One of the most oft-named tools in the parenting toolbox (in my case, it’s more like a messy drawer) is the graduated warning. “Five more minutes until it’s time to go! Two more minutes and then we’re getting in the bath! One more minute until we take a break to use the potty!” Little kids don’t like changes being sprung on them. Ease the transition, prepare them for the shift, etc. The object of the game, presumably, is to get out the door/in the bath/on the potty without a gigantic meltdown.
With my kid, the graduated warning is like a flathead screwdriver; it’s a good basic tool to have, and you definitely don’t want to sell yours on eBay, but it’s kind of useless for any job that actually requires a power drill with various speed settings and multiple drill bits. “Five more minutes” used to work well, especially when there was a timer involved, but Ros is too smart for that now. Because you know what? When the timer goes off, you can STILL SAY NO! She figured that one out. Getting out the door in the morning nowadays is less like “Five more minutes” and more like this:
Me: “So Ros, how many more minutes until you’ll be ready to put on your jacket?”
Rps: …(thinks for a minute)…”Three!” (I can still use this one because I know that the answer will always be three. But this trick, too, is on borrowed time).
M: “Okay, three. So in three more minutes, what are we gonna do?”
R: “Put our jackets on!”
M: “And when I say, ‘Okay, time to put our jackets on,’ what are YOU gonna say?”
R: “I’m gonna say ‘Okay!’”
M: “And are you gonna say ‘No!’?”
M: “Are you gonna say ‘I want five more minutes’?”
M: “Are you gonna say ‘I want one more book?’”
M: “Okay, I’m setting the timer…”
This is as close to an airtight contract as I am going to get. There is no longer anything we can do to head off whatever feelings Ros is going to have about whatever it is we’re going to make her do, and she is becoming more and more aware of that. But the line-by-line rehearsal of who’s going to say what is only partly about extracting promises and setting expectations. It’s about practicing for the future. As cumbersome as the little role-play can be (and it gets even more intricate at bath time when her father washes her hair) it gives us a chance to literally sound it out. I’m not going to claim that this method has a 100% tantrum-avoidance success rate, but it does make me feel like I am doing my part in giving Ros a chance to inhabit the coming change for a few moments and see how it feels before it actually arrives.
No doubt the strategies for forecasting change will grow both simpler and more intricate as Ros gets older: she will at some point become more easygoing, I am told, but she’ll also continue to get smarter. Staying one step ahead of her ability to manipulate is already getting harder by the week. At the very least, though, she has trained us to be sensitive to her needs when it come to transitions. Funny enough, it is she who has established expectations for us: that change be introduced and explored before the fact, that some amount of choice be given as to how things will proceed, that gentleness be used where possible. We are working on meeting those expectations, and I think that this particular kind of work, hard as it is, has the potential to make all three of us better at living together.