Our two and a half year old daughter has a book she adores called 5-Minute Pinkalicious Stories, filled with 12 different stories featuring her favorite animated counterpart, Pinkalicious. It was found in her Easter basket, a gift from that hippity hoppity Easter Bunny, and has become a staple of almost every evening storytime.
Twelve stories and adventures in imagination to choose from. Yet, of those twelve, we’ve probably read three. And of those three, two have been read only once. Instead, we’ve read “Pinkalicious and the Sick Day” several nights a week for the past two months. At times I feel like I could recite it in my sleep and tell you all about Pinkalicious getting chosen to be Principal for the Day before getting sick, or Principal Hart getting sick, or having pink tea with mommy while home from school. For a while I had tried to encourage, perhaps, any of the other stories inside the book collection as I grew slightly weary of this same tale over and over again, or our 5 ½ year old son growing impatient with the same story and losing focus, moving about the room with attention anywhere but the story he’s sat through as well for so many times.
I just couldn’t understand why we were doing this again, and again, and again, but I obliged and we read “Pinkalicious and the Sick Day” night after night upon her request. Then one night, I got it. It took some pointing out from Meg, but I got it.
One night, within the past week or two, our daughter insisted that she wanted to read the story to us. “Okay…” we said, agreeing but unsure of what we were in for, handing the book over to her excited little hands. “Pinkalicious and the Sick Day!” she happily shouted and then….began telling us the story. No, she wasn’t reading it, but she was telling it, following along on each page and illustration, giving us an abbreviated, but still accurate story, with complete sentences taken right off the page as had been read to her.
She was retaining, she was remembering, and she was comprehending it.
That was the power of repetition on her young mind.
A study out of the University of Sussex has shown not only the vocabulary benefits of children hearing the same stories over and over, but that they actually may receive more benefit from fewer stories on repeat than newer stories all the time.
“…each time a child hears the book they are picking up new information,” says Psychologist Dr Jessica Horst who led the study. “The first time it might just be the story, the second time they are noticing details of description, and so on. If the new word is introduced in a variety of contexts – as happened with those who were read three different stories – children are less likely to focus on the new word.”
So, the next time she wants to hear about Pinkalicious’ Sick Day for the 79th time, or once again “read it” to us, I’m all ears, because I know she is too.
I am fascinated with the ways children evolve from their completely dependent forms – making nothing but sounds or cries, but eventually forming words, then sentences, then complete conversations like little adults. From needing to be spoon-fed mushy puree to sitting down to a meal with mommy and daddy like the little human they are.
Lately I’ve gotten to witness more of the evolution as our son, now four, suddenly has begun to recognize words.
We were at Barnes and Noble recently with a friend and her little one, waiting for a cup of tea at the cafe (I love that African Autumn tea) before heading back to the children’s section for some Thomas the Train Engine time and general book browsing. Nearby stood the little countertop with napkins, creamers, stirrers, etc, and the flapping door of the garbage can underneath, with two words embossed across it.
“Does that say thank you?” his little voice asked.
“Does what, buddy?”
“That,” he said, pointing to the flapping door on the garbage can, clearly saying “Thank You” on it to those who throw away their trash and not litter.
“It does, buddy! How did you know that?!”
“I dunno. I just did.”
And thus has been a bit of a trend lately. We’ve been fortunate enough that he’s been interested in and fluent in his alphabet since early on, but this…THIS….to see his eyes move from one end to the other, his mind taking in these letters and putting them together, and recognizing the words they form. It has truly been a remarkable experience, as a parent, and just as a human being.
I thought back to a time in recent months at my mom’s house, where he was hanging out for a bit while Meg and I ran some errands and my mom asked about lunch. Not wanting to give away the options up front and lock ourselves into something he’d hear, we spelled our options, including when she said “I can make g-r-i-l-l-e-d c-h-e-e-s-e?”
“That would be great,” I said.
Then his little voice popped up, “Yeah, I LOVE grilled cheese.”
Or when I asked my wife what she was in the mood to watch as a family one particular evening, The Dick Van Dyke Show, or some Adam West B-a-t-m-a-n.
“Batman?” we heard pipe up.
Suddenly it dawned on me as we stood there at the cafe in front of the thank you sign, hearing him read this aloud, that he’s been doing it, little by little, right along – only I haven’t paid close enough attention to realize these are no flukes.
Seeing this string of word revelations over time is a revelation to me that we are in a brand new stage, one that will open the door to a whole new era of life, and of knowledge for him. I couldn’t be happier. Or prouder.
In recent years, I had felt very proud that I had sort of, gotten myself to a point where my emotions don’t get the better of me. Where I can take a step back, take in what’s happening, and not react with emotions outweighing logic and thought. It felt like a huge step forward from the very emotionally-driven actions and reactions of much of my youth, teen years and young adulthood.
So, it was absolutely devastating for all involved when last weekend I flat out lost it, disappointing myself and my family.
I won’t lie. It has been rough in this transition from parents of one to parents of two. There is an incredible amount of sleep deprivation, lack of energy, and very thin patience in ways I never thought imaginable, for things that don’t really mean anything in the scheme of things, yet seem so incredibly irritating.
And it seems as though all our tempers have been bubbling.
The weekend had, for the most part, started off so well. We went out together as a family and got a Christmas tree. The little guy had even decided an impromptu round of Jingle Bells was in order in the car.
Then came lunch, and he knew what always follows lunch – a nap. No one had mentioned it, we just talked about eating, but he knew. And without discussion, without a word, we asked what he wanted for lunch and he completely and utterly broke down into a crying, yelling fit about not eating anything and not napping.
After the eventual nap, which my wife, literally, had to carry him upstairs for, things seemed to calm down.
Note in the midst of this is a crying, fussy newborn. So compounded together, every little thing that our little guy was saying, doing in his obstinance was suddenly becoming the most irritating thing ever.
It was a fight to go upstairs, a fight to sit on the potty. Even putting on pajamas was a fight because he wanted one specific pair of pajamas, but those monkey pajamas that he had worn to death that week, were currently in the wash. And instead of talking about it, the instant reaction was to throw himself on the ground, crying at the top of his lungs, with no words used at all, despite any attempts by us to do so.
There I was, with the dresser drawer open to his PJ drawer and as all this chaos is unfolding, one of our beloved cats (meant seriously, never snarky. I never snark when it comes to cats) jumped in the drawer. I pulled him out and set him down. He jumped in again. I picked him up and set him down. He jumped in again (all amid the crying, screaming and sheer insanity around us).
I pulled him out one more time, set him down on the ground and stood up, with more rage in my being than I can remember feeling in a very long time. It was palpable. It was visible. So visible in fact that my wife yelled at me to get out of the room and away from everyone in the family immediately.
I did. I went directly into our former office (now turned quasi-nursery) across the hall and sat on a floor with my head down, because I couldn’t believe that I had let things bubble up so incredibly that it was terrifying to my family that I was losing my sh*t. From the other room I heard the little guy screaming at my wife, “Don’t you yell at my daddy! Don’t yell at my daddy!”
And I sat, head down in the other room, wondering how it all got to this.
A few minutes passed and in came the little guy, tears wiped from his eyes, giving me a hug and all of us saying we were sorry to each other.
It doesn’t change what happened. I still allowed myself to move to the farthest brink of anger, allowing all the pressures of this new household dynamic of parents, toddler, cats, and baby to come undone, falling out of the air like juggling balls I’ve lost all control over.
In that moment, I felt like I had my biggest failure as a father so far. For those of you who’ve been through it longer, grown-up kids, I’m sure you’re chuckling “just you wait. You haven’t seen anything yet,” and I’m sure you’re right.
But there have certainly been lessons to be learned here. Without a doubt, there are takeaways that, while not always easy to implement, or even remember in the midst of such chaotic, emotional moments, they are there to help prevent the situations from escalating to that point again, or worse, even further.
I don’t have all the answers. I don’t pretend to. My journey into and through parenthood, like so much else of life, is just a work in progress. And everyone’s case is different.
What I can tell you is that I have learned with our little guy that meeting anger with anger does not beget peace. Quite the contrary. A three year old yelling at you and being met with an adult yelling back does not diffuse the situation. If anything, it only makes matters worse. There are definitely times for discipline, times for time-out, but there’s also times where it’s a matter of finding other words.
After reading this article from Positive Parenting Connection, I have realized just how much I say “don’t” to my son in the course of the day. I can’t imagine what that’s like for a child to constantly be hearing that what he’s doing is always wrong.
And it’s not always wrong. We just, as adults, have the way we want things to be, ways that a three year old just has no grasp of. They haven’t lived the lives we lived or worry about the things we do. Nor should they.
So, I’m trying my damndest to replace the don’ts with other words. For example, when he didn’t want to use the bathroom to go potty after waking up (instead wanting to use the portable training potty in the living room) I told him “we’re going to use this one and then go downstairs.” He still didn’t want to. He lazily placed himself on the floor, going limp. I told him I needed the help of a superhero who could stand up, that we’d never be able to stop the bad guys if we couldn’t stand. And slowly, he did.
I don’t always have it well in hand. I’ve already noticed ‘don’ts’ that still come out or times I stop and realize I’m saying it and have to attempt to try and find new words.
This is not a cure-all, this is not groundbreaking research. What it is, is a start. A start of a new attempt on my part to change the outcomes of so many situations as of late. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over hoping for a different result, then maybe it’s time I try a different approach.
But that’s just it. I’m trying.
Just like the warm breeze of summer is destined to make way to chilly winds of fall, so too go the years of our lives, moving, what seems, ever-faster the older we get. And when it comes to watching our children grow, that train of time seems to forever be speeding faster and faster away down the tracks of life.
We don’t tend to notice the day-to-day changes as they occur. Small increments of change are hard to pick out when you’re there along with it day in and day out. It’s the milestones, the transitions – those are the moments that really make us stop and take notice of how swiftly the sands fall through the hourglass.
For me, one of those moments came today, as we finally transitioned our little man out of his crib and into a toddler bed. It was overdue, yes, but despite that, it didn’t make it any easier – at least not the emotions of mommy and daddy.
A friend was getting rid of a toddler bed that their own children had outgrown and graciously passed it along to us. Meg sanded it down, painted it (with the little guy helping pick the color) and boom! We were ready to go.
The excitement on his face was palpable, jumping up and down, grinning as Meg and I turned the Allen wrench, both assembling his new “big boy bed” and dismantling the crib that’s been his overnight home since the earliest weeks of his life and moving it out of the room and across the hall to our office – one more step of preparation for the arrival of baby number two in the months ahead.
When the end of the night came, you would have thought it was Christmas morning. Instead of fighting the need to go upstairs and get into bed, he led the way, excitedly heading into his room and pulling out a book to read per our storytime routine.
Only now, he didn’t want to go into “mommy and daddy’s bed” to read as has been the case every night these past three years. No, instead he insisted we read in his room, climbing into his bed and pulling over the covers as daddy reluctantly took a seat next to his bed, opened the book and began reading, while simultaneously hiding the feeling of melancholy at his claiming his own, independent life.
A few precautions were taken. Our house has two floors, so we pulled out ye olde baby gate and placed it at the top to prevent any mid-night walking, falling and potential injury now that there’s easy access out of the room. Funny thing is, he never tried to climb out of his crib, something we consider ourselves incredibly grateful for. While the cats were initially puzzled at the presence of the gate on their nightly rushes up and down the stairs, it turned out to not be needed right away (though we’ll still keep it up at night regardless). We talked about staying in bed until mommy and daddy give him the clearance to do so and wouldn’t you know it, he listened.
He listened well.
So well, in fact, that when his stuffed ladybug (from Eric Carle’s The Grouchy Ladybug) fell out of bed, he called out to have mommy come pick it up for him because he’s not supposed to get out of the bed.
I’m proud of him. I’m happy for him. I love seeing him beam about the idea of going to bed or taking a nap because it means a “big boy bed.” But I can’t help but feel, as the cliché goes, that it’s all moving a bit too fast. I may never be okay with it. I’m sure these feelings will continue – the first bicycle ride, or a first day of school, first high school dance, or, perish the thought, move-in day at college.
It’s overwhelming to think about. So, the best that I can do is just try my best to not brush off the requests to play, to read, and to be around. There will be plenty of time as he gets older he’s going to have his own life. Moving to a big boy bed may just be a small sign of independence in the bigger scheme of things, but it’s enough for me to take notice, and to remind myself that we don’t get second chances at these things.
Work will come and go. Books to read will sit on the shelves. Projects to create can always be created. But this…this opportunity to be with my little boy while he’s a little boy will only last so long.
As painful as it can be during the transitions, it’s a reminder once again to cherish every single moment and not let the time slip by.
Our son has been, I’m not sure what the word would be…categorizing, perhaps? Compartmentalizing?
There’s been a lot of “You a good guy” or “he a a bad guy.” There’s even been some “Me have to fight you, dada,” to which I ask simply, ‘why?’
“Cuz you a bad guy,” he tells me.
Some things I’ve read refer to this as “Power Play,” when children start to play in power roles such as superheroes.
According to Preschooleducation.com, this kind of play crosses all backgrounds, economic statuses and is something many, many children go through.
The article states that while characters change, the common characteristics are:
- There is always a good guy and bad guy. It’s always good vs evil. You’re one or the other. No gray areas.
- There’s always a conflict. It’s the responsibility of the good guys to fight the bad guys.
- Control or power is the issue, always – who will win.
But they also say that children go through it between the ages of four and six. Our son is 2 1/2. And I’m worried that I bear a lot of the blame.
For so long, I’ve been sticking to PBS and Disney shows for him. Sesame Street has been a longtime favorite, and he’s recently jumped into a train phase making Thomas the Tank Engine all the rage at the moment. The toys he plays with the most are stuffed animals, Legos, cars and trucks, a wooden train set, and his Fisher Price Little People. Some of the Little People are generic – a cook, an astronaut, an alien, a farmer, a cow, etc, but some are little smiling versions of characters like Batman, Wonder Woman, The Joker, etc that he received on his birthday. That teamed with my own stuff around the house, he’s seen and recognizes these characters.
So when he saw the box of Adam West 1966 Batman DVDs I got for Christmas, he recognized Batman immediately and went INSANE begging to watch it.
There was plenty of hemming and hawing, until finally I gave in, telling myself ‘well, it’s innocuous enough, right? if I watch it with him, it’ll be okay.’
With its giant props, ridiculous and cartoonish scenarios, I felt like it’s as over the top at times as a Donald Duck cartoon. And I say this all in an endearing way. After all, I’m a huge fan of Batman ’66 myself.
I’ll admit, however, that I have started wondering if this ‘bad guy/good guy’ and ‘me have to fight you’ stuff kicked into high gear because of my allowing him to watch it (always with us there, talking about what’s the bad thing to do, the good thing to do, etc).
Car rides now have him asking me to list off ‘the bad guys from Batman’ or him doing it himself, mumbling “The Joker, The Riddler, Catwoman, Bookworm…” in the backseat and me sitting in the front wondering if I’ve made such a huge slip-up that I’m severely altering my son’s development.
However, it’s also very possible that he might have started doing this anyway, and the names for ‘bad guys’ being rattled off in the back seat could just would have been something else, or something generic otherwise.
I’ve talked to other parents who say their children started these phases early too, but it doesn’t mean I don’t still question my own decisions. So, for better or for worse, I decided to look into this type of play a little more.
In this PBS Parents Expert Q & A, Dr. Michael Thompson, Consultant, Author and Psychologist Specializing in Children and Families, responds to a mother asking about her child often playing the role of the villain when he pretends. She is concerned about him and what it might mean. Thompson’s response is interesting.
“I’m not worried about your son’s gun play as long as it really is play. Children’s play is just play. Play and real violence are two different things. If your son hits people, gets real angry at them, pokes them in the eye, or does scary things to them, that’s a bad sign. If other boys don’t want to play with him; if they leave your house crying, that’s not good. If , however, he is playing with toy guns, running around the house using his imagination, pretending to be someone big and powerful — even a villain — but only only pretending, then I am NOT WORRIED AT ALL. He’s just playing.
You haven’t told me your son’s age, but I think these questions might work for most boys under ten. Is he a loving boy most of the time? Do the teachers at school or preschool tell you that he behaves in class? Does he curl up next to you when you’re watching television? Is he respectful of you and his grandparents? Does he like being read to at bedtime? Does he have good freinds? If the answer to all of those question is “yes” then I am pretty sure that he’s not going to grow up to be a dangerous boy.
Psychologists know that children need to play out many things in their imagination. Boys seem to love to play at being bad, or having super powers. It makes them feel strong and masculine. It is exciting. If you are a good boy in real life, pretending that you are a bad guy can be exciting, because we all have a few villainous fantasies in our minds, don’t we? (Come on, haven’t you ever had a fantasy of breaking the law, or getting even with someone you hated? ) Little boys work these tensions out in their play. And I repeat: It is just play.”
Just as interesting was this research out of the University of Maine that I came across, where children in a preschool environment were observed as the scripts and scenarios for their play was changed over time. Even play that started out as just kids playing with dolls in the corner, over time would have moments of ‘It’s an emergency! My baby has a boo boo!’ and even evolve to children assigning who would be ‘the bad guy’ and ‘take the babies.’ A slightly uneasy teacher went along with it for the sake of the research and found that whether she was assigned as ‘the bad guy’ or if it was to another child, the children always seemed to know and reassure the teacher that it was ‘only pretend.’ It also caused the children to rally and work together to rescue their babies back. I’m paraphrasing, of course, what is a very interesting read, so check it out at the link for something a little more in-depth.
When I first wrote this blog post, it was nothing but self-doubt and self-criticism about my decision and how I felt like a terrible father. With a little perspective from my wife, and more research, I’m finding that the scenario I’m experiencing is not all that uncommon.
Does it still make me uneasy at times? Absolutely, but that doesn’t mean that the worst-case scenarios playing out in my head are coming to fruition and that I’ve started our son down a path of being a criminal.
It means he is learning how to pretend, he’s categorizing.
He’s not getting violent or even real aggressive. He does seem to be truly playing make-believe. And while I would like it to always be the sort of make-believe like being animals on the farm, or something a little more tame, I’m beginning to understand that in growing up comes the need to feel useful, to feel courageous, to feel you’re being brave and helping others.
And that’s not a totally bad thing. If this kind of play can be turned into examples of ‘doing the right thing,’ then maybe I need to stop looking at it as a potential disaster. Instead, maybe I can look at it as an opportunity to take his creativity and new ways of playing and deepen it, understand it, and talk to him about what he’s getting out of it, observe what he’s learning from it, and be a little less restrictive, until reason shows me I need to truly step in.
I’m going to try, at least. After all, I’m learning about all this just as much as he is as we go along.
As I’ve probably mentioned before, we’ve been incredibly blessed that our little guy started to use the potty when he did, which was around Christmas time at about a year and a half. We were shocked, surprised, a little overwhelmed, but completely over the moon that he decided to guide himself and tell us that he was ready to start using it.
Lately though, there’s been an odd little trend developing – the potty as a delay tactic.
Much like a well-planned army strategy, the little guy will very agreeably go to bed, per routine, after we’ve read a few books. All seems well until he begins to realize he doesn’t quite want to go to sleep. First, you hear the rumbling in the crib of a little one moving around. Next, the toys that talk as he plays, puttering around as we hope he starts to fall asleep. Then it comes.
“It’s sleepy time, buddy. Time to go to sleep.”
“Potty! Go potty!”
One of us enters the room.
“You’ve gotta go potty, buddy?”
“Uh-huh. Potty! Go!”
And it’s into the bathroom, plopping him on the potty (with his cushion-y little seat adapter for little buns) and away we go. Sometimes, yes, it is quite legit, and we’re very thankful that he tells us so that we can avoid the alternative. But there’s some nights, like a recent Monday night, where while legit, quickly turned into a 45 minute gab session as he sat on the potty, done for a while and just wanting to talk.
“I think you’re done, buddy. Are you all done?”
“Okay, well give it a try to get anything else out.”
And we sit and we talk, and we talk. And before you know it, a half hour or 45 minutes has flown by and you start to realize “he has completely played us.”
And I fall for it every time.
There, on the floor, humming a little song to himself, was our son, now two and in full-on toddler mode, playing. Just playing. With a combination of toy animals, Fisher Price Little People and equally little Sesame Street characters, they were being placed in and out of a barn, a hay loft, or into a tractor, all against the carefree humming of a song I’ll never know, but makes me so glad to hear.
A plastic crate of apples (from the Little People farm stand set he got for his birthday), was placed inside his Little People plane.
“Who’s going on the plane, buddy?”
“Where are they going?”
“Where’s home for the apples?”
Little Ernie, in a construction worker outfit, was bounced along the roof of the barn along with a Little Boy Farmer toy. Were they hitting each other, I wondered, as he pushed them together.
“What are they doing, buddy?”
“They’re hugging, dada! Hugging!”
I couldn’t but help but smile at the delight and laughter that followed. His toys knew the power of a hug, because he does. It made me feel wonderful.
This time goes by quick. I realize I’ve been lax in keeping up to date on the standard childhood milestone – something you’d think I would be better at as a fatherhood blogger. A lot’s happened in recent months and I’ve sort of glossed over it in terms of chronicling.
We consider ourselves very very lucky that he’s shown an interest in the potty since he got one for Christmas back in December. He’s fortunately kept that interest and while still in diapers, he lets us know (most of the time, but admittedly not all) when he has to go, with a pat to his bottom and a “Dada! Mama! Potty!” giving us the cue that it’s time to take action and get him onto the pot!
Letters and numbers started cropping up on a regular basis in the winter and spring and once we noticed it, have tried to keep it up every day in some form or another. He took it upon himself to take letter magnets off the fridge and tell us which letters were in his hand. Within months, it’s only gotten better, and we sing our ABCs together as a family, and sometimes stop to let him fill in a gap and try his hand at what letter comes next. When we heard him mumbling in the winter as he’d go up and down the stairs, we weren’t quite sure what he was saying – until we listened closer and realized he was counting the steps as he went. Now, we count everything and anything. Sometimes we go straight through, and sometimes there’s a 7-8-9-10-9-7 based on his mood at the time.
Regardless, he’s interested. He’s curious. He wants to know and I love it.
He climbs into his car seat on his own now, which only in this past week, I turned around to face the same way I do when I drive him to and from each morning. We talk about what we see out the window.
He’s not a baby anymore. He’s a little boy.
As all these things were going on, I wasn’t writing them down because I now realize I was far too busy enjoying every single minute of it as it was happening.
How could I not?
He just turned two this summer. It’s flown by, and if I don’t savor every moment I can (taking a few moments here and there for reflection), well, I’ll let an old favorite of mine, Ferris Bueller sum it up:
“No!” he said to me, his brow furrowed.
“What is it, buddy?” I ask.
“What do you mean, move?”
“Move, dada!” he said, fiercely, waiting for me to move several steps behind him as opposed to the usual ‘right behind him to spot him’ we’ve done since he started walking up those stairs on his own.
“You don’t want me behind you, buddy?”
I obliged and went three steps back. And wouldn’t you know it, every few steps, he would stop and turn around to make sure I was giving him that space.
And up-up-up he went.
How quickly the urge to declare one’s independence comes.