What is bad behavior in a toddler?

It was a pretty bad weekend for Rumi and us. We had a fun time with the family, a nice lunch at the mall but Rumi’s behavior had bothered us and upset us and left us quite frazzled by last night. Some of the things she did are those we have come to expect such as wild tantrums after she has stayed with her grandparents and we drop in the next morning. In spite of explaining to her every weekend that we visit with the family in order to spend time with everyone, she associates our appearance with the dread of being picked-up and taken home, putting an end to her fun and indulgences. So whenever we visit either my in-laws or mum, we are greeted with loud wailing and the strangely hurtful question “Why did you come?”

On most occasions, we are able to take it in our stride. but on some days, the temper tantrums and bad mood persist and continue. When we are around, we interfere and intervene whenever we see Rumi misbehave and lose her cool with other family members. I tend to feel very apologetic and hence over-compensate. Left to ourselves, I would probably let a few things slide but I cannot do that when she shrieks at Aai or scratches her Kaku. Yes, she is prone to sudden bursts of anger and physical violence at seeming trivialities such as her magnetic blocks not lining up perfectly or her hair looking a certain way. I can see her skinny little body go rigid and writhe in agony because I did not make her ponytails look “exactly like the last time!”

Sometimes I am able to help her in times like these. I am able to speak softly, reason, hold her close. Most importantly, I am able to love her through it, even as she pummels me and pulls my hair. But on other days, all I can do is say “Stop that immediately” in ascending levels of volume, irritation and ferocity, filled with threats both of us know are empty such as “We are going home this minute!” and “We are never taking you out again!”

Although we try to choose our words with a lot of care and never say “bad girl”, always citing only the current action as naughty or unkind (Thank you Brene Brown!) hearing naughty or bad every two minutes is probably enough to make an angel perverse, and this is what happened to Rumi. Every single time we said “We did not like what you did just there” her body stiffened, she looked defiant and sulky and said “Sorry” in a completely non-penitent tone, till I was compelled to hiss through gritted teeth, “I don’t want to hear another ‘Sorry’ again, I just want you to behave properly!”

Now what is this ‘proper’ behavior I was referring to? I was expecting a lovely Saturday where we would chat and have our meals with the family. Rumi would run into our arms after having missed us as much as we missed her, after which, she would proceed to delightfully play on the floor with her stuffed animals and blocks. She would take an afternoon nap so that I could rest too as I was on my period and experiencing heavy bleeding.

This is probably what happened in Rumi’s mind: the doorbell rang and in we were ushered, heralding the end of a glorious time of pretty much doing everything exactly the way she wanted. Not only that, but she was suddenly being corrected and called out for all the things she does in our absence such as shouting at Aai who is all patience and smiles and the gentlest of admonishments. Nothing like the big, shouty eyes I make when I say “If you ever speak to Ayayah like that again..”. To add to this, everybody wanted to sit around and catch up, which means, from all eyes on her, it was no eyes on her. And what does she know about Mumma’s period anyway, other than a purple diaper occasionally taken to the bathroom?

This mismatch in expectations is what we tend to label improper behavior. There are certainly limits and boundaries to be set when she goes berserk and starts lashing out like a mini-torpedo. But here is what we could have done differently: called and mentally prepared her that we are coming, played with her first with full attention before expecting her to give us some space to sit and talk, let her be herself with every other family member, without interfering too much.

Our mismatched expectations continued even the next day. There we were, the two of us admiring the dinosaur display talking about the Brachiosaurus and I bumped into an old acquaintance. I was very keen on talking to them, especially about schooling as I am always most interested in knowing the thoughts and opinions of other parents like me apropos schooling and education. But Rumi was having none of it. From pulling my dupatta and whining incessantly to rolling on the floor, she just would not stop till I hurriedly said bye and went along with her, totally flustered and a little embarrassed.

Later that evening, just as we had returned home in a wanting-to-nap-but-its-too-late stupor, we had a guest drop in. Rumi was full of beans and she started interrupting our conversation. After telling her off, it was all OK until she asked the guest “Tu kay ghatlay?” (“What are you wearing?”) I exploded at the impoliteness and inappropriateness of the question and she was ticked off by me and her Baba later on.

This morning, after a good night’s sleep and cooled temper I was able to reason with my mind. Rumi is highly interested in fashion, hairstyles and accessories. Her question was not so much impertinence as curiosity at the belle-bottomed pants she saw. What does need to be nipped in the bud is the habit of interrupting when two people are talking. About the question, we talked this morning about how it could have seemed impolite when all she wanted was to know more about the jeans. We discussed how she could ask about them in a different way. As for the mall meltdown, I asked her what she wanted me to do when I ran into my friend. She was sad that our good time had been interrupted. “Would you like it if I just took the phone number next time and said a quick bye?” i asked. “You could also say excuse me, my daughter and I are having fun right now” she said imitating my polite tone. Duly noted for the next time.

What me and my husband get wrong is we dwell too much upon little things, long after they have passed. A lot of the anguish we all went through this weekend could have been avoided with firm correction and then forgetting about it. I also feel that the non-negotiable, absolutely not-ok rules need to be set in good times as do the consequences.

There are very few things that Rumi does that are absolutely, horrifyingly ‘wrong’. Mostly, it is a case of imitating overheard language patterns and the anchoring of those habits that were laughed at or allowed by any authority figure once (Kids love to make adults laugh!). It all really comes down to our own behavior even in times of distress, that she watches and learns from. Do we shout when we are mad? Yes. Do we give in when she screams? Often. Do we ask her “Tyanna kay vatala asel?” (What would ‘they’ have thought?) Sometimes, but unnecessarily so, because the last thing we want her to feel is that what she does matters, only because someone is watching.

All we can do in our effort to ‘raise her right’ is check our own ‘bad’ behavior and learn from it, every single time. Tantrums shall pass soon enough, but the words we use with her will stay in her consciousness for a lifetime.

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