Too smart for a three-year-old

I think one of the biggest problems in my relationship with my daughter Izzie is that I keep treating her like a five- or six-year-old, expecting an older child’s level of understanding, emoting and behavioural control. Why? Because she’s too damn smart for a three-year-old.

Take yesterday, for example. She was sitting in the kitchen, drawing with her mummy, granny and sister, when I came in, sat down, and started chatting. After a few minutes, she said, ‘Daddy, you haven’t read much of your book today.’

‘No, I haven’t,’ I said. ‘I thought I’d sit in here with you.’

‘Well, I know you want to read your book, so why don’t you go and read your book? We’ll be okay.’

‘I’m alright.’

‘Daddy. It’s starting to get dark. You should read your book now.’

‘You really want me to read my book?’

‘Yes.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘See you in a bit.’

‘Okay, daddy, bye bye.’

I got up, walked out of the room, and then heard her say to the others, ‘Ah. Nice and quiet.’

And they all burst out laughing.

I raced back in. ‘Hang on,’ I said. ‘Were you trying to get rid of me?’

Izzie gave me an apologetic look and said, ‘You just talk so much, daddy.’

Oh my gosh. Instead of telling me to be quiet or go away or any of the other things you might expect a three-year-old to say, she used subtlety and subterfuge to remove me, playing on my own desires and interests to get what she wanted. I’d like to think it was about sparing my feelings – it’s an improvement on a month ago when she said, ‘Daddy, daddy, stop talking, I’m just not interested’ – but I’m pretty sure she was simply sharpening her manipulative wiles for the future.

Gosh darn.

A couple of days ago, she showed another keen eye for social interaction. I have to admit that, despite writing on this very blog that you shouldn’t shout at kids because they won’t listen to you, I haven’t been following my own advice. Lately, Izzie has been very disobedient, or, to quote the ladies at nursery, ‘not using her listening ears’ – basically completely ignoring the authority figure and doing what she wants. And I have doubled down on the shouting because she’s testing every boundary, and getting on every last nerve of every person she meets.

So the other day she was in the bath, throwing water all over me, and I told her to stop. And I told her to stop. And then I shouted at her to stop or I would get her out of the bath and make her sit on the naughty step.

‘Daddy,’ she snapped. ‘When I’m being naughty, treat me like I’m not being naughty.’

I stopped. ‘Huh? You mean let you do whatever you want?’

‘No, talk to me like you talk to me when I’m not naughty.’

‘You mean, don’t shout?’

‘Yes, daddy. Don’t shout at me when I’m naughty.’

‘Why not?’

‘I don’t listen when you shout. So I keep being naughty.’

‘Oh. So if I speak in a normal voice, you’ll listen to me when I tell you to stop?’

‘Yes, daddy.’

‘Okay.’ I thought a moment. ‘Let’s make a deal then. From now on, I’ll speak to you in a normal voice when you’re being naughty. But you have to listen when I do, and do what I say.’

‘Okay,’ she said. ‘We’ll do that. High five.’

So we high-fived on it. And at least one of us is upholding his side of the bargain…

But here is my question. If she’s that freaking smart that she’s a nursery room lawyer and can wind everyone in her life around her little finger at just three years of age, how come I have to check under the bed for dinosaurs every night?

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A Three-Year-Old’s Heartbreak

As the father to two girls, and two gorgeous ones at that (sure, I’m biased, but it’s a fact), I figured there’d be some heartbreak in my daughters’ futures…way, way, way in their futures, when we have flying cars and holodecks, and have managed to merge man and machine into perfect beings fully trained to deal with the ups and downs of human relationships.

[Sigh]

My three-year-old daughter was a little quiet when she came back from her playdate this afternoon. It was with a boy who calls her his ‘lady’, while she calls him ‘my man.’ She often tells me she’s going to marry him, although to be fair, she also says she wants to marry ‘everyone in the whole wide world’, so that’s not exactly an exclusive club.

So I asked her what was wrong, and she said he’d told her he didn’t want to be her man anymore and she was no longer his lady. He has another lady, and he’s her man.

Oh. My. God.

With quivering lip and big fat tears spilling from her eyes, she said, ‘I want to be his lady. I loved being his lady. Why doesn’t he want me to be his lady?’

She sobbed her little heart out in my arms, and I think it broke my heart as much as hers. ‘I just want to be his lady. Why can’t I be his lady?’

It would be cute if not for the fact that rejection hurts no matter how old you are. It’s one of the hardest lessons to learn – that no matter how much you might like someone, they might not like you back, or worse, prefer somebody else. I told her it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with her, and it’s nothing that she’s done – it’s just something that happens sometimes. People’s feelings change, and there’ll be plenty more boys to come who’ll be glad to call her their lady.

I felt a bit useless, really. I guess all you can do is cuddle her, tell her you love her and always will. And hope you’re better prepared to deal with it next time.

In honesty, I always thought if a guy broke my daughter’s heart, I’d break his kneecaps. Never thought he’d be a three-year-old, though…

Confronting abusive parents

When I was a teenager, I’d often notice kids being shouted at by their parents, belittled in public, sworn at, smacked, nagged, grabbed and abused, and it never failed to ruin my whole day – partly because of my sympathy for the poor tyke, and partly because of my failure to do anything about it. I would roast myself for my cowardice, relive what I had witnessed over and over, wondering what I could, or should, have done.

These ruminations always ended the same way – with the reassurance that though I was currently unable to intervene, when I was older, bigger, more confident in myself, and packing both the muscles and bank balance equal to my ego, I’d never let a transgression go unpunished.

Trouble is, I never got much bigger. Nor did I develop the muscles, bank balance or confidence that would enable me to face down bad behaviour. In fact, following several breakdowns and a diagnosis of autism, I have an almost pathological aversion to confrontation, something I’ve covered in depth in Takers and the Took: Asperger’s and Confrontation. So when I say my evening out last night, the first without the kids for a year, was horribly ruined, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

As we entered an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant, out burst a man with a shaved head, tattoos, tattered clothes and a scarred face, carrying a crying seven-year-old boy by the arm. He slammed this poor kid down on a low wall, shook him roughly, shouted and swore into his face and then dragged him back inside and threw him down into a chair. At the table, the mother, dolled up to the nines with bleach-blonde hair, black eye-liner and a top showing off her cleavage, said to the kid, ‘What you crying for?’ whereupon the man thrust his finger into the boy’s face and hissed, ‘He’s being a right [expletive deleted].’

All the while, the kid hid beneath his hoodie while his many brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles acted as though this was nothing out of the ordinary. And, judging by the speed with which this kid seemed to get over it and start mucking around with the others, perhaps he’s used to it. But it shocked the hell out of me.

I’ve always admired those maverick characters like Martin Riggs from Lethal Weapon and John McClane from Die Hard, the kind who if he saw something like that would step up and make them regret ever lifting a finger to their kid. Unfortunately, those people don’t exist outside the pages of fiction, or if they do, I’ve never met any.

So I sat there trying to enjoy my meal, watching this kid and his father, bathing in my own cowardice. I tried to look at it from all angles – maybe the kid was being a shit, maybe his dad was at the end of his tether, maybe they were out for a birthday and the kid was ruining it yet again and his dad just lost it. I know what that’s like – I planned this really special surprise day out for all of us on Boxing Day at Monkey World, only to have my three-year-old daughter bitch and moan the whole way round about how she’d rather be at the playpark and how monkeys are boring and how she wanted to go home, until I shouted at her and said she was ruining my enjoyment of the day, which made her cry. Who am I to judge another father’s parenting style? And what right do I have to stick my nose in where it’s not welcome? Am I really that arrogant and presumptuous to think that my way is best?

That was a good way to get me off the hook, but really it was making excuses for my inaction, because this dad’s behaviour was more than the normal, run-of-the-mill fed up parent stuff – it was uncomfortable to watch and it crossed a line. True, he didn’t assault the boy – not in a way that would stand up in court – but the way he mocked, manhandled and humiliated that kid in public just wasn’t right.

But what could I do? Go up to a table full of burly builder-type blokes and say to them, ‘Good day, sirs, I beg your pardon for interrupting your meal, but I thoroughly disapprove of the way you treat your child.’ I’d be lucky to get told to mind my own effing business. And would having my face rearranged really improve things for the boy? Knowing the way these things work, blood being thicker than water, and all, he’d probably have cheered his dad on.

I thought of interacting with the boy when he got up to replenish his plate, asking if he was okay and offering some reassurance, but I decided that was an even better way to get beaten up. And then I started thinking about the times that I’ve shouted at my kids, or grabbed them and dragged them to the naughty step, the times I’ve threatened to take away their toys if they don’t stop misbehaving, or simply snapped at them because I’m tired or unwell or overwhelmed, and I wondered: am I like that guy? Am I getting so upset because I recognise in him a trace of what exists in me? Is he what I could become if I don’t constantly keep myself in check? And is that how I appear to my kids – a hulking, angry monster with a shaved head and tattoos?

So, as you’ve probably already figured out, I did nothing. Nothing but watch them, excoriate myself for my faintheartedness, and then dwell on it all of last night and all day into this evening. The world’s children are not my responsibility, I tell myself. I do not possess the skills or authority to act in such a situation. Anything I did would probably have made things worse. In short, I’m a gutless, spineless, powerless coward.

My on!y consolation is that when it comes to my own kids, I’m able to overcome my natural aversion to confrontation. I learned this a couple of months ago when I discovered a family member had disciplined my child in a manner of which I did not approve, a person set in their ways who has always intimidated me. I’ve always clung to the belief that as a parent, your instincts take over and enable you to be a freaking tiger when you need to be, but it doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t make you any less afraid or any less alone, and nor do you look inside and find a strength you never knew you had. The truth is, you simply don’t have a choice – right is right, wrong is wrong, and as a parent, when you see a wrong being done your child, you have no option but to confront it, no matter how scary it is.

And so it was, legs shaking, palms sweating, heart beating out of my chest and my stomach doing cartwheels, every fibre of my being telling me to run away and hide, that I drove round this person’s house and told them in no uncertain terms never again to discipline my child in that way. I had psyched myself up for a fight, and you know what? They absolutely crumbled.

I guess that’s what matters – knowing that when push comes to shove, I can look after my kids and keep them safe.

I just wish someone could do the same for that kid.

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.

My Daddy-Obsessed Daughter Rosie

My daughter is killing me.

I don’t mean that figuratively. I’m pretty sure that each day that passes, she’s shaving a bit off my life expectancy. I was going to reach a hundred. I’m down to eighty-nine. Keep this up, and I won’t be seeing fifty. Sometimes I think I’ll be lucky to see tomorrow.

Allow me to explain.

Over the past year, while I’ve repeatedly mentioned my three-year-old daughter Izzie on this blog, I’ve rarely referred to her sixteen-month-old sister Rosie. This has not been a deliberate decision, but come about as a result of the fact that, as Izzie continues to break new ground and present me with new challenges as a father, she gives me new things to write about. Rosie, on the other hand, as the second child, walks in her older sister’s footsteps as far as growing up goes, and as such gives me less new subject matter to work with.

As in the world of blogging, so in the world itself. My daughter is in the unfortunate position of being younger sister to the shining star that is my Izzie. While Rosie is no less delightful, no less adorable, no less loveable and intelligent and playful and lovely, she has been cursed to be born two years after her sister arrived. Had Rosie arrived first, I have no doubt she would be the world’s darling, but, through no fault of her own, she did not, and the consequence is to not only follow in her sister’s footsteps, but to be in her shadow.

Rosie is my forgotten sweetheart. It breaks my heart to see her so neglected by the very people who ought to be the most attentive. The family loved Izzie as she was the first daughter, grandchild, niece, whatever. They organised one day a week they’d look after her; two evenings a week they’d cook for her; booked her into classes; got memberships so they could visit zoos and soft play centres and adventure parks with her. When Rosie came along, these things were already in place, and they couldn’t possibly look after two children at once, so they simply stuck with the one. Meaning they were already so invested in Izzie they didn’t have the room or the inclination to integrate Rosie into their lives.

The long and the short of it is that for the past year, Rosie has mostly stayed at home with her daddy while Izzie has been gallivanting about the countryside with the extended family. Our household has become two separate teams – mummy going out with Izzie, and daddy staying at home with Rosie. This might be okay in families whose division of labour within the home is roughly equal, but since I do the lion’s share of the childcare – I get them up in the morning, get them breakfast, lunch and dinner, change all the nappies, wipe all the bottoms, do all the baths and put them both to bed every night – it means that while Izzie gets attention from both of us, Rosie only has me. And this has a significant effect on our relationship.

For a long time, Rosie has been a daddy’s girl. If I left the room she started to grizzle. If she felt unsure, unsafe, it was daddy to whom she fled. I thought it was rather cute, at first.

Then it started to concern me. Izzie would come and give me a hug, and Rosie would scream and try to pull her off me. Sibling rivalry, they said. Perfectly normal, they said.

About a month ago, I was lying on the sofa and my wife came over, got on her knees and placed her head on my chest. In a flash, Rosie had my wife’s hair entwined around her fingers and was dragging her away from me. And then, mission accomplished, she climbed up onto my chest and sat there like the king of the castle. Mine, she was almost saying. He’s mine.

Ouch. You can imagine what that does to a mother’s self-esteem.

Worse comes at night. She will only fall asleep with daddy, which means when I try to walk away, she morphs into a snarling, spitting, screaming creature that I barely recognise as human. I’m seriously waiting for her head to rotate 360-degrees as she projectile vomits pea soup. I’ve even found two sixes on her scalp – one more and we’ll know her true name (joking! But she does have an unusual birthmark on the back of her head…).

It’s a horrible life I seem to have carved out for myself. I advised in a previous post that you shouldn’t get into a place where your child will only fall asleep on you, but I unfortunately didn’t follow my own advice.

It’s my own fault. With the first baby, I went upstairs with her every night, rocked her in my arms, sang her to sleep or else read her a chapter of a book. With the second, I didn’t have the energy. I’d put the first to bed and, instead of rocking the second for hours, I figured it’d be easier just to lie on the sofa with her till she fell asleep naturally.

Big mistake.

The plan for the new year is to distance myself from my youngest. It sounds mean, sure, but she needs a far wider base of support than I can give her – especially if she wants me around in future years. Because, as much as I love her, I wish my little Rosie didn’t love me quite so much!

Three Words That Kill

It’s often said that, as a parent, the worst three words you can ever hear are, ‘I hate you,’ spoken by the sweet darling you’ve sacrificed your health and sanity for.

I always took this with a pinch of salt. Grow a freaking backbone, I thought. Your kids don’t mean it for one second – that’s how they talk. ‘I hate you’ is small person shorthand for ‘I’m angry because you won’t let me get my own way, but I’m not yet emotionally, cognitively or socially developed enough to deal with these feelings or articulate them in a healthy or appropriate manner.’

Besides, there are far worse things a parent can hear. Five words that never fail to freak me out are, ‘Hello, I’m from Children’s Services’. I’m sure I’d be turned into a gibbering wreck by a mere two words: ‘It’s meningitis.’ By comparison, ‘I hate you’ is incredibly mild.

This complacency left me thoroughly unprepared for a grouping of five words that have killed me over the past few days, especially as it’s Christmas. My three-year-old hasn’t told me she hates me, no – I’d be able to handle that. Instead, she keeps looking at me and saying, ‘I don’t love you, daddy.’

Ouch.

If she said it once, in the heat of the moment, that’d be okay, but she brings it up at least every hour. Sometimes she varies it with, ‘I don’t love you anymore,’ or she adds, ‘You’re naughty’ or ‘You’re always mean to me.’

She often juxtaposes it with, ‘But I love my mummy.’ Indeed, she delighted in telling people over Christmas, ‘I don’t love daddy anymore, but I love my mummy.’

I’ve got to tell you: that shit hurts.

Despite the tough, resilient front I put on, I have to admit that I’m not handling it well. For three years she was a daddy’s girl, but now I’m like something she’s stepped in. When she’s screaming because daddy’s putting her to bed and not mummy, and shouting that she doesn’t love daddy, she loves mummy, and even after you’ve calmed her down and read her a story and checked her room for monsters and told her you love her and wished her goodnight she says to you, ‘Can mummy put me to bed tomorrow because I love mummy and I don’t love you,’ it’s hard not to let that bring down your whole evening.

Whenever I ask her why, she tells me it’s because I’m naughty and mean to her.

What do I do that’s so bad? I make her eat her breakfast. I make her put her shoes on when we go out. If we’re driving and I notice she’s slipped her seatbelts off her shoulders, I tell her to put them back on. I make her stay in bed after I’ve put her there, and sit on the naughty step if she hits her sister. And instead of crisps and sweets all the time, I try to make her eat fruit.

Yep, what an ogre I must be. On Christmas morning, because I made her eat her cereal, she told me I wasn’t allowed to go to my in-laws for Christmas Dinner because I’d been naughty and mean to her and she didn’t love me and wanted to spend Christmas with people she loved – mummy, her sister, her grandparents, but certainly not me.

Every time I try to do things with her now, she kicks and screams and says she wants her mummy instead. It’s kind of hard to enjoy yourself when you’ve got that hanging over your head. You wonder why the hell you bother taking her to theme parks and adventure playgrounds, why you cook her nice food and go out especially to buy special puddings, why you play with her in the bath and dry her all over with a hair-drier, and wipe her bottom and kiss away her ouchies and educate her about the world, why you try so hard to do everything right when apparently everything you do is wrong, wrong, wrong.

It’d be easier just to sit on the sofa, let her do what she wants, whenever she wants, let her eat junk and watch garbage on TV and go to bed when she chooses, and leave her to her beloved mummy. I would be far healthier and happier. I could read my books again, make models, watch movies, lounge in a hot bath, play video games, get a decent night’s sleep for a change – all the things I don’t have time for because I’m looking after two kids.

But if I did that, I wouldn’t be a parent. Let her mummy be her best friend. Much as I’d love to be able to, it’s not my job to make her feel warm and cuddly inside. It’s my job to keep her safe, clean and fed, to prepare her for the world, to make sure we have a home in which to live. She might say she doesn’t love me, but I’m the one she shouts for when she has a problem, I’m the one she needs if she’s had a nightmare, I’m the one who fixes the things that she breaks.

God, why does it matter to me so much what a three-year-old thinks of me? And why does it make me so upset when she says she doesn’t love me?

I guess that, no matter how old you get or how much you prepare yourself, rejection still feels like the absolute pits. I’d really better grow a backbone. I just hope it doesn’t take too long.