Spilled Milk

Three little monkeys sit quietly in the breakfast nook, eating their after school snacks. These calm, quiet moments are rare and because of their rarity, I find them to be a bit disconcerting… Surely something chaotic is about to happen. These sorts of events must be on some sort of cosmic time clock that is set to some unpredictable variable interval schedule  to ensure I will never be ready for it. I’m onto you, Cosmos… I’m on to you. 

“AH!!” the oldest, Elizabeth, screams and jumps up from her seat on the bench. 

Right on time… 

Quick, assess the situation! Bella, the three year old, has her soft chubby arm still extended. Under this plump appendage is the offending source. She spilled her cup of milk. I am too far away and too much has spilled to do anything about it now. She is looking to me for a cue on how to respond, trying to figure out if this is freak out worthy. I can see this sensitive period as a moment where she could teeter into a meltdown fed by her older sister, Elizabeth. Elizabeth appears dissatisfied by my lack of response and is now standing on the bench screaming in unjustifiable terror. 

Being the opportunistic and wise little girl she is, the six-year-old Grace sees this chaotic window as an opportunity. Her little arm reaches over the table with lightning fast thievery, I am reminded of the thieving Rebel Rhesus Monkeys of Jaipur, India. She captures the coveted bag of popcorn I typically have her work and mand  to obtain. Normally, I’d snatch the bag right back, but at the moment, the Rebel Monkey is the least of my worries. 

Ok… What and whom to I address first. Bella is not freaking out, but her eyes are as wide as those of an Owl Monkey still looking at me with this face of potential danger and worry. I reassure her. 

“It’s ok, sweetie. It was an accident. Come over here,” I say as I grab her arm and help her out of her milk covered surroundings. 

I set her back on her feet and walk to retrieve a dishtowel to begin the clean up. Elizabeth can be a bit dramatic but this is ridiculous. She’s screaming as if there is a fire in the middle of the table, has caught her skirt aflame, and will soon consume us all!

Elizabeth is screeching in horror and like a Howler Monkey that has seen a jaguar on the prowl. Her false alarm calls can surely be heard for miles in this suburban jungle. 

“Lizzy, please calm down. It’s ok. We can clean it up…” I try to interject. 
“NO! It’s—“ 

At this point whatever she is saying is unintelligible. She’s gone into baby voiced screaming. She’s way too into it to even notice me talking. I call her name two more times. Nothing. She is still screeching. It is completely inappropriate and disproportionate to intensity of the situation. At this point I am starting to think she is more upset that I am not reacting at a level she would deem appropriate.  I assume that would be me screaming, running out of the house, and calling 9-1-1, “HELP OPERATOR! THERE IS LOOSE DAIRY PRODUCT IN THE KITCHEN BREAKFAST NOOK! AND IT IS ON LIZ’S SKIRT!!!”

“ELIZABETH! Look at me!” I finally say raising my head lioness voice. 

I rarely use this tone of voice. This is purposeful so that when I do use it, they respond immediately and know I mean business. She locks eyes with me.

“Sweetie, if we can clean it up, is it a big deal?” I ask her in a calm voice to try and bring her back to a state of sanity. 

She takes a moment before responding. Surely she is reconsidering her over reactive behavior and will soon sit back down calmly and apologize, maybe even thank me for helping her realize it’s no big deal. She’ll say, “Thank you so much, Ms. RAZ, for teaching me the error of my ways. I’m sorry for overacting.” Then we’ll all collectively clean the house, fold laundry, and make dinner all before mom and dad get home. Then mom and dad will feel compelled to organize a parade where the community will come out and cheer!

    “YES IT’S A BIG DEAL!” she screams back. 

And back to reality. This scream is too much for Grace. She shovels one more handful of popcorn into her mouth and bolts. Dammit. Please stay out of trouble for the next five minutes so I can clean this mess. At this point the mental mess is more pressing. Bella is still looking at me with this face of fear and innocence. She’s only three, but I do think she has an idea that she accidentally caused some of this madness. She waits patiently for my next command. 

“Bella, could you please get me another dishtowel?” I say calmly while ignoring the screeching for the oldest Howler monkey.
    “It’s all over my skirt! And…” Elizabeth continues and is getting weepier. 

Though I do acknowledge and agree milk on clothing if left untreated can be pretty disgusting, but this is outrageous. I am not sure how to deal with her. She’s an anxious little girl and has had freak-outs before but usually in response to something potentially dangerous, like the steam she assumes is smoke coming from a pot of boiling water. There is nothing threating about this situation. I can feel my frustration growing; even I want to cry out at this point. I am worried Grace is “getting into mischief,” as Liz would say. I’m irritated by this childish behavior from the oldest of the monkeys, and disgusted that my hand is now covered in diary product. Gross. I feel my own mood starting to tank… 

“Elizabeth. This is not a big deal. I need you to calm down. You cannot act like this in the world. People aren’t going to accommodate this kind of freak out behavior in life…” 

I say this more to myself than to her. It’s an immature, snarky comment that a seven-year-old is too young to swallow… I’ve noticed this is one of my coping mechanisms. I say something mentally over their heads to feel like I am talking to someone I can reason with. Then I remember… I am the oldest of us four children. I need to diffuse this. 

I remind myself the goal right now is to regain control of the situation and calm everyone down. These kids— all kids, really— are looking to the adult for cues on how to react and respond, as well as ways to cope and be comforted. Maybe I shouldn’t hold a seven-year-old to such high standards… I’m sure it is a lot of pressure to be the oldest of three, especially when one of the three mischievous monkeys has autism. My annoyance begins to transform into empathy… I feel bad for Liz because she is so overwhelmed, so deep into this moment. She can’t step outside for a moment to assess the situation. Many adults, myself included, fall victim to this situational myopia. 

I focus my attention onto Bella because she is acting calm and being helpful. I cannot acknowledge Elizabeth until she calms down, or I may accidently reinforce  this inappropriate behavior. I finish cleaning the table, floor, and Bella. Liz is the only thing still mildly dirty with about three drops of milk on the edge of her pink skirt. I continue shuffling around the kitchen, tidying up, and killing time till, trying to ride out this emotional deluge. 

I believe she is finally realizing no amount of screaming or crying about her skirt is going to get to me respond to her the way she wants. She appears to be running out of the premium grade freak out fuel. I feel the energy subsiding. Thank god. Once she has taken a deep breath and is now at least slightly receptive to my input, I am ready to swoop in and reassure her. I ask her if she is ok. She sniffles and nods. 

“It’s ok. Come here, sweetheart. Let’s take the skirt off and rinse it with a little water,” I say reassuringly. 

She sniffles and averts her gaze as though I am going to scold her, of which I have no intention. 

 “It’s ok, Lizzy. I know you were upset, but you can’t scream like that, sweetheart. Sometimes things happen, but it’s better to stay calm. And look!” I say motioning to the post-apocalyptic dairy zone. “It’s like it never even happened! We were able to do something about it, right?”
“Yeah…” she relents.
“So was it a big deal?”

She nods her head, a bit reluctantly, but nods it nonetheless. We dilute the three small spot on her skirt with some water and toss it into the washer. I wipe down the table one last with a wet rag to ensure no residual milk stink. I give her a hug and send her on her way. Bella and Liz run off to continue on their sisterly adventures of playing pretend and fighting for control, as little monkeys do. Even Grace has resurfaced and as far as I can tell no irrevocable harm has occurred. All is back to some form of equilibrium. 

I adjust the chairs and place the napkin basket back into pre-incident positions. As I complete my spot checks, I take a moment to reflect on this brief 10-minute scene. I can’t help but laugh when I realize the old saying is quite true… 

There is no use crying of spilt milk. Even when it gets on your pink skirt. 

Poopy Panties

“What is it?” I ask Grace while holding up a cut out square.
She redirects her focus to the paper square and answers, “Paper.”

I laugh to myself. She is correct. It was my error for not asking the questions correctly. 

“It is paper, you’re right, but what shape is the paper?”
“Tri—anglool,” she says. 
“No, it’s not a triangle… It’s a s—“
“Tri—angool Tri-angool…” she continues to repeat. She’s stuck in a little loop. Maybe she likes the way ‘triangle’ sounds. 
“It’s a sq—“ I partially prompt her. 
“It’s a square.”
“It is a square!” I say as I lay one little square and one big square on the kitchen table. I usually hold her hand at the wrist to draw her attention to the task at hand, or in this case under her hand. “How many squares do we have?” I guide her hand on top of the first square. 
“One…” she says. I move her hand over to the next square. “Two.”
“Two squares!” I repeat excitedly. “Good job, Grace! What do you want?”
“I want the Chex.”
“You got it, girl,” I say as a pour a small bowl of cimmamon Chex for her. 

“Miss RAZ…” Bella, the wee one, says from upstairs. 
“Yes, Bella?”
“(unintelligible)… M&M.”
“You want an M&M? Did you go potty?”

What is the relation between M&Ms and going potty, you ask? One M&M for going number one and two M&Ms for number two, duh. Bella is in the process of being potty trained. If she successfully goes in the toilet without any accident, she is rewarded with chocolaty goodness. We are all familiar with this type of learning. Do something someone wants you to do and get rewarded, much the same way we are all go to work and are then rewarded with a paycheck to buy as many M&Ms as we want. Most of us are natural practitioners of this aspect behavioral psychology known as positive reinforcement. 

The goal of reinforcement is to increase the occurrence of a certain behavior, in this case the placing of pee and poo in the potty.  The “positive” in positive reinforcement is a bit misleading. It’s hard to ignore the connotative meaning of “positive,” which usually implies something good, but in this context “positive” only means to add or give something, i.e. the M&M. There is also such a thing as “positive punishment.” The goal of punishment is reduce the occurrence of a behavior. The “positive” in this case again means applying or adding something aversive, perhaps imposing some chore as reparation. 

Bella doesn’t completely grasp the concept of actions and consequences and whole-heartedly believes she should be given M&Ms all the livelong day. Not on my watch, Little Missy. When I am around, there is no such thing as free junk food for anyone! Grace works hard for her cavities. For one M&M or a small bowl of cinnamon Chex, Grace has to answer questions or use some spontaneous, unprompted language. (Don’t worry, they have full and free access to healthy snacks. It’s the sugary snacks they have to work for.)

Bella doesn’t respond or persist so ignore her, assuming everything is under control. I redirect my attention back to Grace. We continue with our big and little shapes discussion. She answers more questions and is rewarded with her the reinforcer of choice at the moment, a small amount of pickle juice. Kid likes salt. 

“I went potty…” I think I hear Bella say from upstairs. 

Oh, good. She’s handling this potty training thing well. 

“Well come downstairs, and I’ll give you an M&M,” I yell back and redirect to Grace. “See these shapes are both big and these are both… Little!” 
“What?” I yell back. I am reminded how when growing up my mother and I would yell from across the house even though we had a house intercom. It drove my dad crazy. 
“(still unintelligible)… panties.”
“You, what?” I say to myself, trying hard to decode the distant, three-year-old language. 

This time I heard her loud and clear. Dammit. 

“Alright… I’ll be right there…” I say as I scoot out of the bench. 
“(unintelligible whining)”
“I’m coming, sweetheart.”

Oh, gosh. I smell it before I find Bella in the bathroom. It is vile. How do children produce this sort of acrid poo!? It looks like she made some sort of attempt at the potty. Her pants are around her ankle along with a large ball of the offending stink liable to roll out onto the bath mat if this is not handled with the upmost care! I kneel down and am trying very carefully to remove the pants and poopy panties, but somehow she has already managed to get a dollop of it on her ankle. Oh, god! The ball rolled out and is now a mere three inches from my knee. The poopaphobe in me is starting to freak out. I remind myself to take a deep breath, and immediately regret it. 

After no less than five minutes of fecal crisis, it is all over. The child and the surroundings are clean. I leave Bella to her own devices and hurry back downstairs where I left Grace, who ran off long ago. I notice my camera is still recording and stop it. Hm. I wonder what she did while I was gone… I fast forward to the moment I leave the table. Grace keeps her eyes on me as I walk out of the kitchen. I’m assuming she is going to run off any second now. Nope… Once she is sure I am a safe distance, she snatches the coveted box of sugary cinnamon Chex. As she grabs handfuls of the sugary goodness, she continues to back up in the direction of the staircase to ensure I am not coming back. She just gave what is known as “non-contingent” reinforcement… Otherwise known as a freebee. I suppose she could also be rewarding herself for keeping a watchful eye. 

“Can I have an M&M?” Bella asks. I didn’t even notice she came downstairs. 
“Why not?”
“Because you pooped in your panties.”
“Oh,” she says with disappointment as she walks off. 

I’m surprised she accepted that answer. Maybe she is starting to get it. I grab a napkin to wipe down the cinnamon sugar Grace left behind. That sneaky little turd…
She positively reinforced her vigilant behavior herself with handfuls of Chex. Bella receives no punishment (because that would be mean and inappropriate to punish a toddler for a potty accident) and no reinforcement for the poopy panties. And me… I should probably be punished in some way for not responding and attending faster to Bella’s potty situation.

Oh, wait… There is it. Positively punishing poo on the back of my hand. Karmic caca. 

Next time, I will surely be more prompt with potty predicaments. 

Bunny Shoes: Theory of Mind

“I want to put this on!” Bella says as she lifts up a fuzzy white mass.
“What—“ before I can ask what it is, she informs me.
“I want to be a bunny!” she squeals in excitement. 

I hold up the ball of fuzzy fabric and realize it is a bunny costume. I also notice, despite how small Bella is, this costume is much, much smaller. This must be for an infant, and she is three.  

    “I don’t think this is going to fit, sweetie…”
    “But I want to be a bunny!” her face is starting to take a turn for the worst… 
    “I think you’re too big for it, Hun.”
    “No I’m not…!”

Sigh. I need to pick my battles strategically with her… At three, she surely has not mastered the ability to judge sizes appropriately. I relent. Might as well show her rather than try to explain to her how sizing works. 

    “Alright. Fine. Come here. Put your arms up.”

She enthusiastically complies. Her arms are in, but I am more worried about this large head of hers. At three, head size is finally more proportional to the body, but still massive, seemingly too massive for this small neck opening and bunny-ear-hood. I try once again to convince her otherwise, but she is determined. 

“Ok, hold on to me! I’m going to pull it down,” I say as I give one last yank. 

She grunts a bit in protest but gets over it quickly when she realizes she has, for the most part, won this debate about her fitting into this bunny outfit. Granted the crotch snap rests on her stomach and the bunny pant legs dangle at her knees, but she’s in it. She adjusts the ears and dons the matching bunny shoes. I’m typically immune to these types of generically cute things, but even I have to admit she looks pretty hilarious… And maybe just a little bit cute. 

She disappears into her sister’s room and emerges with a few pieces of paper and a pen. She hands them to me and asks me to draw a carrot. For the bunny, of course. She is thrilled. It’s amazing how something so small, like a paper carrot can be so reinforcing for her. I forgot how it feels to be three. I try to put myself in her shoes. This reminds me of the Theory of Mind (ToM) experiment. 

Cognitive psychologist developed the ToM test to investigate and understand perspective taking, or putting on another person’s bunny shoes. Typically, kids under the age of four fail this test. Individuals with certain cognitive difficulties like autism or schizophrenia may fail this test. They are assumed to be incapable of understanding another person’s perspective. I am wary of such over arching claims. For one, those individual who are profoundly affected by their autism may not be able to respond to an experimenter’s question, in which case this is a motor control deficit not a cognitive one. Naoki Higashida, author of The Reason I Jump, mentions how he was well aware how his erratic behavior was upsetting and affecting those around him. He surely appears to have some sort of ToM. 

I wonder… Bella is only three, a fresh three; her birthday was just a month or so ago. Would she fail it? While she is rummaging for the next activity, I grab two dolls, a shoe, a book, and draw another paper carrot. 

“Miss RAZ, will you read this to me?” she asks as she drags a book the size of her torso towards me.
“Of course, but lets do something real quick…”

The bunny plops down in front of me with a pink feather topped pen in The bunny looks so serious. 

    “Ok, see the carrot?” I ask as I hold it up in front of her.
    “Yeah,” she responds with reticence. 
“Ok, so here is Mary and Bill,” I say as I present the two dolls. “Mary and Bill are looking at this carrot thinking, 
‘Mmm, this carrot is going to be good! Can’t wait to eat it!’ 
But Bill has to go to the potty, so they decide to both put the carrot in the shoe. So Mary and Bill both put the carrot in the shoe, together, and Bill walks away to go the potty. 
‘I’ll be right back!’ 
And Bill walks away. Ok?” I ask Bella as Bill ‘walks’ away.  
    “Mhm,” Bella nods still a bit confused about where this is going. 
“So, now Bill is not here, and Mary want to play a little trick on Bill. She’s going to take the carrot out of the shoe and put it… Under the book! Hehe! She’s being sneaky!” I say. 

Bella smiles and giggles, enjoying this sinister trickery.  

“Ok, now Bill comes back…” I say as I prance the unsuspecting Bill back into this imaginary scene. “Where do you think Bill is going to look for the carrot?” I ask.

Without a moment of hesitation, she smiles and points with her pink feather topped pen to the shoe where Bill does indeed think the carrot is safely hidden. 
    “In the shoe?” I say with a gasp, trying to conceal my true excitement. 

She nobs and smiles with confidence. 

“Let see what Bill does… “ I say as I have Bill check inside the shoe. 
’It’s not in here!’” Bill declares in agony! ‘Where is it?!’”

Bella smiles again but sits silently waiting for my instruction. 

    “Are you going to tell him where the carrot is?” I ask her. 

She grins and puts her finger on the book where the carrot is hidden under. 

“OH! It’s under the book!” I say as Bill goes to retrieve the mysterious carrot.   “Good job, Bella! That was great! Ok… Now we can read your book…”

I read her the book with added excitement and zeal. 

Though it isn’t unheard of for a young three-year-old to pass this test, I am still very curious about how she passed with flying colors. 

Bella’s older sister, Grace, has autism. For the past two years, Bella has inadvertently been the recipient of a fair amount of applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy purely by sitting near or around the action. It shows. This three-year-old is very loquacious, far beyond the normal three-year-old. Maybe it’s the accidental ABA. Or maybe she is hyper aware of how people are feeling because of her sister. Whatever the reason, it’s impressive and noteworthy. She’s grasped the ability to put herself in someone else shoes. I know a few adults who still don’t seem to do that…

A few weeks later, her older, over reactive, seven-year-old sister, Elizabeth, is over reacting to some task I deem to be menial. My typical response is to try and ignore it away, since I have her two younger girls to tend to. Elizabeth is getting weepy and going into her high pitched, unintelligible baby voice. Somehow, whatever it is she is doing is now “impossible,” which can mean only one thing for… It is the end of the world! This is stressing everyone out. Grace is getting jumpy, and Bella looks annoyed. I have no empathy for the type of behavior.

“Elizabeth… Please calm down. Is it a big deal?” I ask, trying to talk rationally to this temporarily irrational little being. 
    “YES, it’s a big deal!” she snaps back. 

What little empathy I had is now completely stamped out by her response. She just needs to suck it up and calm down. I roll my eyes and notice Bella looking at me as she munches on her snack while Elizabeth is still whimpering. 
“It is a big deal for her, Miss RAZ,” Bella says with the most earnest look I have ever seen on a three-year-old. 

I’m speechless. Schooled on theory of mind by Bella, the loquacious three-year-old… I need to remember put myself in her bunny shoes more often.