Saturday, June 28, 2008

Notes from the war

Recently people have asked me: "you write so much about your two eldest kids but Child No.3 rarely rates a mention? Is she a neglected third child?" Well, the answer is a definite "no," especially in terms of parenting attention and angst. When it comes down to it, this blog is a censored version of my parenting life. It is not and I do not claim it to be a full record. And when it comes to Child No.3, who is soon to turn 4, the terrible twos have seemed to lasted well beyond what one would have hoped. And in recent times, with a ton of work and other family issues going on: her tantrums became more frequent and harder to deal with. Without a resolution, I simply couldn't bring myself to write about it here.

You can take it from the fact that I am doing so now that, indeed, we think we are out of it now (hopefully). That is just as well. Another parent remarked when I was about to ask Child No.3 to do something she clearly didn't want to, "well, let's see how Professor Parentonomics handles this one." Fortunately, I did and helped the 'brand.'

But only a few short weeks ago, the best way of describing our relationship with Child No.3 was 'war.' Wars with young children are things that can grow slowly and escalate. When we realised where we were a couple of months ago, it was clear that we were dealing with greater and stronger tantrums than we wanted or had dealt with for the other children. But the cause was not at all clear. Child No.3 was going to pre-School now. That is more intense and she was not having her afternoon nap (the School wants this, but she doesn't need it at their scheduled time). So we just wasn't sure if she was just tired. We all throw tantrums when we are tired. And actually we were tired too and so we didn't enforce punishments to control tantrums with the same forced as we used to.

There is, however, another thing about Child No.3 that is relevant. Regular readers know of the strategic prowess of Child No.1. But Child No.1 is not our most strategic child. That honor easily rests with her younger sister. Child No.1 is easy to write about because she uses strategy to get what she wants and is calculating in understanding the incentives before her. And because what she wants is so transparent, it is easy to set things in place. You just have to program her the right way. What is more, she is upfront about her strategy, you know, much like an evil genius who just can't help explaining their evil plan to you. (By the way, if you want to read a good novel about that one, try this).

Child No.3 is very different. First of all, she is not transparent. When she wins, she knows it, but is savvy enough to keep it to herself. But you can see it in her movements. For instance, occasionally when we are running short of time I say, "look don't take you plates to the sink, just run upstairs and get undressed for bathtime." In response to this, Child No.1 would sing all the way, "I just gottaway with mur---DA, I just gottaway with mur---DA!" In contrast, Child No.3 would just go upstairs. No reaction but there is a small smirk on her face and a slight spring in her step. One suspects that on the inside, she is happier than any other child in this situation.

Which brings me to a second difference: this is all game to her. Child No.1 cares mostly about things (food and money) and fairness (no one gets more than her). Child No.3 like to win and she especially likes to win against her parents. Not having to do something is victory. That makes outcomes a zero-sum situation and Child No.3 is a master at picking her battles at a time of her opponent's greatest weakness.

Hence, the tantrums. Now you might think, what good would a tantrum do? Wouldn't you just punish them, be done with it and teach her that she can't win that way? That's the theory but implementation can have some issues. Let me tell you, with Child No.3, her strategic insight meant that a credible threat of a punishment and a clear demonstration that she had no choice but to comply did wonders. When she was 1 year old, we had a great party trick. Child No.3 would start crying and we would then tell her to stop including an authoritative finger. She would then cough and stop! Other parents would watch in awe. In reality, she had just been pre-programmed.

But with age, her ability to draw power from the dark side became stronger. The chief method of tantrum punishment in our household was the tried and true, 'time out' or 'corner' as we called it. Throw a tantrum and that is where you will find yourself. But with three children and lots of stuff going on, the threat became, "I will count to three and if you don't stop, you will be put in the corner." We just couldn't impose punishment immediately and so needed a remotely instrumented escape clause.

Child No.3 tapped into this. She became an expert at stopping just before we got to 3. That would have been fine but she learned the entire situation. She became an expert at stopping just before we had completely had enough and would actually physically put her in the corner. Resistence to doing what she was told and the resulting tantrum could last many minutes and finally when I was able to credibly go and punish her, she would stop. I'd think, damm, she got me again. Having stopped or complied, she would be off the hook. The problem is that her tantrums had become longer and more frequent and using this strategy she was sometimes getting away with "murrrrrDA." I was not happy and very frustrated and it was affecting my relationship with her.

It was with upon that realisation that the notion that we were at war came to the fore. The question was how to win it. Withdrawl wasn't an option but the insurgency was targetted, continuous and relentless. It was clearly aimed at a long-term breakdown in rules and a transfer of power. And it wasn't the sort of thing that having a talk about it was going to work -- we tried diplomacy but a 3 year old with dimples can see right through that. 'Talking' made us feel like we were parenting but, in fact, the war continued.

And it was hard to explain all this beyond our family. Child No.3 is a consumate extravert (a trait she inherited from her mother not me). She will target and charm any adult entering her domain. She is all "pleases" and "thank yous" because she knows that works. Other people we explained all this to her would look at her perplexed: "This is your monster?" I would counter, "You haven't seen her angry. You do not want to see her angry."

What we needed to do was shake things up and try and get ourselves onto a more sustainable path. It was with that thought that a few weekends ago, we committed ourselves to a policy that can quite accurately be called 'The Surge.' The idea was simple. We would punish immediately and with no warnings or opportunity for negotiation. And we would do it for the entire weekend without exception and without regard to cost.

And we did so do it and it was as awful an experience as you can imagine. Even though we had told her it was coming, when it did, she was, not surprisingly, shocked. She would find herself immediately in the corner. And she was not at all happy. The tantrum would, of course, get worse and by worse I mean loud. It would also become animated with "I didn't do that! You didn't count!" During this moment, I listened to the older two children debate the ethics of all of this:
Child No.2: "She's right, he didn't count. She just doesn't understand."

Child No.1: "Well, she knew she shouldn't be throwing tantrums, didn't she? Dad just wants her to stop."

Child No.2: "But she is very upset and it doesn't look like it's working. She is really loud. This is really annoying. Maybe we should help?"

Child No.1: "True it is annoying. I wouldn't get involved if I were you. You might be the target of more punishment yourself. Just be extra well-behaved."
And with that Child No.1 switched off her hearing aid (making us all envious of that option) and got on with her business.

That wasn't the end of the matter. Child No.3 decided to resist. She would escape the corner and fight, usually with me, for her freedom. And Child No.3 is really strong. Much stronger than your average 3 year old. So it was really tough to contain her.

Now it is perhaps best here to pause the story and note that much of what we were doing with The Surge was not the best 'time out' practice. I was somewhat aware of this at the time but this Slate article today pretty much demonstrates that that was the case. Using its criteria (and I recommend you read that article if you engage in time-out punishments), I have evaluated my own performance here.

As you can see, it is far from a perfect score and the Surge didn't not necessarily involve an improvement on all dimensions.

We were well aware that a Surge wouldn't actually solve anything unless we could withdrawl from it at a more peaceful outcome than before. So right from the start we had plan. If the Surge started reducing tantrums we would need to replace it with something else. Indeed, as the Slate article points out, you need something other than a time-out to use to manage the intensity of punishments. For Child No.3, the neglected third child aspect was that she had very little of her own. All of her toys were pretty much shared. She got little in the way of activities. And in our austere household, there were hardly any special treats or TV. You need to give in order to be able to withdraw.

But more critically, Child No.3 needed to feel she was 'winning.' So we enacted a chart system that hadn't worked for other two but might just work for her. We decided to give her a 'star' for each day she did not throw a tantrum. Make it through a week and she would 'win' a reward -- in our case, a toy of her own. So now if she was on the very of a tantrum, we could say, "do it and you will miss out on today's star." It required no immediate action on our part and so Child No.3 knew it was credible. Prior to the Surge, the tantrums and been so fierce, frequent and emotional that we couldn't have explained or transitioned fairly to this system. Afterwards, we could and did.

And it came with bonuses. For instance, at the same time, she developed a sore on her fingers that she sucked. We knew we would have to deal with this at some stage but the sore gave us the opportunity we needed to get her on-board. We used the chart to track behaviour and now she is 'finger sucking free.'

The war has ended but it took its toll. Our physical battles during the Surge left me with a crippling back injury that I am still recovering from. But the price was worth it. Indeed, there was some irony in the outcome. When I was having trouble getting my socks and shoes on to go to work, Child No.3 noticed and said, "Daddy, I can do that. I can help. I put my shoes and socks on without being told now." And with that she put my socks and shoes on. It was many years earlier than I expected to have this role reversal. I know that our battles are really not over, but it was a fitting reminder of a restored relationship.

Some previous posts on punishment are here, here and here.