A new strategy for Jay: Just knock it off

I woke up in the dark this morning to make Jay his toast and roust him from his crib for the short drive to preschool.  He’s never sweeter than he is these early mornings, full of funny three-year-old observations and totally compliant when I ask him to stick his legs out straight so I can pull his pants on.  It’s enough to make me almost look forward to getting out of bed an hour earlier than I usually do.

School mornings are great for Wally, too.  By the time I arrived back home today he was awake and up on the second floor with Caroline.  The bulge of his nighttime diaper was still visible beneath his bear pajamas.  Looking down at me from the top of the stairs, he brandished a yellow stuffed duck and brought it to his mouth for a demonstrable kiss.  At breakfast Caroline spooned him mouthfuls of raspberry smoothie (leavened with half ‘n half, to pack more calories onto his flaco frame) and I dished him pieces of soggy cereal from the bottom of my bowl- just the way he likes them.

The peace that reigns on school mornings is in stark contrast with all the other hours of the week when Jay and Wally are together at home.  The main problem is Jay who seems to be pathologically unable to be in the same room with Wally without taking his brother’s toys, blocking his way, or knocking him over.  The other night some friends were over and one of them, the husband, asked Jay what he likes most about his brother.  “Hitting him,” Jay said without missing a beat, and indeed his actions perfectly reflect his priorities.

Last night Caroline and I watched the first episode of Game of Thrones, the ballyhooed medieval fantasy series from HBO.  In one of the opening scenes this kind of authoritative horseman tells his scared comrade, “Get back on your horse.  I won’t ask you again.”  Caroline and I laughed out loud, because with Jay we always, always ask again.

We’ve tried a number of strategies to get Jay to leave Wally alone.  We’ve used a three-strikes-and-you’re-in-timeout system, we’ve taken away his favorite toys, we’ve stripped him of his bedtime books, we’ve talked with him about how much Wally loves him, we’ve tried to carve out special Jay-and-Daddy-Mama time, we’ve erupted in rage, and once or twice I’ve given to Jay as he’s given to Wally, smothering him with a faux-affectionate bear hug or hip-checking him to the ground and asking him, “So how do you think your brother likes it?”  It feels good in the moment even if it’s not exactly viable as a long-term behavior modification plan.

More often, though, Caroline and I feel confounded.  Last night after dinner Jay and Wally raced around the house and Caroline called out once again to Jay, “Leave your brother alone.”  As Jay zipped by on his plasma car (which has since been impounded, for transgressions relating more to furniture than to Wally), Caroline spoke for both of us when she said, “I would feel so ashamed if other parents could see us now.”

My most recent thought regarding Jay’s relationship with Wally was inspired by a passage I read in The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished last novel which I started two seasons ago and finished over the weekend.

The passage comes from the longest uninterrupted section of the book.  The beautiful Meredith Rand is describing to awkward Shane Drinion her experience as a teenager in a mental health facility where she was sent for cutting herself.  Rand explains that she had endless sessions with doctors all of whom tried to figure out the root of her problem- why she was cutting herself.  But one night she gets into a conversation with a low-paid ward attendant, a guy whose job is to make sure everyone’s taking their medications and no one’s jumping out the window.  The attendant tells Rand that understanding her problem isn’t necessarily going to help her solve her problem, and the emphasis on why she’s doing what she’s doing might even impede her ability to stop it.  Rand explains:

I didn’t know why I did it.  I’m still not sure, except he taught me that trying to analyze it or understand all the whys was bullshit- the only important thing was knocking it off, because if I didn’t it would land me right back in the psych ward.

Psych wards would be pretty crowded if beating on a younger sibling was enough to get you committed, but I think there’s something to this as far as our approach to Jay goes.  Since Wally was born Caroline and I have spent a lot of time talking about how having a brother has affected Jay and we try to tease out just what it is that might be motivating him to niggle at Wally the way he does.  It’s an interesting conversation but maybe one that’s beside the point.  Really, Jay just needs to knock it off, and if Caroline and I approach our parenting with that attitude, perhaps we’ll be more effective at making him do that.