Last week was beer week. I own Laughing Monk Brewing so it's a very busy week for me. I hadn't had a night in with my family since last Tuesday. Fortunately, I was able to get away for my wednesday shift at our son's coop preschool.
Lexi and I just had our first meeting with our son's teacher and he's doing great. Of course "great" is a relative term based on his developmental level. So he's adjusting well to being away from us at school. He gets caught up in games the older kids organize, but doesn't initiate play much with others yet, which is perfectly normal for his age. And he's going through a defiant phase with all the adults in his life as he grapples with being capable of doing more on his own but wishing he wasn't expected to do those things all the time.
We had to re-evaluate our expectations and our approach to discipline again. We had been using the 1-2-3 Magic system, which had been working well. It's a system where you address misbehavior by starting to count to three. If you reach three, they get a time out for the same number of minutes as their age. I know time-out systems for discipline are not universally accepted, but while it was working I found that it helped everyone involved keep from boiling over. I was glad to find a system that kept us from getting into a screaming match with our toddler. No one wins once everybody's yelling.
The 1-2-3 magic system stopped working right around when our son was turning 4. This wasn't the first time we've had to re-evaluate our approach to parenting. It seems that at any one time it either feels like you've got this parenting thing down and this kids going to be a genius and a saint or everything's on fire, nothing's working and you have no idea what to do. It's a roller coaster. You bought the ticket and now there's no getting off until the ride's over (whenever that happens?).
What do you do when everything stops working? Well I'll walk you through our most recent parenting crisis. Keep in mind, this is a work in progress and, while the ship seems to be righting itself, we will probably need to correct our course again very soon.
Right around 4, our son started having tantrums again worse than ever before. They'd pop up at the slightest frustration. We used a one block on, one block off system for rides on our shoulders, but now whenever it was his turn to walk, he'd collapse in a tantrum or worse, start hitting us. He'd have screaming matches with his nanny, who is the most patient and caring woman who he loves so much he invited her to his birthday parties.
Suddenly all the things we were so proud of him for being able to do himself became impossible. We stopped going out for walks as a family as he would just break down and refuse to walk with us. We were afraid his nanny might leave because he was making her job impossible.
The first thing I did was look at how effective our current system was. Lexi, the nanny and I all checked in about the situation. Were we all using the 1-2-3 magic system consistently and effectively? Yes. Was it working? Not really. The timeouts used to calm the kid down, but lately the tantrum would continue to amplify throughout the timeout and when we were out of the house on our way to school or another scheduled appointment, there was no way to use a timeout as we had somewhere to be.
We tried a new system, tying his treat after dinner to his behavior that day. For a short time this worked, but in a few weeks, it stopped working. He could still get so worked up that he'd lose his treat for the day and once the treat for the day was lost, there was no reason for him to behave.
After doubling down on the old system, it was time to for the next step, moving on to a new system. It's hard to admit that what you're doing isn't working. But the only harder thing is to keep trying something that clearly isn't working. It's a real blow to admit that your parenting isn't working for your kid right now, but you have to do what's right for your kid. When your best ideas aren't working, you need some new ones.
I scheduled a meeting with his teacher about this issue. We had just met with her for our parent teacher conference so it felt terrible after reveling in all his progress. I explained what was happening and what our approach to discipline had been. I admitted I was out of ideas and open to a new approach. It felt good to admit that. Like in Fight Club, "I let go. Lost in oblivion. Dark and silent and complete. I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom."
She let me know this was not unusual around this age to have a bit of a regression in terms of behavior. She shared her concerns about the system of time-outs. They are nearly impossible to consistently and quickly enforce, especially when you're out, so the child doesn't connect them directly with the behavior they're addressing. Same with withholding treats. By the time dinner rolls around and he doesn't get his after dinner treat, he's completely forgotten the issue that caused him to lose his treat.
She recommended we handle this regression by making some space for him by temporarily reducing some of our expectations. Yes he has been able to walk all the way into school before, but if it's becoming such an issue that it's straining his relationships with his caregivers, it's ok to carry him on your shoulders or even bust out the stroller again for a while. Same with getting ready for school. Yes, he can put on his socks, but if it's turning into a screaming fit every time you ask him to do that, is that really the hill you want to die on?
She reminded me of the little changes in how we address him during these outbursts. How we should get down to his level, give him some gentle physical contact and connect about his emotions before addressing the behavior. All things we know and we use when things are going right but are easy to forget when you're on a street corner and 5 minutes late to school because he's screaming that he doesn't like you, which I figured I wouldn't hear him say until middle school.
We shared these ideas with the Nanny and worked out some changes to his schedule to give some space for more prep time and some extra down time. So far it's been working. Things aren't perfect, but when are they ever. There are times he will even get his own socks and shoes on and walk to soccer with me without asking to be carried. But when he doesn't want to, it's a lot easier to bust out the stroller rather than try to reason with a tornado of preschool rage.
And so the latest crisis is averted for now. The hardest part about it is that what's working for him is not what I planned. I thought I knew how I was going to parent. Firm but calm, with clear consequences consistently enforced. But right now, that isn't what he needs. Giving him a little space and letting him take his time is what he needs right now. I'm not going to exchange my relationship with my son just to maintain a vision of how I wanted to parent.
If there's any lesson here, it's that you'll never have all the answers, but that doesn't mean you can't find them. As scary as it is, you'll have to reach out to others about something that you're scared to admit, which is that your parenting isn't working for your child right now. It's also scary because everybody has an opinion about how to parent, especially non-parents. Whatever you share about how you parent is likely to draw someone's ire. That's why I love Glenridge, our son's coop school. Every parent has to help supervise all the students. You have to come to a general agreement on how to approach parenting as you'll have to handle issues that come up for other people's kids. You have to be flexible or it would be untenable. Having a cohort of like minded parents is invaluable. Parenting can be an isolating experience. It's easy for a little preschooler to become such a big part of your life that there's no room for anyone else in it. If you leave with any lesson from this, make space in your life for other parents you like and respect. You'll all have your moments of crisis and you'll all help each other get through them.