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
of it was compiled from other emails and my notes/journaling. I
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.