The Entry That Became a Book Review, But Not Really

>> Monday, February 23, 2009

When I am confused or overwhelmed and have to make a sudden decision, the feeling is akin to being a hungry wolf trapped in a cage: I snarl, I snap, I thrash about, and all I want to do is escape so I can go somewhere else and have a nice meal.

This is often how I feel when I'm confronted with a sudden parenting dilemma that I don't know how to handle -- and this happens more often than I would like.

The problem is, there will be a nice stretch of time when the girls are fairly well behaved. They listen (pretty good), they share (pretty good), and they're pretty good to their mommy. During that time, I relax. I talk to them more like grownups. For example, when they don't want to stay in their beds at night, I'll be honest with them, "Seriously, could you go back to bed without a fuss -- Daddy and I have things to do." And for a time, they'll do it. I simply explain myself and that's all it takes to get them to respond.

But gradually it takes more and more explaining to get them to respond. "Seriously, I'm so tired and I have a headache and I didn't get much sleep yesterday and I'm worried about the bills and the cat threw up." When that stops working, I have (on occasion) sunk so low as to beg (which is not hard to do at 2am), "Please, please go back to bed... I can't take it... please! I Just. Can't. Function!"

Pretty soon their little defiances linger throughout the day. When Lizzy is in time out, suddenly she has to pee -- badly. When I let her pee, she closes the door and soon I hear all sorts of music from the bathroom... improvised songs, drum beats, dancing footsteps. Then she brushes her teeth... plays with the cat under the door... makes toilet paper bows. Five, ten minutes goes by... Time out? What time out?

It cascades downhill from there. Lizzy doesn't do her homework. Samantha keeps leaving the dinner table. Lizzy won't clean up her mess. Samantha won't stop whining. Lizzy spills her milk. Samantha threatens Lizzy. Lizzy tells on Samantha. Samantha bangs the door. Lizzy interrupts. Sammy interrupts. There is yelling... lots of yelling.

And then the cat throws up.

Why do their quiet, well-behaved spells eventually devolve into chaos and anger leading to mommy's little meltdowns? Is it some master plan on their part to drive me insane by lulling me into complacency and then attacking when I least expect it? Is that what they whisper about in their bedroom at night?

Or am I just not good at this parenting thing? Perhaps my goals, combined with my limited talents and education, are no match for the Most Important Job on Earth. Perhaps we should have gone to a movie that night 6 years ago, instead of procreating.

Nah. The girls aren't (that) evil and I'm not a (complete) moron. I suppose my mistake is thinking I can turn parenting "up and down" like the volume on the radio. Sometimes I turn it up (as I've done recently by checking out -- and reading -- parenting books), and sometimes I turn it down (by not following through with consequences as I should). So it's not that the girls' behavior fluctuates as much as my parental focus fluctuates. And haven't we heard it a thousand times before: parents have to be consistent.

But getting back to my confusion...

And the library...

There are TOO MANY BOOKS out there on how to parent -- many with very different parenting techniques and advice. First, I read that I should give them an allowance. Then, when they misbehave I should deduct money from their "account". But no! That's bribery! says another book. Instead, give them stars on a chart or brightly-colored balls in a Good Job Jar when they do certain tasks. After "x" number of stars or balls, reward them in some way. After all, it's not bribery if it's sticky or brightly-colored.

But wait, which tasks get stickers and which don't? Do we ever take stickers away? What if the girls take forever to complete a task? Should I time them? What if tasks are executed while making angry faces at me? If their looks actually kill me, do they still get a sticker? When do I take away their privileges? Which ones have they earned?

Why are you letting her play on the computer? Don't you know she's on restriction?

No, I didn't! You forgot to place the blue felt "computer" symbol in the Restriction column of the Behavior Chart!

Ahhh!!! (Dear God, please -- I just want simple, straight-forward techniques that don't befuddle my already over-befuddled, too-tired brain.)

Well, God (or persistence) came through, because I think I found what I needed in Whining: Three Steps for Stopping It Before the Tears and Tantrums Start. It's very short and very simple and focuses on Logical Consequences (not just random punishment), Assertive Behavior (which involves a lot of well-timed ignoring), and Contribution (kids need to contribute to the family).

Logical Consequences

Example: If your child misbehaves in a restaurant, the entire family leaves.
Lesson: Our behavior affects everyone in the family. Behold their dirty looks.

Example: If you don't get dressed on time, you don't eat breakfast.
Lesson: It's important to be on time. Otherwise, you may starve.

Example: If you give your parent a hard time (whining, complaining) as he takes you to the store to buy poster board for a school project, then the parent turns the car around and you don't get the board and you likely get into trouble at school.
Lesson: Be nice to people who are trying to help you. Seriously, we're not going to take that crap.

(FYI, we've only implemented one of the preceding examples...)

Logical consequences are often hard to implement as parents because it usually means we all have to suffer to some extent (none of us gets to eat at the restaurant, we feel badly for sending our thin children to school without breakfast, and we don't want our children to get into trouble at school). But that's why this technique is so important. We're raising our children to participate in a society, therefore they need to learn that their behavior affects other people, and sometimes those "other people" are us. (No one said parenting would be easy.)

Assertive Communication

Here are the most important lessons I learned from this chapter:

Ignore misbehavior designed purely to get attention, such as calling your mother "Melissy Wissy" and telling her "You're not a good cook." Don't reward this kind of behavior with attention. Instead, wait for them to do something positive and give them attention for positive behavior. (Good job... not... picking your nose! That's super!)

Don't over explain or over justify. Clearly state what is expected and what the consequences will be and then say nothing more. The less we say, the more it makes children responsible for their actions. For example, let's examine Lizzy's not getting dressed on time:

Today she didn't get dressed by the suggested time. She distracted herself in a thousand different ways. She knew what the consequences would be -- breakfast dishes would be removed at 7:25, and if she didn't get dressed she wouldn't get to eat. If we reminded her over and over that time was running out, or made comments about her delaying tactics, we would have lessened her accountability. However, by refusing to remind her constantly, we gave her a certain level of respect by implying, You know the rules, and we know you are responsible enough to do what you need to do on your own. Just be glad you don't have to pay rent.

Well, today she didn't get dressed by the suggested time, but she left herself just enough time to scarf down her Cheerios. Tomorrow she may realize she needs to giver herself more time, or perhaps she'll decide she only needs a few minutes to scarf down her food. Ultimately it's up to her, and I'm fine as long as we leave on time.


This is another important lesson -- one I'm still working on. Samantha has the contribution part down. Lizzy's contribution is... less defined. Sure, she thinks of fun games to play. She introduces new recipes for me to try. She fills our home with art and color and ingenuity. But what about chores? Everyone wants to be the Activity Coordinator, but who wants to swab the deck?

While Whining emphasized the importance of every member contributing, I still need to find a way to make her "own" the concept. And that's when the following parenting thought occurred to me:

Be predictable with punishment, but unpredictable with praise and rewards.

I know this sounds a little harsh, but here's my thinking: With any society, there are laws, and with laws there are punishments. In a society, we all live by certain rules (laws and punishments), and ultimately it makes life better for all of us when we know the rules.

But what inspires us to do better and to succeed? Rewards. How do we get rewards? Well, in Lizzy's case, she may or may not get a reward each day (in the form of a brightly-colored ball -- yes, you heard right...) based on an overall assessment of her behavior. Then, when she acquires, say, 20 of them, she gets... something (who knows). It's all very subjective and nebulous and I think that's the key. Since there are no strict guidelines for when she gets a ball and it's completely up to us, then she'd better behave as well as possible just to be sure. See? You get it? Pretty cagey, right?

So far I think it's working.

(Except for last night when we decided she would get a ball, but then I noticed she still had ice cream on her face and I asked her to wash her face before bed but she totally ignored me and sat in the rocker... and then I reminded her again to wash her face and instead she went into her bedroom and played with something in her room... and she totally forgot to get her ball and left the Good Job Jar out... and then I got pissed off and said she couldn't get her ball because obviously she doesn't even care... and then she got upset and went to bed sad... and then later I felt guilty and wanted to cry because I love her so much and all I wanted to do was go into her room and shower her with kisses and brightly-colored balls... and this morning I couldn't wait to go into her bedroom and tell her I made a mistake... and I gave her a brightly-colored ball and a kiss (yes I did)... and then a hug... and then another kiss...)

Yes, yes. It's definitely working.


Dawn February 24, 2009 at 2:35 PM  

Hah. So many parts did I laugh at. Like the movie vs procreating. All of the (almost)s. Very nice.

And when you figure this Mom thing out, let me know. I'm pretty sure I'm just winging it.

Kellie February 25, 2009 at 1:09 PM  

Why does the cat always have to throw up when things are stressful and chaotic? It happens everytime!!

Michele March 10, 2009 at 1:32 PM  

ok, all I can say is sometimes being a parent sucks.

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