Sunday, June 05, 2005

Miss Behavior

Daughter tested me yesterday.

I failed.

For the last two weeks, Daughter has been giving me little glimpses of herself as an adolescent: insolent mumblings, opposition for its own sake and the occasional dramatic eye-roll. I am beginning to think all this is so I will have plenty of time to get her on the list for the right boarding school. For the most part, however, I have done what the books suggest. I’ve praised her when she’s behaved correctly and corrected her behavior when it reminded me too much of The OC. All month, I have been chalking up a rising trend of moodiness to end-of-the-school-year anxiety. But yesterday Daughter’s behavior crossed into a new dimension. A dimension not of sight or sound, but of mind.

Specifically, mind over mother.

Just above her head was a neon sign spelling out “I need to test my boundaries, and I need to do so while walking over my mother in baseball cleats.” Needless to say, I didn’t see it.

We were getting dressed for our Saturday-morning, bookstore-sponsored story time which she loves, and then on to Karate which she also loves. (I have too lightened her schedule!) Plotting the day’s wardrobe changes in my head, I offered her a t-shirt and Karate pants.

“I want to wear cowboy boots” she sulked, already preparing for battle.

I considered this. An orange t-shirt and white karate pants tucked into black cowboy boots with red filigree. She might appear to have dressed while fleeing a burning building but what did I care? If anything, the boots were easy to take off before Karate. I granted her request. So, of course, her sulk deepened. When you want to mix it up with mom, getting your way is supremely irritating.

“I hate pants. I want to wear a dress”

“Please save the word hate for something larger than pants, sweetie,” I said automatically.

Her brow darkened further. Now, at least, I was giving her something to work with. “I won’t wear pants,” she barked. “I’m wearing a dress.”

I explained how wearing a dress would mean changing her clothing in the car, a procedure about as graceful as examining a feral cat’s prostate.

“Put on the boots you wanted, babe, and then we can go to story time,” I said firmly, and went to make myself a cup of tea to pour into my lap while driving.

I came back a few minutes later. Daughter was lurking under her night table, reading a book. She wore no more clothing than before but, worryingly, had unearthed a pair of hot pink tights which are way too small for her. The mood was considerably more ominous than when I’d left.

“I’m wearing a dress and tights. And you can’t stop me.”

Oh, a nice strong offensive move. She adores these tights. She can’t wear them to Karate, however, because she needs to have bare feet and they are so small on her, taking them off in the car requires me to lie completely across the center console and pull while she braces herself in her car seat with both arms .

I said levelly, “You wanted to wear cowboy boots, I said fine. We don’t have time to do a full change between story time and class. So I need you to wear what I suggested before, the pants and the t-shirt.”

Still staring at the ground, she mumbled something in an especially snotty tone. Then she locked eyes with me as her words sank in.

I said flatly “That was a hurtful thing to say. I need you to apologize for that, and then get dressed. If you don’t apologize, I won’t take you to story time.”

She breathed deeply and repeated the same snotty barb, emphasizing a few adjectives for added flavor.

I looked at her deeply and said quietly, “That’s it. No story time.”

I walked out of the room, found Consort, and gave him the update. (Actually, I believe my exact words were “She’s yours now, Bucko!”). Meanwhile, a full-blown tantrum had erupted in her room.

I will go to story time, and I will wear everything I like!

Knowing what he knew, Consort nonetheless bravely offered to take her for the morning while he ran his errands. I left the house quickly and went the local mini-mall, where I had a pedicure. [I should note that, faced with a zillion shades of nail polish, the color I responded to was named “Fed Up”.]

Three hours later, I met Consort and Daughter at Karate. Clearly, they had spent some daddy-time discussing how one treats a mommy. Daughter handed me a very sweet card in which she had written an apology, which Consort swore she composed without coaching. She and I hugged and all was forgiven. The mood around here has improved considerably.

But since I cannot leave well enough alone, I’ve been thinking about how I am teaching my kid to be a thoughtful member of society. Teaching children that people who are rude don’t get as many benefits as people who are nice is fairly typical, I guess, and certainly commendable. But isn’t it also kind of a self-serving way to encourage good citizenship?

Today, I asked several friends if they encouraged their children to behave well simply by staying on the positive side -- by demonstrating that a good person treats other people well because that’s just the best way to behave? By my thinking, these are all good parents and to a person they found my question absurd.

Here are some of their responses:

“I pointed out to my son that I was more likely to buy him something if he appeared interested in his family. Now, whenever he asks me how my day was, I know he wants a new Game Boy.”

“My daughter saw the Miss USA pageant, and now she wants to be Miss Texas. I told her that Miss Texas would never bite her brother. So right now, we’re good.”

“I told the twins Jesus cries when they hit each other. They still hit each other, but now I’ll hear one twin screaming at the other ‘Jesus likes me better’.”

“Since I told my son I have Santa on speed-dial, he’s been great.”

Reward-based behavior might be an age thing. Small children are simply too self-centered and impulsive to respond to an abstraction like “Good for its own sake”. It might be that the best strategy is to get good behavior wedged in there any way you can, and then attach a higher meaning to it as they develop a frontal lobe.

Or maybe it doesn’t really matter why you behave, as long as you do. I don’t run red lights not out of some ethical devotion to the traffic code, but because I have no need to be broadsided by a cement truck.

The Golden Rule takes on deeper personal significance when it’s backed up by thirty tons of roiling concrete.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found your blog via a link from another, and stayed because of your dry wit and also because I suspect we live in the same zip code. I move on before this sounds too stalker-like by saying that I always assumed that most kids can't grasp the abstract nuances of "doing right for the sake of it" and thus need repercussions as motivations for behavior as initial training. Besides, if they say snotty things to a boss or a professor in years to come, there might well be consequences equal to the loss of storytime. In short, when I read this piece, before you started second-guessing yourself, I thought "What a great mother, to insist on her child treating her with respect and kindness. I wish more did so, for their own ultimate sakes, if not that of the world at large."
But what do I know? My virtual children are perfect.

7:52 AM  
Blogger Quinn Cummings said...

Wait until they hit those Virtual Twos.

8:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then again, virtual college is most affordable.
I'm Mary, by the way, it was rude of me not to sign in. And I live just above the lake of silver.

10:12 AM  
Anonymous Kate said...

How old is Daughter? I don't know if you've had a chance to study behavior modification, but the same principles for training a dog work pretty well on a child...or a spouse. I know a couple of trainers who have used "don't shoot the dog" and "the other end of the leash" in both their personal and professional lives with great success.

4:01 PM  
Blogger Quinn Cummings said...

Yeah, but people looked at me funny when I had Consort and Daughter crate-trained.

8:52 PM  
Anonymous Rebecca said...

Clicker training would be more sly...

11:48 AM  
Anonymous Kate said...

Good point about the crate training. Though I do sometimes think a playpen and a crate bear a striking resemblance...Try rewarding them for good behavior with liver treats and tell strangers it's the new, must have delicacy, freeze-dried foie gras.

7:38 PM  

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