Emotion detector

Dante has latched onto a new formulation: “Don’t say [insert expression of any kind of excitement here].” A typical scene at our house:

LAURA: I gave Dante some of my quarters to play with.
PAUL: Wow, nice mama!
DANTE: Don’t say “nice mama!”

We’re almost guaranteed to get this response if we praise him. Any “great job!” (or equivalent) is very likely to be met with a “Don’t say ‘great job!'” It also extends to correction. An example from tonight: he’s running towards some food to eat it, but his hands are filthy from digging through gravel, so I want him to wash his hands first.

PAUL: [As he’s running towards the table] Waitwaitwaitwait! Wash your hands first, please.
DANTE: Don’t say “waitwaitwaitwait!”

It can be a little frustrating — it’s like he’s the emotion police. Laura’s theory is that he gets easily overwhelmed when around expressions of feeling, and struggles to process them. So he tries to assert some control over the thing that’s crashing in on his world. Now, this doesn’t mean that he himself is averse to expressing emotion. Far from it. (I mean, come on, he’s 3.) Also, under the right circumstances, Laura and I can express our feelings to each other, him, or whoever, especially if we do it calmly, or, conversely, if he’s hyped right along with us. But any kind of animated speech expressed while he himself isn’t feeling animated is quite likely to trigger the Little Censor.

He’s also having a vexed relationship with attention. Even calmly phrased praise can be difficult for him to accept. Descriptive praise works best, but sometimes even a totally calm, totally factual piece of feedback is more attention than he wants on his achievements. Last night, we were reading a story together, in which some of the words were highlighted in red. The idea was that the kid would shout out the red words. So I told him this, and when we got to the first red word (which was “forest”), I pointed at it, and he said, “I don’t know what that says.” I suspected this was not true. So I said, “What if you said it in a very quiet voice?” I read the sentence again, and then pointed at the word. “Forest,” he said, the barest whisper into my ear. We read through the whole story, and he whispered each red word, almost inaudibly. He knew them all — he just didn’t want the feeling of being expected to speak them, let alone shout them.

Even as he’s attention-averse in certain ways, he’s simultaneously become Mr. Separation Anxiety, finding it difficult to tolerate being away from Laura for more than a minute or two unless somebody else is directly paying attention to him. “I want mama,” he says, all day long. He says it when she is standing right in front of him, sometimes even when she’s holding him. “I want comfort,” I think he means.

It makes sense that he’d be feeling a little insecure. He’ll be going to preschool in the fall, and we’ve been slowly introducing the idea of school to him. It’s fair to say he’s freaked by the prospect. I think (I hope) it’s mostly fear of the unknown, and that he’ll be okay after a transition period. It might be a rough transition period, though. He’s been insisting lately that he is not three, that he’s only two and he won’t get any bigger. Also, he’s started wearing some plastic braces on his feet for part of the day to help correct a fairly severe pronation problem (walking on the insides of his feet, basically.) So he’s going through an adjustment period with that too.

He’s got a lot going on, and considering that, I think he’s doing pretty well. But I won’t say that too loudly around him.

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