Sunday, September 14, 2008

When In Rome...

Clearly, we're not in Rome; but I guess that phrase is a reasonable one to use since "When on the playground" just never caught on. So let's assume for the sake of this entry that Rome is actually our local playground, minus the Pope and the architecture, all that, shall we? Mkay.

For a few weeks after we moved here, you might remember my lamenting until you wanted to gouge your eyes out (or never read my blog again, which, by the way, would be the easier of those two choices) that my child was a bit, well, aggressive. What with the hitting and the throwing and the slapping and tantrumming, and the other undesirable behavior that is toddlerese for "ohmygodwoman, what have you done with all my toys and all my friends and all my stuff and where the hell are we and when do we go hoooooooooome?!!!" I spent an inordinate amount of time wringing my hands and kvetching that we'd wrecked our sweet-tempered little man with this move and how were we going to get him back to his normal self?

Initially I fretted that we HAD to send him to pre-school immediately. Having ripped him from his social circle in Virginia is what had turned him into this beast of a toddler; only surrounding him with other little kiddos in a structured environment could "fix" him. In Virginia, we had a weekly playgroup and generally ended up playing with at least one of the other kids from playgroup every single day.

Between playgroup itself and the classes we took there (everything from music to gym to art), Ethan was essentially in pre-school without being in pre-school while we lived in Virginia. As a matter of fact, Husband and I deliberately intended to put pre-school on hold while we were in Virginia because we felt he was getting more than enough in the way of socialization, dirt-eating and arts & crafts with his little group of friends.

Fast forward to June of this summer and what did we have? Little group of friends? Gone. Classes? Gone (well, we signed up for a music class, but it wasn't exactly the same, says the pouty mama). Playdates? Gone. So what we had was one toddler, rife with frustration, confusion and energy; and one mama, ready to lose her freaking mind if this kid!!!!

And of course, as luck always has it, we moved during a time of the year where the collective parenting community laughs with one voice when you ask if you can get into a pre-school by fall. "I'm sorry, what? It's mid-July, and you want to enroll your child into pre-school for this fall?" (pause for quiet "oh, you poor stupid girl" chuckle here). "No. Maybe next fall if you get on the list within the next 45 seconds. Maybe."

I called a few places to inquire about Mommy & Me programs, which are essentially pre-school with parental involvement. Alas, Ethan, at the ripe old age of 28 months, is too old for those programs.

So what is a mom to do when her child is too old for Mommy & Me and hasn't been on a pre-school waiting list since his 4th week of gestation? She goes to the park. A lot.

It's free. It's shaded (and in L.A., shaded can mean the difference between 95 and 80 degrees). It exhausts him. It gives me people to talk to. All this would be plenty to make it worth the 25 minute walk there and back. But what I've found, beyond all of this, is that it has turned my sweet little Ethan back into my sweet little Ethan.

The first few weeks were trying; I left the park more than once in tears, pushing the stroller home while Ethan cried because we'd left abruptly after he threw sand or toy trucks or fists at the face of another child. I cannot count the number of times I pled for forgiveness (probably embarrassingly emphatically, if memory serves me correctly) to the mothers of other little ones who'd been the targets of Ethan's frustration. Everyone was kind and said, "oh, poor thing," when I explained that we'd just moved, that he was having a hard time, wasn't normally like this, yadda yadda yadda. It was difficult to keep going back to face the possibility that he was just going to go medieval on some other unsuspecting toddler again and we were going to have to leave...again.

So I started time-outs. This is where I eat a little bit of parenting crow. I have to admit that when Ethan was younger, I never quite got the "time out" thing and told myself I'd find a way to make Ethan understand right from wrong with far more natural consequences and by talking to him...because toddlers love nothing more than reason and logic, right? Right. Don't get me wrong, I never judged time-out parents or anything like that--I just didn't want to use them myself. I think now that perhaps I'd not really considered what we were in for as Ethan approached toddlerhood.

Anyhow, time-outs started as about 30 seconds screaming bloody murder on a park bench, on mama's lap, squirming like an oiled pig. Lots of fun, let me tell you. Enough fun, in fact, to make me think that perhaps we'd be better off just not leaving the house until he was in high school. After every time-out (and sometimes a trip to the park was more time-out than not), he apologized to whomever he'd thrashed (I only use them when he's aggressive; for everything else I need him to stop doing, I can just count to 3 and he's done before I get to 2 most of the times--I don't even know what comes after 3...) and then we continued on in our little lives, until the next time.

Within a week of starting time-outs, all I had to do when I saw that gleam come into his eye that said, "Gee, the top of that kid's head could sure use a whack!" was say, "Ethan, do you want a time-out?", to which he would respond, "no time-out," and the look dissipated and there was happiness and peace among the toddlers of the sandbox again.

But more importantly than the time-outs (which I realize, when they aren't riddled with words of shame, actually are a natural consequence because they take him away from what he wants to be doing, which is playing), Ethan has found himself a group of friends again. This time they are a group of friends who are, for the most part, older than him, in the 3-6 year old range. And because of that, it's like a whole world kind of just opened up to him.

From Evie and Lucy, Ethan's learned to use his imagination in ways he hadn't before. Sand ceases to be, well, sand, and becomes cake batter; pails become mixing bowls, and sticks and rocks become frosting. When he's on the swing, he gleefully yells that "Ethan's up in sky!! Ethan's in the trees!!!" even though I'm barely pushing him above a light sway.

From Jackson, Ethan's learned the art of the playground toy trade-off. This looks suspiciously like a toddler-sized drug-deal, but it involves toy trucks instead of meth. You bring two of your own hot-wheel sized treasures with you and when your buddy shows up with his own two, you quickly make the transfer--he gets yours and you get his. Mastering this art has transformed playground time from tantrum-laden time-out screamfests to relatively speaking, pure bliss. The boys trade cars back and forth, running happily in circles, while Mama and the other moms chat. Can you hear the sigh of relief, internet?

So, I suppose it's not a four walls and a teacher with a degree in early childhood education type of pre-school, but Ethan's learning a lot in Playground Pre-school and the word "blossoming" comes to mind. I'm so grateful my little man is happy and that his happiness means more time for me to sit in the sandbox and make some friends of my own.


gringa said...

Sounds as if you are all settling in and its great to read about lessons in the sandbox! Right on...

Leap Year Dad said...

The timeout's as well as "favorite toy used as weapon" is now on top of very high place (i.e. fridge) were favorite tools here. Once the timeout's are fully understood, then switch it up with quite timeout. Meaning, the time doesn't start until the screaming has stopped (more or less). But, once they are old enough, it doesn't work so well. 11 yr olds just don't get it. We're lucky enough that taking books away is a punishment in our house. If really mad?, then Polly Pockets or Legos are confiscated.

Becca said...

That is so great to hear! I was so lost in our new town until I started meeting people with kids for Charlie to play with. There are only so many trips to Ikea one can make, after all. Timeouts are awesome. I have no idea why they work, but they do.

Anonymous said...

Be very glad time outs worked! We were screwed once Avery started herself declaring she was taking a time out. Yeah.

SSU said...

I think I liked the story of the toy trading the best. I can't wait until AJU5 actually has friends!

Sarah said...

Ha! Toddler drug deal! Ha!

Timeouts are good for us, too. Although Ben cannot bear to use the word timeout because he feels dumb, so he just says "Sit right there!" which cracks me up, thus limiting the effectiveness-- or maybe not, since we all end up laughing, and Harry stops hitting/throwing, kicking/insert gerund here.

Amy said...

That is so awesome! Sounds like you are making progress and friends.

cicadalady said...

LOL on the playground crack. noni is a dealer now too!

Heidi said...

I've been reading a lot about the Sudbury Schools lately and your story of Ethan playing with older kids on the playground and learning so much from them fits right in with that philosophy. Glad you made it through the rough patch and hope you find some nice friends, too.