the louder you are, the better the toddler understands your concerns and frustrations

I’ve started shouting at my son. Really. Not at, you know, unemployed-drunk-who-mortifies-his-neighbors levels, but still.

We’ve been engaged in a bit of a low-grade conflict lately over his interest in climbing up onto the side tables next to the couch. We have already given up on keeping him from climbing up on the back of the couch itself and playing in the curtains, as this semi-abstract art film demonstrates:


But he’s also interested in using the couch as a platform for climbing out onto the side tables and finding interesting things like lamps. E.g.:


Which is scary as hell, because the surface there is quite high off the floor, and the floor is tile. One good fall from there would be enough to crack his skull or break his tiny neck.


This morning he went for the side tables… over… and over… and over again. Finally I snapped at him. I grabbed him firmly and yelled at him, and kept going until he stopped his reflexive giggling and looked alarmed. Some very personal swearing was involved.

I’d like to be able to say that this was simply my fear channeled into anger, but that’s giving myself too much credit. A big part of it was just that he’s hugely annoying in his determination. It’s mentally exhausting to tell someone again and again not to do something, only to watch that person turn right around and do it again. It feels like an open “fuck you” from someone a tenth your size. And, you know… who would put up with that? People, back me up here. You have to keep your pimp hand strong, etc. Amiright??


Emotionally — it stinks

Okay, so — the terrible thing about yelling at him enough to scare him is that he wasn’t defiant about it. He cried a little, and then came over and threw his arms around me and was very cozy and affectionate for about an hour. Which leads to the main point:

Practically — it’s stupid.

A 17-month-old isn’t being defiant. He’s just compelled to do annoying things by the clock-spring drive of his cognitive and physical development. Climbing helps him integrate the motion of his limbs, the balance signals sent by his inner ears, and the visual cues about distance he’s getting from his eyes. It’s also driven by curiosity, which is a vital developmental tool for ultra-generalist animals who have, essentially, no instincts and must learn everything about their world from scratch.

Yelling at a pre-language toddler — not just yelling, but holding forth at length about the toddler’s shortcomings in the field of home safety — is sort of a silly activity. It’s like yelling at a dog. The dog understands that you’re upset, and most dogs eventually learn that if they make the gestures of contrition (hung head, drooped tail), you’ll stop freaking out. But they’re not really listening to you or taking in important life lessons. They’re just having an unpleasant experience. And so are you, if you stop and think about it.


Anyway, the solution, as with dogs, is to try to arrange the environment so that the toddler has fewer opportunities to do dangerous/annoying/laptop-endangering things. We have turned one of our side tables into the corner so it can’t be reached from the couch, and we have swapped the other one with the low, wide chest we keep our shoes in, so that if he climbs out onto that it’s at least a much shorter fall.

Anyway, I predict he’ll soon spend much less time trying to kill himself on side tables. Yesterday he figured out how to climb up onto the dining room chair.

Note the fingers steepled in contemplation of future misdeeds.


Pretty sure this is going to lead inevitably to figuring out how to get over the fence and into the kitchen. So there’s that to look forward to.

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4 responses to “the louder you are, the better the toddler understands your concerns and frustrations

  1. Actually, the steepled fingers bring to mind a Greg Louganis impersonation…in preparation for getting over that evil fence.

    He’s telegraphing the next misdeed.

  2. Well baby proof as much as you can.
    And then firmly say No and remove him from what ever you don’t want
    him on. It will take awhile until he is sure you mean that. But he doesn’t seem
    to be a constitutionally defiant kid. You can explain that he might hurt himself,
    but until he takes a good fall and associates the word fall with unpleasantness, it won’t mean much to him.
    Not to worry. We all shout occasionally., for all the reasons you mentioned.
    And you all survived just fine.
    Mostly fine?
    From my pov, 3,000 miles away he is adorable.

  3. I showed these photos and videos to my two children, and briefly explained your problem. The two-year-old, who loves to climb and cannot be reasoned with, enjoyed it very much and laughed heartily. The five-year-old, who is cautious and rational, became extremely nervous. He even announced that when he has a baby someday, he will not allow it into the kitchen at all. Now he’s frightened of the responsibilities of parenthood!

    You say, “It’s mentally exhausting to tell someone again and again not to do something, only to watch that person turn right around and do it again. It feels like an open “fuck you” from someone a tenth your size.” Oh, I hear you! But can you think of him as a little scientist, simply repeating the experiment (the forbidden behavior) over and over, and watching to see if the results (you telling him it is forbidden) change? Can’t you hear him wondering to himself: “And what if I slightly change the variables and try it under *these* circumstances? And what about now? Is it still forbidden now?”

    Yes, yes, yes, it is forbidden now and forever!

    • thehandsomecamel

      Haha! Oh yes. He’s very much a little scientist. It’s just BEING IN THE EXPERIMENT EVERY DAY that is hard to take. 😉 But on my better days, I can dig it.

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