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Knowing the right approach is key with kids

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I have long believed that the small people in our lives — children and grandchildren — teach us as much as we alleged adults teach them.

The other day I was sitting with my much-loved, nearly 3-year-old grandson, Caleb.

In patient and loving tones I was trying to explain to the adorable little guy the very rational reasons why some particular behavior he was performing is socially unacceptable. (I'd tell you what he was doing, but I frankly can't remember.)

One of the things Caleb has taught me: If he doesn't want to hear what I have to say, then functionally nothing I can do will get his attention or make an impact.

This was pretty much the situation as I was explaining to him in the most reasonable and calm way the ill-conceived nature of his chosen activity.

His dad, our son-in-law Jonathan, found me thus engaged. I think he was pretty much convinced I was striding bravely right into the world of dementia.

"You can't use logic with Caleb," he admonished.

It is the case I haven't had a widget Caleb's age around since his mother and Jonathan's wife, our dear daughter Becca, was that age, so my memory is undoubtedly inaccurate.

I thought I recalled being able to reason with the smalls who called me Daddy. We would sit on the couch or at the dinner table. I would pour words of sage wisdom on their little heads, and then they would do precisely the right thing, which is what I told them to do.

I shared this memory with Susan, and she immediately agreed with Jonathan that my remaining gray matter was turning to mush.

While it is crystal clear the language and approach I was using with Caleb was a total failure, I was convinced that because the boy is really quite intelligent there had to be a way to use language to instruct him and get him to do what I want.

I'm working on a vegetable garden, which is almost always an utter failure, but I'm trying to make this one the exception. As part of that effort I purchased a bale of straw to spread thickly over the garden to retain water and discourage weeds.

I was sure this was a project Caleb would enjoy, so I brought him out to the garden and began explaining in great detail what I was trying to accomplish. I was maybe three words into the explanation and Caleb was watching clouds and butterflies and ignoring everything I was saying.

Jonathan had followed his son outside and heard my feeble explanation.

That's when Jonathan said to his son, "Buddy, grandpa wants you to make a mess."

Jonathan began tossing the straw over the garden and Caleb was into it. The little guy was grabbing chunks of straw from the bale and tossing them with exuberant abandon. Straw was flying in every direction.

The point is Caleb was not at all sure he wanted to help Grandpa work in the garden, but he was absolutely certain he wanted to make a mess, particularly if Dad said it was the thing to do. Work is yucky. Making a mess is fun, duh!

That revelation was just about as obvious as sunrise, but I had missed it. I can see other applications of that same principle.

I bet I could get Caleb to vacuum the entire house, if I turned on the machine and told him he could use it to chase our resident house cats, but I think the cats might object to that proposal.

I need to work on the details, but I'm sure there are ways to put this concept into productive practice.