Thursday, 18 June 2015

The spirit or the letter of the law?

It would appear (much to my mother's infinite glee and entertainment) that my son takes after me. He is astoundingly, tediously, frustratingly, irritatingly, exhaustingly, accurately pedantic.

"LittleBear, please put your shoes on"
"They're sandals"

"LittleBear, please climb into your chair for dinner"
"You said I could sit in your chair. I'm not climbing into my chair"
"A chair then, any chair, just a chair where you can eat dinner please"

"LittleBear, why are your trousers so filthy?"
"They're shorts"

"Are you building a lego shark?"
"It's not lego, it's duplo"

He takes everything I say completely literally. Sometimes that can be quite endearing, especially when it forces me to address some of the stranger quirks of the English language.

With trembling bottom lip after I've just banged the muscle of my forearm against a bicycle on a crowded path, "Mummy? How can your arm die?"

With bewilderment after I've got a bit cross with the cat, "How do you drive up a wall?"

With indignation, "I am NOT a monkey, I am a three-and-a-half year-old boy!" (And, oh boy, is that half important.)

And then there's the peril of trying to make rules. Woe betide you if you make a rule that's too specific, because LittleBear is punctilious about obeying the letter of the law, whilst riding roughshod over the spirit of it.

I tried telling him not to throw himself head-first off the sofa onto a pile of cushions, so he threw himself head-first off the arm-chair instead.

I told him not to bang on a rather large window with his elbow, so he "stroked" the window with his elbow instead.

I asked him not to stab his placemat with his fork, so he stabbed the tablecloth instead.

I reprimanded him for trying to hit the cat, so he claimed to be "poking" him instead.

I was adamant that jumping up the stairs was not safe, so he tried hopping instead.

I informed him that I was getting tired of the whiny "What shall we do?" in the car, and to please not ask that question again. It's our current equivalent of "Are we nearly there yet?" and it starts up as the car door is opened, and continues at intervals for the entirety of the journey, with the frequency increasing in direct proportion to LittleBear's tiredness. When he's awake and perky, he's quite happy to chatter away, play with a toy, lose himself in thought gazing out of the window or generally be a contented little object. When he's tired though, it's enough to drive me up the wall. Having been quite firm on how unwelcome this question is becoming, this morning, before we'd even got in the car, LittleBear asked "What can we do?" at which point I became Mildly Tetchy. His defence? "I didn't say 'shall', I said 'can' Mummy".

It's a wonder I haven't strangled him some days.

For a while I tried to cover all the bases: "Do not hit, kick, poke, prod, thump, chase, follow, shake, grab, push or pull the cat". But the more things that I think of to tell LittleBear not to do, the more endlessly creative ways he finds of doing something else that's dangerous or foolhardy or indeed exactly what I've just told him not to do, but with a subtly different verb. So it's time to broaden the scope: "Be kind to the cat". And I'm sure he'll re-define "kind"...


  1. I also have a very literal child. As a lawyer, I am used to being precise with words, but even so sometimes it is infuriating.

    I think your idea of rephrasing into positive instructions is a really good one - firstly because children have a tendency to latch on to the last thing they hear (so "don't walk in the road" becomes 'road, the road, what a fascinating place, let me get to the road' whereas "Keep on the path" becomes 'path, path, what interesting things can I find on the path, the path is safe...'). Also, people generally respond better to positive comments anyway, and there is a wide range of acceptable behaviour - provided you both know what you mean; "play nicely" may not work if the person he is playing with wants to do something different, and in those circumstances you would need to be more specific. "Little Johnny is our guest, and he doesn't seem to want to play that game any more. He wants to do ... instead; please would you be a good friend and play his game for 5 minutes, and then we can have another think about what to do after that". Longwinded, but easier than "don't hit, don't snatch, don't be bossy, don't whinge, don't ignore your friend, don't, don't, don't...'

    Do bear in mind though, that tired 3YOs will just be fractious. And will push all your buttons. This is normal, and it is also normal to be snappy and grumpy back at them sometimes!

    1. To be slightly fair to myself, I do generally use positive instructions rather than negative for all the reasons you mention. I'm pretty certain that otherwise I turn into the teacher from Calvin and Hobbes and all LittleBear hears is "blah blah blah blah". He gets reward stickers for keeping to positive rules, like "sharing with your friends" and "hanging your own coat up", which works much better than reprimands for dropping his coat on the floor.

      The crabbiness and "don't do this, don't do that, don't do the other" do tend to occur with higher frequency when I'm tired!