Reward and Punishment. Two concepts that become extremely important to the way you think when you become a parent. How do you get a young person to do what you want? Controlling another person’s behavior is never easy, and I believe that children are particularly challenging. What I’m basically pondering at the moment, is how can I get my 3 year old to stop punching me in the nuts. And I’m not trying to be funny; this is really happening to me right now. People who don’t have kids, or people who haven’t raised toddlers in awhile, might think that this is an easy problem with a simple solution. It’s not. Just imagine: I have a pretty clear stake in trying to get him to stop doing this to me, and after 2 months it’s still going on. I’m still working on this.
My oldest son just turned 7 years old at the end of 2019, and I realized recently that I’ve been a dad for a decent amount of time. At least, I’ve been around long enough to know that spanking doesn’t work as a form of Punishment. Using reverse psychology on your kids generally gives you random results and ends up making everyone confused. Telling your children that there’s a ghost in the garage who will eat them if they’re bad is just cruel (and I would never do something like that). So currently, my tactic in dealing with my kids involves Reward and Loss of Reward. More specifically, I have a cookie jar full of fudge striped cookies, and when my boys are bad, I threaten to throw it all away. So when my three year old hits me in my giggleberries, this is how I’ve chosen to handle it.
Before you judge, just know that this method has proven mostly successful. It’s worked better than anything else I’ve tried, and believe me I’ve tried. I say “mostly” successful because it doesn’t stop him completely. I get about 2-3 days of relief to my nethers when I threaten to toss out the cookies, but I’m not really sure if he forgets the consequences or just doesn’t care after a couple of days, because the Walloping materializes again in due time.
As I said before, this is not an easy problem. There’s a lot of things going on right now. Less than a year ago, the boy’s mom divorced me and moved across town. For the last 9 months, my sons have been changing houses at the end of every week, passing back and forth between her and I. Even more recently, my ex started a custody battle where she ultimately wants to move out of state with my kids, so that I would lose even more of the reduced time that I have with them as it is. This in turn makes meetings between my ex and I pretty tense, and no matter how well we pretend, the boys must be able to sense that all is not well. So the way I see things, I have to be really careful and patient when dealing with my kids’ behaviors.
On top of my worry about how the divorce is affecting them, I also don’t want to be a jerk the whole time I have them. I only get them every other week. This little bit of time I have with them has gotten really precious to me. When I have to put them in their room as punishment, I worry that it will be all they remember about going to dad’s house. I also wonder, if my ex isn’t punishing them as much as I do (which I have no way of knowing), will I be seen as the least favorite parent? I don’t want to overload them if they’re already dealing with a lot of emotional stuff, but I also don’t want them to get away with murder. Especially, when the murder victim is my groin.
So, cookies. That’s what I ended up going with. I made sure this last time they got to my house, for the beginning of my week, that they saw the cookie jar was full. Less than an hour after their mom dropped them off, my 3 year old landed a solid punch to my junk. “That’s it!” I said, “I’m putting the cookies in the trash!” “No!!!” was the response from both of them. My 3 year old was sorry right away, and my oldest is confused why I would do such a thing when he hasn’t done anything wrong. I figure my oldest will have to figure it out on his own, because I just guaranteed the survival of my genitals for a couple of days, so he’ll just have to take the ‘psychological’ hit for now.
And so the week goes. A punch to my nuts, is followed by a strange parade to the trashcan. I lead the parade, clutching the cookie jar as I shamble along with my sore crotch. My kids follow along, wailing and screaming. My oldest (who is still working on his speech delay) will plead with my 3 year old “No hit nuts!” and my youngest will produce actual tears. I get promises from both, before I change course, and put the cookie jar back on the counter in pristine condition. They’re happy and relieved now, and nobody had to go to their room.
It’s not a perfect system by far, but it works for me. I can live with infrequent punches to my nads, because I realize that I’ve failed to work this through with his young mind. He doesn’t understand the pain he’s inflicting on me, he only sees the humor of doing it. In his toddler universe, punching me in the balls is sooooo funny, but for some reason it makes dad want to throw away the cookies. I should be sitting down with him, explaining the actual lesson of it all, but I guess I’m hoping the cookie paradox will get the idea across without further efforts on my part. I don’t want to waste the lessened time I have with them, caused by the divorce. It’s all just a passing phase, and I’m not planning on having anymore kids so he might be saving me money on a vasectomy anyways. Nothing to worry too much about. Right?
Wrong. Let me lay out how this all recently went sideways for me. Currently, I drive home during my lunch break from work, so I can see my 3 year old for 15 minutes in the middle of the day. My mom moved in with me right after the divorce, and on my weeks she walks my oldest son to school and cares for my 3 year old while I’m at work. On these lunch breaks, it’s fairly normal that I will deal out a cookie or 2 to my son if he has been good while I was away. However, this last Friday, that fatefully granted cookie turned out to be the Last Cookie.
I remember quite clearly walking in the door, my son came running into my arms. I picked him up and he was the perfect picture of a darling son. When I asked my mom about him, my moms said, “he’s been a good boy all day. He’s asked for a cookie and I told him dad would have to decide, and he’s been waiting very patiently.” So I was magnanimous. I can deal out cookies as I see fit. I walked over to the cookie jar and saw that there was only one cookie left. At the time, that sense of impending doom was faint and brief. I had 2 days left before I had to give the kids back to my ex. Just because I had run out of cookies, shouldn’t mean that I would have a problem. Right?
Wrong! Literally, within a fraction of a second of him licking the last crumb from his fingers he landed a punch to my nuts that had them ringing like a gong! I got that diarrhea feeling that comes after a well placed hit like that and (I won’t lie) I felt afraid of this tiny person. Knowing full well it was a bluff, I said “That’s it! I’m throwing the cookies away!” And then he just smiled and said, “There aren’t anymore cookies dad.” Commence total mind blowing! Shit just went to a whole other level. Now what the fuck am I going to do?!
Well, what I did was I drove back to work with a pain in my testicles that lasted the better part of an hour. For that hour and beyond, I contemplated the whole power struggle between parent and child. Who has control over what? I mean, that’s what is breaks down to. Control. I know the point is to teach them what’s right opposed to what’s wrong and pass on morals and good behavior and all that, but how does one get another being to do what they want? What I just experienced put me on notice.
I remember cussing on my drive back to work, thinking that if this is what he is capable at age 3, I’m in for trouble when when the teenage years eventually come and issues like drugs and sex come up. I definitely need to work on my game because this cookie system proved out to be shit. I need to consider a different tack with him, but it didn’t change the fact that I came home that day and made chocolate muffins (my sole victory being I didn’t buy more cookies). Muffins aren’t cookies, but they kept my nuts safe for the rest of the weekend. To imagine that the line between my control over my son’s behavior and total anarchy in my home is as thin as the availability of snacks! What’s going on here?
It’s all so confusing. My son has realized that you can’t punch dad’s nuts as long as the cookie jar is full, and I’ve realized that running out of cookies really hurts (I’m mean it really, really hurts). Neither of our realizations are dealing with the real issues. And to be honest, I’m not exactly sure what the real issues are, considering everything else that’s on the table right now like divorce and weird custody arrangements. What if these little nut punches are giving my son the ability to acclimatize through all the change swirling around him. Maybe I’m just too scared to be the father I used to be before the divorce, because it feels like all the rules have changed and all the Rewards and Punishments for being a dad are different now too?
What a wicked web of amateur parenting I have woven. I’ve got a court date coming up where I’ll have to present my outstanding parenting reputation, and I’m left wondering where this cookie situation leaves me measuring up. I’m planning on speaking with my son when I get them both back soon. I’ll try an intellectual approach and word my arguments to play on the Reward and Punishment reasoning centers of his toddler brain. Knowing that my words can’t hold a candle to a jar of cookies but, futilely, I will try to make a case for a better life for my genitals. Hopefully, he’ll stop. Maybe he’ll see reason, or maybe he’ll get bored of it. I’ve realized that I can only ‘try’ to control my son. He’ll be the one to ultimately decided what to do when the Last Cookie is gone.