In which Richard refused to get from under the bed to go to our playdate with the Vekslers.
Martin and Melissa sent Richard (8) and Robert (6) by plane to spend about five days with me, so that the adults could pack and move in relative peace. Those days happened to include Saturday, which is when the 1FROG meeting was already scheduled, and since I hadn't been able to attend the last few, I really wanted to go. So I had coordinated with my friend Sarah Veksler to watch the boys at their home in Denver while they had a playdate with Sarah's and David's daughters, Sophie and Hazel.
Saturday afternoon crept up on us, and it was time to get ready to go. Richard suddenly decided that he was not going to go. So he crawled under my bed and refused to get out.
Before I get into the real points of this post, I'll describe a funny interaction that we had. When this happened during the whole ordeal isn't really relevant.
"This doesn't work for my schedule."
I nearly laughed when he asserted this. Being rather fussy about my own schedule, I could relate, but this was a little...premature. I mean, for starters, Melissa and I had each informed him and Robert that they would be having a playdate with Sophie and Hazel, so it's not like I was suddenly undermining his autonomy. At one point, he told me that he wasn't listening when either Melissa or I told him about the playdate, with a tone that it was our fault that we tried to tell him something when he wasn't paying attention. Now, that could be true if a speaker weren't paying any attention to the context or attention of the listener, but with Richard, despite a parent's (or caregiver's) best efforts, it's often impossible to tell whether something is landing...he often gives signs of paying attention when he's really not. So I thought I was being pretty clever when I told him that I checked his calendar, and I found that he was available, to which he retorted "I don't even have a calendar!", to which I said "Exactly!". Obviously, that wasn't persuasive, but it was rather humorous.
Autonomy and Responsibility for the Results of Choices
The previous night, I told Richard that we could look online to figure out what kind of pizza rolls he liked, then we could go to a grocery store to buy them. But he decided to play Minecraft and watch TV/movies all day, so we ran out of time for that when it was time to leave for the Vekslers'. Richard had a meltdown about his desire for pizza rolls and how I wasn't getting them for him, and I used the opportunity to remind him that I had offered for us to do that, but he made other choices, and now he has to live with the consequences of those choices. I hoped that, in some small way, this would reinforce his sense of autonomy, connecting his choices and actions with their results. I tried hard to not make it seem like a punishment or some consequence that I was imposing: I offered him some possibilities over the course of the last day, and he decided what would happen. He didn't like the result, but I wasn't the cause of that. I also didn't want to give into his demands and thereby rob him of the learning experience by removing the consequence he created.
The Trader Principle
At one point, I attempted to reason with Richard. I tried to explain how I was doing the best that I could for us to have a fun time together, but if this was how he was choosing to conduct himself, I wasn't going to be very interested in doing what he wanted (or demanded). I laid out how I was under no obligation to do anything in particular and that if Richard wanted something (pizza rolls or anything else), he would be wise to be more generally cooperative. I knew the difference wouldn't be clear to him (heck--most adults don't even get this), but while I was willing to have agreements, I wasn't willing to "bribe" him. I wasn't just interested in getting an immediate result (by bribery), particularly if we were now dealing with a situation of his own making or where he previously violated an agreement/understanding. So I tried to make new agreements, such as the conditions under which we might get pizza rolls on another day, even though the possibility today was foreclosed.
Funny aside: At some point, I used the phrase "It would be in your interests...", to which he immediately retorted "I can't have interest because I don't have any money!". Melissa informed me later that they had been learning about banking.
I'm not sure that he consciously grasped this idea of mutual cooperation and mutual interests--certainly not when he was in the grips of a limbic system hijack--but I hope that on some level, it landed with him that I was trying to be amiable, that I loved him, and that I was looking for a win-win outcome.
One thing that was very interesting to observe was Robert's attitude throughout all of this. At first, he didn't seem too interested in the playdate, and he also insisted that nobody ever told him. But as soon as Richard started being especially obstinate, he suddenly took on the role of peace-maker, and he started having his own meltdown about how "We'll never go if you don't give Richard what he wants!", which presumably was going and getting pizza rolls right away. Essentially, he was asking me to negotiate with a terrorist, and while that might have gotten me the immediate result I wanted, it would of course encourage more such behavior in the future. In this case, I judged that it would not be the right thing to do to "compromise". But Robert got more and more agitated, pleading with me to "give in to him". I tried to help him to calm down and explain that everything would be okay, one way or another, and if we missed the playdate, that was no big deal, either. Soon thereafter, Robert attempted a different approach, perhaps because the conflict was so unpleasant: He attempted to engage Richard in play, where he jovially tried to pull Richard from under the bed, like it was a game. In general, I think bringing levity to a situation is a good thing, and it can certainly diffuse tension and encourage cooperation, so that was a much better tactic than straight appeasement, but what was interesting is what I think motivated it: Robert's distress and desperate desire to avoid discomfort.
In the end, while we were late to leave, we did manage to scrape out of the house. I don't even remember what ultimately caused Richard to cooperate, but I suppose I just outlasted him, perhaps with his realization on some level that he wasn't going to bait me into a fight or into anger. I was proud, both of the boys for pulling themselves together, and of myself for having the patience to calmly work through the situation.
And really, it was good that I realized that, however much I wanted to briefly see the Vekslers and go to the 1FROG meeting, it wouldn't be the end of the world if I missed them. (And it's not like anybody would hold it against me that I missed an event because I was caring for kids who were having a meltdown.)
Since there was no issue of safety, one thing I wasn't willing to do was to force Richard in any way. That's something that's really important to me: It's not a mode of interaction that's appropriate between adults, and it's not something to model (or foist on) children who are developing the autonomy, reasoning, and social skills they'll need to be successful adults. So I wasn't going to pull him from under the bed. The same principle basically applies to yelling or bribing or anything else. That's probably another one of those things that they'll just pick up on subconsciously.
Yes, I was pretty frustrated (though mostly because it was hard to think on my feet about the right thing to do), but I wasn't angry at Richard, and it was a really good learning experience for me.