By: Tanya Ward Goodman
When my son was deep into his twos (not nearly as terrible as advertised, but still mighty confounding) our pre-school director recommended I start reading the parenting series written by Louise Bates Ames. Each slim volume (very slim, Cliff’s Notes slim…) guides the reader through one year of her child’s life. Even when I had only enough time to read the title, I usually felt better. These books normalized my child’s behavior, they put all his meltdowns and tantrums and sleeve chewing in context by explaining that those are the actions of a two-year-old (or a five-year-old, a seven-year-old…)
Your two-year-old, according to Bates-Ames is “terrible or tender.” If you can make it through the “friend or enemy” stage of your three-year-old and the “wild and wonderful” fourth year, you’ll be greeted at five by “sunny and serene.” I am currently revisiting six (“loving and defiant”) and taking my first look at eight (“lively and outgoing”).
My daughter is certainly both loving and defiant. The first paragraph of this slim, lemon-colored volume which describes the six-year-old as a “paradox” with a deep need to have the opposite of everything was all I needed to feel that my girl was right on course. One particularly defiance-filled day she clung to the banister to avoid going to school, refused to put her shoes away, declared her dinner “disgusting” and raged about the unfairness of bedtime, before suddenly turning cuddly and giving me dozens of kisses (me, the horrible ogre of moments before who had relentlessly pushed an agenda of evil throughout her day). On days like this perhaps a better subtitle for any age would be “incarcerated or institutionalized” and I’m not sure whether it would apply to me or to the children.
“Lively and Outgoing?” my husband said in dismay when he saw the title of the eight-year-old book. “Two good things? Where’s “angry” or “irritable” or “petulant”?
I sympathized. My son is angry and irritable and petulant and seeing at least one of those qualities on the cover of the book makes us feel like it’s developmental, as though we aren’t ruining him somehow (which is, after all, our deepest fear).
As I read further, I realized that “lively” is roomy enough to include anger, petulance, and rage. Drop the “ly” and you get “live” as in “live wire.” An apt description of my eight-year-old and the many other eight-year-olds I am privileged to know. It is as if a strong current is running through their strong bodies at all times. This electric force powers strong kicking legs, strong throwing arms, wide smiles and brains that seem to click along at maximum speed. The same energy can open a flood of tears or turn the throwing arm into a hitting arm, the leg that kicks a ball into one that kicks a shin. My boy has so much power right now, but he lacks the ability to create his own infrastructure and this makes him dangerous. He needs a strong calm leader. I work on being this kind of leader. I strive to keep my voice low, my expectations in line with his ability. I pick my battles and return again and again to the few basic principles I regard as critical: no violence, respect for himself and others, and the ability to take responsibility.
There are days when all I can do is throw up my hands in frustration, when I lose my patience and shout or rely on the television to dull some of the relentless energy of my boy. But then I rally, because at forty-two I am “willing and wondering what’s next.”