Saturday, June 04, 2005

Baby Hannibal?

Or, Neglected Child?

My 2-year-old son was booted out of his preschool for biting -- and now my wife and I are facing a summer of hell.
One afternoon a couple of weeks ago, I picked up my son Elijah from school. The other kids were all napping or playing quietly. His teacher was sitting at a low table with him, in a chair four sizes too small for her. She was surrounded by a palpable aura of exhaustion and defeat.

He bit again today," she said. "There was blood. We've tried everything. We can't stop him."

The next day, Elijah chomped on another kid, and scratched still another one over the eye. The day after that was a Friday. An afternoon teaching assistant called us at home. Elijah had put a rock up his nose, and they couldn't get it out. When we picked him up to take him to a doctor who would stick a vacuum up his schnozzle, Elijah's teacher told us we had to have a conference Monday afternoon.

"We're probably going to talk about solutions," my wife, Regina, said.

"No, we're not," I said. "They're gonna expel him."

"Don't be negative," she said.

That Monday, Regina took Elijah to school in the morning. Teacher was there, a cloud of dread hanging over her. "I got a call at home about the rock," teacher said. "Last week, I pulled another rock out of his nose. Two weeks ago, I pulled spaghetti out of his nose."

Suddenly, Regina realized that the school was probably going to posit one "solution." She came home and said: "If they do boot him out, screw them. I'm tired of feeling like I have a child who's especially difficult. Every kid has his issues. It's not like he's 7 years old and doing this."

"Yeah!" I said. "Screw them!"

Except for the few hours a week when she teaches a class at the local community college, my wife and I both work at home. The house is small. I write in a corner of the living room, and Regina, when she can, goes to paint in the garage. Even if we hired an inexperienced nanny on the cheap, the kid would still be underfoot most of the day, screeching.

When Elijah was around 14 months old, we started looking. Regina hadn't worked since he was born, and her brain was starting to melt out her ears. The two hours a day of "daddy time" that we'd set aside for me were only occasionally tenable. I may have been working in the same room where we kept the diaper bag, but I was still working.
We had a couple of flimsy recommendations from friends. Most preschools don't have much Web presence. So we flipped open the phone book.
One afternoon, we got a call from our fourth or fifth choice, a not incredibly expensive Montessori school 10 minutes away from our house. They had our check within an hour.
Elijah was in school from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The school was OK. Within a few months, Elijah knew his alphabet, his days of the week, the state of Texas on sight, seemingly hundreds of songs, and he could count to 40. At the same time, they showed the kids Barney videos while they were changing their diapers and gave them Country Time lemonade while calling it "juice." When we complained, the director ignored us. But at least we had our mornings.

And then he started to bite.

At first, it was only occasional, and totally excusable, since he wasn't even 2 yet. A kid was playing with a ball he wanted, and he took a chomp.
In particular, Elijah seemed to enjoy biting a sad-eyed little girl named Sophie, with whom he was obviously in love. He wouldn't stop talking about her at home. "Daddy, what's Sophie doing?" he'd ask. Or he'd say, "I bite Sophie!" and start cackling. I found myself having to say, both because it was true and because it was funny, "Elijah, you can only bite girls if they ask you to."
They were putting him in timeout at school, but he didn't seem to mind that, either, because it was one of the rare times he got individual attention. We devised an incentive program with his teachers. If you don't bite, we told him, you'll get ice cream. But after a couple of days of ice cream, he was sated, and he'd bite again. They told us to start sending him to school with a family picture in his pocket. If he bit they'd take the picture away. This worked for about three days. That's when we got called in for the conference.

There's no cataloging the feeling of helplessness that washed over Regina and me then. Our child was being expelled. From preschool. What had we done wrong?

The teacher said she felt "sick" about this. She'd had to talk to her boss, the school's director. The boss came to class and said, "Him? How could he be trouble? He looks like a little Botticelli... "

"He's smart as a whip," she said. "I can see it in his eyes when I talk to him. He understands everything. He just has problems with impulse control. Maybe you should get him some clay," she said. "Something he can pound his aggression into. Or find him a nanny who can give him individual attention."

I wanted to say: He already has clay, superstar. And do we look like we can afford a nanny? Instead, I said... "Can we just have until June 1?"

On the drive home, Regina and I could barely keep from weeping. Our respective families were 1,000 miles away in either direction. We were terrified at the prospect of a summer without help. The irony was that we don't have the $1,500 it would have cost to warehouse Elijah through September, so we might have had to pull him out anyway. But now we've been forced into the challenge of caring for a smart, stubborn, high-strung 2-year-old. We love him very much, but that's not the kind of work either of us wants, at least not full time.

Later at home, Regina had this to say, through tears.

"I feel like a bad mother!" she said. "I don't want to spend all summer with him! He's difficult! He's a difficult child! He wants too much from me. And you're going to go crazy if he's around all the time. Our marriage always suffers when he's home!"

"So our marriage has to suffer," I said.

"This is a fiasco," she said.
In our minds and in our hearts, Regina and I silently wished the summer away.

When I read this story my first thought was that poor little boy. I know the kids he's biting are the ones in pain, but his pain is just as real, if not as immediately evident.
A sound smack on the backside would make it clear to little Elijah that biting hurts and not just those being bitten.
Then a major reality alert for his parents.
"We love him very much, but that's not the kind of work either of us wants, at least not full time."
Apparently someone failed to tell these two incredibly selfish adults, children ARE a full time job. Not just something to take out and play with for a couple of hours a day.
How said is it when one can say "They were putting him in timeout at school, but he didn't seem to mind that, either, because it was one of the rare times he got individual attention"?
He's an ONLY child for pete's sake. He should be getting tons of attention.
There is so much more I can say on this, but I'm going to reserve that for tomorrow. This post is already way long.
Personally I think 99% of what is wrong with our children and our society today can be found right here in this man's tale of woe. What I'd like is your response. If you think it's too long for comments then how about posting something on your blog.


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