrible twos" is a cliché, but there's a reason for that.

It's very easy to forget that the person I'm dealing with is only two.  That's a problem in itself.  I spend a lot of time with Kyle, maybe too much time.  It makes me delusional.  I start thinking that he's more mature than he is, believing that I can understand him, and he understands me.  Sometimes I think we're having actual conversation when I realize later that half of what I said sounded like someone throwing up.  "BWAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!"  Not exactly intellectual stimulation.  Kyle replies so well that I think we're onto something and maybe doing some father-son bonding, but then he goes ahead and does something that drives me batty, like throwing a brick across the living room, near the shrine for our TV.  That might be followed by a screech that makes nails-on-a-chalkboard sound like Miles Davis.  With an adult, you can criticize such behavior by saying the person is being "childish" and "acting like a two-year-old."  Unfortunately, two-year-olds are expected to act like two-year-olds.  Whenever my kid acts like an adult, he is sick with a fever.

Still, as a parent, I have this bizarre, self-destructive tendency to try to correct this behavior, thinking that a reasonable kid would realize that what he was doing is wrong and stop doing it.  Or maybe a reasonable kid would cry or get upset because he realizes he's in trouble.  Again, such thoughts come with the delusional thought that a two-year-old is reasonable.  Kyle, instead, gets a good laugh out of a scolding.   In fact, a scolding of any sort usually encourages bad behavior.  It's as if Kyle goes through a checklist once he gets into trouble.  Did you jump in the tub?  Check.  Screech?   Check.  Hit Daddy?  Check.  Kick?  Check.  Head-butt?  Check.  Bite?  Check.  Throw something?  Check.  Break something?  Check.  It's as if Kyle's saying, "Well, if I'm gonna get in trouble over one thing, I might as well get in trouble over EVERYthing." 

Kyle is a creative kid and knows when he's on a roll.  That's when he'll start experimenting.  At times it's very stressful, as it was that day he ran away from me, on the sidewalk, several feet away from moving cars, and didn't listen when I shouted for him to stop.  Other times, it's just irritating. On one particular morning, after all the throwing and screeching and ripping up books, Kyle was quietly playing with Play-Doh at the kitchen table as I sat next to him, exhausted from chasing after him.  I was resting in a quasi-vegetative state, trying to figure out what would be more effective at waking myself up: using energy to get coffee, or just banging my head against the table.  I looked at Kyle and saw him tilt his head down toward the chair.  He looked up at me and smiled.  Then he did it again, and that's when I realized... he was spitting.  Really, Kyle?  I thought to myself.  You're going to start spitting?  Now?  When did you think of doing that?  And on the chair?  Really, Kyle?  Really?  He had never done it before, but now he thought the time was right to start spitting all over the place.  That's when I slowly pulled my aching body up, told him "no," and got a head-butt to the stomach.  Then a kick.  Then a whack in the face.  Check, check, check.

So what do I do about this?  There are your standard punishments we all remember getting when we were kids, and I have tried a good number of them.  But we remember these punishments because they were effective when we were four, five, or six years old... not when we were two.  For a two-year-old, it's all a game, and Kyle loves seeing me get red in the face.  When I'm not behind the wheel or debating politics with my dad, I'm usually not a hothead, but as I have tried to get a message through to Kyle, I have found myself yelling angrily at levels I didn't think possible, so loud that our neighbors dial 911.  The result?  Giggling and a repeat of what he just did.  Other scolding methods also go nowhere.  The kid just doesn't understand "getting into trouble" yet.  You can't even threaten to skip dessert or throw a toy out the window.  It's a shame, 'cause his Elmo doll could use a good hurl. 

Then, last week, in the midst of one of Kyle's worst streaks of bad behavior, I gave up.  I stopped yelling or trying to punish him.  I just firmly told him not to do something or had him repeat what he did wrong ("no eating the couch"), and I often just removed him from the situation.  I was actually following advice that others had given me a while ago, but had forgotten in the two-year-old's assault on me.  You know what?  It worked.  Or, at least, it has worked for nearly a week.  I know that Kyle is feverishly creating a new plan to get the "angry dad" game going again, and will strike when I least expect it.  And he will win.  That's just what two-year-olds do.  For now, I'm just happy something is finally working.

Yet, this battle takes up just part of the time.  At other times, a two-year-old will laugh with you, give you a hug, or say or do something so out-of-the-blue and wacky that you hurt your side laughing.  He might even avoid confrontation and listen to you, as Kyle did most of the day yesterday.  And even on the most turbulent days, when nothing seems to be going right, there might be a quiet moment when you're sitting down and that two-year-old comes over to you and gives you a smile.  A wide, glowing smile that tells you that you are his best friend, and the person he enjoys being with each and every day.  And at that point, you forget just how easy it was to get angry at a two-year-old.

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