The Contrarian
16 May 2002

A lazy late afternoon. The outrageously hot May sun is now blessedly filtered through trees. Damian sits in the too-small plastic ladybug sandbox, loading up a tiny dump truck with sand, driving it through the boy-made hillocks. Dan sits cross legged beside him on the bumpy cement. I walk, restless, between them and the outrageous leaning fir tree (Monkey Puzzle tree?) that dominates our back yard. Dan and I are talking about something – I don’t remember what, but I remember the quality of my voice – emphatic, impassioned. Damian says, "Mommy and Daddy are fighting."

I hasten over to join my two guys, as Dan explains, "Mommy and Daddy aren’t fighting, sweetie. We’re just talking."

"Mommy and Daddy are fighting."

"No, really, we’re not mad at each other."

He thinks about this. Then, "Mommy and Daddy, fight!"

I kneel by the sandbox, Dan sits up straighter. He looks at me with a grin and lays down the gauntlet: "No, I didn’t!"

I respond the only way you can respond to a challenge like that. "Yes, you did!"

We go back and forth, trying to inject our voices with enough emotion to be semi-believable but failing completely to train our faces to do the same. Damian looks from one face to the other, back and forth, back and forth, like someone at a tennis match.

The interlude only lasts a few minutes but it stays with me for days. Why did he want us to fight? Did he want the mock battle? Would he have preferred a real one? Did he want to test the dynamic against some internal concept of an argument? Did he want to make sure his world wouldn’t fall apart? Did he think it would be funny?

Another day. Early afternoon, a bite of snatched down time between school and Floor Time. I stand in my bedroom folding laundry, feeling a twinge of guilt that I’m not with Damian even though he’s doing just fine on his own, playing happily in his bedroom, surrounded by toys.

But wait. What’s that? The sound of an unhappy boy? Angry exclamations emanate from his bedroom. I run to see what’s wrong.

It’s not Damian throwing the tantrum. Damian’s happy. But Mousey’s pitching a fit. Damian simply narrates. "Mousey said, ‘I do not want you to get on the train! It’s my train!’" Who’s he talking to? Peeper the blue frog, of course. "’Go away!’ said Mousey, and Peeper said, "I don’t want to go away! I want to stay!’ And Peeper got on the train."

Damian acts out every part with a quiet glee. These are the center of his life right now, these games, and in them he finds snippets of real life, played out at arm’s length – a mouse gets mad, not a boy. A frog is daring, aggressive, not a child. And in this play he tests himself, tests his responses, tests the strength of boundaries that he’s never dared breach before now.

Yesterday’s daily note from the teacher:

    Damian had a good day. He talked about the steps he was completing (ie: writing/tracing names, painting and cutting shapes). On a few occasions Damian needed prompting to follow directions. When given the directions (ie: pick up your tissue and throw it in the trash please!) he would look at staff (indicating he heard the direction) and then turn his back to staff. This happened a few times. He’s just testing his limits.

He’s testing them all over the place these days. "No, I don’t want to go to the car! I want to stay here!" "No, I don’t want to eat dinner!" "Do you want to go to bed hungry?" "No, I don’t!" "Then you need to eat." "No, I don’t!" It seems like he just hates this, hates the rules, hates having to do something – anything – he’s told. He may be starving but he’ll say no anyway. This week he’s started saying "No, no no!" in an escalating rhythm, a Daffy Duck musical version of a terrible two year old giving voice at the top of his lungs.

Sometimes he asks me to be a stern mom: "Mommy, tell me to go inside."

I'm an obliging sort. "Go inside, Damian."

"No! I don't want to go inside! I want to stay out here!" His tone is indignant, huffy, assertive, just what you'd expect from a kid resisting parental authority. This particular parent, though, is acting on a child's explicit desire for authority. Gives the scene an unusual twist, doesn't it?

A mouse goes on vacation. Rides a train to – hmm, where in this room can a mouse have a fun time? Ah, the small folding chair. Perfect. "Mousey’s going on a chair vacation!" Off goes the plush catnip mouse. Gets off the train at the Chair Station. Clambers up Chair Leg Mountain. Teeters on the edge of the slender arm. "Watch out!" says blue frog. "It’s dangerous up there! You could fall down!"

Damian is acting out the boundaries we set. Imitating us, internalizing the rules. Doesn’t mean he follows them. Doesn’t mean he gives in. If anything, it means he protests all the more.

He’s got a two year old’s emotional chaos swirling around in his four year old brain. He’s teetering on the fence between wanting to be independent, all grown up, ready to tackle the world and oh-no-not-yet, let me stay a baby a few minutes-days-years longer. A few nights ago as I was rocking him, he said "Once I was a little baby, then I grew and grew and grew."

"And you became a little boy, didn’t you?"

Wrong, Mom: "I grew into a big boy. Now I’m a big boy, I’m not little anymore."

But then the very next day – maybe even the very next minute – he turns around and says "No, I don’t want to clean up!" and "Mommy, carry my snack bag!" and "I’m not a climber!" (when he wants help getting into the car). He wants to have it both ways. He hates restrictions, doesn’t want responsibility – and yet he yearns for the restrictions and thrives on the responsibility.

For a few months this winter, Damian would only eat dinner if he sat on one of our laps. It started when he was sick and slipped into ritual before we knew it. Until the day when I told him that things were going to be different now. We would sit next to each other at dinner, not on top of each other. Damian protested. A lot. He yelled, he whined, he tried first one of us, then the other, looking for an opening, feeling for weakness. He gave in, grumbling and sullen. That lasted a day and a half. On the second day, he walked to his chair, climbed up, and proudly announced, "I’m sitting in my own chair!" Ever since then, he has.

Kahuna told me that once early on in his floor time work, he was confronted with a kid who was as recalcitrant as Damian can sometimes be. Kahuna insisted on something, the kid insisted just as strongly that he would not do that. The boy was so upset, Kahuna finally gave in. That, it turns out, was a mistake. The boy never trusted him again, and the relationship fell apart.

Last week, Kahuna tested Damian by doing something – putting his mouse somewhere Damian’s mouse had forbid – placing a Lego block on the wrong tower – something – and Damian had a hissy fit. Kahuna kept at it, though, pushing Damian to deal with this uncomfortable emotion, this new recalcitrance from his trusted playmate. By the time he left, Damian told me "I hate Kahuna!" and turned his back when Kahuna tried to say goodbye. But today as I write these words, Damian and Kahuna are playing comfortably together. They just got into a battle: Damian tried to cook Mousey, Kahuna was dismayed and said he couldn’t do that (oh, that poor abused mouse). Damian said "Mousey is food!" but Kahuna convinced him it’s not nice to eat friends, and Damian accepted this without a meltdown. Now Mousey is telling Kahuna’s toy to "Go away!" but Kahuna’s toy isn’t obeying. And on it goes.

I never knew how you learn those boundaries, how you learn to accept that you’re not the center of the universe. This is how. With play-acting and observation and anger and tears and more play-acting. You experiment with emotions and their consequences, with action and reaction. You learn to be human step by step. With a child like Damian, that process is simply more transparent.

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