Discipline and Manipulation

12/14/2008 By Shawn Burns

The Terrible Two’s have come early. I’m going to blame daycare rather than my particular brand of lax parenting during Erin’s first year and a half. I’ll say that the increasing incidents of biting, pushing, and hitting have everything to do with what Erin is learning from a slightly older, out-of-control girl at daycare and nothing to do with me doing everything possible in her first year and a half to ensure that she always felt like she owned the world.

I have experimented a little with different forms of behaviour modification. Once, when Erin persisted in standing up in the bath tub I unleashed my Dog Voice on her. This isn’t a yell. It’s a bark: a sharp, loud, clipped delivery that grew out of years of living with dogs. It works perfectly on them.

"ER!!-in. SIT. DOWN."

She sat. And she cried. Betrayed.

What an unfair dilemma. I have a way of inspiring canine obedience in her, but it also destroys her innocent soul. The Dog Voice is an Apple from the Tree, and if I offer it to her she learns too much, too early, about the world.

Another method I’ve tried is Outlast Mode. Emily has really lucked out in in marrying someone who is as childish as her toddler. I’ve won lots of games of "Down?"–"No. I love you" that involve me holding a squirming Erin who wants to run around in some unsafe environment. As many times as she can say "down" in a row, I can keep going on "No. I love you" autopilot forever. Eventually, she gives up. But Outlast Mode really only works for verbal behaviour that needs to be changed. I can’t play the "Stand up" "No. Sit down" game forever in a situation like tub-standing. I need her to know that it isn’t okay to stand up in the tub, and I need her to know it immediately.

But without making her cry. I think. I think I need her to know it without making her cry. But as she gets older I get less nervous about just throwing that Apple at her.

There are other situations that seem to warrant Apple-throwing, and since daycare has entered our lives these situations are multiplying. She wants to hit, now. And she wants to push. Pushing is a weird game with her. She’ll ask, "pu-ush?" while she grabs my hand and pulls until she lets go and then drifts backward, arms flailing in a Horizontal Vertigo. She’s framing me for pushing her.

Her hitting and pushing of other kids looks so detached, so unemotional, that I almost worry that she lacks empathy. "It’s not that I think she’s a psychopath," I assured Emily one morning after dropping Erin off and watching her little games at daycare, "it’s that I think these are the things psychopaths never outgrow." (That was a joke, folks. I made a baby-psychopath joke. It’s okay to laugh. It’s okay not to laugh. I’m not really funny.)

But then she’ll spend even more time consoling hurt toddlers, patting them, wondering what made them so sad (if it wasn’t her, that is, since in that case she knows perfectly well what made them so sad), that I’m certain she doesn’t lack empathy at all: she’s a font of it. She loves to hug and kiss, and if these weren’t also usually unwelcome by nervous toddlers she’d have a reputation as the friendliest kid in town.

She could be faking it, though. She could be a brilliant manipulator. In addition to the pushing (mostly of the girls, mostly of a smaller girl just as she is pushed and hit by a larger girl, and mostly of a smaller girl who also gets most of her positive attention), when she has seen that pushing is not approved by her victim or her teachers, she’ll start to offer kisses. And it’s usually the boys who get those kisses. And it’s usually the boys who have something she wants who get those kisses. (Shoot me.)

While I’m more and more motivated, recently, to unleash the Dog Voice when I see behaviour like pushing or hitting, it isn’t going to work with more subtle behaviour like being manipulative. And shifting into Outlast Mode doesn’t seem right here either.

The last weapon in my arsenal is the Telepathic Staredown. Once, when she was rocking a glider ottoman too fast and violently, about to knock her snack plate off (why was the snack plate even on the ottoman, dad? Oh, right. You were too lazy to put her into her high chair for snack. You brought this on yourself, you know.), I started a contest of wills with her. I froze her with a Telepathic Stare and I used every ounce of strength I had to not crack a smile, because I knew smiling meant defeat.

She smiled first.

But I didn’t immediately relinquish my control of her soul; I kept staring, sending her the silent message that it was not okay to push that ottoman over, and eventually her smile faded and she looked contrite. I had won! I had won a battle of wills with a wilful toddler!

And for the next fifteen or twenty minutes it really seemed to have changed her behaviour in a genuine way. She started looking to me for permission to do things, assurance that it was okay. It was such a drastic difference from the effect of the Dog Voice, which was immediate compliance accompanied by intolerable distress, that I banked it for later use.

So today when she insisted on pulling a drawer out of the small table in the hallway, a drawer at head height that can possibly be pulled out enough to land on her head and leave her in a slobbering puddle, I initiated the Telepathic Staredown.

And proving that I’m not he only one who is learning how to handle unwelcome behaviours my Little Innocent came running at me with pursed lips, promising a kiss. And when, surprised and pleased, I broke the stare and ceased sending the telepathic signals to her brain I pursed my own lips and opened my arms wide, she stopped, smiled an evil little grin, and went back to pulling the drawer out.

"I win, guys."