In foster parent training, they always told us that when we discover a child’s misbehavior, it does no good to ask that child why he or she did something. Often, he or she doesn’t know why, anyway, and asking kids this question really misses the point. It’s better to deal with what’s happened in a calm and matter-of-fact way, using logical or natural consequences, than to discuss motivations for the crime once it’s already been committed.
I know this. I know a fair number of other things about managing kids’ behavior, at least in principle. I’m sure these things shape my parenting choices, and I try to keep them in mind.
There is nothing quite like walking into my own child’s room, though, and seeing a scenario that could have come off the pages of one of my child development textbooks (bonus points for you, dear readers, if you can identify which of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development my child is currently embodying!).
It was really only about 5 minutes this time that he was unsupervised. I was changing a poopy diaper and preparing to get the girls down for their naps. Our guests were just gathering their things to leave after a mutually agreeable playdate. Fun had been had. Snacks had been eaten. Mamas had chatted. It had gone well.
Just then, my friend’s daughter casually came into the room and mentioned that The Boy was playing in his fish tank.
I was down the hall before she finished her statement, already counting backward from ten.
Sure enough, there he was…standing on the toy box, soaking wet. He had the fish net out this time, and the tubing that his dad uses to change the water was lying on the floor. The top of the tank was fully submerged in the water, the tropical heater was floating, and two old cell phones (which they had been playing with earlier) were sunk like ships run aground on top of the little rock cave. Uprooted plants and panicked fish were everywhere.
I wanted to ask him why, why, why he would do such a thing…again!!…and yet I already knew he would tell me that he didn’t know. I also kind of wanted to shake him. I do, however, have my very own tantrum badge for not throwing a tantrum under almost these exact circumstances last month, and although it probably wouldn’t be revoked if I lost it today, I have standards to uphold. This mama can keep it together…cool, calm, collected…
I took a deep breath and said His Full Name. Quietly.
The Boy turned around, mouth open, and said, “Oh, I really do not want you to see what I am doing right now.”
No kidding, kid.
I sent him to sit in the hall outside his room and cleaned up quickly. It’s just water, after all…and if you pretend that farm-raised tropical pet fish haven’t been living and pooping in it for months and months, you can just sop it up or wipe it off and say it’s clean. I told The Boy to change into dry clothes and take a nap and that I would deal with him later.
I still did not ask him why.
After a few minutes, he helpfully volunteered that maybe we shouldn’t have any friends over to play for two days, because having friends over reminds him how much fun it is to play in the fish tank, and he doesn’t feel like getting in trouble for that tomorrow.
Unable to stand it, I asked him. “Why? Why would you do that again?” I looked directly at his small face. He raised his eyebrows, held out both hands as if he needed to explain something obvious to someone who might not get it the first time.
“I just wanted to see if I could change the color of the water by adding some things in there.”
I would like to volunteer him as a project for child psych, if anyone needs one. He’s fascinating. And kind of horrifying.
|Puzzle piece, empty food container, ping pong ball, two old cell phones…apparently, the color of the water was unaffected.|
After a brief conversation with his dad, who was still at work, I decided the following:
1. The Boy may no longer play with friends in his room without a grownup (which will effectively eliminate his ability to do it at all for now, since the babies can’t come in there due to all the small Lego pieces, etc., all over the floor).
2. The fish need to find a new home.
They are nice fish, as fish go – 3 mixed fruit tetras (named Apple, Banana and Cranberry), one red-tailed shark, and one gold gourami. (The snail was never found.) They have been alive for a while and have been stable and disease-free. The red-tailed shark and the gourami are officially “semi-aggressive” (though not toward each other) and the tetras are community fish.
If you’d be interested in being the new home for some or all of our fishy friends, please let me know.
Oh, and if you have any insights into why our son likes to recreate situations in which he got into big trouble before, please let me know that, too. I’m at a loss. Do your kids do this kind of thing? Mom, did I do this kind of thing? (I can’t remember ever doing anything like this at all – he must have gotten this from his dad!)