The other day, I snuck one of my triplet toddlers – the one sitting in the shopping cart seat facing me as the other two sat in the plastic car, facing away – a Krispy Kreme cruller.
The only one without a corn allergy, she’d been denied all her life such packaged treats, eating only home-baked cookies and cakes on rare occasions, like birthdays and playdates.
“Mmmmm,” she said, her eyes widening. “I like these cookies.” She gulped the cruller down in three bites. “Another.”
“Shh,” I said, not wanting the other two to catch on. They would’ve wanted one, too, but they couldn’t. I’d read the crullers’ ingredients: corn, corn, and more corn. “You only get one.”
“Another!” she screamed, pounding her fists against the shopping cart, kicking her legs, and shaking her head. Of course, my daughter was no stranger to complete meltdowns, though luckily, until then, I’d escaped the public ones. “I want another butter cookie! I want it now!”
Thinking about the lesson I’d just read about ignoring whining and fits in Dr. Catherine Pearlman’s “Ignore It!”, I gathered my strength, looked away, and laid produce on the checkout belt. The clerk’s eyes widened.
The doughnuts floated by, and my daughter screamed again, “I want butter!”
“Do you want…?” the clerk said, holding up the doughnuts, knowing, at least, not to conjure them by name. Still, her eyes begged me to give my daughter another, anything to quiet the screaming imp now throwing her head back and kicking my waist. I shook my head.
“Nope,” I said. “No way.”
I must admit, when I read the title and the premise of “Ignore It!” – including logic, such as “…negotiation is almost always initiated by the child for the benefit of the child” – I said to myself, “I’m a high school teacher at a rigorous Catholic school. I stick to my guns. I don’t negotiate.”
Nonetheless, my triplets had just turned two-and-a-half and were starting to win about half of the arguments they waged with me. In any given moment, one child might be lying on the floor tattling on her sister who’d just touched her and, wanting to be picked up, another might be lobbing her lovey and demanding I go retrieve it, while a third might be scheming for a pasta dinner once again after I’ve spent all afternoon making lemon chicken.
It wasn’t until I’d read halfway through Dr. Pearlman’s book (subtitled, “How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction”) that I started to realize just how much negotiating I had been doing with my three toddlers:
“You can have more milk if you eat just one bite of chicken,” or “I’ll stand in your doorway until you fall asleep, but I’m not lying in bed all night with you,” and “Just one more cartoon, as long as you’re quiet.”
I was exhausted, dealing with one child who no longer napped and two who did, but went to bed late, demanding my presence until they fell asleep. I was getting only minutes of down time a day, my husband and I clambering to catch up on our lives before one of our children needed us yet again.
It was in that moment at the grocery store checkout, my daughter throwing herself in four opposing directions, that, ironically, life became a bit simpler. When my daughter’s “butter cookie” tantrum produced no attention (or doughnut), she stopped screaming. In fact, she became quite sweet, the rest of the day whispering in my ear, “Thank you, Mommy, for the treat at the store,” at which point I followed Dr. Pearlman’s advice again, re-engaging my daughter and showering her with attention for good behavior.
Pretty soon, I started ignoring other, less tantrumy behavior, as well. Instead of yelling at my child to go back to time out, I let her wander into the kitchen while I kept chopping vegetables, until eventually – to my disbelief – she returned on her own.
Instead of standing in my daughter’s doorway until she fell asleep (which seemed to get later and later each night), I told her I’d tuck her in, go rock her sister, and be back to say goodnight, at which point I’d leave. After one night of listening to her yell for me a few times, she accepted my absence and went to sleep. Then my husband and I climbed out from under our rocks and started watching the first season of “Game of Thrones”.
I hate to make blanket statements, like “my children became more enjoyable,” as the book promises. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. Like all kids, they have good and bad moments, days, weeks. They can change from darlings to monsters and back again in mere seconds. I do know that I have stopped wasting energy trying to force them to be more enjoyable, however.
I let them whine. I allow them to resolve more disputes on their own. I don’t negotiate. Most importantly, I am more rested and connected to my spouse, which helps me handle the bad days when ignoring all their schemes would otherwise seem impossible.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned implementing Dr. Pearlman’s strategy is that my role as a teacher at a rigorous high school, where I maintained clear rules and boundaries with my students, does not make a perfect educator at home. We may know what is best for our children and for us, but we still need constant reminders (and step-by-step instructions with dozens of real-world examples, as Dr. Pearlman gives) on how to implement that knowledge.
In our exhaustion, we make mistakes. We yell, we negotiate, and we skulk around the house, making us no better than our screaming toddlers. But, maybe, if we “Ignore It!” (in my case, all three of it), we will at least be more effective than our toddlers at getting our way.