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Incessant Squabbling Must End - For Our Sake

Wed., July 19, 1995

Jonathan (4 in September) has settled ideas about the way the world should work. Rule No. 1: People, specifically his mom and dad, should not take his picture. This gets expressed as “Don’t take me a picture.”

So even if the two boys (brother David will be 2 in September) are seated together on the scooter with crash helmets on or giggling delightedly as they ride the merry-go-round, Jonathan’s edict remains in effect.

For a time, we stupidly abided by his request. But then we decided that this form of preschool imperiousness would not do. One night, Jonathan had put on his sunglasses to aid in the eating of popcorn. He looked hilarious. I snapped a photo. Well. This child turned on me the full measure of his indignation.

“You did a bad thing, Mommy,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “You are not special. I will point at you.”

I guess the “Barney” influence is what made him think that denying “special” status to someone amounts to a form of censure. I know why he threatened to point. I have told him any number of times that it is rude to point at people.

Before I had kids, I vaguely knew that parents often yearn for their children to be close friends, but I wasn’t exactly sure why it was such a big deal. Now I understand. It’s not for the kids’ sake. It’s for us.

For the longest time - 18 months - I could not turn my back on my children for even 10 seconds without a wail issuing from the general direction of David or Jonathan or both. One would have the dump truck, and the other would want it. Blows were exchanged - well, not actually exchanged until recently. Jonathan would hit or shove his little brother, David would scream, and Mommy would intervene to separate them and make sure each boy had a truck.

Stern warnings to Jonathan not to hit or hurt his baby brother in any way (they’re all little lawyers, these preschoolers, looking for loopholes, so you have to make global statements) would be followed by several minutes of satisfactory play. Then, wham, another yelp from David.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. “She’s not tough enough with the older child.” Well, maybe you’re right. But it’s tricky business, this discipline.

For a long while, I was sending him to his room or taking toys away (which hurt more) with regularity to punish him for not listening. There were two problems with this approach:

1. If the goal was to protect David, it had the potential to backfire. Jonathan could conceivably begin to view his little brother as the cause of all his troubles with Mommy and begin to resent or even hate him for it.

2. The punishment didn’t seem to be effective.

Only after consulting a book called “The Difficult Child” did I learn better discipline techniques, like positive reinforcement (yes, some might call it bribery) for desirable behavior. As the book’s author, Dr. Stanley Turecki, points out, negative attention is still attention, and some kids get locked into negative ways of getting it.

But things have improved greatly in the last couple of months. The boys are often delighted with one another. Jonathan refers to his brother as “my David.” They make a concerted lobbying effort every night for the privilege of sleeping in the same bed (nix on that). And whenever I do have to send Jonathan to his room for punishment, David vitiates the penalty by clambering up the stairs to join him (even if the punishment is for clobbering David).

To have two children under the age of 4 means that every waking second of my day is spent on alert status. Where are the children at this moment? Do they have hold of anything sharp, hot, messy or fragile? What is Jonathan drawing on with those markers, and is David going to hurt his toes when one of the cans he is using as building blocks falls on them?

What are they doing with the electric toothbrush? Should I allow it? (Sure, it’s Daddy’s.)

Besides, if Jonathan really gets out of hand, I can always take his picture.


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