Raising Richmond: Pom pom power

How a five dollar bag of craft pom poms saved my sanity…and helped our son be a little bit more brave.

Our son JR is three-and-a-half. And while he’s quite sweet and kind most of the time, he’s also—I guess you could say—really, really good at being three-and-a-half. Meanwhile, I’m really, really good at letting him get to me.

Things got especially challenging for us over the last few months. Time-outs no longer had the influence they once did, and it started to feel like all of my interactions with JR revolved around me disciplining him and him whining at me with brain melting relentlessness.

But our frustrations with one another weren’t limited to the typical “do this, stop doing that” banter between mother and son. JR’s always been a stubborn one. His stubbornness tends to flare up most when he’s presented with a new situation—particularly one that he either sees as scary or likely to make him the center of attention. And let’s be honest, those situations are often one and the same for some people. I know this because I am one of those people; apparently I’ve passed this on to my son.

Granted, there’s nothing wrong with him being cautious, and I’m sure we’re going to be thanking our lucky stars for his strong sense of self-preservation once he reaches his teen years. But I feel like my (perhaps overly-) cautious and reserved nature caused me to miss out on a lot growing up, and I’d hate to see that happen to him. So I coax and I push (hard), pleading with him to try, to be brave, to just trust me, for the love of Pete. He pushes back (just as hard, if not harder) and often ends up in tears. Then I spend the rest of the day fighting off feelings of guilt and self-doubt as I try to not let that particular hiccup color the rest of our day.

— ∮∮∮ —

Enough was finally enough at a recent daycare drop-off. JR and I walked into the foyer of his school to find members of his class making their way through an obstacle course his teachers set up earlier that morning. As each kid took his or her turn through the course, the rest of the class cheered along raucously…and JR drew closer and closer to me, gripping onto the leg of my pants.

“Come on, JR! It’s your turn!” his teacher called, waving him over.

JR looked up at me, his chubby chin trembling.

“It’s ok! It’s gonna be fun!” I said smiling, trying my damndest to psyche him up.

“Nooooooooooooo,” he whined, clinging to me for dear life.

I gave him a kiss and whispered, “I promise, you’ll be great!” I peeled his fingers off of me and attempted to steer him towards the group. He was having none of that. The tears started flowing, and he collapsed to the floor in a blubbering heap. His teacher (God love her) could sense we both were about to hit a wall, so she swooped in and scooped him up.

“That’s ok, JR! You can help me cheer for your friends for a while!”

She gave me a friendly smile and mouthed, “He’ll be ok. You go ahead.” I blew JR a kiss and made my way out the door.

And then I sat in my car for a while and fought back tears.

Why does he do that? That room was full of people he knows and loves and who know and love him—what did he think was going to happen? Why doesn’t he believe me when I tell him it will all be OK? Is he acting this way because he really is scared, or is he just manipulating me?

No matter what the answers were to those questions flipping around my brain, I was just done. Done with the fighting, with the guilt, and with the nagging feeling that the challenging similarities we share were pushing us apart instead of bringing us together.

So I did what any former teacher worth her salt does in a time of crisis: I headed straight for a craft store.

I went in planning to get the supplies for a marble jar. You know, just like the ones used by teachers in elementary school classrooms as a means of positive reinforcement. The kids behave, they get a marble. Once the jar is full, there’s a pizza party or everyone gets a homework pass or something equally mind-blowing to the under-12 set.

But as I was walking up and down the aisles, I realized our situation demanded a more tailored-made approach–something that would visually represent JR’s day-to-day accomplishments and his bigger victories. And more than anything, we needed a tool that would help us (read: me) focus on JR’s good behavior and not harp on those moments when he’s a bit “off.”

I left with two items in my bag: an eight-ounce glass jar and a package of multi-colored craft pom poms in assorted sizes. That evening I sat JR down and showed him his new “Good Job Jar.” We sorted the pom poms by size and talked about what each one represented. The smallest ones would go in the jar when we caught him doing little things like saying please and thank you unprompted or listening well in the store. The “bigger” the behavior, the larger the pom pom. We would save the largest pom poms—or the “BIG-HUGE ONES!” as he called them—for things like trying something new or choosing to be brave.

His face lit up when I told him that once he filled the jar, he’d get a prize of his choosing. As we worked together to come up with a few ideas to get him started, I was sure I was setting myself up to fork over some major cash over the next few weeks. But as it turned out, most of his requests were adorably simple. Things like “getting a Sierra Mist from CVS” and “playing with the hose in the yard” made him downright giddy with excitement.

As he helped me put each pile of pom poms in its own plastic baggie, JR picked up one of the bigger ones and looked at me in that cute, serious way that only a three-year-old can.

“Mama, if I get a bunch of the BIG-HUGE ONES! in the jar, I’ll get a prize more fast?”

“That’s right, bud.”

He nodded and got very quiet; he was clearly doing the math.

— ∮∮∮ —

We noticed an improvement in JR’s day-to-day behavior right away–less yelling and whining, more praise and cooperation from and for everyone. He’d even managed to earn that Sierra Mist within a couple of days. But I knew we were really onto something about a week into this new approach…at another daycare drop-off, wouldn’t you know?

We walked in on JR’s class in the middle of something that can only be described as a preschool dance-off—the kids taking turns standing on a little platform in the middle playground to show off their skills.

Because he is my son and we are cut from the same cloth, I had a pretty good idea of what JR was feeling at that moment: nervousness…anxiety…complete and utter panic.

“So what do you think?” I asked, kneeling down. “Do you want to go dance with your friends?”

He shook his head vigorously.

“Is it a little scary?”

He nodded–just as vigorously.

“I understand,” I told him. “No one is going to be mad at you if you don’t do it. But I bet it’ll be fun once you get up there.”

No response—and no forward motion either. So I went for it, mostly to see what would happen.

“Plus, I know of a Good Job Jar that would really like to see some BIG-HUGE! pom poms, don’t you?”

Before I could even get the sentence out he was off. I watched (in both disbelief and chest-bursting pride) as he jumped up on that platform like it was nothing and executed his signature move: shooting webs like Spider-man.

And then I sat in my car for a while and fought off tears for an entirely different—and completely wonderful—reason.

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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

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