Monday, January 25, 2010

Good Fellas, Whiners, and the Occasional Bloody Nose

This is one of those weeks when nothing in particular is on my mind to write. At least nothing profound (not that I ever have much to say that's profound). It was just a typical daddy week. I guess the major event in our home over the last few days was when my four-year-old, William, bloodied my two-year-old, Carson's, nose. Of the two of them, Carson, has traditionally been the brute. He's the one who will push, hit, yell, and generally try to bully his big brother in order to get what he wants. Although older and bigger than Carson, William used to whine, cry, and come running to Mommy or Daddy whenever Carson took his toys, clothes, pop tart... whatever. I'm not someone who encourages violence in my household (unless it's me attacking the dog for chewing on my cell phone), but I definitely don't want William whining when someone picks on him (especially someone smaller and younger). I don't want him starting any fights, but I don't want him afraid to stand up and defend himself either. By the same token, I don't want Carson being a bully and thinking that it's okay to beat up anybody who won't give him what he wants. The last thing I need is a pint-sized "Good Fella" toddling about the house and threatening to whack anyone who won't hand over their Legos. If I don't nip this thing in the bud, I'm liable to come home one day to find Carson sitting in his booster seat wearing gold jewelry, smoking a cigar, and using phrases like "forgetta 'bout it."

While spankings, time-outs, and lost dessert privileges proved to be effective short-term fixes--eliciting tearful (if less than sincere) apologies from Carson to his brother and providing a day or so of non-violent interaction before the next punch, push, or blindside hit--they failed to permanently change Carson's pattern of behavior. So, about a month ago, I had a talk with both my sons. I told Carson that, from that point on, William would be allowed to respond in kind if Carson hit him. I also made it clear to William (or, at least, tried to) that he was not allowed to hit Carson first; however, if Carson hit him, he could defend himself.

It quickly became evident that Carson did not take the talk very seriously. Unfortunately for Carson, it just as quickly became evident that William did. It wasn't but about a half hour later that I heard William yell from another room, "No Carson, you can't have it!" To which Carson responded, "Gib it ta me!" The next thing I heard was a loud THUD! The thud was soon followed by wailing and crying. Only, this time, it wasn't William. Carson had grabbed William's toy truck and tried to take it. William said no, so Carson hit him. William responded by punching Carson and knocking him into the wall. Stunned and unsure how to handle this new reality, Carson came running to Daddy. I picked him up, hugged him, and told him I loved him. When I asked him what happened, he said, "Willy K hit me." When I asked if he'd hit William first, he said "Uh, huh." When I then explained to him why William was not in trouble, Carson just stared at me as if to say, "Are you kiddin' me?"

History has shown that power corrupts. Those who have it tend to abuse it. This is true of adults. Trust me, it's also true of four-year-olds. Allowing William to physically defend himself (while well-intentioned and, given Carson's brutish personality, arguably necessary) was like letting Hitler invade Austria: It would have been nice if that had been the end of the trouble, but it only led to more conflict. What started as William's last resort of self-defense, soon morphed into a "first strike" policy. Hence, this past week's episode. William was watching television. Ironically, he was probably watching some PBS show designed to teach kids how to play nice and share. Well, somewhere between Dragon Tales' lesson on sharing and Barney the Dinosaur's I love you, you love me... song, Carson decided it would be fun to grab the pillow William was lying on. When he did, William punched him right in the nose. So much for detente.

And so, I'm now trying to reel William back in. I'm glad he's chucked the whining for a more assertive approach. I'd rather have to tone down a wild man than rev up a whiner. But now things have swung 180 degrees. Now it's William who's learning the boundaries via the occasional spanking or stern talk. And so, gradually, the number of violent encounters between my boys are decreasing. Both know that, if they hit, the other is liable to clock him right back. Even if he doesn't, they both know that whoever starts the fight has to deal with dad when it's over. Thus, I think my boys are starting to figure out that their fights are a lot like a Georgia-Tennessee football game: Why kick-off when you know Florida is just gonna beat the winner's tail anyway?

So feel free to chime in, dads. Let me know what you think. How do you prevent your boys from being mommy-reliant crybabies who run to their parents every time someone picks on them, while at the same time making sure they don't turn into little brawlers who are prone to hitting and sporting tattoos that read Born 4 Timeout? Oh well, we're figuring it out as best we can. Hopefully we'll find the balance. In the meantime, we'll keep plenty of Kleenex on hand to wipe tears and bloody noses, just in case.

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