Stan's Journey

Here's a long and rambling account of the process of Stan really starting to grow up and out of the horrible toddler stage he put us through.  A lot of this is new text, but some of it was compiled from other emails and my notes/journaling.  I wrote this up for a friend who also had a difficult son who is now in college.  This was compiled shortly after the end of the events described, so the general observations about Stan are somewhat frozen rather than updated where he is now, but it's a good overview of the big growth period from March (before he turned 5 in July) until shortly after he started kindergarten in August.

Stan's journey

It's difficult to overstate just how horrible things were before his 5th birthday.  I know there are bad kids out there and plenty with other problems.  He isn't severely retarded, autistic, etc., but he was EXTREMELY difficult.  Mainly it was simply that he was stubborn.  He wasn't defiant just to be defiant, but if he was asked to do something he didn't want to do, he was impossible.  He didn't break toys or anything like that, but if you asked him for something, he was a complete asshole, and no amount of coaxing or threatening would gain you any ground; he'd just shut down and/or have a meltdown.

It sounds like finger-pointing, but when Dani's honest, she'll admit she's to blame for taking bad tendencies and enabling them to the point that they were intractable.  Case in point: He was literally weeks away from his fifth birthday before he was potty-trained.  I had gotten him to the stage where he would pee if I set the alarm on my phone and made him go every 75 minutes or so, whether he wanted to or not.  (He couldn't argue with the phone.  In fact, if I told him to go pee without using the alarm, he'd whine and say, "But your phone's not ringing!")  However, he was still shitting his diapers like a baby at an age where he could walk, talk, and express abstract concepts.

It all changed one day when Dani took him to the museum.  I wasn't with her; she went with a friend and her kids.  She told Stan to go pee before they went into the exhibits.  Exemplary of his defiance, he would go up to the toilet and then only let a trickle out.  "You need to pee more than that," Dani told him, but he refused to.  He seriously wouldn't pee simply because he was asked to do so.  I am still astounded that I can be writing down the honest news that there's a child out there who was this big a fucking asshole.

There was nothing Dani could do about it, of course, so they went on into the exhibits.  This was the science museum, which consists of a lot of activity centers where kids can sit down and build things or work with kits or whatever.  Stan worked for a short while until Dani noticed the urine dripping from his clothes.  She'd brought a change with her, fortunately.  We had cautiously transitioned away from diapers at this point, so this wasn't unexpected, but the sheer volume of urine was.  She took him into the bathroom, positively furious as she changed him.  After all, she'd given him an opportunity earlier.  What set her off though was that he played the victim.  As she put on dry clothes, he whined, "But my socks are wet!"  He was that soaked!  She hadn't brought dry ones, of course.  Who would ever expect to need to?  "Too damned bad!" she yelled at him.

That ended it.  Not another accident after that.  It wasn't that she somehow toilet-trained a kid in one session; it was that she had broken through to a stubborn prick who thought he could always have his way.  He had been ready for probably a full year at that point to use the bathroom on his own, but Dani had allowed him to think it was acceptable for an almost-four year-old to shit himself, that "he'll do it when he's ready" and all that.  She was always a welcome mat until that day, then she said she wouldn't be walked over anymore.  At least as far as potty training was concerned.
That's just one example of the kind of kid Stan was and the shit Dani let him get away with (literally).  There were plenty other problems as well, such as negotiating about everything.  I'll get more into that further on.  He gradually matured, but I think one of the key points where we saw a small jump was the trip to California in March.


One Wednesday out there we went to Legoland, which is sort of like "Disneyland-lite."  It's smaller rides, shorter lines, etc.  It's geared more for elementary-age kids, and the younger, the better.  We took him there, and he was a shit for much of the trip.  My notes from the trip read in part, "Stan was whiny for the first hour we were there, but then grew increasingly enthusiastic as we progressed, minus a few rough spots."  The notes about specific events are more nuanced, but there's a pattern to them: He'd complain about whatever we were doing next, then would slowly get into it... unless he got wet.  Any ride that involved getting splashed automatically set him off for the next 30 minutes or however long it took until he dried.

One set of notes exemplifies this.  Stan played on a playground while Dani rested.  While I was away, Dani said some kids tried to get Stan to play.  At one point he tried to walk away from them and act mad, and the other kid said, "Now don't be like that," and dragged him along with them.  He acted like he didn't want to play but went along anyway, so obviously he did.

Most of my notes from the trip include Stan's reaction.  One of them reads, "Stan was not especially impressed."  My last note reads "Ironic closure: The last ride Stan wanted to go on was the one he cried through when we first got there."

I didn't think about it at the time, but Legoland served as a good precursor to Disneyland a couple days later.  Legoland wasn't nearly as overwhelming in any sense, compared to Disneyland: It was smaller, the lines were shorter, the rides weren't as intense, etc.  We had a day between parks, so he was well-rested before proceeding to the bigger and more advanced park.  It really couldn't have worked out better.

Most importantly, I think something clicked in Stan.  He went from being negative about everything to being cautiously optimistic.  I think he finally realized that it was simply a waste of energy to fight us every moment when we were giving him something fun if he just gave it a chance.  The moment where that really happened for him was Star Tours, the Star Wars flight simulator.  He had seen the first movie, meaning he was aware of the characters and a few settings, so I thought this would be fun for him.  It turned out to be great.  The best part was seeing the normally stoic Stan sitting there slack-jawed as we shifted into hyperspace with the starfield streaking as we blasted forward.  It was the effect I wanted the original movie to have on him, and we finally got to see it.  I was watching him as much as the screen once I saw him wide-eyed at the effects.

It was almost like he was the opposite kid as he was a couple days ago.  I mention several times in my notes how he completely took to a ride or activity, that he didn't want to stop playing something, etc.  He was only cranky if he had to wait his turn, which is understandable if you're watching kids play something (e.g., a virtual hockey game) right in front of you and they get ten minutes to play it.  However, in most cases he tolerated incredibly long lines admirably.  And whereas he didn't want to play with any other kids before, he was much better-behaved in his limited interactions this time around.  For example, we got to talking with a mother/daughter about his age who were with us in line, and he kept wanting to do the rest of the park with her.  The only time he was difficult about was getting his picture taken with Mickey Mouse at a spot where that's staged.  He never takes good pictures, and really that's just a special case of where he's always his worst: any time he's asked to do something where someone's paying attention.


I don't recall now whether things changed all that much in him after we got home, but there's always going to be some problems raising any kid.  Stan certainly wasn't worse after the California trip, although I don't remember him being so much better that I remarked on it at the time.  What really made him shift up to the next level was the trip I took with him following my dad's heart attack.

We went down to Louisiana for ten full days.  Babies aren't the best thing during any convalescent period, let alone a heart attack, so I left Stella with Dani (Her folks took the baby during the days.  Reluctantly, I'm sure), and it was just me and Stan.

On the way down, Stan and I stopped off in Tyler, TX and went exploring together.  I budgeted time into the trip for that.  We picked up a pair of rubber boots for him, but I brought a flashlight and my own boots and camera.  We hit three tunnels of varying size, including a really neat one that was both long and very old.  He went through them enthusiastically, but almost as though this was something we did every day.  In fact, he was more excited about the two smaller ones we explored than the one I thought was a bigger deal.

Once we got down to Louisiana, I still had problems with him.  One issue has always been about what he'll eat.  It isn't even like he's an especially picky eater, but he's just difficult about everything.  He says "no" more than any other child.  This was getting to be an even bigger problem because he was less than two months away from kindergarten at this point.  Dani didn't factor in how imminent that was in his future, but I did.  Her strategy was to ask him, "Would you like [choice #1]?"  He'd turn that down.  Her: "Would you like [choice #2]?"  Again, no.  She'd go through a whole list trying to appease a kid who doesn't like anything.  I explained what I did: "Stan, do you want [choice #1] or [choice #2]?"  If he didn't respond with one or other, I'd walk away and let him starve.  No snacks, no alternatives.  I told Dani that I was giving him two choices.  "Next month," I told her, "he'll be in school and he'll have one choice.  Get him ready for that."

My dad subscribes to a "Meals on Wheels" program, and they supply him with what is basically a tv dinner-style meal: an entree with two vegetables.  I would split those with Stan, but he'd refuse to eat the vegetables.  I'd had enough.  With no Dani around to undermine everything though compromises, I stood my ground one day when he was being unreasonably childish.  "Take a bite of the peas," I said.  He refused even one forkful.  I insisted, and he escalated to the point that he was throwing himself on the floor and not just crying but screaming like I was trying to kill him.  It was awful, and it was overdue to be dealt with harshly.

I refused to give him anything to eat until he agreed to eat one forkful of peas.  It isn't like he had never had a vegetable before in his life; it was just that he hadn't eaten peas before.  We're too habitual at home, so we eat broccoli all the time.  If we have steak or pork chops, we probably have broccoli.  Almost anything Dani makes we eat broccoli with, and Stan actually loves it, so it was all the more unreasonable to be throwing a fit over a forkful of peas.

He knew with Mom he'd win out.  If he waited long enough, she would feed him something else.  Not me, and Dani wasn't there this time.  I stood my ground.  This was about more than the peas.  He didn't eat anything else beyond what little he'd had for lunch up to that point.  He refused again at supper, so he didn't eat anything for supper either.  He didn't get any snacks or desert at all.  He went to bed hungry.  The next day we had breakfast, then at lunch we finally had a break-through!  He reluctantly ate some peas.  I made him eat some more peas with his meal.  For supper he had something else like green beans or corn because this was not going to be a one-time thing; it was the start of something different.  I had told Dani about all this by text.  In fact, I texted Dani later with the news that he was eating vegetables finally and told her not to fuck this up when we get back.

I continued the project over the next few days, as much work as it turned out to be.  Every new food was a struggle.  Each bite was a struggle even, with me staring him down saying, "Eat it.  Eat a bite.  Eat it.  It's spilling off the fork.  Eat it.  EAT IT!"  Since we having some success on this trajectory, I took him out for supper at a local Japanese restaurant I liked.  He's seen me eat sushi plenty times (including literally every Father's Day since he was born.  In fact, the first thing he left teeth marks on was a piece of ginger!), but usually Dani would be with us and order something with chicken, because that's the one food Stan would always eat.  This time he wouldn't have an easy, familiar "out."  I knew every single item would be a new food to him, and I wanted him to make the effort.  I ordered a chirashi, since that's a sampling of a bit of everything.  If you aren't familiar with a chirashi, it's a dish that's a usually bowl of rice with big slices of at least five or six different kinds of fish, plus some vegetables.  Many times you get more than ten different things.  Additionally, since this was dinner, it also came with miso soup, and I ordered a California roll on top of that just because it seemed like a safe alternative in case everything else failed. 

Just to show that it isn't just food that's the problem, Stan's demonstrated how his aversion extends to everything new or foreign.  The waitress brought the hot towels for our hands, and he acted like they were scalding, which was ridiculous.  Even when he couldn't pretend they were still hot, he complained that we had just showered (which we had), so why did we need to wash our hands?!

The miso soup came first, which was a good thing because it's just soup, after all.  I first got him to sip it a bit.  I had to jump on opportunities when I saw something that worked to encourage him.  For example, I noticed that he felt a sense of immediacy if I pointed out that the soup was dripping from the spoon, that I didn't want it to spill on the table, so he'd hurriedly take a sip.  Then it was a matter of convincing him to try the little cubes of tofu (which I originally told him were chicken).  He said they didn't taste like anything.  Same story with the yaki sushi nori (seaweed): He made a big deal out of it, then said it didn't taste like anything.  It helped that I pointed out that a piece hanging out of his mouth looked like a snake tongue.

Next came the California roll, and that was an even bigger deal.  He whined about the soup, but he got to the point that he was crying and covering his face with the napkin.  With Dani there, he would have gotten a reprieve, but he also wouldn't have eaten anything new.  Dani would have complained that he was making a scene, to stop pushing him, etc., but that's exactly what he hopes for.  The past few days had shown that not letting up was the only way to get through this.  I plowed ahead.  He complained about every part of the roll, but I managed to get him to eat some of the rice and the crab meat.  We cut it short when the main course arrived.

During all this, the waitress must have been watching, because she brought him a small bowl with additional crab claws (the meat, I mean; no shell) on the house.  He was rude about it, naturally, so I ended up saving those for later.  However, it had some of the white "noodles" (I have no idea what they're called), and he attempted some of those, noting that they were flavorless, which seemed to be the required quality for him to proceed with nearly everything!  In fact, he always got upset if I dipped anything in soy sauce.  I had him try it with and without soy sauce in each instance.

The chirashi was kind of unusual compared to what I've gotten at other restaurants.  It was large (this was dinner, after all), but there was a lot of just tuna, salmon, and whitefish at the front, plus some octopus.  At the back were some crab claws, the aforementioned flavorless "noodles", and green clover-like plant-matter (again, no idea what its called), but in the middle was seaweed salad and squid salad, side by side.  I had originally thought about ordering squid salad as a side but worried that it might be too spicy for Stan (You never know), but now we had a lot of material to work with.

I can't remember what we tried first, but the squid salad was actually one of the big hits of the evening.  I could tell right away that he wanted to fake disdain for it but really kind of liked it.  It was one food that required little in the way of coercion to get him to eat (e.g., he'd complain that it was spicy, but he'd go right on eating it; or he'd say a piece was too big, so I'd bite off a third, then he'd eat it).

The seaweed salad required a bit more work.  I usually had to pick pieces out of it for various reasons (e.g., they were too dark or too long, whatever).  However, over time he got to the point that he'd eat it without question.  In fact, toward the end of the meal I decided to finish it off rather than packing it in with the leftovers (because it would have gotten mixed into the rice too easily otherwise), so I kept feeding it to him without complaint.

As for the other fish...  He only had a couple bites of the tuna.  I think he liked it okay, but he didn't eat enough to get into it.  Same with the salmon.  Only had a small piece of it.  He wasn't crazy about it.  By that time he was almost full, so he really wasn't interested in eating much more.  Earlier I gave him a couple bites of the octopus.  He preferred things without soy sauce ("The black stuff," he called it), so it wasn't all that appealing.  There was also the whitefish, but I didn't feed him any of it because it had hot sauce on it.

The whole experience was quite an ordeal.  I mean, I literally had sore muscles in my arm from holding out the chopsticks with food clamped in them in front of Stan for minutes at a time as I coaxed, begged, and finally ordered Stan to take a bite.  Multiply this by all the components, and you can imagine how many times I had to go through this over the course of the night before he'd tried one of every thing at the table.

It was a big meal, so it wasn't a surprise that we ended up with a lot of leftovers.  On the way home, we stopped off at Walmart (which was literally the next shopping center over from the restaurant) and bought some soy sauce for the leftovers.  I also got a pack of miso soup mix and a set of molded army figures (with accessories) for Stan as a reward for being good, relatively speaking.

When we got home that night he spontaneously offed, "I like tomatoes now!"  Earlier in the week I got a bacon hamburger at the mall, and we split it.  He'd been going on about how he hated tomatoes, so I didn't tell him there was one on it until after he ate it.  He must have just remembered that.  "Since when?" I asked.  Him: "I ate the bacon hamburger, and I didn't taste anything bad!"

We had the sushi leftovers the next day for lunch, and it was completely without complaint.  In fact, he was requesting which piece he wanted next, whereas the night before I was forcing each on him.  I texted Dani during the meal saying, "Yesterday he didn't want sushi; today he's a shark!"  That evening we had the instant miso soup from Walmart with no problem.  The key was getting him to try everything that first time to convince him it wouldn't kill him.

After we got back to Texas, I continued this some.  Specifically, I've taken him out for sushi about once a month now for the last few months, just the two of us.  He even tried wasabi several times!
[Update: This has become a regular thing for us.  We have continued to go about once a month for the past year.  Stan requests sushi regularly.  Sometimes Dani and Stella go with us, but it's usually just us so that we can hang out and talk.]


It wasn't just food, although that was an area that was easy to work with, so I exploited it.  We also spent a lot of time just coloring together, which turned out to be enormously (though unexpectedly) valuable!

Some of the things I packed to keep Stan occupied included colored pencils and pictures of monsters.  I had found a set of great cartoonish drawings of movie monsters on a website.  They were specifically designed for coloring, and they were great because they were far more detailed than most coloring book pictures.  They actually required some degree of skill to color tiny areas such as the Creature from the Black Lagoon's scales or the equipment in the mad scientist's laboratory behind Frankenstein or the bushes behind the Wolf Man as he made his way through the forest, etc.  Stan loves those movies, so we had something we could work on together.

A key thing was that I had two copies of each picture: one for each of us to color.  I colored the same image side-by-side with him.  Before I started doing that, he simply colored as best he could picture it, which was awful.  However, when I worked right next to him, he had a model to work off of.  He could copy the techniques I was using, such doing something more than just coloring a candle's flame yellow.  Instead, I'd add some blue to the flame and a ring of orange around it.  He'd see that and do the same, and with much greater care than he'd demonstrated working on his own without a model.

It was the first time we really focused on being focused, finishing tasks.  We wouldn't move on to the next picture until we were really and completely finished with what we started.  I'd make him color every single section of the picture and even go back over the sections he'd thought he colored so he could even it out to make it look professional.  It taught him to stick with a task until it was done, something he didn't get out of the free-play preschoolers normally engage in.

There were a lot of benefits to this improvised approach, but the biggest was kind of unexpected.  I'd bought a pack of 75 colored pencils, not crayons, so we had a lot of shades to work with.  He needed a pencil to do all this detailed work, things you couldn't do with a crayon.  I never thought about it before, but a crayon is a crayon.  However, a colored pencil is a pencil, just one that colors.  He wasn't just coloring; he was learning to use a pencil!

I'd spent a lot of time teaching him to recognize letters and sounds up to that point, and while he'd done well with that, he was horrible at writing.  All his letters were different sizes and distorted like the handwriting of someone with a traumatic brain injury.  It was pointless to even continue, so we focused on reading rather than writing.  Then, suddenly, as we were coloring one night, he just flipped the drawing over and said, "Is this how you write an 'A'?" while presenting me with a decent-looking letter!  All the coloring turned out to be a generalizable skill.  What I originally thought was mostly a way to kill time turned out to be among the most productive time we spent together!


It's a relatively small thing, but in line with the sushi and vegetables, one of Stan's other big "firsts" during this period was that he let me read comic books to him for the first time.  I had brought a bunch with me on the iPad, but he had never wanted me to read one to him before, believe it or not.  I'd offered many times, and while I read him stories nightly, he refused to even look at a comic book!  This is beyond unreasonable when you consider I was offering Spiderman and Batman to a kid who loves those characters and regularly dresses up as them!

Finally, unexpectedly, he came to me one day while at my dad's house, and he asked me to read a comic book to him.  I don't remember if he specifically requested any particular character or not, but I know I had a few Batman comics on the iPad, so that's what I read him, and he enjoyed them.


After the ten days I spent with Stan at my dad's following the heart attack, he matured more than at any other time in his life up to that point.  It was good timing since he couldn't have begun school as the kid he was at even the beginning of this summer.  I was convinced before he began that we could start a countdown because I was almost certain they were going to kick him out within two weeks.  He was just that difficult.  But he changed.

He started waving at strangers all of a sudden, something he had never done before, neither spontaneously nor by anyone's request.  (By contrast, Stella goodbye waves at everyone if she thinks we're leaving or even if I simply prompt her with "Goodbye.")  Stan actually began initiating interactions with people besides just me and Dani.  For example, about a week after he started kindergarten, Dani's friend Terea's daughter Kristen came over with her three year-old granddaughter (They were returning our inflatable swimming pool they borrowed for her birthday party the weekend before), and Stan climbed up in their car with her and started telling her about his Batman costumes (We have at least three full ones now; Dani even made a Batman Beyond costume for him: modified bodysuit, custom wings, and a full rubber mask).  He never would have done something that even a couple months ago.  I think the first time he talked to anyone like that was while we were still in Louisiana, and he kept telling one of Dad's neighbors about some Imaginext Batman toys another neighbor had bought him, showing him how they worked, etc.  Not long before that he would have tried to hide and would have refused to speak if spoken to.

The first day of school was a complete shock for me.  I expected him to come home from his first day exhausted.  The teacher warned us in advance that the kids always had an adjustment period for the first six weeks; they'll take a lot of naps when they get home, she explained.  He does pass out most days, but I thought it would be more like when Dani comes home.

Her: I'm exhausted!

Me: Why?  What did you do today?

Her: I had to talk to people!

Me: You're a SOCIAL worker!

Astoundingly, Stan hasn't had any complaints, even in the first week when most of the class were strangers.  (Annabelle from the next street over is in his class.  I think he might have met another kid or two from around the neighborhood like Sally's son once or twice.)  I figured a room full of new kids and being ordered around by a teacher would have worn him out.

Instead he would come out of school excited and cutting up with other kids, more so than anyone else in his class, in fact.  (They file out in a line, so I see the whole class every afternoon.)  It's quite a change.  He and one of the kids in his class used to walk part of the way home together the first couple weeks (back when road construction forced everyone to park halfway to my house), and they were always cutting up loudly all the way down the sidewalk. 

Even the first day of school he was in a great mood.  There was a minor meme on the internet in which parents contrasting the morning of the first day of school with the defeated look on the kid's face at the end of the day, the two pictures side-by-side.  Stan was the opposite.  He was maybe a little wary beforehand, but he was happy at the end of it.  He was even kissing on Stella when he got home his first day.

This was huge.  Even at the beginning of the summer he was being impossible.  For example, he took swimming lessons, and while he did okay with the actual swimming (which makes sense; he's always loved swimming), he refused to do any of the warm-up exercises.  Out of an entire row of kids mimicking the teacher's example and instructions for jumping jacks or touching their toes, Stan was the only one standing there like an imbecile.  The last week of the class I walked over to him and manipulated him through the exercises like a marionette.  He still refused to do it that time, but he finally did at the next lesson, even though I wasn't there for that one (Dani took him for the last day of the class).

He's always been like that, going back to Little Gym when he wasn't even two and a half.  He'd be one of the only ones who wouldn't pat the mat with the music.  He was able to clap when he was a year old, but he refused to when a classmate would demonstrate the trick we had learned last week.  Refused to say his name when we'd go around the circle to introduce ourselves, same as we did every other week.  Wouldn't do anything the instructor told him to do.  In short, he was an asshole.  Whenever anyone tries to refute that and say he was "just being a kid," I again point to the fact that in almost all of these cases, he was the ONLY kid who couldn't (read: WOULDN'T) do what most or even ALL the other kids were doing.  That's an asshole.

I honestly thought they'd call us in for a conference by the 2nd week of school and tell us that Montessori wasn't for him and/or that he needed counseling, so him fitting in at school was a pleasant surprise.  He's still difficult when Dani's around because she simply gives him his way entirely too often, and he takes advantage of that.  For example, the she took him for a haircut during that first week of school, and he whined and complained the whole time, whereas he didn't pull that the last couple times when I took him by ourselves.  In fact, last time we went for a haircut was Stella's first haircut.  She sat there happily enjoying hers, meanwhile Stan was in the next chair over from her screaming and crying while getting his hair cut.  That's right, the five year-old acted like a baby while the actual baby acted more mature.

Thankfully, he was already doing better than a lot of the kids in the first couple weeks.  I haven't gotten any updates in a while (Dani drops him off; I only pick him up), but there were a lot of them whining and crying when Mom leaves them off.  Since Dani drops him off in the mornings, I'm surprised it isn't worse, but Stan doesn't really cry like some of his classmates do.

It's not over

It's nice that he finally changed after telling him for the last few years that he absolutely had to change.  Dani got mad about it, but I often told him that he needed to change who he was.  The kid he was a few months ago was a disaster waiting to happen in any social situation.  We aren't out of the woods yet either.

They're sort of letting him slide in school.  The only incident I'm aware of has been a phone call from his PE teacher telling me that he wouldn't participate in anything, that he just completely shut down when they kept trying to encourage him to do anything.  Yeah, pretty much what he's always done for most of his life!

We went to two birthday parties this weekend.  All I asked him to do was tell the birthday girl "happy birthday."  You would think that I asked him to dance naked on a table.  Acted like a complete asshole.  He got better after we had been there a while, but he really didn't do anything especially social at the second one.  (He was pretty good at the first one at least.)  I'm worried because he's so non-social (I won't say anti-social because that doesn't describe him) that he's going to go through life at the periphery of things.  He'll miss out on opportunities for instruction, cooperation, romance, etc.  He's going to fail not for lack of skill or access, but because he won't make himself available to them.

And people wonder why Stella's still my favorite.

Copyright 2014 Alexplorer.
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