Psychological Warfare with a Five-Year-Old
Entering the apartment with two kids after being out in the snow is no small feat. First, I have to get the stroller through a narrow and heavy door before it swings shut. Then I haul bags of groceries up the steps to the inner door. Followed by carrying the wriggling toddler. The real bottleneck is just inside the inner door where everyone’s winter gear must be removed with the minimum spillage of melting snow and gritty gravel. It’s the perfect time to stage a rebellion against a parent with no free hand to spare. His hat and coat are casually flung on the ground as an opening volley, while he wrestles with the boots that are velcroed in place.
“Open the straps first please, don’t just yank them off. It makes it more difficult to get them on and off. And it damages the shoes”, I say, calmly and politely.
“I do what I want!” is the response. I beg to differ with this proclamation. While continuing the discussion I pick up his hat from the ground and place it in his brightly decorated box. The one I covered with designs and carefully wrote his name out in his favourite colour. He grabs the hat back out of the box and tosses it back on the floor while stubbornly pulling at his shoes which are still firmly attached to his feet.
I choose to ignore this latest insult and assist him with the boots which, of course, slide right off once opened. “See, it’s much easier if you open them first. You know you have to look after your belongings if you want to have them.”
He doesn’t respond to this. Just picks himself up and stalks off to the sitting room, smugly commenting, “Well, that situation didn’t work out so well for you, did it?”
“Excuse me? What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask, with an inkling of what’s coming.
“I still left my coat on the floor”, he says. With the cockiness of a five-year-old that believes he’s pulled a fast one and won the battle you weren’t even aware you were having.
It’s not so much what he’s saying, but the attitude behind it. The hint that this is about to become his default response to the pathetic number of ‘jobs’ he has as part of this household. It’s time to draw a parenting line right here amongst the discarded clothing. The battle he has started is most definitely not won yet, but he has just escalated it. I leave him enjoying his victorious moment while I pick up hat, coat and shoes, and remove them to another room.
“I hope you’re not going to be too cold the next time we go out!”, I comment as I pass through the sitting room with the groceries.
“What do you mean?” he says. I can literally see the dawning realisation that something has gone horribly wrong on his face. “It’s winter out there,” I explain, “you might find it very cold when you don’t have a hat, coat or shoes to wear.” He doesn’t need further exposition to understand that after plenty of previous discussions, this is the moment when he will have to deal with the consequences of not taking good care of his own belongings.
He’s too stubborn to backtrack on the position he’s taken. There’s only one tactic left for him to employ at this stage. He explodes into an epic “but I want to go out!” tantrum. The crux of his shrieking argument appears to be that I didn’t tell him what was going to happen. I refer him to the hundreds of discussions we’ve had on this topic upto now and including the conversation of the last few minutes, then let him get it all out of his system. Which he does –at top volume– while his brother clings to my legs looking slightly concerned.
A few minutes later and he tries his predicatable bait-and-switch tactic. If you’re losing, then throw something random in there to change the argument to one where there might be some ground to gain. “I haven’t watched Puffin Rock in ages”, he announces, in the hope that I will be so confused that he’ll gain extra screentime out the situation even if his coat is lost.
“Did this tactic ever work for you before?” I ask. “No,” he admits in a still-hopeful tone. While I admire his tenacity, the answer to this indirect request is always going to be No following poor behaviour. He nods in resignment. It was worth a try. I brace myself for another onslaught of tears, but he abruptly runs off to the playroom where within seconds, he appears to be having the time of his life playing superheroes.
The toddler looks at me. I shrug. Apparently we’re done for today.