Thursday, March 27, 2008

Stubbornly Compliant

On the face of it, Bub is a stubborn boy.

"He doesn't like it when people tell him to stop doing something," I observed blandly to another parent yesterday at the Little Gym as Pie and I peered worriedly through the window. Bub stood there with his trademark stricken expression, his face an outline of pure despair because he had been gently asked to sit down in the circle.

"Too bad the terrible twos don't end when they're done being two," the dad replied sympathetically. "He's an independent little guy, isn't he? Likes to do things his way."

Well, yes. His Little Gym classes are an exercise in willfulness. He sings the songs, jumps on the air track, and clambers over the equipment gleefully. What he does not do - what he flatly refuses to do - is any actual gymnastics. He adores Mister Jeff, but when Mister Jeff beckons him to practice a front roll or a pullover, Bub invariably responds with a stern shake of the head. Bub will happily do anything he's asked, so long as he can do it without assistance.

Bub is so easily mistaken for a defiant, oppositional child, that I've given up trying to explain to people the deep vein of compliance that runs through his nature. To be sure, his first response to any act of communication is flat denial. Every day last week, I prepared him for nursery school by saying, "Today is your Special Day, Bub! You can choose a toy for show and tell!" And every day he responded the same way - with flat disbelief. It can be discouraging, I will admit, when your every remark is greeted with instant and emphatic contradiction. But I have noticed that he will hold me to my words, even if he denies them at the time. Information creeps in through that mask of habitual refusal.

For his compliance to emerge, all Bub needs is for the rules to be clear and to be told them ahead of time. After a 5:45 awakening a few mornings ago, I finally decided that Bub was ready to grasp the principle of a 7:00 wake-up time. We bought a clock radio and installed it in his bedroom. When he leapt out of bed at 6:08 the following morning, I chanted my new mantra, a whispered hiss through his sobs of protest: "There is no breakfast and no lights on until that number says seven!" At 6:08, he wailed and struggled, subsiding only when I gave him a little Tarzan toy to take back to bed with him. At 6:22, he glared at me, but climbed back in bed of his own accord. At 6:45, he asked for a cozy tuck-in and then remained quiet until the dot of seven. The next morning, and each morning since then, he has waited until seven before leaping from his bed with a joyful stage whisper: "It's seven-oh-three! Hurry, hurry, it's wake-up time!"

I don't have to threaten punishments or promise rewards: all I have to do to secure compliance from my stubborn, independent, oppositional child is give him a clear rule that he can follow without assistance.

"Guess what Bub?" I told him this morning. "You're going on a city bus with all the kids from nursery school! You're going to a science show!"

"I don't think so! I don't think we are doing that." Bub's rejoinder was predictable, but he said it with a sneaking smile. I think he's looking forward to his field trip.

27 comments:

Veronica Mitchell said...

I think Bub and I are kindred spirits.

Christine said...

i think many people often look at children and only see a label: "defiant" "stubborn" "willful"

but there are so many underlying layers that no one can see or really understand. i know that lots of people look at my son and see "naughty" when i see "tired," for just one example.

i know many, many children who function really well within a set of nicely defined set of rules like bub does. it is a security and a comfort to know one's own parameters. just like i need deadlines, schedules, etc. to feel comfortable and in control many children need a clear group of rules to function in so they can be happy.

sounds like you know your boy better than anyone out there. :-)

Running on empty

Chaotic Joy said...

I think Christine said it perfectly! She's a wise one.

And that Bub, he's lucky who to have a mama who is such a devoted study of his personality.

Magpie said...

Charming.

Amy said...

This will serve him well one day!

Don Mills Diva said...

I have a feeling my so will be very much the same. He is extremely routine oriented - something must be established as a protocol before it is accepted. Once it is - it is followed to the letter...

Jess said...

A lot of us never lose that trait, that instant defensive denial, but then later when we think about what was being said we're able to take it to heart. I see it in adults, myself included, all the time.

Karianna said...

"...all I have to do to secure compliance from my stubborn, independent, oppositional child is give him a clear rule that he can follow without assistance."

I've said this many-a-time to teachers who complain that my son is having difficulty. "Give him a clear expectation and he'll rise to it; tell him he is a problem and he'll live-down to that."

My difficulty is how to create those rules, as so much of life is unpredictable.

Julie Pippert said...

There is always a good reason in the child's mind. I try to remember that whenever my kids "act up" or dig in refusing, etc.

I had an hour long bedside chat with Patience last night because she began "acting up" at dinner. I thought maybe it was more than tired. and it was.

Beck said...

And then there's the Baby, who really just likes saying no.
You're a wise, wise mother.

Karen said...

You are singing my song, woman!

Alicia said...

I seriously thought you were writing about my son. It was a little freaky.

Aliki2006 said...

Sometime kids just want a strict sense of order in their universe. I know--I have one of those!

Mad said...

Miss M gets her hopes up to quickly and too far in such a hurry that she always struggles with disappointment. Take for example her city bus trip that got canceled yesterday causing her to spiral into inconsolable tears. I like that Bub has safeguards for that kind of thing. As Amy said, it will serve him well in the long run.

bren j. said...

I can hardly wait to get the Little Goat an alarm clock! Oh boy oh boy oh boy!
And I'm glad to know that it might actually work!

The End of Motherhood? said...

Yeah, the little ones love their boundaries firm and clear. Don't we all?

nomotherearth said...

What a good idea about his very own alarm clock! I wonder if it would work with someone as young as the Boy? I need more sleep.

Anonymous said...

Can it be said that your son is sardonic at times as well as wry and witty?
Does he possess a hefty sense of irony? I love irony and in life we need it to make it through.

Our youngest son was just like you describe Bub and we fought against negative labels like stubborn, oppositional, rigid. In retrospect he was smart to protect himself from rules that were arbitrary and not clearly stated and astute to see the many ironies like "do as I say and not as I do". Like hey gymnastics coach let's see YOU do it!
Now our boy is a 21 year old young man and those traits have served him well.
Good for you for getting it.

Angela said...

It is great when you know what works for your son.

Patois said...

I shall second Angela's comments. I think I just find it hard sometimes to actually do what I know will work with my youngest.

cinnamon gurl said...

This is so great - your insight and his adorableness!

nomotherearth said...

Back again to say - you've been missed! You're one of the blogs I check regularly and I've been all out of sorts with no posts of yours to read.

Mac and Cheese said...

I'm picking up useful tips here!

kittenpie said...

I have definitely found that preloading expectations and plans helps a lot. That said, mine was a very compliant child for a long time, but three has been a time of testing for us. Mostly, she's still pretty willing, but every few months, we go through a period of serious resistance. It comes and goes. At least now I know it will go again, but it is still frustrating when she is at her most challenging!

a. beaverhausen said...

Kids are just as complicated as adults are. They just don't communicate it as well. Or maybe we just don't listen. Good on you for seeing past a simplistic picture of your kid.

Kyla said...

KayTar isn't as verbal as Bub yet, but I see some of this in her, too.

bgirl said...

wow, this so resonates, it's as if you wrote about a day in our life. it can be so deflating to hear "no" to every idea or the "sorry mama, it's closed" that my little dude has come up with for a standard reply.

i am getting a clock...i think you just saved us from our morning meltdowns that often occur before sunrise.