Does this sound familiar?:
Sam, it’s time for nap. Let’s go upstairs.
I’M PUTTING TOBY IN HIS CRATE. YOU SEE, I SHUT THE DOOR, AND I PULL THE LOCK, AND THEN I DO THE BOTTOM ONE. NOW TOBY CAN CHEW HIS BONE IN HIS CRATE.
That’s good, but Toby doesn’t need to be in his crate right now. Can you let him out so we can go upstairs?
SEE, I PULL THE LOCK, AND THEN I DO THE BOTTOM ONE, AND THEN I OPEN THE DOOR AND LET TOBY OUT. HI TOBY!
Okay, time to go up for nap.
I’M KISSING TOBY GOOD NIGHT.
Nice kisses. Now up we go.
AND I NEED TO PUT MY CAMERA AWAY OR JINX MIGHT BREAK IT.
Samantha, we’re going upstairs RIGHT NOW! I’m going to count to three…
MOMMY, DON’T TALK TO ME LIKE THAT!
And suddenly, everyone is angry.
This is a type of conflict we’re working hard to resolve right now in our family, especially now that school is back in session and everything is more structured and time-dependent.
I’ve struggled with this issue a lot. I have a hard time enforcing any kind of “right now” because I can’t give any reason for it other than the argument from authority. I’m usually pleased to give Samantha the freedom to get to things as she is ready. Sometimes, just allowing her that last kiss for the dog is all she needs. Sometimes, she is deeply involved in something that doesn’t look important to me, but is challenging to her (like working the locks on the dog crate), and once I figure that out, I want to give her that time. But sometimes, she is just trying to see how much she can get away with, in which case I need to enforce the “right now.” It can be very difficult to tell which is the case, especially in the heat (well, speed) of the moment. But I don’t want to be the kind of parent who demands instant obedience, or really, obedience of any kind.
As a mental exercise, I asked myself what happens when adults have these conflicts over when to begin a shared activity. I thought about how Adam and I interact when one of us is ready to leave the house (or watch the TV show or sit down to dinner or whatever) and the other isn’t. The answer was obvious: the person who is not ready says, “Just a moment, please.”
I realized that this is quite a complex bit of communication, and that Sam needed to be taught how to do it and how it operated. ”Just a moment, please” tells the other person a number of things:
- I heard you
- I agree with your plan of action
- I have something I need to do first
- It won’t take long
- I appreciate your waiting for me
So for the past few months, I’ve been teaching Sam how to do this. The main point I’m working on is that she needs to respond to my (and others’) questions and directions with words. This applies to all of our communications, so I’m often telling her things like, “I’ll talk about that after you answer the question I just asked you. Do you need me to repeat it?” or, “Billy said hello. Do you have a response?” When she is (apparently) picking at carpet lint and I’ve given her the five minute warning (always, always, give prior notice!), but she doesn’t respond when I call her to dinner, I’ll go over to her and get specific. I’ll tell her something like, “Sam, I called you to dinner. You need to either come right now, or tell me what’s going on. You could say, ‘I need a moment, mommy,’ or ‘just a moment, please.’” This has worked wonders. I’d estimate that about 70% of the time, she says, “just a moment, please,” finishes what she is doing within 20 seconds, and then follows my directions.
It’s true, sometimes she’ll use “one moment please” as some kind of magic phrase just to put me off. If she says it and then doesn’t change in about 30 seconds, then I move to the next step. I’ll ask her to be even more specific. ”Samantha, you told me you’d come to dinner in a moment but you haven’t come. Do you need to finish something you’re working on, or did you forget?” This almost always gets an honest answer, and if the thing she is working on will take too long to be practical, she is very accepting of the explanations I give her and doesn’t fight it.
But if these things fail, then I know she is testing a limit. Once I know this is the case, I feel just fine about picking her up and putting her in her chair, or carrying her up to her room if necessary. But when I do my part correctly, it is surprising how rarely this happens.
I’ve fallen down on the job a bit lately, and I’ve noticed that we’ve often been falling into the pattern quoted at the beginning of this post. In fact, that was an example from this afternoon. The reason it’s so hard for me to do is that I have to break earlier habits from when she was less mature. A year ago, I had to use timers to get her to accomplish anything. She was not capable of “just a moment, please,” with all of its rich meaning. I need to raise my expectations of her. Once again, I notice that the most challenging part of parenting is simply keeping up with Samantha’s level of development. Respecting her means more than accepting her emotions, listening to her thoughts, and treating her fairly. It also means actively working to teach her the life-skills that she needs, as soon as she is capable of learning them.
The great part of this story is that, when I’m consistent in teaching and guiding instead of commanding and patronizing, Samantha is polite, in the most natural and benevolent way. After the earlier incident, I apologized and reminded Sam how to tell me if she needed a moment. Upstairs in her room, we had the following exchange:
Go ahead and pick out a book to read before nap.
JUST A MOMENT, MOMMY. I HAVE TO TURN ON MY LAMP FIRST.
And there was peace in the house once again.