January 3, 2011

The Girl With The Dora Tattoo

It's said by parents all the time: "Little Billy is going through a 'phase.'", or "I hope this 'phase' doesn't last long for Janie." Kids go through many phases as they grow up, but never more frequently than when they're little. These periods can be cute, or more commonly, it sometimes seems, maddening. You think you have them figured out and then one day...POOF; everything you thought you knew goes up in smoke, and you're back to the drawing board. And every child is different, so a solution that worked well for one could be useless for another. There's simply no rhyme or reason to it.

Kids are also incredibly sensitive to their environment and external stimuli; you can forecast the weather or tell the current stage of the moon by their moods and behavior. If you said to a parent, "Oh my, she's such a cute little barometer!", you wouldn't be wrong, although you might get a funny look. You also wouldn't be wrong to comment on someone's adorable little werewolf, but I don't recommend it, true though it may be. That one elicits a slightly stronger reaction.

Incidentally, "phase" is also the term used to describe what werewolves are said to experience during a full moon. It's no wonder that it's the term of choice for what kids go through during developmental leaps and changes in the weather. An apt description, but at least kids don't spontaneously sprout lots of body hair and try to tear you to pieces. Most of the time. Except that one time with Brady, but that's a story for another time. Let's just say the police now know our address...

But the truth is that it's really not their fault. Poor little guys. I mean, how would you feel if you were trying to push teeth through your gums while learning to not wet your pants and discovering the great truths of the universe, such as the fact that if one sits on one's little brother's head, there are dire consequences? That's a lot to process all at once, and on top of it all, they don't know the words to express themselves. If it were you, you might feel a bit like a werewolf, or a Grinch, for that matter. But I think we've discovered the secret to making it easier on them and us, and it's this: you've got to learn to speak their language. No, I don't mean deciphering  their evolving speech, I mean discovering what motivates them, and it can be summed up in one word.


We've developed a system that makes the Chicago politics scene look tame and mundane by comparison. The name of the game is to discover what they really want and make it attainable by exhibiting the desired behavior. We award stickers on a little motivational chart for each kid, and when they fill the chart, they get a special treat. We award M&Ms for successful trips to the potty. We take on each phase with a reward that fits the situation.

But perhaps the ultimate reward for good behavior at our house is the little handful of sheets of temporary tattoos we keep tucked in the kitchen document caddy. They'll do almost anything for the privilege of adorning their arms or the backs of their pudgy little hands with the image of Tinkerbell or Spider-Man in action, and who can blame them? Those things are just cool, and they'll show them off to anyone who'll listen. Now if Ellie shows up one day with a tattoo of a winking little Dora the Explorer peeking above her diaper on her lower back, we might have a whole new set of problems to deal with, but for now, we're getting the desired effect.

Despite the rigamarole we go through to get there, it's worth the effort, because what we're after is not to just change their behavior, it's to start new habits that change their attitudes. A new attitude toward a situation can set them up for success down the road, and since the things they learn now will create the basis for lifelong habits, we want those attitudes to be the right ones.

And if Dora can help us say "We did it!", then I'm on board.

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