In this installment, I find out how long it takes for a three-year-old who is used to adults cleaning up after him to do it himself. It is pretty ugly.
This afternoon just before lunch, my almost-three-year-old stood on a table and dumped out about six plastic containers of toys onto the floor. Then he tossed all the pillows off the sofa. His cousin was there with him. He got excited and dumping stuff was fun. It wasn’t anything mischievous or foul, just his thing. 99% of the time someone cleans up for him. This time (and a few times in the past) I asked him to clean up his own mess. I resolved that I would wait him out no matter how long it took. I wanted to see how long he could hold out before putting up the white flag and beginning to clean up….
I know that a 36-month-old kid can’t clean up a room full of toys, so I cleaned up everything except for about 15 blocks strewn around the open basket where the blocks are kept. I told him that those 15 were his. “Put the blocks in the basket and you can eat lunch,” I said to him. He looked up at me and then looked away whenever I locked eyes with him. I went about my business and glanced at him every once in a while and he’d look away. He knew Daddy was not going to let him off the hook. I never raised my voice or used difficult words he couldn’t understand, as much as I wanted to.
He sat with the blocks for about 30 minutes and then said, “show me” which is short for “Show me how to clean up blocks.” He has done it before, but apparently needed a refresher course. I took his hand in my hand, picked up a block with his hand and dropped it in the basket. I did it again, and again. “Now, your turn.” He sat there. Finally he said, “I can’t.”
Then I left the room to eat my lunch. An hour had passed and he hadn’t picked up one single block. He didn’t cry. He just sat there. He never made a move to escape because he knew he wouldn’t get too far. So there he sat. An hour passed and he said, “my lips hurt.” Then, his 10-year-sister tried to help him. She tossed a few blocks in and pleaded with him to do the same. I asked her what she would do as a parent. She said, “Just cleaning it up for him spoils him.” Fair enough. But her heart went out to her baby brother and so she persisted (she went through similar episodes with Daddy when she was his age). She put a block in his hand and told him to put it in the basket, he dropped the block to the floor where it came. She gave up.
Then his mother and grandma came home from the grocery store. At this point he started to cry. I had intended for him to clean up about 50% of the 15 blocks and I would do the rest. All I wanted to see was recognition that he knew he had the tiniest part to play in cleaning up. My wife kneeled down next to him and told him that if he put 3 blocks in the basket that would be enough. He sat there and cried harder. Ninety minutes had passed. She gave up and left him to his lonesome.
Then Grandma gave it a try. Soon she gave up too.
As I write this, we are going on three hours and he’s still out there sitting on his knees surrounded by 15 blocks. I can hear his cries. I am desperate to get this over, but I don’t want to go out there and bail him out. He knows what he needs to do, is perfectly capable of doing it, and for whatever reason won’t do it. I can understand that if I had gotten angry (as I have done in the past) or yelled at him, he might lose his ability to process information and follow directions in the heat of the moment. But that hasn’t happened. He’s just sitting out there refusing to budge and I am refusing to rescue him. It is a little thing, but doing his work for him after all this time just defeats the purpose of coming this far in the first place.
A stalemate with a stubborn child. Going into Hour Three. Why do I do this?
Here’s how it ended: He wailed for his mother, who made several attempts to help him help himself. He wouldn’t do it. When she walked away, he sat there and wailed “Mommy” in Vietnamese, then “Mommy wait” and finally “Mommy help me.” She got down on her knees and cleaned up 14 of the 15 blocks. With the last remaining block clutched in his fingers, she held his hand over the basket. He opened his fingers, the block fell in and the saga ended.