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Where Has Mr. Pie Gone?

September 27, 2010

The cheeks are red, the lips are potato-chip-salty, but do the ears work?

For over four years, we have had a fairly sweet, usually obedient, generally kind boy who listened, or at least pretended to. His name was Ben, but I usually called him Mr. Pie, my favorite nickname for him, as we read books or talked about trains.

For the past two months, we have had a often difficult, usually testing-the-limits, sometimes violent boy. He uses the words “dead” and “stupid” way too much for my liking.  His name is still Ben, but I often address him as Ben Davis as in, “Get over here right now, Ben Davis!”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Ten of us went camping in Rocky Mountain National Park this weekend: four adults and six kids. Because I was watching my sister’s kids for the weekend, four of the kids–Ben, Amelia, and their two cousins–belonged, temporarily, to Grant and me. The other two kids belonged to our neighborhood friends, who let us tag along on their annual fall trip.

There were classic camping good times: pretending to see bears and roasting s’mores and the general bliss that comes with being a pack of kids in the outdoors with nothing to play with sticks and rocks and imaginations. But then, totally unprompted, something would click in Ben’s brain and he became Ben Davis. He threw dirt on other’s plates. He bit his sister and hit his cousins. He would whisper, yes, he heard me, and promise he wouldn’t wake up his tentmates, then he poked and poked them, against my warnings, until their lids lifted.

On the final part of a hike, he worked himself into such a rage when he couldn’t lead the other kids–they simply weren’t interested–I could hear his histrionics for at least 10 minutes before he reached me. (My boot and I were sunning ourselves on a huge rock while the group hiked.) When I could finally see him, I thought a hug and some quiet time with me would calm him down. Instead, my presence enraged him more. His temper-tantrum needle was beyond the red zone, an occurrence that usually happens in the (relative) calm and privacy of our house. To have it on display so publicaly was hard to for me stomach.

Granted, my parenting skills were on orange alert all weekend. Our campground neighbor, who I quickly nicknamed Very Mean Man (VMM), called the ranger to report our children at 7:30 on Saturday morning. I admit they weren’t exactly whispering, but it’s a public campground with thin-walled tents, not brick-walled hotel rooms. Plus, we definitely heeded the 10 p.m.-6 a.m. quiet zone rules, and if you want true peace and quiet, which is what VMM not-so-nicely hissed to me, as the veins popped out of his neck, that he came in search of, you don’t pick a public campground with six tents within talking distance of one another on the last weekend the park is open. You take your VM attitude and binoculars and go to the backcountry.

So everytime any of the little yellers shrieked, ventured to close to VMMs site, or when VMM turned to just glare at me in case, you know, I didn’t get the message, I immediately freaked and went into hypersensitive, way-too-controlling parent mode.

Still, Ben’s behavior remains the stand-out memory of the weekend to me because I was clueless as to what would actually work. How do you get a kid to listen? How do you get a kid to not bite? How do you get a kid, a kid in a pack of kids, to behave?

I, like most parents, bandy about the word phase, but it’s a nebulous term. A phase feels like mile 12 of the marathon: you’re sure you’re in the thick of something, but you’re not sure how or when or even if you’ll get to the finish line. More than one friend has told me four is by far harder than two or three, and four-year-old’s have phases of independence, of feeling out boundaries, of figuring out how much one has to push before something or someone (usually me) breaks.

One fear, though, is that while he’s in this mean boy phase, he’s going to be branded as the jerk kid who breaks things and always gets left out. And the other one–and maybe this is worse–is that my “listen to me!” demands pack as much punch as non-alcoholic beer. If his ears glaze over permanently, I’m running away from home.

The encore came this morning. VMM (and his very mean lady friend, who told Charlotte, a five-year-old that, “Her parents should teach her how to be quiet,” after Charlotte nicely asked her a question about their tent) had, thankfully, packed up. I was thinking about hanging out for a few hours to let the herd finally have free reign on all the rocks, not just the ones on the right side of the fake boundary we’d drawn. But then Ben Davis kicked in a fairy house, a little stick and pine-needle structure Charlotte’s brother and father had engineered. I put him time-out in a camp chair (not super effective, I realize, but time-outs overall aren’t really working these days) then made him apologize to both of the builders. I held out hope I had made an impression. He went back to the rocks to join the other kids, and within minutes, there were screams of, “Stop it, Ben!” We had to go.

I know this post isn’t running-related–and Lord knows, I could sweat and process this and remember sweet memories of Mr. Pie so much better if I could log some miles–but just wondering if you have any strategies that work for when your kid suddenly does a 180? If the freakin’ fours were, in fact, worse than the terrible twos? If there are any books on raising boys–a species, I’m quickly realizing, as foreign to me as sea urchins are–you’d recommend?

I’m not a fan of any unsolicited advice of the parenting genre (running tips? that’s another story) but make no mistake:  I’m definitely soliciting. All three of us–me, Mr. Pie and Ben Davis–could use it.

60 Comments leave one →
  1. maggie permalink
    September 27, 2010 4:43 am

    Have you heard of the book “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen / How to Listen so Kids will Talk?” Its very good and might have some helpful bits in it. Time outs didn’t do squat for my incredibly strong-willed 4 year old. Positive reinforcement works for her but its a pain in the butt… sometimes its just about re-framing things (ie positive vs. negative reinforcement). This too shall pass.

    • September 27, 2010 6:21 am

      Argh. Didn’t you just want to kick VMM across the Rockies?!

      I like this book, too. Lots. Though I should probably review it. I also thoughts Simplicity Parenting was very helpful.

    • September 27, 2010 7:50 am

      This is a great book. There is also a great workshop on it in Denver. We took last fall when my DS was going through some 5 yo craziness. I put the link in the web site info… it isn’t MY site but the site for the work shop.

  2. Angela permalink
    September 27, 2010 5:01 am

    That is tough stuff. We have an eight-year old daughter, let’s call her Miss Pie, because up until the age of six she was just as sweet as your Mr. Pie sounds. But holy cow, from six to seven and a half it was not pretty. A year and a half is a very, very long phase…and at times we feared that we had lost Miss Pie, but thankfully, somewhere roughly before the age of eight, she re-emerged. Some days Miss Pie still goes packing and leaves her malevolent body double in her place, but overall things have returned to “normal”. Hang in there!

  3. KarenM permalink
    September 27, 2010 5:39 am

    I have no advice since my daughter is a little younger than Ben, but I’ll be reading others’ advice, fo’ shur! I have noticed, though, that when my child misbehaves in public, the only people who I feel judged by are non-parents. Other parents, more often than not, will shoot me a look of sympathy, but not judgment, or at least I interpret it that way! VMM would have been the final straw for me. Sure, I like peace and quiet on my vacations, too, but where he went wrong was seeking it in that setting, and then being peeved when he didn’t get it! Sheesh!

  4. Sarah AJ permalink
    September 27, 2010 6:07 am

    I can so relate to this! Four was rough here too. Two is completely overrated, I think. We are halfway through five now, and it’s thankfully much smoother going.

  5. Martha permalink
    September 27, 2010 6:20 am

    I have found 3 and 4 to be awful! My peds MD always tells me they are stuck between the immaturity of 2 and the grown-up 6 and somedays that’s overwhelming for them and you. Hang in there and take comfort knowing that there are a million mom’s out there with a Mr. Pie…..Make sure you surround yourself with other parents that love you and your family, preferrably ones with boys!

  6. September 27, 2010 6:27 am

    Are you sure you don’t have MY kid??! I SO feel for you. Public or semi-public displays of horrifying behavior/bad attitudes/insistence on being first/etc. is just. plain. awful. May I suggest…. Getting him tested for food allergies? These sound like the behaviors of my kid when he’s had foods that he’s allergic to. He still has his moments, but once we found out that he was allergic to eggs and peanuts (the only side effect of which is awful behavior), we saw a DRAMATIC change.

    Good luck! In a weird way I hope it IS allergies so you can get your Mr. Pie back!

    (And the Very Mean Neighbor needs to get a life!)

    • September 27, 2010 11:14 am

      I’m glad I decided to read the other comments first…..FOOD ALLERGY TESTING SHOULD BE MANDATORY!!! Let me tell you…my kids are 18 (son) and 16 (daughter). I didn’t find out until recently what dramatic mood/behavior changes can happen with changes in food (as a result of allergies found by blood tests). Not only that—food allergies/intolerances can cause any number of auto-immune disorders. I HIGHLY suggest food allergy testing. You want a full panel done by blood tests, not prick tests only. You’re looking for IgE and IgG responses, not just histamine responses (which is what prick tests find). (Tell tell signs other than behavior/mood–was he a gassy baby? Ear infections/colds all the time? Stomach pains? Headaches?)

      Good luck to you….I wish I had known THEN what I know now.

  7. September 27, 2010 6:35 am

    Hoo boy, have I ever been there. My kids are teenagers now but I remember four pretty vividly! In addition to How To Talk So Your Kids Will Listen/How To Listen So Your Kids Will Talk, I also liked Louise Bates Ames’ age-related books (Your Four Year Old: Wild And Wonderful, et. al.) and Nancy Samalin’s Love And Anger: The Parental Dilemma, which is probably my favorite parenting book of all time.

    In general, what worked for me when my kids went through phases like that was to be extremely consistent in reminding them of what our family rules have ALWAYS been: no hitting, no biting, no mean language, etc. We didn’t change the rules, but we definitely amped up our enforcement of them. Lots of “I realize you’re angry but remember, our rule is no hitting. You can be angry, but you can’t hit.” Stuff like that. From what I remember.

    Hang in there! This too shall pass!

  8. Muti permalink
    September 27, 2010 6:47 am

    In my older wisdom, I can tell you that I remember and I’m sure told you, that 4 was the worst age – the Terrible Twos were absent but raging fours always showed up – just bring him over to me 🙂 xo

  9. September 27, 2010 6:52 am

    Ooooo… I cringe at the comments that will follow. We can see age 4 on the horizon and I still have my Cuddlebug still intact. You know, the little guy that tells me everyday that he is my superhero and will always save me. I do sympathize with you; however, regarding the boot. I spent almost half of last year in one as well. I pray you find your sanity (and Mr. Pie) soon.

  10. Megan permalink
    September 27, 2010 7:07 am

    I find that when my four year olds behavior has gotten the most out of control it’s usually actually due to my inconsistency. Tough pill to swallow, but I almost always find, on review, that I have been letting small behavior infractions slide and that eventually led us to this (insert appalling behavior here). In my house I also finally boiled everything down to two rules for my little Bug…You are expected to listen and not to be rude/disrespectful. I found that when I did this then he almost always was able to answer me when I asked him why he was getting a time out. On a final note, I finally had to put the nix on rewards for good behavior. Why? Because a) in the real world who gets a cookie/sticker/etc for doing what is expected of them (like showing up to work on time). b) he inevitably behaved horribly as soon as he had gotten his reward because he knew nothing else was coming anytime soon.

    P.S. VMM sounds atrocious. I don’t think I would have been able to keep my cool around him.

  11. September 27, 2010 7:30 am

    I hate 4. We lovingly refer to this stage as “the f@*%ing 4s” around here. Terrible 2s? Got NUTHIN on 4s. (my latest 4 yo has the added benefit of reenacting her 11yo sister’s drama queen hystrionics. lovely.)

    I have not much to offer you except empathy. It WILL pass. I’m praying that it passes quickly!

  12. September 27, 2010 7:46 am

    The fours are tough and I gotta say now that the fives (at least the first half) don’t get much better! There seems to be a real turning point at 5 1/2 – that’s the way it was for my oldest son and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my youngest will follow suit (only a couple more months to go!)

    Consistency in adhering to the rules is critical cause he’ll always be testing his boundaries – letting little things slide will lead to bigger problems later!

    This too shall pass – hang in there!!

  13. Cheryl permalink
    September 27, 2010 8:04 am

    Even though I am stepparent to four, and parent to one toddler, I am offering not advice but empathy. Every kid is different, and you have to figure out what works with each of them. He’s still Mr. Pie, and he’ll come around.

  14. Lisa permalink
    September 27, 2010 8:04 am

    I 100% agree with Megan- consistency. My daughter (Megan, too) was a beast at 4. I physically carried her kicking and screaming out of a restaurant and was stopped by a cop on the sidewalk! Luckily it’s very obvious we’re related. She kicked and screamed the whole way home. This was over a cookie she wasn’t allowed to have because she didn’t eat her lunch. She was beastly for about a year. Timeouts didn’t work for her, either. Taking things away was the only thing that did anything (even if momentarily.)
    Consistency, and this too shall pass (hopefully you will be sane on the other side!)
    Also, it’s only people who’ve never had kids who judge, and they don’t have the right.
    Good luck.

  15. September 27, 2010 8:12 am

    Oh Dimity, I so feel for you. EVERY parent has been there–the “what is wrong with my child?” moments, the hyper-parenting in public, the embarrassment over bad behavior.
    I love the book “It’s a Boy!: Your Son’s Development from Birth to Age 18” by Michael Thompson Ph.D. It has really helped me decode these strange male creatures and their penchant for toy guns and boasting about how many Star Wars action figures they have. I highly recommend it. Takes a very kind approach to explaining how boys work–it’s not a discipline strategy book at all, but it has helped me tremendously at understanding my boys and why they’re doing what they’re doing.

    • September 27, 2010 9:44 pm

      I agree, that is an awesome book! I have two boys (3 and 5) and let me tell you, I have been there! I feel for you because I know how you must have felt. Just know that this WILL pass!

  16. Gina permalink
    September 27, 2010 8:33 am

    I agree that every kid is different. My kiddos are 19, 18 & 6. The girls are the oldest and I remember having the worst time with my oldest. My 6 yr old son now has been much easier and we had our challenges. The advice I have is get consistent at home. Set your expectations, enforce them, stick to them, tweak if you need to, but don’t throw your hands up in the air – keep it up. It’s tough when my MIL comes over and we are in the middle of tapering a tantrum or handing out a restriction or cancelling a trip to gma’s for unacceptable behavior but it does pay off when you can go to a restaurant and enjoy a meal or go to a friend’s house and not have to worry about your kid jumping off your host’s couch and breaking something. I’ve been the host to this kind of visitor and already had kids at the time – did I feel empathy? Yes – but I also was not happy with the way the parent was trying to “soften the behavior” instead of putting a stop to it because they were embarassed for themselves.

    I was just at friend’s house yesterday and we were just talking about this same thing – I hope I don’t sound too abrasive, but I know how you are feeling – believe me… Good luck – you can get thru this – remember, you’re The Mom – stay strong sister!

  17. September 27, 2010 8:37 am

    Yes, the Terrible Twos, Tortuous Threes and the F*cking Fours!

    Being a mom of three boyz, I can tell you that the *nice* thing about the 4’s, as opposed to the 3’s, is that 4 year olds understand the concept of “consequences”.

    So we do a lot of “if – thens” in my Trenches.

    “IF you don’t stop teasing your brother right now, THEN you will have a 5 minute time-out in your room. It’s your choice.”

    “IF you don’t tell me what you want for snack right now, THEN I’m going to choose something for you and you will get what you get w/o getting upset.”

    • September 27, 2010 11:17 am

      and….ALWAYS, no matter what, ALWAYS follow through on your “then” statements. Consequently, pick your “thens” very wisely.

    • September 27, 2010 12:38 pm

      Amen! Oh, yes! and Amen! again–pick your consequences wisely! This is so hard, because it requires you to provide the options in a calm manner so you don’t come out with something like, “You can tell me what you want for a snack now or snack time is going away forever!” (I may or may have not said something that extreme in an incident of worst-parenting-ever.)

      My son’s fours weren’t so terrible, but his older sister’s were. Really, it’s amazing that we all survived. I agree with several other posters: it got much better at about 5 1/2.

      My third child will be four in November. Please return to topic as often as possible.

      Good luck!


  18. September 27, 2010 9:07 am

    Oh dear, I understand. My sweet little Moose turned 3 and suddenly doesn’t listen to me, puts his hands over his ears when I tell him to do something, and screeches like a little girl when something doesn’t fit his preference. Not fun. Wish I had more to help you but know you’re not alone and I think all kids hit this “phase” at different points. For some it’s 2, for others 4…for me it’s 3 (and 1 because my 14mo totally throws tantrums).

  19. September 27, 2010 9:27 am

    I’ve never felt so alike someone as when I read this. We’ve recently been struggling a LOT with one of my 4 year old twin boys. He’s even been sent home from day care for bad behavior, and he nearly broke my nose. If you find something that works go for it & please share.

    There have been more tears in my house lately than the last year combined. 4 is awful.

  20. September 27, 2010 9:32 am

    Our boys are 8 and 11 and there is always some phase they are heading into, in the throes of or coming out of. Some phases are positive and others not so much. We have not read any parenting books and have come by our parenting style through trial and error.
    I can say that one thing we have found success in is being consistent. Consistent with what we’ll tolerate or discipline for day in and day out. And, whoa, it’s exhausting to be consistent, but we found that when we slipped a little is when they moved in for the kill and took advantage of it—the whole, “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile” thing. We used to say a lot, “It’s OK to be angry (or to not want to play this game anymore, or whatever else it was), but it’s not OK to hit anyone, ever (even if he hit you first and I just didn’t see it….)” Back in the day, once on a camping trip about 7 years ago our oldest and his friends were peeing in the woods and then the screaming and hitting started and I ended up saying, “It’s OK to have fun and want to make people laugh, but it’s not OK to pee on your friends”. I could not believe that I would ever need to speak those words! Fast forward 7 years and I said to the same boy this morning (now 11 and going on 16) “It’s OK to not want to talk a whole lot to us and grow up and all, but you can’t be disrespectful” So, we have moved from one phase on to the next, and Dimity, this Ben Davis phase will also pass. Oh, one other thing that has helped is that my husband reminds me constantly that he behaved the same way as a boy and he is the kindest, most easy going man I know. So, I hang on to that when I struggle to understand what makes my young guys tick. Hopefully Grant can give you the same reassurance. :>

  21. BigDogMom permalink
    September 27, 2010 9:47 am

    Well…as a mom of 5 and a teacher I have seen my fair share of good and bad kids. I have seen my fair share of good and bad parenting as well. There are a few things I do know for sure …
    *no one thing never works for very long.
    *what works for one kid does not work for another.
    *kids crave attention and structure.

    I am a Love and Logic parent and teacher. I like the style as the consiquences really fit the ‘crime’. There is really no room for arguement. Even my older kids (College and HS) know that is is really futile to argue. They will hear the same thing from me…..

    I am one who does ask for help from parents with kids older than mine all the time. They have ‘been there and done that’. Just knowing that I am not alone makes it more tolerable sometimes!

  22. September 27, 2010 9:52 am

    I was just talking about this with a friend of mine who has a boy the same age as mine (guess! Four, turning five soon!) and she was saying that he was being awful and wondering if it was due to a new custody agreement with her ex. But my little boy is equally awful and has had no major transitions lately! So it seems to be four. And it IS like a split personality!

    I love How to Talk as much as the next mama, but this whole scene is beyond it for me. We separate him if he’s physically violent, and other than that, my only “trick” is to hug him. Counterintuitive, but sometimes it works. Good luck!

  23. Amanda permalink
    September 27, 2010 9:55 am

    Boo, hiss, VMM. It seems you handled yourself very well, or at least you didn’t mention offering to pay your child to scream louder (or worse) just to give VMM what he deserved. I might have been tempted to bang pots very loudly in his general direction or lure a skunk into his tent. If nothing else, I would have fantasized about it.
    And, you’re probably right, your Mr. Pie probably needed that alone time with you, especially after
    sharing you with 3 other kids for a while. But, he must have been too far gone by then. It sounds like you handled it pretty well. I do a handful of things, which are effective sometimes, but when they aren’t, I try to remind myself (1) to be thankful for free will, which will enable the kids to be independent and make good decisions most of the time, (2) not to parent out of fear,
    and (3) to cut myself some slack. The stuff that seems to work: giving lots of independence, giving lots of choices (to the point I want to puke), allowing for logical consequences, offering loads of encouragement, and punishing via time out (5 minute duck quack timer on the iPhone) for serious harmful behavior. The best threat for us is losing time on the playground or at some fun thing that is coming up (for example, the child has to sit at the side of the
    pool for the first five minutes we are there – we normally don’t have to use it, but it’s an effective, consistent plug and play threat to coax cooperation). When this stuff doesn’t work, and it doesn’t some of the time, I wish I could say I have a good answer, but, I don’t. Sometimes I just do the most bizarre thing that comes to mind (like pretending to be an ape or speaking in a funny voice or putting stuff intentionally on my face and acting like I don’t know it’s there), which is *sometimes* enough to break the freakout tantrum cycle. If that doesn’t work, I tell them they are scaring me and I hide in the bathroom reading facebook on my iPhone.

  24. Andrea permalink
    September 27, 2010 9:55 am

    I’ve only had girlz, and have been told that boyz are definitely different creatures!
    But, I would suggest you really think about Phoebe V-G’s suggestion for allergy testing. I did not have the problems with my children, but my Mom would say she had issues with me! I have some food allergies which cause me to have wildly varying emotions and energy swings when exposed.

  25. realrellim permalink
    September 27, 2010 10:27 am

    Hang in there. It’s perfectly normal–if incredibly annoying–behavior and VMM needs to get a grip. Dude, seriously–don’t come to a national park on a free weekend if you don’t like kids. Want peace and quiet? Hike your behind up into the backcountry. Sure, it’s lacking in amenities and a bear will (literally) rip your head off if you complain that her offspring are too loud or wild, but hey, at least you will be guaranteed to not have any humans within shouting distance as you’re being attacked.

    FWIW, I think the “problem” with parenting these days has nothing to do with parents or children and everything to do with people who forget that they too were children and undoubtedly were just as annoying if not more. The difference was that people used to accept having children around as a part of life. I have no idea where the new self-absorption came from, but it’s ridiculous.

    One other comment while I’m at it: I recently heard some nasty, self-congratulatory parent make a comment about parents who don’t parent, in reference to a “family section” on planes. I can’t wait until karma comes to bite her in the behind. If my kid has a meltdown on a plane or in a public park or anywhere else, it’s not because I don’t parent. It’s because my daughter is overtired (camping or flying 2000 miles across time zones where grandparents actively resist letting children have a nap or putting them to bed at a decent hour or heck, even eating dinner before 7 pm). Maybe some parents have a magic wand or children who sleep anywhere, but I don’t–and guess what, they get crabby. If someone is so irritated by it, chances are they’re overtired and crabby as well. The difference is that an adult ought to be able to control their mouth and learn to behave by now (yes, making rude comments to or about me or my kids is BAD BEHAVIOR, no different than me telling someone they’re ugly or fat, even if they are!), whereas a little kid is still learning self-control.

    • September 27, 2010 11:22 am


    • Andrea permalink
      September 27, 2010 4:25 pm

      Yes, yes, yes! And like Dana says, “Amen Sister!”

  26. September 27, 2010 10:35 am

    My MIL calls it the terrible twos and the horrible threes. She had 11 kids.

    Right now, my 4 year old is the angel. And my 2 (soon to be 3) year old is screaming bloody murder in the store.

    For parenting advice, I turn to one of three sources:

    John Rosemond –

    Love and Logic –

    My MIL – no website 🙂

    Good luck. Hold onto your sanity as much as humanly possible. This too shall pass (eventually).

  27. September 27, 2010 11:21 am

    I can certainly relate! I have four kids, three boys (ages 9, 7, 2) and one girl (age 4). You have received some great advice here. In regards to the “time-out” approach…after their time-out, my child has to do something kind to the person they hurt. It might be something simple like a hug & kiss, but if the offense merits it they have also drawn pictures, read a story out loud, allowed a sibling to play with them, etc. Also, there are times I will put one of their toys into time-out. If they are using it to hurt someone, or they are bickering over the toy. Sometimes I will distract them (love the funny face ideas from Amanda above) and then after everyone is calm again, I will try to talk calmly to the child explaining why we don’t behave that way.

    When all else fails, leave them with Dad and go for a run (or bike ride or swim or whatever!).

    Best of luck to you and Mr. Pie.

  28. Ella permalink
    September 27, 2010 11:46 am

    I’m sorry but this behavior doesn’t sound normal to me at all. I have six children (all but one 4 or older), teach pre-k Sunday school and am close friends with mothers who have more children than I do and I am not familiar with this magnitude of acting up. I would guess something is bothering your little guy and he doesn’t know how to express himself well enough to tell you. I would try to coax it out of him or try therapy (and yes, I did have to send a high-anxiety drama-queen child to therapy and it helped her a great deal). I wish you well (both with this and your foot healing).

  29. sharlaelizabeth permalink
    September 27, 2010 11:58 am

    You know how kids think that when they have a birthday they will be physically bigger? I’m holding out that in just over two weeks, when my son turns 5, he will magically leave this phase behind.

    We (by that I mean I) talk a lot about what it is that he wants. He can’t name his emotions when he’s in the midst of it (for the most part), so I will provide it for him. “You seem bored/tired/sad/etc”. I remind him that it’s okay to feel angry but that it’s not okay to hurt people or things when you’re angry. Then we talk about good ways to ask for things (words v. hitting), and if he asks for something (say dessert) I will ask him if he’s making the best choice he can to get the thing he wants. Sometimes all I can do is bear hug him and whisper that I love him no matter what (over and over and over again).

    And sometimes I just cry. Then he wants to know why and I tell him that it makes me sad to see him be mean to people when I know that he’s actually a very nice, loving, caring person.

    So really, I have no advice. Knowing you’re not alone is only comforting to an extent. And knowing that it’s a phase isn’t helpful until the end is in sight.

  30. Sam Rhoades permalink
    September 27, 2010 11:59 am

    I just wanted to send you lots of light and love and a virtual pumpkin-spice latte and then later, a vodka martini. nothing worse than trying to parent in front of an audience. you have helped me so much with your words of wisdom, kindness, and patience. be wise, kind, and patient with yourself. I am rooting for you and mr. pie!

  31. Robin permalink
    September 27, 2010 12:44 pm

    Mr. Pie is living on an island for four year olds. My 4-year-old (5 next month!)Shmoo currently resides there and I hope he returns soon! I don’t enjoy his current replacement, Napoleon, nearly as much. I think he comes from the same place as Ben Davis.

    I asked my husband, a pediatric psychologist and expert in “Applied Behavior Analysis” and he said, “Unfortunately, I haven’t found an ABA book written for these types of behaviors among typically developing children. This is too bad because I’m often asked about it. Bottom line is to try to identify the function (typically kids engage in these behaviors when they want attention or something tangible) and then work on shaping up appropriate communication and putting the problem behavior on extinction.” In English — figure out why your child is acting this way — if you can — and work on having them ask for that in a better way. Sometimes we can avoid the situation with “time in”. That said, if our four-year-old acts this way too, it is pretty normal and we are all suffering with you (and none of us does this parenting thing “perfectly”.)

    We very recently discussed an experience we had camping many years ago in Kings Canyon where a father was yelling at his kid late at night for losing his shoe. We were shocked! We couldn’t sleep because of them! We have realized we have now become that family…and may we never revert in our understanding, or heaven forbid, become the VMM.

  32. Laurie permalink
    September 27, 2010 1:15 pm

    A lot of the behavior you described sounds like my oldest (outgrown now-he is 6) and that my youngest (3 almost 4) is coming into. My children have some high drama anxiety issues though. Their father has generalized anxiety disorder. The 6 year old excessively worries about unfamiliar situations. The 3 year old just yells “No” and “I hate you” a lot. I would google anxiety in children and see if there are some symptoms. Things like ailments that cannot be detected (stomach aches, headaches) by any one but them. There are some great books out there on childhood anxiety you could check out, but therapy is awesome for this also.

  33. September 27, 2010 2:25 pm

    looks like you got lots of good advice… i have none, as my 2 year old is making me feel completely unequipped for parenthood. this is bad, because i also have a 4 year old! honestly, most days i feel like God made a mistake letting me have a child- just having a vagina & a uterus did not make me the ideal candidate for motherhood!
    i’ve been reading “Loving Obedience” by William J. Richardson- i at least feel somewhat equipped for the journey ahead. i’m also going to check out the suggestions you’ve received!! the ‘talk so your kids will listen’ book sounds just about right… : )

  34. Terzah permalink
    September 27, 2010 2:56 pm

    Hi Dimity–

    Agree with Sam Rhoades, and just want to add that I bet you are doing much better with your little changling than you think when you are frustrated. My son will be four in December, but his late twos and early threes were difficult with tantrums, physical violence and high emotions in general. He’s now much better. Could be just that he is maturing, could be we’re in for worse later…..But one tactic that seemed to work was *tougher* consequences than you’d think the “crime” would merit. For example, he loves the Sunday a.m. trip to Starbucks and his little friends’ birthday parties. A category 5 tantrum or biting meant *not* going with his twin sister and the parent headed to Starbucks or the party, but staying home with the other parent, in his room, until the parent deemed it time for him to emerge (sometimes as long as an hour). In your son’s case, think of the outing, activity, etc. that he loves and would miss the most, and deprive him of it when he behaves in what you consider to be an absolutely unacceptable manner. And with a four-year-old, it can be an activity that isn’t occurring for a few days–they are capable of remembering their bad behavior and associating it with the consequence later. I know this sounds heartless, and it’s hard to follow through, but some things merit it. I always ask myself–will this kind of attitude be easier to deal with now, or when he’s a teenager? The answer is usually now, no matter how bad it seems. After all, I’m still bigger than he is.

    We’re now having to use a milder form of this on our daughter, who is starting to be downright sassy and manipulative at times. Fingers crossed that we can nip it in the bud…until the next phase….

    BTW, I would have gone postal on VMM.


  35. Leane permalink
    September 27, 2010 7:17 pm

    First, Dimity, I can’t believe cutiepie Ben (aka Mr. Pie) could ever display the demonic behavior you described…those gorgeous eyes and squeezable cheeks–say it ain’t so! Second, the demonic behavior you describe is exactly what I saw in my cutiepie Jamison at age 4 (and still see from time to time ;-). I often feel totally defeated and desperate.

    I did stumble upon a book called “Raising a Son” by Don and Jeanne Elium. It’s not so much of a discipline guide, but more of a ‘history’ of boys and what makes them tick. Since I sometimes feel like I don’t understand the whole male species, this really helped explore their mindset and perspective. You can borrow my copy.

    Also, our neighbor gave me her copy of ‘Positive Discipline’ by Jane Nelsen. It’s an oldie but goodie–seems to have been a precursor to ‘love and logic.’ (but I like this better)–the author believes children misbehave when they feel thwarted in their need to belong and in their need for love and attention.’ The book explains ‘how to parent with compassion and understanding to encourage self-respect, self-discipline, cooperation, good behavior and problem-solving.’ She says the key to discipline is not punishment but ‘mutual respect.’ (hmm..easier said than done, right?) As I read this I am realizing that I probably need to revisit these books…

    One more thing…I’ve always been a little jealous of families who have an older daughter and younger son–it just seems that the older girl is such a positive role model, very nurturing, patient, and sweet with the younger sib. One advantage to having Jamison first, I’m now realizing, is that Caroline seems like a piece of cake! (at least at the moment-I’m sure this will all change as we enter new ‘phases’)

    Anyway, hang in there. It does get better. You are welcome to my books.

  36. holly permalink
    September 27, 2010 8:07 pm

    After 4 children, three of them boys, all of which have had their “phases”. Love him when he is being good and make sure he knows it, and hold your ground when he is awful. Even in public, you may get a few stares when you lay down the law, but he will respect you for the guidance he really needs. I know it sounds pie-in-the-sky (pun intended) but my boys have come out the other side and are wonderful human beings.

  37. Jen permalink
    September 27, 2010 8:25 pm

    Dimity, I could have written this exactly tonight! My oldest son is 5, and he has always been so kind and sensitive. The last two days he has worked himself into terrible rages where he is just out of control. And he talks about “dead” and “dying” a lot now too. I chalk most of the bad behavior up to the things he hears from friends and starting school this fall where I can’t protect him from the negative influences. But I too wonder what I can do to keep it all in check. All of this just to say you are a good mommy and I can relate!

  38. Deirdre permalink
    September 27, 2010 8:37 pm

    Wow—I’m so impressed that you were able to keep your cool in that situation. I would have lost it with the Mr. VVM.

    I have 3 boys (8, 5, 2), and the oldest two hit their “testing all limits” stages at different ages, but I think kids always have a knack for sensing when their parents’ options for consequences or “turning this car around” are limited. I agree with most of the above advice—remembering that bad choices usually reflect needs that he doesn’t know how to articulate (feeling left out, wanting to be “cool” to his cousin, or simply overtired), and offering understanding as well as strong limits.

    But when you’re in the woods, both figurative and literally, all rule books go out the window and we all just do our best to be kind to our kids and ourselves till we make it home.

  39. Kristen permalink
    September 27, 2010 8:43 pm

    Uugggh! I have 4 kids between the age of 15 and 2. The advise I have for you is consistance. When you give them a threat stick with it. For example, if you say do that one more tome we are going to leave, leave. Even when it messes up your plans or your fun do it. And the thing that I think works wonders is praise. In a situation that you see him make a good choice praise him! Tell him how proud you are and give him a BIG huge. It sounds simple but if you stick to it every minute it will pay off. Good luck!

  40. Michelle permalink
    September 27, 2010 9:49 pm

    I feel your pain. My little three year old angel went through, I guess, a phase almost this entire summer. After being a star student all winter, we were getting kicked out of programs this summer! I read a bit of the Strong Willed Child book, and started that, but things started to get better, and now he seems back to his normal little angelic self. I don’t know what triggered it, or what made it better. The food allergy comment is very interesting, because he does have food allergies. I thought perhaps it was the weather change, “something in the air”, and out of desperation? maybe, I started blaming it on all of the people around us pouring chemicals on their lawns.
    In the Parenting a Strong Willed Child book, one of the first steps is just playing with your child, and letting them be the boss. You don’t direct anything or ask any questions. You just let them do thier thing, and then describe what they are doing or maybe imitate it. It seems a little wierd, but my son seemed to really love it. Even though he is acting more like himself, I still make more of an effort to just look in his eyes, and let him be him. Sometimes, I think I was just so busy trying to teach him something, or boss him somewhere he just wanted to feel a little bit of control again.
    Good luck, and hang in there. I’m sure Mr. Pie will be back soon. It is so hard to see their behavior change so radically, but looking over these comments, it seems common.

  41. Mariette permalink
    September 28, 2010 1:30 am

    According to Steven Biddulph in the book Raising Boys, boys’ testosterone levels doubles at age 4, and then declines to normal levels again at 5.

    I could see big behavioural changes in both my boys (now 4 and 5) at this age – the negative ones being the tempers and tantrums and fighting, but the positive ones a certain ‘lust for life’, an adventurous spirit, great physical improvements (swinging/climbing/jumping etc). So this phase is a pain in the butt, but necessary for their physical development. A bit like hill workouts?

    Some advice:
    1) Don’t get flustered. They feed off your frustration.
    2) I repeat over and over again: I don’t understand scream language. If you want to tell me something, say it nice.
    3) When they do something wrong, give them a chance to make it right.

    Good luck!

  42. Rhonda permalink
    September 28, 2010 6:05 am

    The first comment is great–the How to Talk book has been really helpful for me as a parent and a therapist. I’m most interested, however, in the Think: Kids approach (from The Explosive Child by Ross Greene) as a way to problem solve and talk with children ( There’s a structure for how to have a conversation with him–getting his concerns on the table, and then yours (I notice you’ve been frustrated lately, what’s up?) then offering an invitation to brainstorm solutions. There’s a lot more to it than that, which you can review on the web site.

    It’s also a helpful way to think of kids. Kids do well if they can, and if they are not doing well, then it’s up to the adults to figure out what’s getting in the way. It’s not like kids do well if they want to (b/c what kid doesn’t want to do well?) or kids misbehave to get attention (isn’t positive attention better than negative?). So what’s getting in his way right now?

    Good luck. I feel for you. Keep the tribe posted.

  43. Erica Richards permalink
    September 28, 2010 6:23 am

    Oh Dimity, I can feel your pain! When my son (now 10) was 4, we went to McDonald’s for lunch and he was very active while eating. He stayed in his seat but was bouncing up and down in the booth. I told him a few times to sit still and eat but hey, doesn’t always work. He was just so excited to eat and get into the big germpit of a playroom! The VMM behind him turned around and said “you should do a better job controling your son!” My blood boiled over and the only thing I said was “hey, he’s 4.” Afterwards I thought of all sorts of things I should have said but it was too late. VMM was at a McDonalds, for crying out loud! What did he expect? No children?? He didn’t know me but was attacking my parenting skills and that’s what hurt the most! As far as the behavior stuff, they all go through it. Consistency and not giving in to it are key. When my kids have tantrums (not too often, thank goodness), I calmly tell them to go to their rooms and come back when they are all done. Then we talk about it. When they were smaller, I’d sometimes have to scoop them up, take them to their rooms, and put them in a chair. They’d come out a bit too early, crying and screaming, and I’d just say, nope, not ready yet. Back in you go. Sounds like something is bothering Ben and getting to the root of it may not be easy. Maybe he just wants some alone time with his favorite mommy? Hang in there!

    • Paige permalink
      September 28, 2010 7:18 am

      I used the same “come back when you are ready” strategy as Erica. Sometimes it took several trips back to their rooms but they eventually calmed down and were able to talk about other ways of handling whatever difficult situation they felt they were in at the time of the freak out fit. Just remember, according to behavioral rules, if you use this kind of strategy be prepared for the undesirable behavior to increase in intensity before it extinguishes itself. So, it will probably get worse before it gets better. Eventually, whatever may have fueled the freak out fit behavior, will not be rewarding enough. It is also important that you try to remain as calm and disconnected from the feelings you may be having during the fit as you take the child to his/her room or whatever quiet spot you choose. Of course, this probably doesn’t work with all children and consistency is key if it is going to work with any child…but it is worth a shot! “Use your words, please.” was a phrase I uttered a lot. Sometimes I’d even model whatever I thought they might be feeling so that they would have the words to use the next time something set them off. I always felt like I was grabbing at straws but that just might be the way parenting is…you make the best guess you can and hope for the best!

      So sorry about the grumpy campers…must have been miserable having them hovering over you the whole time waiting for something to complain about.

      Four is really hard. I have teenagers now and that is tough but four was really stressful. Hang in there!!

  44. Shannon permalink
    September 28, 2010 7:59 am

    My daughter’s behaviour was very similar to your son in her young years. We used to say that the terrible twos lasted until she was 7! “Parenting the Strong Willed Child” was our lifesaver. The good news is that she’s now almost 14 and she’s a sweet, respectful girl getting straight As. And her teachers are always recommending her for leadership roles in school. We managed to turn her rebellion and bossiness into an asset, and they are now strong leadership qualities for her.
    Good luck – it’s not an easy process, but as soon as you start applying the insights from the book things get better quickly!

  45. Monica permalink
    September 28, 2010 9:34 am

    Sigh. I’ve just spend 2 days crying and venting over an incident on Sunday between my (big) 4 year old and my brother’s (slight) 3 year old. The really yucky part is that my sil was crying about my son’s awful behaviour with her son. Sigh. I hate it that his behaviour has now affected our adult relationship. I just want to cocoon in a little hole and not bring him to any functions that involve other children. I feel shame, judgment, blame, embarrassment and anger.

    My little guy has been aggressive and competitive since 2ish. We’ve had a bit of a break for the last few months. He’s made huge improvements but the kind of behaviour you’re describing still comes out too often for my liking. I think my little guy has been branded (by my by sil and her 3 yr old) and that breaks my heart. It makes me want to move far, far away for a few years.

    As a teacher, I solve fights between boys every single day, after every single recess. Either someone pushed, hit, kicked, tripped, etc. Especially in K-4. So to some extent I think this is normal preschooler behaviour.

    We actually didn’t put our little guy in preschool last year b/c we didn’t think it would be a positive experience for him. He’d be in time out all the time. This year we’re trying it. I’ve warned the teacher. He’s been there 3 times and she says she has no idea what I need to be concerned about. Hallelujah!

    Reading all the comments of four being worse has me ready to cry again, b/c he JUST turned four.

    I don’t really have advice for you, just empathy. I know how it feels to be a mom of a son like this. Reading your post has made me feel like I’m not alone in this.

  46. Natalie permalink
    September 28, 2010 10:08 am

    I have a four-year-old too. The world’s sweetest, most lovable little girl. Until all of the sudden, she barely listens to me (or asks my permission then ignores me), throws terrible temper tantrums and whines up a storm.

    I keep telling myself it’s the age.

    I also have a six-year-old that has had all kinds of girl drama ALREADY in the two weeks since school started (or a month, whatever). She is my bold, social, outgoing child. But she is not as sensitive as some of her girl friends, which means she hurts feelings. On the one hand, I don’t have to worry about her because she can hold her own. On the other hand, I worry all the time about what other kids and parents think about my kid, and I feel compelled to keep trying to get in the middle of these playground squabbles (most of the times so stupid, like my kid doesn’t want to do the monkey bars and her friend does so her friend gets mad at her).

    I am trying to learn not to take it all so personally. I don’t know. I have no answers but I can at least say that I KNOW where you are coming from!

  47. Janey permalink
    September 29, 2010 8:26 am

    My eyes just leaked. Thank you for this. Maybe I need to look at my sons “new attitude” with a new light… a new perspective.

  48. JillC permalink
    September 29, 2010 10:05 am

    Yup, been there. Done that. As my husband and I had our screaming four year old son (Mr. CrankyPants) barricaded in his room for a time out (while he was yelling “stupid mommy” and throwing things at the door), we called to register for a 6 week “Love and Logic” program. Love, love, loved it! The books are great too, but who has time to read?! It took the yelling out of our house and put our kids more in control of the consequences.

    And, yes, I am a pediatrician. Doesn’t mean it’s any easier for us.

    VMM needs to get a life!

  49. Kelly permalink
    September 29, 2010 12:03 pm

    I am right there with you. I have a 3 year old boy who is on that road.

    In any case, I am not sure if you and SBS have had the chance to listen to the Manic Mommies podcast, but when I read this it made me think of some of their child raising stories. If not, you should check them out — there might be some good cross pollination between the RLAMer audience and the Manic Mommies audience. 😉

  50. Lisa permalink
    October 4, 2010 7:28 pm

    I got through most of these comments, and I’m a little late, but we also call them the f$%#ing fours at our house. And with my youngest (of 3) it has been the most difficult. He is almost 5, and we see some improvements, but here are some conclusions I have drawn: He is the youngest, trying to act like the older ones, using words/vocab he should not (like when my son told another preschooler he was going to ‘kick him in the balls’ when he didn’t even know where/what they were), also trying to physically do everything his older siblings do is pretty exhausting, hence tantrums and meltdowns. Now that he is going to school a bit more often and so close to going to ‘real’ school, he is feeling more human. And I have to remind myself that even though he can do things that his siblings do and act the way they do sometimes, he is not as mature as them and he will not know how to handle himself in the same ways. Also, because he is the youngest, he is the ‘baby’ and knows he can act like it and get away with it more (my bad). Lastly, I find that I have to be careful about what I say no to. Because I have to back it up. Many times I have wished that I’ve said yes to something that was not that big of a deal, not because it would be easier and less of a hassle , but because it just wasn’t something worth battling over. Ok, I’m done. Whew! Good luck healing and hang in there – it gets better!

  51. October 7, 2010 5:58 pm

    While I certainly had my trying moments in the 4 phase, I must be brain-dead because I have no idea what I did – other than alcohol helped :). Kidding, sort of. It does get better, I promise it does and just be patient. Easier said than done, I realize.

    Abbey just got a job at Bubba Gumps…if you ever want to grab dinner one night, or a drink, we can go see how much one CAN grow up. It just took 20 years. 🙂


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