My devious threenager

Normally it’s pretty easy to know what to do as a parent – they’re good, you praise them, they’re naughty, you punish them. This is just as true with new behaviours as old, because you generally expect the ways they behave, either as a natural part of child development or an extension of your own personality. They start to bite? You know how to deal with that. They hit you? You hit them right back (joking!).

However, my three-year-old’s recent behaviour has thrown me through a loop, because it’s so unexpected I have no idea how I feel about it and, consequently, no idea how to treat it. It’s just so naughty yet so gosh-darned smart I can’t help but admire it, and as it’s the first truly individual expression of her own personality, I don’t really want to squash it.

For at least a year now, my daughter has not been allowed a dummy, so imagine my surprise when I checked on her in the middle of the night to discover her asleep with a dummy in her mouth, only to have that dummy disappear by morning. This happened two or three nights in a row – no dummy at bedtime, no dummy in the morning, but a dummy in the middle of the night – so I casually asked her about it over breakfast.

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘That’s my secret dummy.’

‘Your secret dummy?’ I asked.

She nodded. ‘I keep it in a secret place.’

‘You know you’re not allowed dummies, right?’

‘I know, but it’s my secret dummy,’ she said, ‘and I only use it when I need to.’

Well, what the hell can you say to that? She’s not allowed a dummy, but the fact that she has a secret life that goes on unobserved by her parents, an independent little three-year-old world that’s entirely hers, is crazily advanced and individualistic, and I’d feel like a real meanie taking that away from her.

Also, I have no idea where she hides it!

This strange, devious streak infuses much of her behaviour. If I tell her she has to eat her dinner before she can have pudding, she’ll dutifully clear her plate. We’ll have a great evening, and then after I’ve put her to bed, I’ll start to tidy and discover her dinner hidden under a cushion or on a shelf. I’ve also caught her slipping food onto her sister’s plate, since my youngest – aka The Hoover – will scoff it down before anyone notices.

She’s also cunning with her excuses. Not when she blames her sixteen-month-old sister for things, or says she has her sister’s permission, or that her sister, who can’t talk yet, told her to – because that’s pretty easy to see-through. But some of her excuses are so, well, plausible, I sometimes wonder who’s the one being unreasonable.

Last night, for example, I caught her drawing on the walls with a set of coloured lip  salves she got for Christmas. Of course, I hit the freaking roof. But her excuse? On an episode of the TV programme Bing, they paint a rainbow on Sula’s wall to make the room pretty, and she thought she’d make it pretty for us as a nice surprise. She knows she’s not allowed to draw on the walls with pens or pencils or crayons, which is why she did it with coloured lip balm. And doesn’t it look nice?

Oh. Well, when you put it like that, it doesn’t seem quite so unreasonable. In fact, punishing you for it is what seems unreasonable. So, like, don’t do it again, okay?

And that’s happening every day at the moment. I look at my daughter and think, Aren’t I supposed to be telling you off right now? I’m not even sure myself. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Or maybe it means she’s winning.

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Lies, cunning and manipulation, toddler-style

I was having a bath late last night, the whole house closed up and asleep, when I heard little footsteps padding across the carpet in my toddler’s room. I sat up and stared at her bedroom door, watched as the handle slowly lowered, careful to avoid the squeak, until it was fully down. There was a moment’s pause, and then the door started to move, inching open, achingly slow. A rod of darkness appeared, became a column, and wider still, right up until the moment my gruff daddy voice broke the spell with ‘What’s the matter, Izzie?’

Silence. Nothing moved.

The handle was still down, so she was just on the other side of the door in the dark, frozen in silence. I waited, and neither of us breathed. I wondered what she was thinking – you could practically hear the cogs whirring around inside her head.

And then slowly, achingly slow, the door started to close again. Little by little the column became the rod again, and less. I watched as it pressed quietly up against the jamb, the handle edging upwards past the squeak until it was once more horizontal, and she was gone without a word, if ever she was there in the first place. It was as though I’d been visited by a ghost in the night.

Or maybe, she was just pissed it was me in the bath and not her mummy.

Watching a two-and-a-half year old working out how the world works, and her place within it, is a fascinating experience. Whether it’s cause and effect, strategic planning, or human social relationships, she approaches them sometimes with an awareness bordering on prodigy status, and sometimes like a donkey trying to pin a tail on itself.

She has a good understanding of the hierarchy in our house. Nowadays, her mother is pretty-much a playmate who lets her stay up late at night, draw on her face, and get away with almost anything, while I’m the authority figure who puts her to bed, straps her into the car seat and makes her finish her cereal before she can have yoghurt – hence why when she heard it was me in the bath and not her mother, she crept back into bed instead of continuing out onto the landing.

So, since she recognises me as the highest authority, she goes to her mummy for a yes, and me only when that fails. Like the other day when she went up to her mother and said, ‘Me have choc-choc biscuit?’ and when my wife said no, she came and asked me.

‘No,’ my wife repeated, whereupon my daughter turned to her and said, ‘Shush, mummy, me talking to daddy. Daddy, me have some?’

But acknowledging I’m in charge doesn’t stop her trying it on, however. Like when I was bathing her the other night, and asked my wife to watch her a moment when I settled the baby. That done, I returned to the bathroom, my wife left, and I said to my daughter, ‘Right, let’s get you out and ready for bed.’

‘But mummy said ten minutes.’

‘Did she, now? Mummy!’ I shouted. ‘Did you tell her she could stay in the bath another ten minutes?’

‘No, I said she’d be getting out as soon as you got back.’

‘Righty-ho.’

It’s not exactly difficult to see through her, especially when she says, ‘But you said…’ and I know damn well that I didn’t.

Her new strategy is just as transparent. If I’m in the kitchen and she’s in the lounge and I tell her not to do something, she comes up to me and says, ‘Me close the door, you not see,’ pushes it closed, and goes right back to what she was doing, as though out of sight is out of mind. She doesn’t yet understand that if I can’t see something, it doesn’t mean I don’t know it’s there.

But that’s not to say she’s not a good strategist – on the contrary, she shows impressive forward planning. The other day, when I was in the baby’s room trying to get her to sleep, I saw my toddler’s door swing open and a pillow fly out over the stair gate onto the landing. The sounds of struggling within, and then a foot appeared over the top of the gate, a pair of hands, a little head.

‘What are you doing?’ I barked, striding onto the landing, and she froze halfway. She’d got her suitcase out of the cupboard, dragged it over to the door, propped it against the stair gate and climbed on top of it…but not before dropping down a pillow to soften her landing.

She said nothing, just slowly drew her foot back over, climbed down off the suitcase, dragged it inwards, and closed the door behind her. If she’d been a cartoon villain, she’d have clicked her fingers and said, ‘Foiled. And I’d have made it, too, if it hadn’t been for my pesky dad.’

She never came back to claim the pillow.

But she has one sure fire weapon in her arsenal that she uses on a daily basis – the need to do a wee. It’s amazing how often she needs a wee when she is sitting on the naughty step, wants to get down from the dinner table, or has just been told to tidy up her toys. I guess she knows that letting her sit there and wet herself, getting it all over the chairs and carpet, is something we won’t risk, because we can’t tell whether it’s genuine or a ruse. It’s the only tool she has to get her own way, and it works.

So imagine her surprise next time, when she discovers we won’t let her get her own way. We can’t let her think the threat of wetting yourself is a good strategy for life – you’re not going to get that promotion if you walk into your boss’s office and say, ‘Give me the job, or I’ll make a little puddle in this chair.’ And if she does wet herself? Well – there’s always soap and water for that.