Tuesday, August 11, 2009

All the other stuff

Whenever I write about parenting stuff there is always the danger that the posts will give the impression that I think that the current topic is either the only thing that parenting is about or at least the most important thing. That's not true. Parenting is complex. It is a lot of things.

The posts I have been writing are what I think of as this extremes of parentings: what we cannot change and what we cannot accept.

But parenting isn't about just that. Sometimes when we are parenting really hard kids, or not-normally-really-hard kids who are going through a really hard time, we can't think past what we cannot change and what we cannot accept, but if that is all parenting is, well, that's not what I want out of it. I want, and I think they need, a relationship. Ideally, parenting includes having fun with your kids, enjoying them, letting them know that when you look at them you see an incredible human being who is worthy of love.

In my world, satisfying parenting includes communicating to the kids that if they need help, I will be there, and then it includes the satisfying feeling I get when they ask for help.

And in between "cannot change" and "cannot accept" there is a whole lot of behavior that we often would like to be different. You know what I mean: chores, saying "thank-you", putting their frickin dishes in the dishwasher, not squabbling, doing their best at school, developing interests that don't involve electronics, expressing themselves artistically, playing creatively, putting the cap back on the toothpaste.

This is where I think all those parenting advice books can be handy. Different techniques work well with different kids.

Evan used to tell me that when anyone else told him to do something he felt ordered around, but he never did with me. I just asked him in a way that didn't make him feel that way. What I did, by the way, was pull out my Faber and Mazlish books and remember how I dealt with toddlers (toddlers and teenagers have a lot in common). Instead of telling him to go clean the kitchen I would say, "Evan, I really need the kitchen clean. Would it be better for you to do it now, or right after your television show is over?"

After a while he got on and he would say something like, "You know, I know exactly what you are doing." I would acknowledge his perception and then ask when he was going to do the kitchen.

Some youth do really well with stars on behavior charts. For some reason *I* have never done well with behavior charts, but I hear they work really well for some people. In between "cannot change" and "cannot accept" is a whole lot of stuff that might ameniable to positive reinforcement. Some behaviors don't respond to change through positive reinforcement, are satisfying a need that, once we understand, we can help satisfy in other ways. Sometimes the behavior is the result of a frustration about a situation we can help them with. It is complicated and messy and there is not one technique that is going to be the best for everyone. There is a grab bag of stuff out there and you have to figure out what is best for you and your kid.

I have some general recommendations: if you are punishing (even if you are calling it "imposing a consequence") give some serious thought to whether there isn't a better way. I would like to suggest that you consider just accepting the behavior as a better way. Artificial consequences sometimes get in the way of kids learning from the natural consequences of their actions. Punishment will often result in kids just being pissed. If their behavior is satisfying a need (a way to deal wtih fear, for instance) then punishment may stop that behavior, but they will just find another way to address that need. Really, just stop punishing.

Don't try to work on everything all at once. I mean, really. Make a list of things that you would like to change about yourself. If you are a really self-accepting person (congratulations!) make a list of things that someone else would like to change about you. What set of good habits would it be nice if you developed? Should you exercise more? Keep your desk organized? Spend less time playing around on the computer and distracting people at their jobs with games of lexulous? Okay, so let's say someone decided to help you to make those changes. Would it make sense to try to change all of them at once? Really?

If you have been reading this blog a while you know that I am a lazy parent. I just don't have a lot of energy to make kids do a lot of chores. I have friends who signed their kids up for activities and lessons and all manner of stuff. When their kids decide they don't want to do them, they make them continue out of principle. I don't. I've signed them up for stuff they wanted to do and let them quit when they didn't want to do it anymore.

You know how lazy a parent I am? I didn't potty train my kids. Yep. I'm serious. At one point it hit me that all the kids end up using the toilet. All of them. That must mean that all the methods work eventually, and if all the methods work then negligence should work. So all I did was tell the kids that when they were big enough they could use the potty. I didn't say it very often, just sometimes. One day they started asking to use the potty. I said sure. Then I started asking them if they wanted diapers or underwear today. They picked. Off the top of my head, I can't recall any accidents.

I have to say, it's been working pretty well for me. The kids seem to be doing pretty well. Among my friends who worked really hard there are some really great kids who have developed marvelous skills and habits. There are some others who are neurotic messes. I don't know why.

But some of you are much less lazy than I am. Some of you want your kids to do all sorts of worthwhile stuff. Here's what I recommend:

1. Don't punish.
2. Model the behavior.
3. Do it together and make it as much fun as possible.
4. Reward and praise in whatever way works for you.
5. Work on as few things as possible at any one time.
6. Be willing to give up.

I mean it about the last one. You may not give up as quickly I do, but I think we can all agree that trying to force a child to be artistic when they really just aren't isn't a good idea.

And keep thinking about the categories. Is this something you can't change? Is this something upon which the safety of you and your dependents depends? Or is it one of those laudible goals in the middle?

Okay, one more thing: if you have a kid with depression, anxiety, FASD, autism, or WHATEVER, go talk to someone who knows how to deal with that and then decide whether any of the things I have to say are helpful at all.


  1. So what do you (and not you, Yondalla, specifically, but you in general) do when modeling the behavior is a problem because it's something you want to change about yourself as well? For example, I get home and dump my bag by the front door, and don't do anything like take out the silverware and containers from my lunch until the next morning. Always a problem, a bigger problem when there were things left that needed to go in the refrigerator. I've not managed to get into better habits in this area since high school (when my parents would wonder where all the spoons were, and I would discover them all at the bottom of my backpack). I don't want to model this bad behavior. (I'm hoping that the simple fact of being responsible for someone else will make me shape up. Otherwise, we might just end up with no spoons.)

  2. I hear your pain.

    You know, it is even worse (I think) when your husband insists on leaving dirty dishes all over the frickin house. It turns out it really is impossible to get the kids to change their behavior when one of the parents is modeling the unwanted behavior.

    I recommend buying a bunch of cheap thrift-store spoons. Lots and lots of spoons.

  3. Ah, I knew there had to be a benefit to single parenting!

  4. All these posts make me wonder how you then support your children in a traditional elementary education rather than an unschooling education.

  5. Not sure if I understand... If you want your child to do her homework then you should consider praising them when then do it on their own, reminding them and then praising them when they do, rewarding them, withholding (without making a big deal about it)some fun activity until it is done. Probably there are like a gazillion other things.

    On the other hand, if you are dealing with a kid from foster care who is engaging in extreme behaviors and fighting about homework is setting her off, you might want to consider deciding that elementary school homework isn't all that important right now. Maybe it is better to spend your evening being calm, doing fun activities that build trust (like baking brownies!), talking about anger, going to karate class... etc. So maybe they won't learn that much in third grade, but they will build a relationship with you and hopefully catch up in fourth grade.

  6. Thank you SO much Yondalla for all these posts. We're fumbling our way around with our now 8-year-old who's been with us for 3 years (adoption was final last fall). She's mostly a normal kid (ADHD, some hints of RAD) but not really like either of us personality-wise. And I think we might be lazy, too!

  7. Hee. When I was a kid and my mother asked me to clean my room, and I didn't want to, my first recourse was always to wander into HER room. I knew there was a pretty good chance that I would be able to find a mess somewhere in there, which I could then use as ammunition. Not that it kept me from having to clean, but at least I knew I was in good company.


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