Eitan and I have been arguing a lot lately.
It’s hard to really call them arguments. Real arguments involve the presentation of an opinion, evidence to support one’s point of view and an exchange of ideas and information designed to convince one’s audience. The arguments between Eitan and me are much less sophisticated. Our spats usually involve me asking Eitan to stop doing something and Eitan saying no and continuing his activity. I keep pushing, Eitan keeps resisting, one or both of us ends up yelling, Eitan starts crying and we both end up frustrated.
The arguments can be about anything. Eitan, it’s time to turn off the television. Eitan, please stop splashing water on me during your bath. No, Eitan, I can’t carry you right now. Eitan, please stop swinging your lightsaber around the living room. Eitan would you please finish your breakfast so we can leave? The subject matter doesn’t make a difference; the ending is always the same.
The hardest part for me is that I thought I had been approaching these situations in the right way. I work with children and families for a living; I have experience navigating family dynamics and child behavior. I know how I’m supposed to interact with a young child in order to get what I want. I kneel down to get on Eitan’s level. I speak in a soft tone of voice. I say please. I explain why I’m giving a certain direction or making a request. I avoid yelling whenever I can and I encourage Eitan to speak to me, rather than screaming and crying. But still, Eitan and I end up doing the same dance every time.
I’ve used the dance metaphor a few times with some of the families with whom I’ve worked who have found themselves constantly getting sucked into these battles.1 I illustrate how each person’s behavior represents some of the steps in the dance. The child moves here, the parent moves a different way in response, the child follows up with another move, and so on. They’re dancing together and the steps are always the same.
My advice, usually to the parents, is to find a way to change the steps. If one side disrupts the rhythm or makes a different move, the other side has to move differently to adapt. If the child starts yelling, I suggest that the parent try remaining silent, rather than yelling back, as they have been. If the knee-jerk reaction is to use the phrase, “Because I said so,” I help the parent find a way to give a more substantive explanation for their request. If the parent usually jumps to say no, we work to find a different response that is more open to compromise. The idea is to move toward a point of collaboration, rather than confrontation.
This all sounds great, in theory. The difficulty is in remembering to alter one’s behavior when they’re in the middle of an argument that has happened hundreds of times. I’ll be the first to admit that I have forgotten my own advice plenty of times over the past few weeks by allowing Eitan to draw me into the same power struggles. He and I have been like oil and water, bickering about things as serious as him chucking his basketball across the living room and as insignificant as whether or not he should be allowed to put his shoes on without socks. I realize that it is ridiculous for me, a grown man, to be screaming back and forth with a three-year-old about whether he should be allowed to pour his own juice or play with certain toys. But I’m a creature of routine, as most humans are, and when I feel like Eitan is doing something he should not be, my impulse is to stop him.
That’s really where the solution lies for me. The first word out of my mouth has always been “No,” which immediately creates a standoff. “No” does not allow for other options or conversation; it simply ends. Rather than trying to stop what Eitan is doing, I should be finding ways to either redirect him or negotiate ways for him to continue his activity in a different way. (Maybe we can roll the ball back and forth instead of throwing it across the room. How about we set a timer and when it goes off, then we stop playing and go take a bath?) I also need to do a better job of realizing when certain battles are just not worth having. Nobody is really getting hurt if Eitan squeezes out too much lotion after his bath or if he plays on his Kindle for a few minutes in the morning or if he takes a pot to put on his pretend stove. Learning to say “Yes” once in a while for minor things can work wonders.
One of the hardest things about being a parent is having to face challenges every day. On the other hand, every new day gives me a new opportunity to learn from my mistakes, break the routine and change the steps.