I sat on my friend Mindy’s porch the other night having a glass of wine as our sons played on the sidewalk below. Her porch faces a beautiful, shady park that has 50-foot oak trees and a gentle breeze that makes the leaves shake like palms. Just then, my son, Eddie, dragged a plastic lawn mower toward the edge of the curb and began to push it into the street.
“Eddie,” I said, but he took no notice. He kept walking into the street until he was about a third of the way into the road. “Eddie!” I yelled, rising up from my chair. “Not in the street!”
I could hear the sound of my own voice, and I didn’t like it. I sounded shrill but powerless, like one of those angry mothers you see yelling at her son in public while she’s grabbing his arm too hard because that’s the only way she can get his attention. I so desperately don’t want to be the woman in Target whose child is having a temper tantrum and as she tries to grab his hand to escort him out of the store, he does the jelly-body thing and falls to the floor, making the indignity last all the longer.
“The street is for cars. The sidewalk is for people,” said Mindy’s son, Gavin.
Eddie heard what Gavin said and walked back up the curb onto the sidewalk.
“He doesn’t listen to me, but he’ll listen to Gavin,” I said to Mindy. I sounded pathetic.
“They’ll listen to each other,” Mindy said. “And once they learn something, they like to teach everyone else.”
Just like Mindy was doing with me.
Mindy exudes confidence, and you can hear it in her voice when she speaks to her son. She says things to Gavin in a calm, deep voice that sounds a little animated, like Mr. Rogers, but manlier. “Now, Gavin, you know you can’t have cheese.” (He’s lactose intolerant). “Gavin, why don’t you share your truck with Eddie.” “Gavin, why don’t you let Eddie sit on the chair with you.” And the child complies. Sometimes, all she has to say is, “Gav….” And he listens. Eddie, on the other hand, listens to me the way his father listens to me: that is to say, not at all.
“How do you get him to respond to you?” I asked.
“We use time-outs,” she said. “I’ll put Gavin in the naughty chair for a minute and explain to him why he’s there.”
“You have a naughty chair?”
“We do,” she said. “They say you should put the kid in the chair and give him a time out that lasts as long as his age. So if he’s three, you leave him in there for three minutes. Gavin’s two, so they say he should stay there for two minutes, but I don’t do that. I think he gets it after about a minute.”
“I don’t know about a naughty chair,” I said. “But we do need something. Eddie doesn’t listen to me at all.”
As the evening wore on, Gavin would fail to let Eddie use his scooter, even though he had two, he would try to take Eddie’s fire truck, and he would ask for one of Eddie’s cookies – they were verboten because of his lactose intolerance – and in each instance, Mindy would simply say, “Gav—“ in that calm, deep voice, and her child would do as he was told. They had a dialogue. A connection. Eddie and I have a connection, too, but it goes something like this: Eddie throws something, I yell, and Eddie throws it again. In fact his newest thing is to throw things over a barrier, whether it’s the side of his crib, the child gate we have at the top of the stairs, or the railing of our front porch. It’s as if there’s the world in which we all live, and then there’s the world just on the other side of these barriers. The abyss. And it’s into this abyss that Eddie is constantly throwing everything he can get his hands on. Forks, sippy cups, Lego’s, teletubbies, his plastic farm animals. They all get tossed over the railing or the child gate. Sitting on the front porch has become a game of “Let’s see how many times I can throw my blocks over the railing and get mommy and daddy to retrieve them from the thorny bushes below.” I’ve told him nicely to stop. I’ve yelled at him to stop. And I once smacked his hand lightly, for emphasis, but all that accomplished is that he still throws things over the railing, but now he’ll sometimes smack his own hand afterward and say, “No!”
A friend suggested we stop retrieving the items. That’ll teach him to not throw them. I’ve tried that. He’s a toddler. He has the mind of a gnat. Once the item is out of sight, he quickly learns to live without it.
This morning I was giving Eddie a bath when he picked up one of his waterlogged plastic bath toys and flung it across the room.
“Eddie, don’t do that,” I said.
He fished around in the bath for another toy and threw it onto the floor.
He looked at me and then looked down at his toys, paused, and then picked up a plastic purple fish that was plump with water and winged it across the room.
“That’s it!” I said and grabbed him under the arms and lifted him out of the bathtub so abruptly and awkwardly, his wet body nearly slipped out of my hands. “We’re going in the naughty chair.”
I threw him in a towel, picked him back up and stormed into his room and quickly scanned the area. Naughty chair, naughty chair. Where’s our naughty chair? We didn’t have one. The only chair we have in his room is an old baby recliner that vibrates and plays music. We used it when he was an infant. We’ve now placed it in front of a video machine on which he watches movies. He sat in that chair and watched Toy Story. He sits there and watches the Teletubbies. I didn’t want to turn that chair into a chamber of horrors.
I firmly placed Eddie on the floor. He just lay there in his towel, quiet, surprised by the abruptness with which he’d been removed from the tub and carried off. I left him there on the floor and walked into the guest room and lay down on the bed and gave myself a time out, long enough to calm down and reflect on what I’d just done.