Thanks so much for all the supportive comments and ideas.
We were back on an upswing in Geekygirls behavior when the seminar rolled around, The urgency for guidance had faded, and our babysitter was unavailable, but we asked our neighbor to sit in exchange for future favors, and decided to go anyway. I'm glad we did. First, the very fact that the small room was packed to the gills with parents at their wits end helped us to feel better about our own troubles. Then the lecture got underway, and as other parents chimed in with comments, queries, tearful pleas and terrifying tales we began to realize that many parents were in a far worse place than we were. Not that I take pleasure from others distress (though there were some quite amusing horror stories; entertaining to listeners at least), but it was nice to have our own situation put in perspective.
What we learned was that some kids are "oppositional learners". This means that when presented with almost anything you tell them they will automatically treat it with skepticism. They are not content with simply being told what to do, how something works, or how they should behave. If offered two choices they will negotiate for a third. They will poke and probe until they come to their own understanding. They test every theory they are confronted with until they are sure it is watertight. Then they accept, and move onto testing the next thing. We were reassured that there is nothing wrong with this, it is simply the nature of some children, indeed some people.
Hmm, sounds rather like a how good scientist behaves! Geekygirl is a study an contrariness. Tell her, as Geekdaddy did when asked the other day, that Minnie is the girl mouse and Mickey is the boy one, she will argue until she is blue that it is the other way around (despite the evidence of the pink spotty bow and high heels, and I'm pretty sure this is not just due to her San Francisco upbringing).
We learned that kids who trend toward this temperament need consistency and boundaries even more than other kids, since they are naturally inclined to push and push and push until the boundaries fall or they are sure that they will hold. And if the boundaries do fall, they find more places to push, and then get unhappier and more wild in the process, since their world is unable to give them the security that they really need. We also learned that kids need to be different from their parents, that it is part of forming their own identity, so we need to give the lots of opportunity to make their own choices, and sometimes to challenge us and win.
I brought up our problem of Geekygirl screaming through time out, and was given the revelatory idea that she maybe could scream all she wanted. That by giving her permission to scream it would take the power of it away. That some preschoolers just need to scream sometimes. They talked about how easy it is to get dragged into escalation of consequences. Time out is given, then on the way to time out the parent gets kicked (or called poo poo head), so the consequence is escalated until the parent and child are caught in a battle of wills and eventually the kid ends up being grounded for life at the age of four. There were a lot of nodding heads in the room as they described this, and they gave the excellent advice to just deal with the consequence of the first transgression. That what was important was holding the original line, "If you call me a poo poo head, then you get a time out". That way when your little opposer pokes away at the boundaries, she finds the rules holding firm. It was interesting that though they gave examples of consequences, such various forms of time out; in the bedroom, a corner, a chair,, taking toys away, not earning a reward or sticker, the emphasis was on picking a set of rules and consequences for your family and being consistent about it, rather than worrying about the details.
We also learned that kids in the preschool years really struggle to control their emotions, and that doing so is part of the developmental process of these years. And that by controlling our own emotions too tightly we fail to give them the cues they need to manage their feelings. Telling your kid to "use your words to tell me you are angry" doesn't help a kid who rarely sees a parent get angry. "What does she know, she has no idea how I feel" they might think. So getting angry is good, stomp, shout a bit, show your feelings so your kids learn how to do it too, we were taught. And do this before you throw a complete wobbly. WE often try to stay calm as parents, succumbing in the end to rage. It is better to acknowledge ones feelings as they occur, apparently! It sounds awfully unBritish, but it made a lot of sense to me.
We talked a lot about empathy. Reflecting back our children's feelings both during and after the event. That as parents for many of us the instinct is to think "thank goodness that's over" after a particularly horrendous tantrum, and never go near it again, when instead talking about it later helps kids to learn from an experience, and think about the feelings that overwhelmed them in a calmer, reflective way; "Wow, you were really angry when I told you you had to wear either the pink dress or the blue shirt and pants for school photo day. And Mummy was really mad because you hit her and called her a poo poo head while she was wrestling the adorable dress over your wailing head".
We came away from the class feeling much happier, a realization that our little girl will likely be quite a challenging kid to parent at times, and that there is nothing wrong with her being that way. We felt we had a strategy to implement, simply reinforcing more of what we do already. We also felt very much more on the same page, I was so glad that geekydaddy came with me, rather than just us trying to implement selective stuff I communicate to him from the books that I read we were able to discuss together what we had learned and feel as if we are both engaged in it. I was also secretly quite proud that he was one of only three men in the room of about 30 women.
I decided for starters that I am tired of being called poo poo head, and that from now onwards, that would be a "time outable" offence.
With my newly critcal eyes, I noticed in so many small ways how successfully Geekygirl has been controlling her world:
At dinner I asked, giving choices as I always do "do you want orange juice, chocolate milk, plain milk or water with your dinner?" Geekygirl replies "I want apple juice please". Normally, without a thought, I would have given her the apple juice, grateful for the 'please' (Clearly, based on the other choices, I'm not opposed to sugary drinks!). But I had begun to realize that almost every time I offered her a choice, she negotiated something else. I had let it slide, because my emphasis was on giving her choices. Something, I realized, that had lead to her almost never spontaneously being confronted with the word "no". "Oh, apple juice isn't one of the choices I offered, I said, and repeated the offerings. "Poo poo head" she countered. I have a kid who calls me 'poo poo head' when I offer her chocolate milk?! I thought. This most definitely wasn't about what she, chocolate milk lover extraordinaire, actually wanted to drink. It was all about getting her own way.
Time out was performed, (this being about the fifth time out of the day, the screaming was well out of her system), Geekygirl returned to the table, drank her chocolate milk and calm was resumed for at least the fifteen minutes it took to eat our salmon and pasta. I didn't rescind the offer of chocolate milk, though I felt like it. I just stuck to the rule. This post is long already, so I won't bore you with the rest of the evening's time outs. Just to say the "don't call mum and dad poo poo head rule" was tested very thoroughly, and was found to be unbreakable.
Geekygirl is trying to come up with new insults to hurl when she feels angry. I'm encouraging her to think of them, so far she has a satisfying "angry noise", and the petulant "I DON"T love you". When the issue is around a food item, no more cookies, no chocolate milk for breakfast, things in that vein, she has come up with the unintentionally poignant "OK then, I won't grow. Do you want me to stay small forever?!"
In case you think this was an awful day, I thought I'd finish the post with this lovely picture that Geekygirl and I made today (I cut out the clothing items from foam, she stuck them on and drew the picture). It was actually a nice day, on balance, just about a week long, in emotional terms. I think any art therapist would agree that this is the work of a happy child. Though if you look at her "writing", you can distinctly make out the word "Poos" on the top of the drawing! Chance? I sure hope so!