Bratty kid, or parenting fail?

When we were at the pool on Sunday, I noticed this stark contrast in child behaviors.

First, we met a little girl named Sophia. She’s 4 1/2, and apparently this is her first year taking swimming lessons. Her dad was in the water with her (along with her big brother, but he was 8 or 9 years old, and off in the deeper part of the pool with his friends), and she was practicing putting her face in the water and kicking. She came over to Catie and the two girls shyly introduced themselves. Sophia said to Catie, “I like your name,” which made me melt because I’m sure that an adult told her that’s a nice thing to say to make friends, but it was so sweet. I knew Catie wouldn’t know how to respond, so I said, “Well, I think Sophia is a beautiful name.”

She and Catie played together for a while, she showed Catie how she could put her face in the water, and Catie was duly impressed. Her dad was friendly and chatted with Dave and me while the girls played, and it was great. Soon they had to head home, and that was that.

Here comes the contrast.

Right as Sophia and her family were leaving, a new family showed up at the pool. Again, it was a dad (it seems the moms in our neighborhood get the day off on Sundays; I wish I’d gotten that memo), and there was an older brother and a little sister, but this time, the dad parked himself on a chaise lounge in the shade and started talking with another dad. The older boy jumped in and started playing with the older kids, and the little girl came over to me. Not Catie, just to me. She told me her name was Sarah, and that she was 4 years old. I did a kid introduction, “Hey Catie, this is Sarah. Sarah, this is Catie.” And I thought that maybe they’d play together nicely like Catie had just done with Sophia.

Um… not so much.

It became apparent pretty quickly that Sarah was in dire need of parental attention, and since her dad never once even glanced in the direction of the swimming pool to make sure that his kids weren’t drowning, she latched on to me. It started with her asking me a million questions and making me feel like I was in that Monty Python sketch about “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” Then she wanted me to watch her while she did all kinds of pool stunts… which, oooookay, but shouldn’t your dad be watching you?

Also, I don’t know what the heck this kid does in her off-time, but she clearly is not supervised nearly enough, because she was covered in band-aids, which kept coming off in the water. Every time one did, I’d point it out to her and ask her to please go put it in the trash can (which she did). Then I’d look at Dave and make gagging faces. Band-aids floating in a pool is just about one of the grossest things ever. And this is why Dave and I started referring to her (after we left the pool) as Open Wound Sarah.

Then she started to get a little obnoxious. She and her brother had brought a ton of pool toys with them, but every. single. item. warranted this high-pitched, eardrum-piercing “THAT’S MINE!!!” shriek from her – and I’m not even talking about Catie, I’m talking about when her brother tried to use the toys. Even the things they’d brought two of (like, say, beach balls or pool noodles), she insisted that they were both hers, she didn’t want her brother to touch any of them. And I think it’s worth noting that none of her shrieking fits warranted even a glance from her dad, who was still engrossed in his conversation.

Next, she turned her attention back to us. Catie was playing with her inflatable pirate ship, putting her toys in it and pushing it out to Dave and me in the pool. Sarah asked if she could ride in the pirate ship. I said sure, if she wanted to share one of her toys with Catie. She gave Catie a beach ball (which Catie was happy to play with), and we let Sarah play with the pirate ship for a while. That’s fair, right?

About ten minutes later, Catie decided that she didn’t want the beach ball anymore, she wanted her pirate boat back. Sarah refused to give it back. I kind of stumbled with that one while Catie gave me this, “WTF, Mom?” look. I honestly wasn’t sure how to handle it at first. Then I decided that you know what? These are not communal toys, we are not on a playdate, and this kid has about a bajillion things of her own to play with. So I said, “Sarah, you know, Catie brought this pirate boat to the pool, so it’s hers. And if she wants to play with it, she should be able to play with it. You have a lot of your own toys here, so maybe you should go play with them instead.” Sarah gave back the pirate boat, then turned around and kicked the water to splash both me and Catie in the face. I said, sharply (and loudly), “Ok, that’s not nice, we don’t do that.” Her dad? Yeah, he still didn’t notice.

Sarah took off for the chaise lounge where her dad was sitting, rummaged around in their bag o’ pool junk, and came back with one of those Super Soaker water guns. I looked at Dave and muttered, “Great. Now she’s armed.”

And as I predicted, she spent the next few minutes filling up the water gun and spraying it into the air so it would come down on Catie’s head (which, hello, I barely got the kid to go down to the 2nd step, don’t get her head wet or she might freak and never come back). I told her to stop a couple of times, then finally said very loudly, “Ok, Sarah, that’s enough!” Apparently that was loud enough to get her dad’s attention, and he looked over just in time to see me making a face at Dave that probably indicated I was about to throttle his kid. He called for her to come put away the water gun. Finally. But that was basically his only parenting contribution for the hour that we were there.

But she still wouldn’t leave us alone, she kept trying to boss Catie around and take her pirate boat away from her, and it was just aggravating. Finally I said, “You know, I think it’s time to go home for lunch!” By that point, all three of us, even Catie, were happy to leave just to get the heck away from that kid.

I still can’t decide, though. Is Sarah just a bratty kid? Or is this her parents’ fault for not paying enough attention to her, and causing her to seek attention in negative ways? I was only around the kid for an hour, so I probably don’t know enough to judge, but I’m leaning toward the latter.

I just really hope we can avoid that family at the pool in the future. I have a feeling I’ll end up snapping and yelling at the dad to pay attention to his children if we have to go through that again.

this is where I have to thank Supernanny

I mentioned earlier that we’ve been having some behavior issues with Catie. I don’t really know how to explain it, other than to call it the Terrible Threes. She’s argumentative about everything. Anything I suggest, she wants nothing to do with it. Time to take a bath? No, no bath! So I force her into the tub, then it’s another fight to get her OUT of the bathtub. Mealtime, bedtime, all of the parts of our day that are things we have to do, she puts up a huge stinking fight about it.

Catie at Mother's Day brunch, trying on Tracy's sunglasses
Who, me?

On Sunday, I had tickets to take Catie and her cousin Elizabeth to see Nick Jr. Storytime Live. Just me and two three year-olds. Don’t be jealous. When we had talked about it earlier, Catie was SO excited, and couldn’t wait for the show. Then Sunday morning rolled around, and she was in another bad mood. I told her that we needed to get dressed, so we could go to the concert, and it was going to be so! much! FUN! Her response? “NO! I can’t want to have fun!” I finally dragged her upstairs and forced her to get dressed, and as soon as I pulled her shirt over her head, she cut me off before I could say anything and said, “I’m NOT pretty!” Like, don’t even try to compliment me, lady. Don’t waste your breath.

Once we got out the door & headed to my cousin’s house to pick up Elizabeth, everything was fine. Catie and Elizabeth take a lot of cues from each other, and they were both amazingly well-behaved. They held hands as we walked the two blocks from the parking lot to the theater, they stayed in their seats, they were fantastically easy. Of course, I bought them some popcorn and they each got a giant cookie, so that probably helped.

After the show, we took Elizabeth home. The girls played in the backyard for a while, and Cat and I talked about how difficult this age can be sometimes. It’s so nice to be able to commiserate with someone who’s going through the exact same thing. But it also got me thinking that there has to be a way to change this behavior. My parents (well, mostly my dad) insist that we need to spank Catie when she acts out, and I don’t necessarily have any knee-jerk reaction against spanking, it’s just something I prefer not to do. I was spanked as a kid and I don’t harbor any major emotional trauma because of it. But I generally think that if there’s a way to get the desired behavior without spanking, that’s the better route to choose.

On our way home from my cousin’s house, I remembered an episode of Supernanny that I saw ages ago, and I got inspired. After I got Catie settled down for her nap, I left her with Dave and set off for Wal-Mart. (Note: I generally prefer Target over Wal-Mart, but we just got a brand new Super Wal-Mart and it’s surprisingly nice. And cheap.)

I came home with a small dry-erase board. I hung it up on the wall in the living room where Catie sits for her time-outs, and I wrote on it: CATIE’S REWARD CHART. I drew in 10 squares underneath it. Here’s the rules: when she does something that she needs to do (i.e., taking a bath, getting dressed in the morning, etc.) without complaining or throwing a tantrum, I fill in one of the squares. (She can choose if she wants a smiley face, a star, or a heart – she knows that Mommy’s artistic ability is pretty limited!) When all 10 squares are filled in, she gets a prize. Nothing major, probably just something from the $1 bin at Target, but still, it’s the idea. Here’s the catch: when she’s naughty and has to sit in time-out, one of her squares gets erased, and she has to earn it back. So the premise is established: rewards for good behavior, consequences for bad behavior.

We set this up on Sunday evening, and I cannot begin to tell you the turnaround I’ve seen in this kid within 48 hours. She’s back to being sweet and agreeable most of the time – sure, she still throws the occasional tantrum, but they’ve decreased so much, so quickly, that it almost makes me think this must be a fluke. We’ll have to give it a test run for a while longer to see if it really works, but so far I’m cautiously optimistic.

me & Catie
I’ve missed this sweet version of my kid. I hope she sticks around a while.

inappropriate to laugh

Generally between the two of us, Dave is the more relaxed parent and I’m more of the disciplinarian. I don’t know how it worked out that way, but he’s just less uptight about rules and boundaries than I am. And that’s fine, I guess. But it means that I’m in the position of being Mean Mommy far more often than I’d like.

This morning, Catie wanted to watch a DVD that we borrowed from our baby-sitter (this one, if you care). Which, fine, whatever. Since I am always in favor of the path of least resistance, I thought it might be easier to get her dressed in front of the TV than to try to coerce her upstairs with me. So I grabbed a clean diaper and her clothes for the day, and brought them downstairs. She let me take off her pajamas and change her diaper, but then she refused to put on her clothes. She thrashed and squirmed and made a huge stink about it. I told her that she could either get dressed or go to time-out. She continued to thrash around, so fine, time-out it is. And “the frog movie” (which is what she calls the LeapFrog DVD) was promptly turned off.

(For the record, time-out at our house is a spot on the dining room floor. There really isn’t anything in that room except some boxes, certainly nothing that could qualify as entertainment for her, so it usually works.)

I left her in her time-out spot and walked into the kitchen – part of the deal with time-out is that I ignore her for the two minutes that she’s in there. I heard her making some odd grunting noises like she was struggling with something. When the two minutes were up, I walked back into the dining room and saw that she had taken off her diaper and flung it across the room. So there she was, still sitting in her exact time-out spot, hands in her lap, head down and bottom lip stuck out… and stark naked except for her socks. I had to turn around and look away to try to regain my composure, because I seriously almost died laughing right there.

It took a minute, but I got my Mean Mommy face back on, and I went over to her and sternly put her diaper back on her, then escorted her back to the living room and got her dressed. And she was fine after that, she didn’t act up at all. I know it would’ve made the situation worse if I had laughed, but man alive, it took just about every ounce of energy I had to not crack up.

So what I’ve learned is that parenting a two year-old is both incredibly frustrating and completely hilarious. I sort of knew that already, I just didn’t expect it to be both at the same time.