I have two children. My wife and I call them the Weirdlings. Before you think it odd that we'd give our kids a collective nickname that echoes my own sobriquet, their name came first. In fact, we decided our kids would be called Weirdlings before we were pregnant, before we were married, before we were engaged. It was one of those long-term relationship vacation conversations, and we acknowledged the truth that we're both goofy nerds, so our kids, at that point totally hypothetical, would have no chance and no choice. They'd be weird. They'd be Weirdlings.
This is a post about Weirdling One, our eldest. For those of you looking for education thoughts in this space, we'll get there, I promise. Enjoy the journey. It matters.
He's four years old. Four and a half, I guess, since when they're this small those fractions still matter as a lot happens in those first six months. That's still a significant fraction of the child's life. He's smart and funny and, if pressed to describe him in two words I'd say, "Blurry noise." He hasn't stopped talking since he was born, and he hasn't stopped moving since then either. He's great and great fun and greatly exhausting. He's a Labrador. He loves you immediately and fully and do you want to play come on let's play watch this look at me I love you come on.
Recently he and I have started having trouble getting on. Not huge trouble, he's four. He's not sneaking out in the middle of the night and staggering in at 4am smelling of cheap apple juice with stolen Legos hanging out of his pockets. When he tells me I'm the meanest daddy it doesn't come with the vitriol only a teenager can summon up. In fact, he rarely tells me I'm the meanest. He's got a favorite stuffed monkey, who is named Monkey because when we named him we didn't realize that Monkey would be The One. Monkey has been around since Weirdling One was ten months old. When hurt or scared or tired he wants, in order 1) Monkey, 2) Momma, 3) Me. I don't begrudge Monkey or Momma third position. I get it. They're both pretty great at snuggles. So he doesn't normally tell me I'm the meanest, he tells Monkey. These are normal four year old grumps. These aren't the problem.
The problem is recently he began lying to me. About all kinds of things, most of which are things that, to quote every parent and teacher ever, "...would not have gotten [him] in trouble if [he'd] just been honest in the first place." I don't know what triggered this change. It started all at once, out of the blue. I didn't think we were giving consequences that would be so awful that he'd do anything to avoid them. I think it's probably a developmental phase (and wife research corroborates that). Funnily enough, he did just finish his first half year of pre-school, and I'm curious if he learned it there. Darn kids at school, teaching him bad habits. (That's a joke, I'm not blaming his school, his teacher was amazing.) The lying is about silly things, but things that become less silly when he looks me in the eye and protests, "No, I'm serious. I'm not lying. It's true. Really." Emphatically. Repeatedly. There will occasionally be the throwing of his brother beneath the bus.
The thing he doesn't realize, probably because he's four, is he's got the exact wrong parents for this. My wife was a teacher, and I am one, and we both have the Teacher Senses that allow us to detect Obvious Lies (I mean, he's four so he's not exactly fooling the CIA here anyway). We know the tricks to get a child to confess to a lie without meaning to. I'm guessing these are muscles non-teacher parents have to build up after they have kids. I want to stress here that I'm not saying being teachers makes us better parents. I'll get to that.
In my classroom I believe in positive reinforcement, the five positive statements to one negative statement ratio, focusing on catching kids being good rather than catching them getting into trouble. I'm pretty good at all of that in a room full of 5th graders.
I found myself struggling to remember those things with my own kid. It's one thing when a student lies to you, it's something else when your own kid looks you dead in the eye and makes claims you know aren't true. And I was having a really hard time handling it well. It was so frustrating and took me completely off guard. He's four! Really, this already? My wife doesn't get the lying, he only does it to me. In fact, he's told her the truth and then admitted, "I lied to Daddy about it."
I'm not flying off the handle with him. But I have let my reactions go right around my Teacher Brain, straight to Idiot Parent Brain. I just started taking toys away. My thought- He loves his toys. This will work. Then I did the thing I repeatedly tell student teachers not to do- I made a promise/threat/condition that I did not want to follow through on. "Next time you lie to me, I will take away your bike."
Why would I say that? I'd never say that kind of thing in my classroom. This was different somehow, he's mine. And, of course, because he's four, he lied to me again the very next day. Because I hadn't actually done anything to help him.
I was so frustrated. With him, sure, but mostly with myself. What a stupid thing to do, taking away his bike. He loves his bike. I love watching him ride his bike. He and his brother ride bikes all the time. Now, because I said a stupid thing, I have to do the stupid thing. A thing I know isn't actually going to help the behavior.
I'd have asked Dr. Google what to do, but no matter what symptoms you put into Dr Google it turns out you've got cancer of the eyeball and seventy-eight seconds to live. So instead I did exactly what Weirdling One does when he's upset- I called my mom.
Mom used to work for the City of Where I Grew Up as a parenting counselor. Basically, if the county took away your kid for some reason, she ran and taught the classes you had to take. She also, if I do say so myself, did a pretty good job with me. My sister too, I guess. But my sister is second, she had to practice on me.
I laid it all out for her, and when she started giving me advice and tips it finally struck me- These are exactly the things I'd be telling a new teacher who came to me with this problem with a student. "You should come up with a sticker chart and he gets stickers for good choices and when he gets five he gets to choose a reward." "You need to make sure the consequence is a logical extension of the poor choice." "Make sure you're focusing on the good things."
It's here that I point out that my wife also came up with the sticker chart plan and we just hadn't gotten around to implementing it yet because I was ignoring the teacher instinct that says Start as soon as possible too.
"Why didn't I think of these things! I know these things! This is how I'd teach it." I said.
"Because it's harder with your own kids. You're not teaching, you're parenting. You don't know what you're doing, you're figuring it out. It's ok."
I guess I needed someone to say that. An outside view. Extra eyes that see things that I'm too close to. I just kind of assumed being a teacher would help me be a better parent. I think it helped, but it's also not the same. Much in the same way that becoming a parent has made me a more empathetic teacher. Having kids didn't magically improve my lessons or grading or feedback, but he helped me better see the parents on the other side of the equation.
I'm incredibly lucky, because Weirdling One is an amazing kid with more love and joy in his body than you'd think one person could contain. We're going to work together, along with Momma, to help him see that the truth is the way to go. Here come sticker charts and all those other things that are worth trying. We'll work through this phase and whatever phases and challenges come after. If I can, I'll use what I've learned teaching. Mostly, I think, my wife and I will muddle along as best we can.
And when Da Squish hits this stage, we'll be a little more prepared. Of course, he's very different from his brother, so who knows what that preparation will be worth.
Post Script- I want to note that I could have asked my Dad for help too. Still probably will. Especially since he's going to text me about four seconds after reading this post asking how his grandson is doing.
If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.