“All I do is tell Tim, ‘no’. He’s into everything, and by the end of the day my fuse is short. I lose it and yell. It hurts me to see the hurt in his eyes. But I’m just exhausted,” Mary sighed over the phone to me.
Tim, a redheaded three-year-old, had been “busy” that day. He had opened a bag of flour all over the kitchen and dropped his plate of spaghetti while trying to clean up his spilled juice. In the bathtub he’d opened and emptied a new bottle of shampoo.
I knew Mary was going through a lot of transitions. With their recent move, she was home full-time. Her husband Jeff traveled overseas frequently, and Mary was five months pregnant with their second child. I met Mary at a neighborhood party, where we visited about her situation along with the frustration of not having a husband in the same time zone.
When Mary discovered I was a teacher and had survived similar circumstances, she asked if she could call for “a sanity check.” From personal experience, I know it is difficult to stay positive with many changes. From Mary’s phone call, I sensed she wanted to see things differently.
“Mary,” I asked, “what things did Tim do right today?”
“I know he must have done a lot of things perfectly,” Mary replied. “I’m so frustrated, I can’t think of any.”
“Let’s look at when he got out of bed this morning,” I ventured.
“Well, he got dressed by himself,” Mary told me.
“Okay. Great! Write that down. What did he do next?” I asked.
Mary told me he ate a good breakfast. He went cheerfully to pre-school. He made a drawing for his grandparents. In a couple minutes, Mary came up with a list of seven things.
“Put that on the refrigerator,” I suggested. “Then put a note in your pocket that says, ‘Catch him doing something right.’ Carry it all week, and when you see Tim doing something right, tell him right then. Don’t gush. Just state the facts. For example: I see you ate a nice breakfast. I like how you are ready for school. I enjoy cooking with you. Try to ignore and make light of any mishaps. Be friendly with error. Remember, he’s learning,” I coached.
“At bedtime, tell him the story of his day with all the things that he did well. Also ask him what was wonderful about his day. Try it for a week, and see if it helps.”
“I think I can do that. Timothy is a great little guy, and I think this will help me remember it even if I’m tired,” Mary said.
As Mary related the “trouble” that Timothy had caused, I recognized the incidents as motivated by a desire to help.
Like most three-year-olds, Timothy had the attitude for success, just not the skills.
Working with young children for years, I see how they want to please but lack the inner discipline and skill level to match actions with intentions.
They have the will but not the skill.
To develop skills, we give opportunities to work and make mistakes in a friendly environment. Also, because their memory and skill level are developing, children can do something one day and not the next. When we focus on positive behavior, we’ll reinforce skills, attitude and long-term memory.
A few days later, I saw Mary at the grocery story. She felt that focusing on what Tim was doing right and being friendly with error were helping her stay calm, and Tim seemed to be less work.
“Tim told me at bedtime that his ‘favorite thing’ was having a happy mom. Jeff could see the difference, too, when he got back home. He asked me what I was doing with Tim,” Mary said with a laugh, “and I told him. Just catching him doing something right!”