He glares at me from under his lashes, his cute mouth puckered in a stubborn twist. I try to hold my stern face in place even as I am so close to losing this ridiculous staring game.
Toddlers have a kind of way about them. I particularly like this stage of their lives because they are somehow part baby and part grown child. They still have their cute, meaty, chubby roundness but walk about with more purpose. They try to assert their independence by trying new things, moving off on their own and defying you but they inadvertently come back the moment they fall and scrape their knees or lose a fight for a toy with the other kid in the playpen. So it’s a nice period when they test their boundaries and you discover your limits. And boy do they know how to push your buttons!
I have two boys, D – the four-year-old – and J the 18 month old. D who is almost fully grown, can carry on an intelligent conversation for all of 3.4 minutes before descending into unintelligible babble. Most annoyingly, he could decide to regress into behavior more suited to his younger brother such as wailing at the sight of a toothbrush (I wonder where he gets that from) and stubbornly refusing to eat his eba which he calls EH-ba (like one botty child – who dash you?). J on the other hand is at that stage where he is completely aware of the mischief he is getting up to but is still too small for you to smack. So I spend my days shouting at him to get his hand out of the socket or stop playing with the gas knobs but I am very close to putting him across my lap and giving his diaper a good twitching. This brings us back to our staring match. I found him in the kitchen reorganizing my storage cupboard. He had pulled out all my food storage containers and was building some sort of fort/castle. I was too annoyed by the mess I had to clear up to realise I was looking at a future architect/engineer. I snatched everything out of his hand and arranged them back (read as shoved everything back in for the nanny to take care of when she resumes tomorrow) and ordered him in my most stern voice to “Come out!” Would you believe the little tyke threw his head back, arched his back (the universal act of toddler defiance) and opened his mouth to let out a wail of protest? Whether it was because I ordered him out or because I took away “his building blocks”, I can’t say but next thing I know, he pulled an Orubebe. He sat his diapered butt down on the floor and glared at me from under his lashes. If I walk over and pick him up from the floor he will imagine he can just do this every time and get away with it. If I insist on him getting up as I repeat my command, I might be there a while and I don’t have that kind of time (I hear the TV commercials end and Mike and Molly comes back on). So what do I do?
I grew up in ’90s Lagos. Those who know will tell you it was one of the toughest times in Nigeria especially for civilians. Things were generally hard, salaries went unpaid, universities went on indefinite strike after strike, it was a terrible time. And as such, my mother didn’t have time for a lot of things e.g. a child that wanted to test her. I don’t remember how young I was when she began to extend her form of disciplinary action to me but I do know this extended well into my teenage years. It was either the turning-stick (ladle/wooden spoon) or one old flippy-floppy slipper used to wedge open the living room door in the incessant blackouts. And when the offense needed swift punishment, her back hand sent the message just as quickly.
I know some would be outraged that I am having such violent thoughts toward my toddler but at what point do I begin to mete out suitable punishment for disobedience. I could tell D, “Go to your room and stay there till…” and that would be enough (for now) because no kid wants isolation at his age. Or I could turn off the TV or Nick Junior and he would be suitably punished but this tiny tot wouldn’t be bothered by any of this neither would he begin to comprehend what “the corner” is. How did I deal with this when Dino was younger? It seems so long ago.
Finally, I decided to try one more time (and I am sure it will not be my last).
“J, get up.”
Pause. For about 4 beats I got nothing and then finally he broke into the most mischievous smile and stood up. He didn’t make a move but then something occurred to me to do. I stepped out of the kitchen and closed the kitchen door in slow motion… He sensed what I was about to do and gave a low wail of protest but remained rooted to his spot. I finally shut the door but stood on the outside listening to his cry of abandonment. When I was satisfied that he had understood his offense, I opened the door to find his dry eyes staring back at me, his lips set in a pout. He walks out slowly as if in last-minute defiance of my directive.
I won that day but I don’t know about another. How do you handle defiance with your toddlers?