"What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more
and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their
experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them; and
advice, road maps, guidebooks, to make it easier for them to get where
they want to go (not where we think they ought to go), and to find out
what they want to find out."
—John Holt, Teach Your Own
I’m going to throw this topic open for discussion, because I am certainly no expert here. I am learning as I go. (Which is pretty much the definition of parenting.) I know from talking to other mothers of kids with special needs or medical issues that it can be really challenging (understatement) to figure out what behaviors are caused by the child’s issues, and what has more to with age or temperament. Of course these things are never black and white; there is usually a variety of reasons for why a child is doing something you’d rather he didn’t do. Deciding how to address the problem is the big challenge.
I remember an incident from when Jane was two, during one of her prolonged hospital stays for chemo. Most of the time she was astonishingly cooperative during treatment, but on this day she was emphatically not happy. "Not happy" as in shrieking her lungs out in the middle of the hall. In a flash we were surrounded by about seventeen medical personnel wearing expressions of worry and alarm. Was she seizing? Had she pulled out her line? I remember kneeling beside Jane, looking up at the army of doctors and nurses, explaining to them that no, it’s just that she’s two.
What had happened was that I (gasp) said no to her. No, you can’t sprint down the hall when you’re attached to an i.v. pole. She was two years old and in the mood to sprint, and her tantrum had nothing to do with her illness at all. It could just as well have happened in a grocery store or at church. She just happened to be spending her toddlerhood in a hospital, and when toddler ‘tude kicked in, it happened in a place where the staff was trained to assume screaming and flailing of limbs indicated a medical emergency.
I can see how they made that mistake. These things are not always clear cut. My Wonderboy is a sweet, sweet child. But he’s also, shall we say, a bit rigid. And determined. That determination serves him well; after all, it’s what got him off the floor and onto the furniture. But he is two and a half, and his goals are not always quite as satisfactory, from my point of view, as, say, walking and climbing. And often I find myself navigating difficult and uncharted waters. If he’s doing something inappropriate, how much has to do with his issues (I sort of hate that word) and how much with his age, or his mood, or circumstance? That’s a rhetorical question, you understand. No one can answer it for me. The answer changes every day, with every situation.
But the challenge is consistent, and I think it’s a challenge faced by a lot of parents. Wonderboy grows daily more fluent in two languages: English and ASL. But there are many times when he refuses to use either one. He’ll sit in his chair and reach toward the fridge making totally obnoxious fussing sounds. This is not OK, I tell him. Use your words. Do you want some yogurt? I have my strategies for retraining this inappropriate behavior: I sign his choices (he can’t hear me when he’s fussing); I refuse to give him anything if he fusses for it. ("Inappropriate behavior gets you the opposite of what you want" is one of my basic principles of child-rearing.) Fussing that escalates to a tantrum gets him plopped in the playpen penalty box. (At least, it did until I packed the playpen away for house-showing. Now I use his bed.)
But during such lovely little episodes, of course I’m wondering how much of his behavior is bad habit in need of retraining, and how much is the big old frustrating communication gap that goes along with hearing loss, which will be less of a hurdle as he gets older.
I’m just using that scenario as an example of the kind of thing I mean. Before he was able to stand up, he’d sit and cry or shriek for someone to get him. Of course I felt sorry for him, stuck there, dependent on someone else for mobility; I couldn’t leave him crying on the floor. But neither could I allow him to think the way you get what you want is to scream for it. I had fears of raising an imperious, obnoxious little tyrant who thought his physical limitations gave him carte blanche to order people around, like Colin in The Secret Garden.
So day after day—hour after hour, it sometimes seemed—I worked with him, insisting that he sign "help" before I’d get him up. Sometimes I felt so mean. Sometimes it went on too long. Sometimes we had to BE somewhere, or one of his sisters needed me, and I had to just grab him and go—which, of course, is just the kind of inconsistency that delays the formation of the good habit. But little by little, we got there. He learned to ask for help. Nicely.
And I know he’ll learn to ask for yogurt, nicely. It just takes so much diligence on my part, and that can be exhausting—the need to always be focused, to be thinking about how I react rather than simply reacting on autopilot.
As I said, I know I’m far from the only mom in this boat. So I figured I’d open the topic to you all and see if it’s a subject you’re interested in pursuing. I’m not all homeschooling and fun learning stuff here; I’m special-needs kids too. (And also: large families. And: big scary cross-country moves. But I digress.) I would love to hear your stories and insights about raising kids who pose behavioral challenges on top of the regular challenge of being, you know, two years old. (Or three, or four, or five…)