Naughty and Nice

I think that Silas has Oppositional Defiant Disorder. And/or is two years old.

This is a time of year when I think all of us start to think about behavior. The radio features songs about a fat man who “knows if you’ve been bad or good.” We all feel a certain level of scrutiny when we have our children around family members, particularly ones they don’t see frequently. Am I being a bad or good parent? Good question, and the presence of outside observers makes me wonder.

We try to avoid language about being bad or good in our family. It sounds too permanent, like The Bad Seed. If you are a bad child, why bother trying to behave nicely? Sometimes JC and I joke about Santa’s list (“Maybe if you are really good, Santa will bring you some new socks.”) but those are more jokes for each other, not for Silas. I don’t think he knows about that dimension of Santa, and I’m fine with that.

Silas is, and has been since infancy, like that infamous girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead–when he is “good,” he is very very good, but when he is bad, he is horrid. There isn’t much middle ground with him. In public, he is usually great. He loves to go to the grocery store, and I love to take him. He likes looking at all the people going by and waving to them. I think he’s a shy extrovert–he feeds on the energy of other people, but takes a little while to warm up to them. I constantly get compliments on his behavior at church. Last night, during a quick stop at Target, another mother told her sobbing two-year-old, “Look how nice that little boy is being. He’s not fussing!”

“You caught him in a good moment,” I told the mom. “They all fuss.” This is true, but I’m grateful that I can take him out in public and be fairly sure that he’ll be fine.  Recently, a friend brought her daughter over for a playdate. Silas-at-home is waaaaay more intense than Silas-in-public, the only Silas she had previously encountered. At one point, for no discernible reason, he yanked the little girl’s hair. I disentangled them, apologizing profusely to my friend.

“I’m actually glad to see that Silas isn’t this perfect magic child,” she said.

Let this be a reminder to all of us that there is no perfect magic child (side note: AARRRG WILL HE EVER STOP PULLING HAIR AND TACKLING HIS FRIENDS?!?!?).

I work to try to listen to the need beneath Silas’ challenging moments. Shortly before we came to West Virginia for a Christmas visit, JC and I talked about how we hardly wanted to leave home. We finally had a good routine going. Naps were actually happening (!). Bedtime was a joy and not a chore. Silas was eating decently and making it to the potty a pretty good percentage of the time. He had even started–with no prompting from me–singing the “Clean Up” song he learned from a childcare provider and cleaning up his toys. I knew Silas would love playing with his cousins and seeing his aunts, uncles, and grandparents. I knew he’d love “opening” (this year, the gifts are nice, but seeing what is under the paper is even nicer!). I also knew that he craves routine, and disruption of routine is really bad.

I’m trying to divide the stuff he does that I don’t like into two categories: “naughty” is boundary-testing. This is stuff like drawing on the furniture or hitting or asking me for a piece of candy and then asking JC when I deny the request (also known as “If with Mom you don’t succeed, try, try, with Dad.”). When he does this kind of thing, I stop him, of course. Sometimes objects go in time-out–so, the misused markers go away. If the mess is something he can help clean, I ask him to help me. This is mostly working, and I have to keep reminding myself of that. One day, I realized that I hadn’t had to put the markers in time out in a few weeks. Silas learned to use them appropriately. I had been questioning myself–putting objects in time out is sort of lazy parenting, because, unlike putting a child in time out, there’s no power struggle. But it does seem to be teaching him. I’m always at a loss as to what to do when he hurts other children. It’s the worst thing he does, especially since he seems the most likely to do it to the children he loves the most. I think it’s part of figuring out the boundaries of affectionate touch/aggressive touch, but I don’t know. I usually try to talk through it with him, sometimes removing him from the situation entirely. The other day, we took him for a play date with the children of an old friend. Out of nowhere, he grabbed a toy and smacked her six-month-old on the side of the head. The baby started crying. As my friend comforted the baby, I pulled Silas onto my lap and talked to him: “You hit Michael. Now he is crying. How is he feeling?”

Silas said, “Him sad.”

“Do you know why he is sad?”

“Him got hit.”

“Uh-huh. Who hit him?”

“I hitted him.”

“Can you tell him you’re sorry?” No response. “Can you help me think of a way to help him feel better?” No response. “Can we find a more friendly way to touch him? How about we tickle his feet?” By this point, the baby had stopped crying, we tickled his feet, he giggled, and everything seemed okay. Silas didn’t hurt anyone after that. I hope that my friend was okay with the fact that I didn’t yell at him or put him in time out or something more severe. I was, in fact, quite shocked that Silas hit the baby. I’m always dismayed when he hurts people, and I really hope he grows out of it soon. One of my best friends told me, “It’s because he’s two. The good news is that it doesn’t mean he’s a bad person, and it doesn’t mean you are a bad parent. He is two.” I hope she’s right (and wasn’t just trying to make me feel better after Silas tackled her son). I’m trying to trust that talking about people’s feelings is the right way to go, rather than just getting out the cattle prod and giving him a little jolt when he steps out of line.

The other night, I was helping my mother-in-law clean up some old Fisher Price Little People toys she had pulled out of storage for Silas to play with. “He’s probably a bit young for them–they’re more of an imaginative play thing.”

“Oh, I think he will enjoy them,” I said. “He loves playing with the people that came with his Duplos. The other day, I overheard him talking to them. He was saying, ‘Are you sad, Boy? Are you sad, Girl? I hug you.'”

My mother-in-law set down the toy she was scrubbing. “Are you serious? That is really advanced for two. Wow.”

I hadn’t thought about whether it was advanced or not (although I did hope it signaled a new phase of realizing that other people have feelings and MAYBE NOT HITTING THEM). I’ll take her word for it, though. I don’t know much at all about toddlers. She’s raised four kids and taught countless more in preschool and Sunday school. Hearing her say that, I felt like I did when I realized that Silas hadn’t colored on the furniture in a few weeks. Like maybe I’m on the right track. I question my choices a lot–don’t most parents?–especially when I’m around people who I know think I should be more punishment/reward oriented. I just can’t bring myself to do that, because I don’t think that the science supports it (or, rather, it *does* support it for rats, but not for people. As JC says, “Punished by rewards didn’t work on my smart dog, why would it work on my kid?”), and I also don’t want to have that kind of relationship with my children. I read somewhere that children are “dwarf sociopaths with a good prognosis,” and I think it’s true. I’m trying to believe in that good prognosis.

The other kind of “bad” behavior I see in Silas is what I think of as need-based. When Silas’ basic needs are met, he’s generally pretty good. At home, when we’re on a good schedule for rest and food, he’s pleasant. I’ve only twice been the mother dragging her screaming toddler out of a public place, grimacing and flushed. One of those times was actually very recent (the other was almost a year ago). That recent time served as a reminder of how important those needs are.

We were at the Planetarium for a showing of their Sesame Street movie, One World, One Sky (which is great). We had seen it before, and Silas wouldn’t stop talking about seeing “Big Bird on the big big huge screen.” When they were doing a special weekday morning showing of it, I decided to take him again. I thought he’d love it as much the second time around. We took JC to work, ran a few errands, and then got to the Planetarium with time to spare. I took him to the restroom (and he went), and then we found some seats. I started nursing Petra as we watched other people filter in. Suddenly, Silas started saying that he wanted to go home. “But we’re going to see Big Bird, really soon,” I said.

“Don’t like Big Bird. Want to go home.” He started screaming and crying. I was completely taken aback.

“But you love Big Bird. And Elmo, remember, Elmo is in this one.”

“Don’t like Elmo!”

I thought that he would chill out once the thing started and he remembered that he did very much like Elmo, so I distracted him by playing “I Spy” until it started. When it finally began, I said, “Look, it’s Big Bird, remember?” and the tantrum kicked up again. I had to leave, then, because I didn’t want him bothering anybody.  I was completely baffled, because Silas loves pretty much every component in this outing–Sesame Street, movies, and being with other kids. (Side note: I was telling this story to a friend and I mentioned that we were sitting next to a very put-together acquaintance whose sons were just perfectly behaved the whole time. “Don’t let that phase you,” my friend said. “The last time I saw her, her oldest was having a total melt-down.”) As we walked back to the car, he kept saying, “Want to see Big Bird.” I would offer to go back and then the tears would intensify and he’d say, “NO!” so I’d assure him that he didn’t have to see Big Bird. In the car, I got him a snack and we went for a little drive. He fell right asleep. I was worried because, that evening, JC and his parents were taking Silas to Christmastown at Busch Gardens. I knew it meant a lot to my father-in-law, especially, for Silas to go, but if he was having a rough day, I worried how good of an experience it would be for them. I told JC about the incident at the Planetarium. They have a Sesame Street show at Busch Gardens, and apparently Silas started the same kind of fussing (“Don’t like Big Bird! Want to go home!”). JC took him out and got him a snack. When he calmed down, they went back in and totally enjoyed the show.

It’s amazing how close to the surface our biological needs are, and having a kid makes that even more clear to me.
Another thing to remember: Tantrums are not teachable moments. I keep trying to reason with him in the middle of a meltdown, and it does. not. help. Also, meeting whatever demand he claims to be having in the middle of a meltdown is ineffective. He didn’t want that thing. He was just on the edge and this was something to scream about. I need to be the adult, to forget that he is screaming for his (sister’s) stuffed bunny, and hold him and be present until he can calm down.

So now, we’re in WV, and it’s been a challenging week, parenting-wise. Silas isn’t getting enough sleep. He’s over-sugared (“If with Dad you don’t succeed, try, try, with Granny!”). He’s definitely in a growth spurt (yes, I KNOW his coat is too small, I will buy him a new one next week!) and getting his two-year molars. He’s in pain and needs to eat more frequently and get more sleep. He’s saying “NO” to everything. He’s refusing to eat anything remotely nutritious. He’s been waking up in the middle of the night, screaming and inconsolable. He’s wet the bed several times.

So, sleep, food, potty, pain.

We’re seeing other needs, too. He hasn’t gotten his usual playtime with his friends (after playing with a blond, blue-eyed distant cousin, he hugged her and called her “Elisabeth.”). One of our best days so far was the one that we spent having a playdate (the one where he hit the baby). He keeps asking to go to Sunday school and wants to know when we will “go back to our brown house.” He asks about our cat, who we left at home in the brown house.

Socialization. Stability. Connection.

I’m trying to remember the needs, to listen to the need behind the misbehavior.

I hope Santa will do the same.


Aili Written by:


  1. December 23, 2012

    I think it’s so awesome that you appropriately identify his behavior as age appropriate and don’t label him as “good” or “bad” 🙂 People, including kids, who feel bad, act bad. If they’re going through changes (in diet, routine, etc.), then they’re going to behave differently. Kudos to you for recognizing this and parenting him appropriately. It sounds like you are doing an AWESOME job! 🙂

  2. December 23, 2012

    They say that all behavior is communication, good post.

  3. Linda Bengston
    December 25, 2012

    Although my opinions are hardly valid because I’ve never had children, it sounds to me as though you’re hugely insightful and patient in some very trying situations. After all these years, the one thing that still sticks with me from graduate school is this: Reward the behavior you want, not the behavior you get. It sounds as though you’re doing that.

    While I’m not at all surprised you’re not using “bad” and “good” labels, I’m so happy you’re not. It took me very many years to realize that my behavior at any given time is not who I am. Sometimes I behave selfishly, for example, but I’m basically not a selfish person. My upbringing did not differentiate between my behavior and me.

    You and JC are remarkable people and you’re raising remarkable children. The world needs more parents like you.

    By the way, I always enjoy your posts because I always learn something and I so enjoy your wonderful writing.

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