I haven’t posted in so long, it’s hard to know where to start. There is lots to say on such topcis as the New Year, death, illness, stress management (, the failure of), the Total Money Makeover, residency (which currently has the upper hand in the battle for my soul — think Sauron before Isildur cuts off the one ring). But I’m going to start with the smaller quotidian battles of toddlerhood that have been playing themselves out on our stage of late.
E has been into Curious George recently. There is lots to talk about with Curious George (e.g. colonialism, class issues in Manhattan, why everyone from crane operators to hot-air balloonists seem unphased by interacting with a talking monkey) but what has been striking me most is the way The Man with the Yellow Hat’s parents George, the ultimate toddler. The typical episode of Curious George begins with George causing a minor calamity, like covering the entire apartment with wet toilet paper, burying The Man with the Yellow Hat’s important papers in twenty-seven different holes in the ground, or inviting a family of doves to reside in the bathroom. The Man with the Yellow Hat’s response is unformily thus: A brief expression of displeasure (“George! My new bedspread!”) followed by an attempt to see things from George’s point of view (“You were just trying to figure out how toilets work.”) followed by a turn toward the practical (“We’ll just have to go to the hardware store and find a new handle for the refrigerator.”). Never once does The Man with the Yellow Hat yell, put George in time out, or refer to himself in the third person (“The Man with the Yellow Hat is very disappointed in you, George!” Um, no.). The Man with the Yellow Hat seems to understand that a) George has good intentions, and b) he is a monkey and there are limits to his capacity for understanding.
Now there are some important differences between The Man with the Yellow Hat’s situation and that of the average parent of a toddler: George is not expected to progress in his judgment or life skills whereas a child will eventually have to be left alone in the room with a stove, drive a car, and remember their social security number. George’s escapades also seem never to result in injury whereas real life is not so kind. Finally, The Man with the Yellow Hat has no apparent job and yet has an unidentified soure of endless cash and thus is able to seamlessly absorb even the most property-damaging and time-consuming calamity. Still, as the parent of a delightfully curious and sensation-seeking toddler, I find myself at those critical moments of toddler parenting asking myself: WWTMWTYHD?
I love E beyond the beyond and this phase of emerging language and the ability to describe her thoughts and desires is full of magic. At the same time, it can be — how should I put this? — challenging. Putting on a sweatshirt can take 45 minutes. Bedtime can take much, much longer. There are days when I feel my interactions with her largely involve saying “no,” speaking her name in an exasperated tone (awful), coming up with feasible yet appealing (?) rewards and consequences (“if you put on your diaper, we can go downstairs and [pause for dramatic effect] MAKE OATMEAL!”), and showering her with praise for things that don’t matter like lying down long enough for me to put her pants on. Is there not a better way?
Here are some things that I have learned from the Man with the Yellow Hat:
1) Tell me when you are ready. Despite the fact that George’s speech is entirely unintelligible, The Man with the Yellow Hat almost always prefaces an activity or decision by asking George’s opinion or asking if he is ready to go. He doesn’t just take George’s hand and lead him out of the house. When there is a task to be done, instead of trying to wrestle E into doing it when she has no interest or negative interest, I ask her to tell me when she is ready and then pretend to busy myself with something else. At which point, she will busy herself with something else and then 10-30 seconds later inform me that she is ready. This works about 25% of the time and is only useful when there is no looming time limit.
2) Abandon all hope of things remaining clean and tidy. It is clear from The Man with the Yellow Hat’s repeated decision to leave George unsupervised at home that he does not mind cleaning up messes. I am not so evolved. It is hard for me to watch E use the questionable dish sponge to “wash” the dried banana off her shirt or drink milk from her cup by carrying it in a spoon across the kitchen and sipping what remains of it while facing the backdoor. Every cell in my body wants to say “no” and redirect her. But really, who cares? The clothes she starts the day in stay on unless they smell or are so wet as to put her at risk for hypothermia on the way to school. Everything else is just part of toddler life and I don’t waste my conflict chips on them. Or rather, I try not to.
3) You break, you buy. Or rather, you break, you help with the cleanup. When George breaks the museum’s most precious dinosaur display, he has to work with the museum director to glue it back together. Similarly, if E throws rice all over the floor such that archeologists centuries from now will still find its marks under what is left of my cabinets, she has to help clean it up. This teaches natural consequences and also occupies her so that she doesn’t have a chance to create another disaster while I’m cleaning up the first disaster. This works about 10% of the time but when it works, it just feels so good.
4) When you mean no, just say no. As a Generation X/Yer, I find the ethics of parental authority challenging. But does the Man with the Yellow Hat worry about scarring George by exercising his authority and setting boundaries? He does not appear to. This may be due to his troubling sense of colonialist mastery over George, but I’m gonna to see the glass as half full and assume that he is just comfortable asserting himself in situations when his judgment is more developed than George’s. Instead of cajoling and bargaining and negotiating with E, when I mean no, I just say no in a firm and case-closed kind of way. I’ve been getting better at this and it actually seems to lessen the toddler madness. Well, about 50% of the time. On a good day.
5) When you are with the monkey, be with the monkey. The Man with the Yellow Hat sometimes leaves the house to do things (what we never know) but when he’s with George, he and George are engaged in the same activity, whether it’s going to the hardware store or staring at birds or exploring the chicken coop. You never see The Man with the Yellow Hat trying to answer email or polish the family silver while George is jumping up and down in the background. I find the most personally frustrating times to be the times when I am trying to accomplish something that has nothing to do with E while she is trying to engage my attention in whatever she would prefer to be doing. This is sometimes inevitable (aka: everyday at dinner time) but I am trying to be a better planner so that I have enough time to myself (thank the lord for babysitters and grandparents and the fact that children sleep more than adults do) and can be more present when I am spending time with E. Also, like the Man with the Yellow Hat, I involve her in whatever I am doing, from cooking to shopping to folding laundry. This makes us all happier.
Then there is the little piece of advice I kinda wish I could give to the Man with the Yellow Hat: You are expecting too much of your monkey! The Man with the Yellow Hat leaves George unsupervised all the time despite repeated evidence that he cannot be trusted to avoid disaster. Seems like George needs a babysitter! The (often unattainable) key to toddler parenting is to figure out what where your toddler is developmentally and then set your expectations accordingly. It doesn’t make sense to leave a toddler in a room with a small pile of swept up dust while you go to find the dustpan and expect them not to touch the tantalizing pile of dust (um, just a hypothetical example from, oh, yesterday). The exasperation I felt upon my return was 0% E’s fault and 100% the fault of my own faulty expectations. The great thing about a toddler is that, instead of putting the swept up schmutz in her mouth, E tried to make a dustpan out of a sheet of paper and sweep it up herself. What would the Man with the Yellow Hat say? “Good job, George!” And that’s what I said.