Theo at 4 1/2

We had parent/teacher conferences with the boys’ pre-school teachers before vacation. They are in Montessori pre-school, which is very much strengths-based – meaning they are so, so, so very nice about telling you where your child is developmentally and what they need to work on.

Theo’s teachers explained that he is obsessed with writing and is rarely seen without a pencil in his hand. Even when distracted by conversation, his hand continues to move in a writing motion. He is writing, drawing, and tracing everything. His teachers are excitedly watching him and waiting for a “language explosion,” where he begins showing signs of readiness for learning to read. He is asking how words are spelled and what things say and mean. We were not surprised by any of this as we have seen it at home as well.  He really has learned so much lately and it’s a pleasure to watch him grow in this way.

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Next, his teacher so kindly said that Theo is very bright and perceptive. That he really picks up on others’ strengths AND weaknesses. Theo has recognized the power of his words. That doesn’t sound bad, right? Not necessarily. She said that there have been a few instances of him slyly mumbling things under his breath to other students. For instance, “that looks terrible” to someone working on a project. Or “you’re a cry baby” to someone who is upset. I can’t say we were shocked, as he taunts “Baby Dexter!” when Dexter is upset, but I was a little surprised to hear that he does this to his classmates. They have talked with him about it but wanted us to know that it’s something he is working on.

I hadn’t given this “Theo realizing the power of his words” thing much thought until vacation. I’ve been bragging on him recently about how much he has matured in the last few months. He has been pleasant in general and more willing to do things I asked him to do without arguing or refusing. Being sweet and helpful more often than not. It was as though the terrible twos and threenager years were behind us for good, for the most part. Theo has always been intense and sensitive but we started thinking that being able to reason with him had made a difference. He’s not a baby anymore and we were really heading into a good/different place in parenthood.

Well. Theo’s behavior on vacation was a mixed bag of tricks and treats. Yeah, he’s more mature and he’s smarter than he was a year ago, but this brings a new set of challenges along with the benefits. The majority of our vacation, he was great. But every day, without fail, there was some kind of epic meltdown (or threat of one) about something. It always revolved around the end of some activity or his worry over whether or not he was going to “get” something. When we finished doing something, it was “well, what are we going to do now that’s special?” Or “what am I going to get now that’s special?” Or “that wasn’t even that special so I hope we get to do something I REALLY like.” “You better get me something or you’ll ruin my vacation.” “Do you want to ruin my vacation?” “Do you want to break my heart?” “If you don’t _______, then I’ll ________.” Totally ungrateful. Sometimes we caved and did something else, or bought something small to avoid the blow-up, knowing this isn’t the right response. When our answer was, “that WAS the special thing and now it’s over” or “no, we are not buying you anything right now,” he had extreme outbursts, complete with “I hate you,” “you’re the worst mom/dad ever,” “I wish I never had a family,” and so on. These meltdowns ended with everyone being upset and for that moment in time, vacation being “ruined.”

So, it hit us. Theo has realized the power of his words. He has learned to manipulate to gain power. If he doesn’t control the situation by getting what he wants, he controls the situation by making everyone feel as unhappy as he does. He always, without fail, calms down and apologizes on his own. I’m not sure if he genuinely feels bad about his words/actions, doesn’t want us to be upset with him, or wants to butter us up so we’ll cave into his demands later. I don’t think he thinks about it and says to himself menacingly, “if they aren’t going to get me that _______ {fill in the piece of junk toy he impulsively asked for}, I’m going to ruin their lives.” But it’s still manipulation. On vacation, these things happened late at night so I do consider that being tired factored into the behavior. However, he is almost 5 years old and we can’t blame his behavior on being tired forever. His behavior is never this extreme at school or with anyone but us, so I know he can control these reactions to an extent.

Now that we’ve gotten ourselves into this situation, how do we get out? Have we created a manipulative, ungrateful person? We’ve talked to him about being grateful. About having and doing “enough,” saying “thank you” and moving on, and not always needing to do more or get more. He understands when he is calm, but he cannot recall any of this in the heat of the moment. We tell him that OF course we love him, want him to be happy, have fun, and do lots of special things, but that he needs to accept it when we say “it’s over,” “no,” “it’s bedtime,” or whatever it is that he’s not wanting to hear. He plays on our feelings because he knows we love him and want him to be happy, forgetting the part about accepting no for an answer.

Since the beginning of vacation, he has shown that sense of entitlement. Friday night we went to a community Halloween party. I told him he could go in the bounce house one more time, not realizing it was already 8 o’clock and the party was essentially over. The attendant said the last group was in the bounce house and no more would be going in. That was the trigger – within moments, Theo hated us and we were the worst parents ever. Saturday morning he was begging for forgiveness and asking “Mommy, what can I do to help you?” We talked to him about it again. This is our biggest struggle with Theo at the moment. Hopefully it doesn’t last long. He’s so big, but still little. He’s smart, but still has so much to learn. It’s kind of how I feel about myself as a parent. I’m doing my best but still have a lot to figure out. I owe it to my kids to teach them humility, compassion, and kindness. My headstrong, smart, sweet, spirited boy deserves the best. He’s something else!

xo,

~C~

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