Monday, August 10, 2009

How it might have been, Part 1

I was emailing (or tweeting? or was it comments on the blog) communicating with Thorn a while back. I mentioned that the blog is what it is partly because I started just before I learned that Evan was addicted to codeine. That sent me to Alanon and I started thinking long and hard about boundaries. Successfully parenting Evan turned out to hinge on my being able to deal with my past trauma. I had to figure out how to be a different sort of parent.

It was different in the beginning.

Let me say first that I was never big on punishment. When Andrew was a baby I read Liberated Parents, Liberated Children (I picked it up because I thought it might be about being liberated from gender roles. It wasn't, though there are probably applications) and then How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, both by Faber and Mazlish. The techniques in that book were wonderful. I thought I was the best parent in town. I did not give orders, I casually mentioned problems. I did not solve problems he could solve, I expressed confidence. I did not suppress my emotions, I modeled healthy and respectful ways of expressing them. I did not give him time outs, although I did sometimes tell him we both needed a break. He could look at a book or something alone and I would do dishes (or something), then we would start over. It was great. It worked: Andrew did things I wanted him to do.

Then Brian was born. Brian would drop his coat on the floor and I would say, "Brian, coat" in my cheerful, confident voice and instead of responding with "oh!" and picking it up, he would look at me like, "what about the coat?" If I said, "It makes me frustrated that your coat is on the floor" his look said, "Um...thanks for the PSA?"

When I was cooking he would ask for two cookies. I smiled and said, "Yes, you can have two cookies after dinner."

He said, "Can I have two cookies, please?"

He would just keep asking and asking, each time changing the question ("Could I have one cookie and then one cookie?") until frustrated I said loudly, "No. You cannot have a cookie. If you ask me one more time you will be NOT able to have a cookie now or after dinner!"

Then he would start to cry saying, "You don't have to YELL at me!"

I rolled my eyes and said, "ROLAND! Would you please come get Brian while I try to cook?"

When Brian was six and Andrew eleven we became Carl's parents. Andrew and Brian each had one parent who totally "got" them, and one parent who loved them and had to struggle a bit to figure them out. I felt like I pretty much had a handle on the parenting thing. I had a good relationship with Carl. He had been in my Sunday school class for two years. I understood that being the cool Sunday school teacher who bought them coffee and sometimes made them laugh was a very different roll than that of parent.

Still, Carl was sixteen. He was 6 inches taller than I and outweighed me by 70 pounds. He was manipulative, although not in a mean way. He just wanted what he wanted and had learned a long time ago that saying casually in a conversation, "I'm going to John's party on Friday" often worked. He was a compulsive liar. It frustrated me so much. He lied to please, to get what he wanted, or just because. He lied without effort. He got caught because he couldn't keep all the lies straight, but he would never, ever admit to it even when he was totally busted.

And I punished. Oh man, did I punish. I wanted him to tell me where he was. He didn't. We had so much trouble with him lying about where he was going. In most of the cases we would have given him permission to go where he wanted, but it was a power struggle. He just didn't want to have to tell us where he was. I grounded, short and deep like the class said. I grounded for the weekend. The next time it was the weekend, but he couldn't have any of the things he enjoyed. The next time he had to keep his bedroom door open during the day. Then one day the father of his friend called to ask when the kids would be back from Brian's soccer game. I explained that Brian didn't play soccer and that I thought they were at their house watching movies. Neither of us had any idea where they were. I took his door off the hinges for the weekend. He came home, saw that and said, "What can you possibly do that is worse than this?

I said, "Next time I confiscate all personal care products for one week."

He lied about us too. The drama teacher called us one day. She had been debating breaking a confidence but she finally decided that she just had to tell us. We were Carl's parents and even though he felt he couldn't talk to us, we needed to know. "The reason that Carl has been having such a hard time recently is that he learned that one of his friends, Tom, has AIDS."

I responded, "Tom recently had an HIV test and is worried that it could be positive. Carl has talked to me about that, and I know it has upset him. It however is false that Tom has AIDS." She was stunned as she processed that, realizing how false was the picture he had painted of everything.

Most people who met us were surprised. Carl was very invested in the unloved-orphan story. We learned that we did not allow him to carry more than $50, when that was all the spending money he had. People were surprised when we showed up for events and meetings because they thought we didn't care.

I got wore out. I gave up on punishing because that wasn't working.

I started explaining to him why it was a problem. I told him how I felt. I talked about relationships and how they were built on trust. I tried to reward truthful behavior. I talked to the social worker. I talked to the therapist. I worried. I thought so hard about how I could get him to understand the value of being truthful.

I thought that it was MY JOB to help him to become a more honest person. Wasn't that what parents do? Help their children develop strong values? I kept thinking that there had to be a way I could do it. I just hadn't thought of the right approach.

And then I gave up. I accepted the fact that I had failed. I cried for a while and I just stopped believing him. If I had to make a decision I got the information somewhere else. When I listened to him I said to myself, "What he is feeling is true. Just respond to that."

And things got better. I wasn't angry and frustrated all the time. He talked to me more, and I stopped worrying about whether it was true. I didn't help him in situations where maybe I would have otherwise just because I wasn't sure he was telling me the truth. I would like to tell you that this new approach resulted in a change in his relationship to truth, but it didn't. He lied. I didn't believe him. We had fun making brownies.

That wasn't a major break-through for me. I did not come to have a new understanding of how to parent. I had just accepted failure and found to my surprise that that acceptance made for an easier life. I sometimes felt guilty when other people noticed that he lied and asked me, "What are you going to do about that? Nothing? Do you think that's wise?"

Now my answer would be that yes, I think that is wise. Then I didn't. I just thought I had failed and I forgave myself.


  1. I should print this off so I can re-read it every time my beloved, lying child lies yet again. He came to us at 5 and i truly believed all the things you believed. and most of all, because I am unfailingly honest--it is probably one of those huge hot button thigns with me, that modelling this would help him to become honest. It doesn't. I am slowly coming to grips with the fact that the insecurities of the first 5 yrs of his life may never be fully overcome. He is so afraid to anger or displease someone that he would rather lie. But I need to not let this be about my parenting, or my ability to impart morals and values. It is a deeply rooted defense mechanism. I need to repeat that to myself like a buddhist mantra! LOL

  2. I think acceptance of what I can't change was (is) extremely difficult for me but it has helped (the letting go). It should be easier this second time around for me (I did it first w/ school matters and people thought we were insane but we were sick and tired of fighting for HOURS to get one paper done) but I sort of trapped myself into this power struggle or attempts at modifying behavior...and it was getting us no where really fast.

    It's hard to explain to people because they all assume I'm giving up...and I am but I'm not!LOL I'm just understanding that after years of doing the same thing (or variations of the same thing) the punishment hasn't been working and my sanity has been slowly leaking away and our relationship deteriorating.

    I fell prey to that kind of thinking too...that somehow this all reflects on me because I'm responsible for driving values into her...ultimately she's her own person and will learn at own pace...or not...I just can't allow this to drag us both down that hole of anger and resentment...or crazyness.


Comments will be open for a little while, then I will be shutting them off. The blog will stay, but I do not want either to moderate comments or leave the blog available to spammers.