A few months ago, Sprout decided he would no longer sit in the tub. Needless to say, this was not a decision that Chris and I welcomed. In fact, it was extremely frustrating. Besides making him much more difficult to wash, it was straight-up dangerous. I had to hold firmly on to his arm throughout the entire bath to prevent him from walking or randomly slipping. What was one of my favorite parts of the night became this weird power struggle between us for six whole weeks.
On the surface, this was the first real instance of him pushing limits and testing boundaries. While we’ve always had issues with sleep and he was a picky eater for a while, this was really out of nowhere and not a typical toddler behavior. It seemed one day, he thought, “What would happen if I stood up in the tub?” and then didn’t stop. It was so arbitrary.
At first, we had no idea how to react. I’m against using physical force for compliance in all but the most dangerous of situations, like yanking a kid out of the way of a car. Also, whenever we tried any physical encouragement, like putting gentle pressure on his shoulder or lifting his legs up to encourage him to sit, he squirmed violently. Our cues only increased the danger of the situation. There wasn’t a clear role for punishment, as it isn’t useful for kids that little, especially if it isn’t obviously and clearly connected to the problem. Trying a more positive tack, we praised the wonders of sitting, like being able to play with his toys. But he didn’t seem to care one bit. So we weren’t left with a lot of options.
We finally settled on allowing the natural, uncomfortable consequences of standing in the bathtub to play out on their own. Through no to little action of ours, he was choosing to be cold and have a short, boring bath. He couldn’t play with his toys or splash. I wanted to minimize the time spent in this risky situation, so I washed him as quickly as possible, leaving out the fun interaction we used to have. The one thing we purposely took away was the time we normally spend playing on the bed after his bath while I dry him off. I didn’t want to make it seem like a reward for standing. Plus, when I was that frustrated, I didn’t really feel like singing or playing.
While this seemed to be the best course of action, I felt like I was missing something. Sprout clearly didn’t enjoy his baths anymore – he looked stoic most of the time – but he still wouldn’t sit down. Was this a case of exceptional toddler stubbornness or something else?
I hit upon what that “something else” might be one day when Chris was showering. Since our Disney World vacation, Sprout has been into imitating the “big people.” I guessed that one of the times Chris stuck his head out of the shower to talk to Sprout, he got the idea that big people don’t sit in the bath – they stand. It wasn’t that he was adamantly against sitting in the tub in and of itself, but against doing something for babies.
To prove to him that adults do, in fact, take baths, we actually had Chris take a bath with him. It was pretty cramped – Chris is tall and our tub is not – but it worked! When I put him in with Chris, Sprout was skeptical, but eventually sat down. Since then, he’s stayed sitting when I put him in the tub and hasn’t expressed any great interest in standing up.
I feel a little guilty that he was uncomfortable for so long before I hit upon an alternative explanation. But on the other hand, I don’t know if he would have acquiesced if Chris had demonstrated the first night. Maybe he had to experience how unpleasant the alternative to sitting was before mAking that choice. But it did illustrate once again to me how different his perspective is from mine and how difficult that can be to express when you have very few language skills. It made it clear how all the more important it is for me to truly listen to him, even if his communication isn’t always in words.