Vacations are never an easy time at Casa Fields.
The two week winter break back in February, although punctuated by a brief period of respite for me personally, was overshadowed by an uncomfortable, nagging unpleasant attitude of negotiation.
I’m not a haggler. I don’t care about making a deal. The sooner a transaction is over with, the better, as far as I’m concerned.
Apparently, for one of my offspring, this is not the case.
My six year-old has to negotiate everything. This is, to my mind, the pinnacle of the pyramid of things I hate about being a parent.
This child has an innate sense of fairness. I say that with a half-smile, because, obviously, he is most sensitive to fairness when it is related to himself. He is quite attuned to injustice if it might negatively impact his own lot. In his defense, he is very careful to share pieces of a cookie evenly between his indulgent father and I, and he is very generous with children outside of those genetically related to him.
So, whereas he has a deep sense, mostly sensitive at this juncture towards “unfairness,” he also has generosity as a foundation character trait. I like this about him. I like hearing from other parents that our eldest is spoken of by their children as “Joel the Generous.” It’s a cool nickname if you can get it.
He is, and has always been, highly sensitive. From the time he was in the womb, he was not just active…he was reactive. Living with him has been an exercise in living in crisis mode 24/7/365.
This is one thing when the crises are a wet diaper or a hungry baby or a scratchy sweater. Sure, he was a grouchy baby, but at least we could rather easily negotiate an end to the immediate crisis by figuring out what the source of the crisis was.
This is no longer so easy.
Now, this little boy is growing up, and there is so much going on inside his heart and his mind that he is the source of some of his own crises. He is dealing with the selfishness that comes with being six, at the same time as the pleasure that comes with being recognized as generous.
He has no tolerance for chastisement, because anything that, to him at least, feels in the slightest bit like a reprimand is deemed “unfair.”
So what exactly does a parent do with that? With a strong-willed six year-old who will not let himself be punished for being disrespectful or violent?
After two weeks of awful behavior, both parents in this scenario were at their wits’ end. I lost it on him over dinner, much to the shock and awe of both father and little brother. I will admit, shock and awe are a bit of my specialty around this house. I am not proud of this….because I sure wish that we could deal with our problems without the need to shout and slam doors.
Nonetheless, there were, as I saw it, no options left. Especially, I had nothing left in my heart, no oil left to slow the burn that his bad behavior had lit.
The crisis lasted more than an hour. An hour of him shouting, crying, complaining, whining, shouting more, me shouting back, me growling back, me threatening to throw away all his favorite toys one by one and by name (do not think this was an empty threat. I do not make idle threats and they know it.)
And then, suddenly, out of nowhere, there appeared a solution.
“Okay. Let’s make a deal,” he said. He had stopped crying, which, at least for the noise pollution was a welcome change of pace.
“What kind of deal?” I asked, suspiciously. I knew him and his “deals.”
“Two toys, you take them away for a week, but not forever.”
“Five toys, one week, with the option of taking them away for a month,” I countered. “And I decide which toys.”
“Your bike is one of the five.”
A new crisis ensued, a new crisis which lasted another half-hour. I eventually opened the negotiation to let him choose whether it was his scooter or his bike that was in play. After a long drawn-out freak-out, he chose the bike.
His end of the deal was that he needed to stop yelling all the time. He needed to stop reacting by shouting “Unfair!” at every. single. thing. So we wrote up a contract. We both signed it.
My husband loved this little contract we’d set up, because it set up non-squishy rules and consequences that everyone had agreed on.
Once the contract was enacted, the big scalawag’s behavior improved, although he did manage to lost each one of the toys on the list at least once.
For me, what was more important than the improvement in his behavior was reaching a mutually agreed upon settlement of the conflict. I don’t enjoy negotiating, that is for certain. But honoring and cultivating my eldest’s sense of justice is very important to me.
Justice and fairness are virtues that I want my boys to understand innately, and hopefully one day to understand them outside of their own experience of injustice or unfairness. Having developed the skills to negotiate the diplomatic end of a conflict will make them venerable foes to injustice in the world as they grow older.
It doesn’t mean that there won’t be door slamming and growling. But if those can serve as warning signals that a compromise must be reached, then hopefully in the future, I can recognize them as such and not let myself get carried away.