Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Problem children

"When I grow up," Youngest Child said yesterday out of the blue, "my children are going to behave. I feel sorry for problem children." He then went on to recount some of his observations of a particular "problem child".

I found his comments interesting, especially since he was not the only one with concerns about this particular child, who is mostly sweet but whose biggest problem, at least in my opinion, is that he lacks discipline --- and by this, I especially mean discipline of the discipling and teaching sort.

Back when our oldest two were little, someone (I think it was Gregg Harris) impressed me with the idea that we should treat our young children as newly arrived immigrants who needed to be taught our culture's norms. That made a lot of sense to me and, coupled with what I learned from a number of older and wiser mothers, convinced me that a lot of behavior problems could be prevented with teaching, training, and advanced preparation.

After all, we had already done this sort of thing to prepare our oldest to welcome his new, younger sibling. So we began preparatory training for all sorts of things, from trips to the grocery story, to church, to visits to other people's houses, etc. We would roleplay before hand --- which the children loved --- and let them know just how they were expected to behave. The whole process was fun, much like a pretend game, and it certainly made life far easier in the long run for our growing family.

A while back, someone asked me how I taught my toddlers not to hit, slap, scratch, or pinch the baby. The toddler's training really began while my pregnancy grew more noticeable. I would talk about how the baby was "hiding" and I would already be teaching and modeling the concept of "gentle". The toddler would get to practice "gentle" in the way he touched my belly. "You need to be very gentle," I would tell him, "because the tiny baby is hiding inside me."

We would show the toddler pictures of himself when he was a tiny baby. We would point out other tiny babies, and we would always remind the toddler of "gentle". We would roleplay with dolls. We would guide the toddler's hands in how to touch and where to touch. In order to avoid toddler eye-poking (even the most well-trained toddlers seem drawn to touch babies' eyes) we didn't allow our children to touch babies in the face.

During this time, we also prepared our toddlers for what newborns could and couldn't do. We laughed over the fact that they had no teeth. (I'm not sure why my toddlers found this so amusing, but they did.) We had a few books about babies that we read over and over.

We also taught our children that newborns were sensitive and easily startled, and that we needed to use our "quiet voices" around tiny babies. So we would practice that as well.

I also began what I jokingly refer to as my propaganda campaign. Because we were always so excited about the new baby, our children always were excited. It wasn't difficult to convince them how wonderful it was to be a big brother or big sister.

Then there were the t-shirts. The best set of shirts were the ones I made in anticipation of Youngest Child's birth. Not only were they hand-painted and actually somewhat artsy, but they amused us as well with what I hand-lettered on them: "Biggest Brother", "Big Sister", "Bigger Brother", "Big Brother", 'Littlest Big Brother", and "Baby". Our children couldn't wait to pose for a picture with all the siblings in their shirts, and they had great fun wearing them on our first post-baby excursions.

Those first weeks with a newborn, at least with the youngest three, seemed like a grand celebration, what we referred to as the "babymoon". By this time, the toddler fully understood what the word "gentle" meant, but we still supervised him carefully whenever he was around the baby. In fact --- and this was very important to me --- I never left the baby unsupervised around the children until Youngest Child was getting a bit older and I felt my daughter could handle him for a few minutes while I went to the bathroom. When I say "never", I mean just that. When I showered, the baby was in his little babyseat in the bathroom with me. If he was napping in the crib, I made sure that the toddler didn't have access to the room. Some might call me paranoid, but I was never amused at all the stories other parents told me about discovering the toddler trying to drag the newborn out of the crib by the feet. I didn't want the same thing to happen to my baby.

The "babymoon" was a peaceful, relaxing time when we got to know our new baby and enjoyed being a family together, while we kept noise and outside distractions to a minimum.

The propaganda machine was also in full force. We convinced the toddler that the tiny baby just about worshiped the ground he walked on. Also, since were practiced responsive parenting, our toddlers were never desensitized to babies' crying; in fact, it was usually the toddler who was most insistent that I quickly feed or hold the baby the moment he seemed remotely unhappy. We encouraged this sensitivity; we knew it would become even more important as the baby grew older and might do something that annoyed his older siblings. The idea of actually causing a baby to cry is still abhorrent to our children.

In anticipation of the baby crawling, we taught our children not to run in the house, and not to leave items on the floor that might be dangerous to the baby. We taught them the word "careful". We reserved the concept of "gentle" for living things, but taught our little ones to be "careful" with things that might be fragile or might get damaged by over-exuberance.

With that sort of preparation --- that might sound much more difficult than it was --- and our constant supervision of baby-toddler interactions, there was no hitting or pinching of the baby. It simply couldn't happen. Instead, gentleness with the baby became a habit. Tender-heartedness towards baby discomfort became a big part of how our children reacted to their youngest siblings. Once when I jokingly asked Eldest Son what he would have thought if I'd decided to "Ezzo" Child #5, he said, "We wouldn't have let you. Can you imagine four children clamoring 'Don't let the baby cry!' and praying aloud with desperation when you didn't listen to us? There's no way you could have done the Ezzo Method with our baby!"

So that's the long answer to another question I was asked a while back. Someone had seen a three year old slap his baby sister hard in the face, for no discernible reason. "What did you do when your toddlers hit the baby?" I was asked.

"They didn't," I answered. "I didn't let them." And, quite honestly, I'm not sure the desire ever crossed their minds.

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  1. I think articles like this on mothering are great, keep more coming!

  2. Beautiful. . .

    "impressed me with the idea that we should treat our young children as newly arrived immigrants who needed to be taught our culture's norms."

    Yeah. . . my husband has encouraged me with a similar idea. . . "Remember they're space aliens!"

    (Btw, I like the new look!)

  3. we should treat our young children as newly arrived immigrants who needed to be taught our culture's norms. That made a lot of sense to me and, coupled with what I learned from a number of older and wiser mothers,

    Thankfully you had older and wiser mothers' words to couple that advice with, because if you'd combined it with Ezzo's "don't let your new-born be a tyrant, force him or her into your schedule," your children would have had a very different time of it.

    Thanks for the practical "getting ready for baby" reminders. Off to work on my two toddlers before baby comes... :-)

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this! Lotsa good tips for when the as-of-yet-hypothetical Baby #2 comes along.

  5. I like that you use "ezzo" as a verb, just as we do in our household. No "ezzoing" for our babies! =) I too appreciate your tips on teaching gentleness to toddlers before baby is born; my 2 year old loves to "see baby" ie lift up my shirt and rub my belly. He's learning to touch gently, most of the time....