I had already asked him four times, and yes, I was keeping count.
Micah had either suddenly developed a serious hearing problem or he and I were developing a serious relational problem. It’s the little things that can really add up in a day. You know, like asking your three year old four times to brush his teeth, knowing full well that he heard you and also knowing full well that in about five minutes, he would want to snuggle you with that stinky mouth breathing on your face.
So I asked again, just for good measure. A request for the road, you might say. But he just kept playing cars. There might not be a degree to describe the boiling that happened in my blood, and I might have had to walk away so I didn’t outright yell at him. But I’ll tell you two good things that happened when I walked away: one, I realized this scenario was in large part my own fault for being lax on my follow through. And two, I decided to ask him why he never listens the first time.
“Because, Mommy, I just don’t like what you’re saying.”
Hmmm. Well, that isn’t going to fly. Part of me wanted to be offended and shocked at his response, but I knew I couldn’t let myself go there. Letting my pride rise up in arms because of the comment of a three year old just isn’t worth the fight or the tears. But the act of willful disobedience because he “doesn’t like what I’m saying” is a new one to me, and I couldn’t let it slide.
“Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean you don’t have to do it.”
“Yeah, Mom, but I just can’t control this. And I don’t like that. When you say something I can’t control, I just don’t like it. So I don’t do it.”
He’s said this thing about control before, so I knew what he meant: when I tell him to do something he doesn’t like, he feels out of control of his life. Suddenly he feels like everything is falling apart.
As a side note, I should clarify that Micah’s verbal response to me didn’t get him in trouble. In this post, I talk about our family policy on saying no, and even though neither of us liked what the other was saying, Micah spoke to me in perfect respect. No raised tone, no disrespectful language. His actions had disregarded my request, and that was disrespectful. But when it came to our communication, he operated completely within our family boundaries. Because of this, we were able to talk about our conflict without verbal disrespect. Our kids don’t get in trouble with what they want to communicate to us, as long as the way they do it is appropriate. And just because they say it doesn’t mean they get their way. It just means they got to say it and we got to listen.
But still. Out of control or not, like it or not, falling apart or not, the guy still has to brush his teeth. And he still needs to obey, and get into the habit of obeying, what I ask him to do. So what do I do? Do I start telling him a list of all the things I don’t like to do but still have to do every day? Things like dishes and wipe bottoms and get up early and force feed everyone vegetables? And how it doesn’t matter that I don’t feel in control half the time, and that it doesn’t matter if I particularly like what I am doing at a given moment, if it has to be done?
Well, actually, yes. That’s what I did. I don’t recommend it, though, because it wasn’t effective. He really didn’t care, and he mostly just looked like he wanted to get back to playing cars, hoping I’d forgotten about the teeth thing. So if you were hoping for advice on how to lecture your three year old on the importance of responsibility and what it looks like in your own life, don’t follow this example.
Honestly, in the moment, I couldn’t figure out what to do. So I just made him go into the bathroom, and he cried through brushing, and he cried after brushing, and he cried when he remembered that he brushed. But I didn’t cry when he wanted to snuggle me because now he smelled like oranges and mangos. But I did cry later, when I prayed about it and brought up to God all the times he completely ignores me. In case you didn’t know, I’m mostly a crier. Maybe that’s where Micah gets it.
As I processed the scenario with God, I remembered those key words Micah had spoken: I just can’t control this. I realized that listening comes down to an issue of control with him. If he doesn’t “hear” me, he is in control of whether or not he obeys or disobeys. I know for some personalities that having a sense of control is very important. And while I don’t know the details psychologically or emotionally of whether allowing kids to have this sense of control, even in the choice to obey, is good or bad, I do know that allowing Micah to have it is more effective than holding the Ultimate-Authority Card over his head all of the time. And since one of my goals as a mom is to pursue peace and relationship within my family, I also choose to relinquish some control to achieve that.
So I approached this thing differently. If he wants control, I will give him two ways to have it. I decided not to pick the battle anymore. I will ask him once, and I will remind him once (because, after all, he is only three). After that, I take action. This keeps me from getting to a boiling level, and this keeps him from operating in a kind of manipulative control, especially because when it gets to this point, he sees me responding through my frustration.
First, if I ask and he complains, I tell him outright, “You can’t control this. You need to obey. But you can control your attitude. You can choose to obey with a good attitude and be happy or you can choose to obey with a bad attitude and make yourself miserable.” His response to this usually involves a fake smile and lots of whimpering, although I have been pleasantly surprised a few times with a complete attitude change.
Second, I give the consequence if he chooses to ignore me and I have to ask more than once. The consequence is simple and always the same: I get to take away one of his toys for the day` for every time I ask. He doesn’t pick the one I get – I do. Often I take the one he’s playing with. This makes him mad, but I always explain, “You had the choice to obey or have me take away your car. You chose to disobey and now I have to take your car.”
The other day he thought he had one-upped me and said, “I know exactly where you keep my cars you take away.” I think he was hoping to scare me into stopping my strategy. But I just replied, “Ok babe,” and didn’t give in to the call for a conflict. He walked away looking kind of confused, but I’ll tell you one thing. This “share” of control has worked really well for us. He hasn’t expressed feeling out of control even once since I started responding this way, and I haven’t felt like I will lose my control since either. Because there is a way of dealing with an issue that is so frustrating that removes the frustration for me, I’m able to respond in a way that is much more effective than screaming, “I’ve already asked you SIX TIMES to put on your shoes!” Sometimes it takes quite a gathering of cars in my little parking lot before Micah does what I’m asking, but it’s ok. It’s ok because he’s learning (and I’m reminding) that each times he chooses to do the wrong thing, he is actually choosing a negative consequence. He’s learning that choosing to do wrong is actually hurting him more than it’s hurting anyone else.
I like that as my kids get older and have more understanding, I get to be more creative with discipline and consequences. Each situation can teach a life skill, if I can wrap my head around how to convey it. Now, if only I could get my two year old to stop throwing herself on the floor…