Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Epic Battle for Ultimate Control: Age Three

Tiger Mom has ignited a heated battle in American parenting. I have discussed Tiger Mom with many of my colleagues, my friends, and even my Chinese American boss-who incidentally was raised in the very same manner. I have even dropped some pretty long and anonymous comments on a blog that came down hard on Tiger Mom. And while I do think that Tiger Mom goes too far in pursuit of her own narrow view of successful children, there is something to her. She has a discipline that most do not. And her nonacceptance of permissive Western parenting methods is probably finding more support than she suspected. On one hand Chua says and does hateful things in the name of motivating her children. On the other hand I am an old fashioned parent, I am in charge, expect to be obeyed and will accept no alteration to that model. But I am internally conflicted about it, because it is so much harder than it seems.

I am stuck in a parenting rut. And we are experiencing some major behavioral problems. It is official, I hate age three more than age two. My three year old is showing to me my own character flaws. And I can't decide what I dislike worse, the out of control behavior, the yelling or the fact that I am not in control in my own home.

I am a yeller. I always have been. I was born yelling and I continued to be a screamer throughout childhood. I have been told to shut up more times than I can remember. And even at work an 'area of development' on my yearly review has been to speak more quietly. My biggest problem is just that I have a really loud voice. My breath is connected to my voice all the way down to my toes and I can project my speech across a full crowded theatre. I am not bragging, it is just fact. Add to that several years of acting and speech training to actually exploit and develop this characteristic and you can see I am in a bind. I am an adult working in a quiet office cubicle setting with a set of pipes that has been trained for a three tiered full house.

But back to parenting, my lungs help in making me a force to be reckoned with in my house. I generally yell at Thing 1. You might think that I don't yell at Thing 2 because he is too little. And that might be part of it. But mostly I don't need to yell at Thing 2, he does what he is asked. He cleans up at clean up time. He eats his dinner. He plays with toys the way they were intended to be played with. Plus Thing 2 doesn't like the yelling. He is a very sensitive soul. Thing 1 on the other hand is wild. We are currently locked in a battle for ultimate control of the house. If I say it is time to clean up, he is running off to his room to climb up and hide in his bunk bed. When he plays with toys he will bend them just to see how far they can bend before they break. Dinner has been getting better, but as I mentioned earlier this week, Sunday night he refused to eat. I am okay with him refusing to eat. He had had a big lunch so I wasn't expecting much. But it was when he decided to launch his glass of milk across the room splashing on the table, floor and his brother that landed him in the corner for a time out. And of course I screamed bloody murder.

The thing about the yelling is that it kind of works. When we brought Thing 2 home from the hospital two days after Thing 1's second birthday. Back then, his behavior was an emotional tornado. But it was him having the fits. I didn't yell so much back then (we did some, just not as much as now). Time outs didn't really work, so we just let him cry until he was done. Three years old is different. He is now screwing with my head. The acting out is far more manipulative. He shouts "I don't love you!". But when I bellow at him it gets him moving. It lets him know I mean business. And don't think I jump to yelling. I ask him 5-6 times to do everything without yelling. Then I begin to raise my voice and count and finally he lands in time out with me yelling And it ALWAYS ends up in time out. In many cases he comes out of time out and I will ask him "are you ready to help clean up?" and he says "no". So we go back in time out again. Repeat questions and answers. After 3-4 time outs he does finally clean up. But the process is exhausting. One time a few weeks ago he simply refused to stay in time out. So every time he would leave I would pick him up and put him back and start the time out over. He cried and fought for 30 minutes straight. I put him back in time out 10-12 times until finally he sat for a consecutive 3 minutes. That's right, you read correctly, three minutes. I am not some crazy control freak who is putting her kids in time out for 30 minutes. He needs to just have one three minute time out.

But strangely enough, after we all end up screaming and maybe shedding a few tears, Thing 1 cooperates and does whatever he is asked. And then he perks up and is happy again. No amount of talking and rationalizing ever did that. I have had level-headed talks with him where I explain that acting out is his choice and that he can choose not to act out. And if he chooses to listen to Mommy and Daddy then he will have a happy day and there will be no fighting. I have explained to him that every time he gets a time out for not cooperating he inevitably ends up doing whatever it was that he was trying to get out of. So next time he should just skip the time out and help sooner. I know this is sophisticated thinking for a three year old, but it might take years for him to make that mental leap, I have to at least start talking about it. I want him to view his actions as his choice. I believe it will help him to live a more purposeful life.

I know I need to stop yelling. Monday morning I ran into my neighbor at the elevator of my building. She could barely look at me. I know she heard the whole row from the evening before. From next door she can hear everything, but she doesn't know that we had a great morning together. She doesn't know that I threw my back out and was in a lot of pain while Thing 1 was acting out. And she doesn't actually know that I don't hit my kids. But hearing all the yelling and screaming, she must feel uncomfortable about it.

My problem is I don't know how to stop yelling. I get so angry, particularly when I am home by myself with the kids. I do not keep things bottled up. On one hand it is a positive thing because I don't store dark emotions. I express myself and move on. Keeping anger bottled up can lead to all kinds of health problems and stress. DH and I fight every so often, and there are no secrets between us. And we always make up. We talk to the Things about it openly. There is no regret and no unspoken hurt, no name calling and no disrespect. But we are passionate people. DH and I have a healthy marriage because we get it all out. On the other hand, I know my anger can alienate people, like my neighbor.

People have told me to just stop yelling. That is so much easier said than done. People have told me to leave the room, give myself a time out. People have also told me to take a different approach, take away toys, dessert, TV. I have. It doesn't work. Thing 1 doesn't care. He doesn't seem to understand the correlation between choosing his actions and having a pleasing or displeasing outcome. And take away everything-it doesn't matter. With the TV off he will just do something else to provoke the drama. He doesn't care. I chalk it up to his age. I figure if we can get through the next 6 months we will be through the worst of it.

That being said, I recently held a family meeting. I can't do this anymore. I can't yell and get so angry any longer. All our behavior has to get better. Thing 1 needs to feed himself, not spill his food on purpose, not throw toys, not push and hit, take off his own coat and shoes and follow simple directions like helping at clean up time. I am NOT asking too much. But he is going to have to do more, and Mommy promises to yell less. So far we are off to a decent (and quiet) start.

I always love your comments, you know I do. But on today's topic I am so scared of what you have to say. I am scared you will think I am a monster who can't control her emotions. I asked a question on Mamapedia about Thing 1 just after his second birthday, and the first commenter suggested I take him to a behaviorist because HER daughter never displayed such barbaric behavior (okay, those were my words, not hers--but she did say that my kid should see a behaviorist and she did say that her daughter never ripped pages out of books or threw food on the ground). I am in the same breath frustrated by Thing 1 and yet fiercely defensive of him, because he is my boy. My child isn't bad, and he doesn't have ADHD. He is three, he is a boy and he is bright. And he chooses to channel all that extra energy into things that get him negative attention. I desperately want to add value to the situation. And I am taking the first step. I am writing about this today because I don't just want to sweep it under the rug.

But this is really, really hard.


  1. Good for you for writing this entry. I know there are a lot of moms out there feelig the same way.

    I have one suggestion. Do you spend any alone time with Thing 1? You should have a Mommy/Daddy/Thing 1 date. Maybe once a month or once every couple months have a day that is all about Thing 1. A day where he is showered will all your attention (but not angry attention).

    Keep up the good work! :)

  2. Absolutely! Great entry!

    It made me think about something I heard another mom on the playground say: she says that when she is getting upset, she tells asks her daughter, "Do I need to use my loud voice?". She says that giving her the heads up, in advance, helps sometimes. Every kid is different, so, I don't know if it would work in your situation. That's one of the majorly frustrating things about parenting - no kid manuals that apply well to every kid! But you are trying and you care, and you are problem-solving as best you can. And that is a really good thing.

    For me, I get frustrated with myself when I lose control of my emotions with my toddler - e.g., when he pushes my buttons enough to push me over the edge. I'm working on giving him consequences (time outs, elimination of treats, whatever) without losing control myself. I don't like scaring him, or feeling like I'm letting him be in control by me losing control. (Sigh!) It's a work in progress.

    Good luck with the journey! I agree with the previous person that I'm sure a lot of moms relate. And I also TOTALLY support the one-on-one time suggestion - I tried that a few times, and it seemed nothing short of miraculous with its effects: maybe a bit more of it (I know you already do some!)? Good luck!

  3. You know what is interesting? Our weekly trip to the Farmer's Market and Grocery store was always something that Thing 1 and I did together. But now that Thing 2 has been giving up is morning nap, DH and 2 have been coming along. His really bad behavioral problems started when DH and 2 started joining us! I wonder if he is sad about this not being a special mommy and Thing 1 time anymore...I suppose it is worth a try! Thansk for suggesting this!

  4. I don't have kids, so I can't offer suggestions, but I don't think you're a monster. Even other people's kids make me want to yell and throw things sometimes, so I can imagine two small kids all day would make you feel like you're going crazy sometimes.

    It's brave of you to share it (because some people are so mean to strangers when it's on the internet) and I will mark this post for my future reference when I do have kids.

  5. Totally off topic, but I found your blog through A Day in the Wife and appreciate your efforts to provide good, healthful, real food to your family. As a working mom, I know it's not always easy to cook from scratch, but completely worth the effort. Look forward to seeing new recipes!

  6. I am responding without reading anyone else's comments:

    Let me just say this: ME TOO. My daughter is 2 1/2, not 3 1/2 but it's the same. They say at school that she participates in cleanup time and listens relatively well; but she is like a different person at home. She does not listen or do what she is asked 95% of the time. I find myself yelling ALL THE TIME. I feel like a mean mom, I feel like a bad parent. Why don't I have any other tools in my tool kit? But also, I ask nicely ten times before I yell. I try having serious talks to explain things logically. I try time outs and taking away toys, TV and other privelages. Sometimes those things work a little, sometimes not. I have asked her even, why do you only listen when I yell? I don't like to yell! You make me yell because it is the only thing you respond to! When will she stop testing me and start listening to me in order to avoid the negative consequences? Or when will she listen simply because she knows it's the right thing to do? Was I this bad? I know I was a challenging child to be sure but I don't know exactly what my parents went through to get me to sit down and shut up. My daughter is also a whiner and a cryer. People think I'm exagerating when I say she can scream for 30 minutes straight. I'm not. I've timed it. She can scream for 30 MINUTES! You try it, it's not fun. She can whine non-stop for over an hour. I'm not kidding or exaggerating. I have, in frustration and anger, told my daughter to shut up, after which I immediately started crying and apologizing but trying to explain that Mommy was frustrated and at a loss. I still struggle. I have no answers. I guess I just want you to know you're not alone. Either you and your kid are not weird...or we're both weird in the same way...I guess either is possible. But we aren't the first people to yell a lot. I still tell her I love her all the time. At separate moments from discipline moments, I make sure to tell her that I love her no matter what, even when I yell or get angry. I pray that helps.


  7. Have any of you ever watched Super Nanny? She is really good and has GREAT advice when it comes to kids and handling all the situations you've all described!

  8. I so know what you are going through! I'm pretty sure my new neighbors think I'm a crazy person with the amount of yelling I do at my children! You are not alone!

  9. My best friend is the sweetest, quietest, and most even keeled person there is. And yet, she said when her child turned 3, she had visions of drop kicking him off the balcony. She commented that she has never been as angry as the 1st 6 months of her kiddo's 3rd birthday.

    So, it sounds like you're in wonderful company. It's normal, and you're doing your best!

  10. I cannot possibly adequately thank all of you for all you well wishings. I am very very happy to know that I am not the only one. Because all I seem to read are the essays of mothers who have overcome the venomous yelling, or those whose kids are so well behaved that they never have to to begin with. I am on day three of no yelling and things are going well.

    You guys are wonderful supportive friends. Thank You!!

  11. Ever since I learned that you had two boys that were about the same age as my boys, I have always been interested in reading your adventures in parenting. I actually have a few pieces of advice for you.

    First, I would like to second the attention thing. He is trying to get attention from you by acting out. He has figured out how to push your buttons, and now you have to figure out how to teach him how to push the 'good' buttons instead of the bad.

    Second, I can't recall if he goes to a day care or not, but if he does, talk with his care provider about techniques that she uses with him. Even if he doesn't, see if you can find a local day care that has teachers willing to talk with you about behavioral techniques to use. Because they can't yell, hit, or otherwise be offensive, I have found that these folks are great at phrasing things just the right way, setting just the right rules, and all around dealing with kids, and just adopting a few measures from my son's day care has improved his behavior enormously.

    Third, what sort of excercise does he get in the day? Do you do anything structured for him, like swim or gymnastics lessons? Doing something where he has to listen and pay attention plus getting out extra-extra energy may help, plus it will give him something he can improve at and tell you about.

    Finally, someplace I have found to be really helpful providing suggestions for turning around the yelling is the la leche league forum's 'Gentle Discipline' forum. Trust me, you will find a lot of moms there with a lot of perspectives on what works for them, and very constructive suggestions that don't involve behavioral therapists for normal three year old behavior.

  12. I really sympathize with you! I have two girls, 6 and 4, and I am also a yeller, although I've been recovering somewhat for the last year or so. My older daughter has always hated car seats, I mean HATED car seats, until she was big enough for a booster. From the time she was an infant until she was about 5 (that's 5 years, people), she would scream, whine, cry and generally be obnoxious from the time she was buckled in until the time she could get back out. It was miserable, miserable, miserable. She would work herself up so much that she couldn't stop crying, and I would actually get worried about her sometimes. I know it's not the same as the constant, random acting out, but it still inspired some incredible rants from me in the car, including telling her to shut up at least twice. After my fit I always felt like such a failure, and sometimes I would cry after dropping her off at daycare because the ride there (about 30 minutes one way) was so traumatic some days. Then, magic, she could use a regular seat belt and she was never like that again! Plus she is now old enough to understand why she is expected to act certain ways at certain times and she knows what punishment means. Luckily my second one is calmer, so that has helped me to tone it down as well. You are not alone! We all are at a loss sometimes, and you just do the best you can.

  13. I think there is some really great, supportive advice here! And I just have one quick comment- I am a former pre-school teacher, and I specifically worked with 2-3 1/2 yr olds. One year, we had a class of 2 girls and 8 boys- with two teachers to corall and control the "beasts". I now consider myself an expert on the very specific, yet varied, behavior of this age group and particularly, little boys. One thing that stuck out to me immediatly from your story and some of the comments was "I ask nicely 5-6 (or even 10) times before I yell." First off, I NEVER yelled. This was because a) I was a paid provider, and no one likes to walk in on a teacher yelling at their kid and b) it doesn't work on most kids. But I never, ever, asked more than twice. The first time would go something like this:
    Me: "David, can you please pick up your trucks before you start reading that book?"
    Him: "No."
    Me: "Remember that we all need to clean up one toy before we get out another, so that our room stays clean. So I am going to ask one more time, and then there will be a consequence."
    Him: "I don't want to."
    At which point, I would walk over to him, pick him up (probably kicking and screaming), bring him to the mess and gently but firmly hold his hands and use them to pick up his toys (imagine your hands acting like prostetics and helping his to pick up the mess). Once this is done once or twice, they get the message- I ask nicely twice, and then Ms. nice lady is gone. And we get the job done. They are purposely testing your limits by repeatedly denying your request, and thus they are demonstrating that they are in fact in charge of the situation. Because how many times in real life would we expect to ask someone to do something before it becomes rude, maninpulative, etc? It's same thing with kids. You are in charge, and so you get to decide how far they can push it.

  14. It is definitely terrible THREES and not terrible twos.
    You should read Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen. A lot of what he writes is common sense but it has really helped with my wild thing of a three year old. I also agree with the special one on one time it can do wonders.
    Good luck and know you are not alone.