When Gavin met Gareth in the hospital and welcomed him so warmly into the world, we thought all our worries about sibling rivalry were for nought. Gavin and Gareth’s relationship got off to a tremendous start and I could have hoped for nothing better. Now with Gareth at 18 months and Gavin at 4 years and 4 months, I cannot say that sibling rivalry does not exist between my two boys. It does not present itself in the form that we expected – where Gavin would deliberately try to hurt his brother – but it exists in a esoteric manner which makes it all that much harder to deal with.
One of the ways it has presented itself has been through Gavin’s sudden inability to do things he was formerly capable of doing. Here are some examples: not being able to put on his shoes, needing to be carried because his legs don’t work, needing help to go to the toilet because he “can’t do it by himself”, needing to be fed because he “doesn’t know how to use a spoon”, and so on. I don’t mind pandering to the occasional whim but when he keeps insisting he “can’t do it”, it really annoys me. Perhaps it is because I fear he might develop “learned helplessness” or begin to display a negative attitude towards tackling challenges in life – either way, it is not a statement I like to hear him repeat.
The more he insists he is incapable of doing “insert action” on his own, the more reluctant I am to help him. The more I refuse to help him, the more needy he becomes and more “incapable” he becomes. I’m sure you can see how this can rapidly spiral out of control. Many children “regress” because they see that their younger sibling gets a lot more attention for being unable to do things on their own – like go to the toilet, being fed, and being carried around. By pretending to be incapable of doing these things on their own, they believe they will regain some of the lost attention from their parents.
I often write about positive discipline because that is the style of parenting I aspire to practice. But I must confess that my temper gets the better of me (more often than I would like) and I begin to lose my patience with my rather trying four year old. When that happens, all my positive discipline tactics go out the door and the irrational and irate me bubbles to the surface.
So it happened again yesterday after I’d washed up both boys and I was towelling Gareth. I told Gavin to dry himself up and get dressed and he stood there rooted to the spot and insisted he didn’t know how to dry himself. I was about to fly into another rampage when it occured to me that perhaps what I needed to do was to tell him how I wanted him to behave rather than what I didn’t want him to do.
It’s a common problem in life – you tell someone what you don’t want but you fail to tell them what you do want. They are then left to guess what it is that you want and it is pretty much a hit and miss game where they might stumble on the right answer on their own through trial and error or they might never discover the answer. More often than not, it is the latter that occurs.
Instead of telling Gavin to stop pretending to be “helpless”, I said, “I know you know how to wipe yourself down, but if you want Mummy to help you then all you have to do is tell me, ‘Mummy, I know how to wipe myself dry, but I would like you to help me because it makes me feel special’.” Then I told him that I wouldn’t always wipe him down after a shower but if he asked me nicely I would be more likely to help him.
Later that evening, instead of standing petulantly in the bathroom dripping water all over the floor and insisting that he was incapable of towelling himself dry, he looked me in the eye, smiled and asked in his sweetest voice, “Mummy, can you help me because I like it when you do.”
Ellen Galinsky said in Mind in the Making that children need to be taught life skills – it isn’t something they necessarily pick up on their own as they grow older. I guess this is one example. Some children might eventually figure out what is the best way to handle a situation, but they learn a lot more quickly if you help them with examples.
Coming back to positive discipline – it is easy to shout at our children and tell them to stop doing “insert annoying behaviour”, but it takes more effort to consider why the annoying behaviour occurred in the first place and help our child replace that behaviour with something more constructive. Like I said – I’m flawed. I know what I should be doing but sometimes I let my temper get the better of me. On those rare times when I do get it right, I feel all the better for it and I value the positive effect it has on my relationship with my son.