The Last Cookie

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.

One thought on “The Last Cookie

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  1. 1.20.2020

    Hi Jeff,

    Kathleen Lloyd and I work together and she has asked me to share some ideas on guidance of young children, since that is a course I have taught for years and you are looking for some alternatives to rewards and punishment when dealing with your three-year-old son (as I read in your blog). First of all, I want to acknowledge you as the real expert here. No one else knows them better than you do and has as much invested in seeing that they grow up happy and healthy.

    I’m offering this advice as someone who knows your little boy not at all, but has an understanding of the unique emotional, social and cognitive needs of a child at your son’s stage of development and how those needs get translated into behaviors both positive and negative.
    Often, when a child your son’s age engages in a behavior that is too unsafe or hurtful to ignore, it is for very good reasons, at least in the child’s mind. Also — it works! Why give it up? From his perspective, once he hits you, your focus is on your pain, but more importantly, it is on him and only him. In that moment, you are no longer distracted with the small problems of day to day life or the needs of his older brother or of navigating the separation from your wife.

    It is very powerful for your child to have a tool that immediately guarantees him your full and complete attention. This is so even if, in the mix, there is also anger and a threat (usually empty, as most threats are) of punishment. His need to have his father’s focus and attention is met: once he hits you and you react, the two of you are deeply connected while you react to his behavior.
    The analogy I like to use is a child sailing a boat on stormy waters (in your son’s case this may be his competing with older brother for attention and/or dealing with new and confusing transitions). The keeper of the lighthouse has forgotten to turn on the light and so the child is in danger of hitting rocky shores (i.e.; being overwhelmed daily by big feelings of anger, confusion and fear) so the child hurls a rock through the lighthouse window (i.e.; punches your crotch) and makes you, the keeper of the lighthouse, acknowledge him. You switch on that powerful guiding light and make him your focus, reacting exactly as he has come to expect. It is cause and effect and he is in charge.

    What changed two months ago, when the behavior began? And currently, what is happening just before the punching? Is it during a difficult transition: from play to dinner or to bedtime, changing from one house to the next? What can you do to make that transition time, or just the time before the punch happens, one of connection and safety? Young children don’t always know what is going on, even if we think we have explained things nor do they know how to talk about their confusion and fears in the midst of significant changes. Instead, they will act out.

    Returning to the boat analogy, when the seas are calm and the sky fair (your son is playing happily, getting some one-on-one attention, etc.) the reasoning part of his brain is activated so he can learn and problem solve. But when he is overwhelmed, the stress hormone cortisol floods his system and triggers the reactive part of his brain to fight (punch you in the crotch) or flee. It is very hard to teach a child when this part of their brain is triggered. Not always, but usually, there is a pattern and you can learn to read the signs before he lands the punch. Then, that window of time can be restructured so his need to feel safe, in control and connected is met and there is no need for him to act out an unmet need with inappropriate behavior.
    It takes time to teach new behaviors, so it’s good to use a calendar and mark off small victories and moments of progress. However, this strategy of changing the environment and then guiding a child to solve problems really does work because it is related to the child’s deepest needs to feel safe and empowered. The promise (or not) of cookies has nothing to do with the behavior you want to change in your child and so is difficult to use effectively as a long term teaching tool.

    The task is to not to train with rewards and punishment, which usually never works for long and worse, they do not build new neural pathways in his growing brain as he practices over and over (with your help) leaning how to manage big feelings appropriately. The beauty of using negative behaviors as an opportunity to teach instead of reacting is that we as parents can also impart our values. We role-model empathy, fairness and respect as we teach ways for us and for them to stay connected even in the midst of difficult emotions. Taking away cookies does not offer a child much opportunity to learn anything, except that when adults feel overwhelmed, we might resort to saying things we don’t mean.

    The goal with guidance is moral autonomy: eventually, with daily coaching and teaching, your son will learn how to manage his big feelings because his brain will have developed neural paths that “wire him” to make good choices. He will not do this because he is scared of punishment or seeking a reward, but because every time he expresses his feelings appropriately, the outcome helps him feel safe, in charge of himself, and more connected to those he loves and depends upon.
    I hope this is of some help. Your boys are lucky to have a father as dedicated to their well-being as you are, Jeff.

    Best wishes to you.

    Jean

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