Today I discovered how to use the horrors of physical dismemberment to motivate a small child. Last night, M showed E1 that old trick where you take the end of your thumb ‘off’ and then put it back on again (if you’ve never seen this, I don’t think I can adequately describe it, but suffice to say you fold your hands in such a way that you can use the end of your right thumb so that it appears you’ve removed the end of your left thumb).
Her eyes shot wide open and her whole face was overcome with absolute horror and complete fascination in equal measure. “Do it again, Daddy!” He did, and her mouth dropped open. She ran over to him, paused for a unsure moment, and then gathered her courage and grabbed his thumb and pulled. Nothing. She pulled harder. “It’s broken!”
I put my hands together and did the trick too. “Mine works,” I said, holding the ‘detached’ end up for her to see. I hastily ‘reattached’ it as she rushed over to yank on it with all her might.
“It’s stuck! Why won’t it come off?” she demanded. “I want it. I want that… the… the piece!” Daddy caught her attention and repeated the trick, and we kept her going back and forth between us for a fair few minutes as she tried to get ‘the piece’ before we stuck it back on again.
Today E1 was messing about instead of eating her lunch in that way that tears holes in my patience. Stand up. Sit down. Stand up. Sit halfway on the chair and swing legs wildly. Drag spoon across table. Put elbow in spilled lunch. Grrrrrrrrr. I asked for patience… Suddenly, her face lit up. “Take your thumb off!”
“What, like this?” I quickly performed the trick, and her face lit up with delight and horror.
“Yes! And let me have the piece!”
“I’ll do it when you’ve finished your lunch — perhaps you can get the piece then. Eat up!” Lunch suddenly took on a new importance, and three spoonfuls disappeared in short order.
Then she paused and looked at her emptying bowl. “I’m not eating up — I’m eating down,” she announced with care, before going back to shoveling spoonfuls into her mouth. Clever girl — she’s quite right. Lunch does go down, and hers was gone in no time. I dutifully removed the end of my thumb and, unsurprisingly, she was not quick enough to get hold of it. But I had spotted something golden.
The thumb came off when it was time for her to use the toilet — just for a moment. “I’ll do it again when you’ve done a poo.” Instantly, she was motivated to really concentrate on the job. The thumb came off when it was time to take a nap. And to eat dinner. And to share her toys. She never was quite quick enough to grab hold of the detached end, but she certainly did whatever was required so that she had the chance to try.
And today was certainly easier than usual. I know it won’t last long. Sometime soon, she’ll figure out that I’m tricking her… or perhaps just get bored of it. Such is a three-year-old’s world, where even a dismembered thumb can become mundane after time. But for today — and probably tomorrow and perhaps the day after — it got the job done. And that goes a long way in parenting.