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It’s Not About Consequences, It’s About Finding Solutions

A couple weeks ago I got an email from Number 6’s teacher.

It wasn’t one of those I just wanted to tell you this story about how awesome your kid is emails.

It was one of those Your kid is being a pain in the ass and I’m starting to lose my shit emails.

Ugh.

Number 6 has been giving me a run for my money at home as well.

He’s been defiant and intentionally bothering people and just doing a whole lot of button pushing in general. So I wasn’t surprised when I got the teacher’s email.

I love Number 6’s teacher. I’ll call her Miss X. She’s young and enthusiastic and not jaded (yet). Number 6 went from hating school last year to genuinely enjoying it this year, and that’s all because of her.

So Miss X sent me an exasperated email looking for support from my end. I had explained to her in September how Number 6 felt about school last year, and how he was a different kid with respect to school this year.

She didn’t want to have to do something (like take away privileges) that would cause him to dread school again. But she was gonna have to do something.

I assured her I could relate to her frustrations and I would do everything I could to change the situation.

But I also had to make sure she knew something.

It’s no secret that I don’t think punishments (or rewards) work in the long run.

They can definitely help to stop a frustrating behavior immediately. But they don’t help your kid to develop any internal locus of control.

And I 100% see this especially with Number 6. You can threaten him with taking stuff away, and he’ll look right at you and say, GO AHEAD.

So I let the teacher know that instead of trying to punish Number 6 into submission, I thought a couple other approaches might be more successful. I thought finding a solution to the problem rather than dangling a carrot in front of him (or completely removing it) would be much more effective in both the short and long term.

Miss X was willing to try anything (another reason I love her) and she was thankful for my feedback regarding how Number 6 responds to punishment.

So what did we do?

First, I tried to pinpoint the reason for the behavior. I thought quite a bit about it. And I contacted my Positive Discipline mentor for her input.

It wasn’t that Number 6 was just being a jerk. It wasn’t that he was spoiled or overtired or that I was a doormat and let him get away with too much and now he was a monster.

Number 6 was looking for attention. Constantly.

And he was looking for attention because he wasn’t getting a whole lot of it at home. From me.

So his teacher could have taken away special iPad time at school. She could have kept him in for recess. I could have told him that if I got another email from his teacher that he’d be banned from technology for a day or a week or a month or forever.

But that wouldn’t have gotten to the root of the problem which was that Number 6 was looking for attention.

Keeping that in mind, when Number 6 came home from school, I talked to him.

I didn’t threaten him. I didn’t yell at him. I didn’t belittle or shame him.

I simply asked him what was going on at school.

He told me he was being silly and talking when he shouldn’t be.  Mostly when he was on the carpet and when he was reading with his reading partner (who also happened to be his best buddy).

We talked about how his behavior might be affecting not only his teacher, but everyone else in the class.

And then I asked Number 6 what he thought might help him to be more in control of himself at school.

His first response was, “I don’t know.”

So I offered some suggestions without just telling him what to do. “Do you think moving away from your buddy when you sit on the carpet might help?”

“Yes,” he said.

“What else do you think might help?” I asked him.

“Have a different reading partner?” he said.

“That might be a big help,” I told him.

We agreed that he would talk to his teacher about this the next day.

Then we talked about what times and places are okay for him to talk and be silly with his buddy.

“At lunch time?” he said.  “And at recess?”

So we had come up with two solutions.

Then I thought about something a therapist told me a long time ago. At the time we were trying to come up with strategies for stopping stupid/unhealthy/self-sabotaging thoughts in my head.  She told me to literally envision a stop sign every time my brain went that direction.

And then I thought about the Kissing Hand and how drawing a heart on the palm of Number 6’s hand helped him in the beginning of the school year.

I asked him if he’d like me to put a stop sign on his palm.  Every time he felt himself getting silly, he could look at it as a reminder.

He liked that idea. So the next morning, I drew a stop sign on his hand before he got on the bus.

So now we had come up with some self-regulating strategies. And we had done it without any threatening, without any meltdowns, and without any power struggles.

But there was still that other issue. The issue of the attention.

My mentor had asked me if I’d be able to schedule in some special time with Number 6.

I had thought of that before she even suggested it. The problem is finding a time to squeeze that in.

As soon as everyone gets home from school, I head to the pool to coach swim practice, and I don’t get home until 8:30. So after school is tough.

So are the weekends between soccer and t-ball and travel baseball and swim team.

But there was a time I didn’t think of.

Before school.

Number 6 is the earliest riser of everyone. He is usually up by 6:15.

And I have until about 6:40 before I have to wake up the other kids for school.

So Number 6 and I have been having special time just about every morning for about twenty minutes before anyone else wakes up.

Most mornings we play a game. Last week we played Candy Land. This morning we played Chutes and Ladders.

And this morning, the first thing  Number 6 said to me was, “Mommy, you know what?”

“What?” I asked him.

“I love having time with  you. AND I LOVE YOU SO MUCH!” he said.

Ugh.

So often our kids behavior isn’t a reflection of them.

It’s a reflection of us.

A couple days later, I got an email from Miss X.

Hi Susie,

I just wanted to follow up about Number 6’s behavior. He has been doing a lot better in class, especially on the carpet. Moving him away from his buddy and having him select a new reading partner definitely helped him a lot, and he looks at your stop sign all the time 🙂

YES!!!

He’s doing better at school, and he’s doing better at home.

I know he’s still gonna push buttons. That’s what kids do.

When he does, we’ll go right back to the solution drawing board.

Because we came up with a solution that solved the problem for more than 15 minutes.

And we did it without threatening, without bribing, without shaming or humiliation, and without either of us losing our shit.

And that feels pretty good.

For both of us.

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What I Learned Over Spring Break

Last week was our spring break. It was the first spring break in about five years that we haven’t had major money problems.

Where we weren’t in danger of losing our house, where the Man from CL&P wasn’t coming to knock on our door on an almost monthly basis, where we weren’t on food stamps, where we didn’t have to return cans and bottles or hold a tag sale in order to pay for groceries.

We aren’t anywhere near rolling around in bags of money. We aren’t in the position to do whatever we want whenever we want. We are nowhere near that. We still have to be frugal and cut the fat wherever we can.

But we aren’t destitute.

Being in a terrible financial black hole for years had put me into the mindset that I couldn’t relax. That I had to spend just about every second of every day working or trying to find ways to make money. And so for the past four of five spring breaks and Christmas vacations and summer vacations, I have basically ignored the kids.

Going away anywhere was clearly not an option. But I had also convinced myself that taking time to do just about anything with them wasn’t possible. Or allowed.

It’s hard to get out of that mindset.

For me, anyway.

So this spring break, I made the conscious decision to be much more available to the kids.

I did this for a number of reasons.

First, Number 7 is five years old.

Five years old!!!

How did that happen so fast?

There are phases of life that have passed us for good.

We are done with diapers and highchairs and strollers and carrying kids. I find myself feeling nostalgic for some of these things that are long gone sometimes.

Although I appreciate where we are now. I am enjoying the kids having more independence. I am enjoying relating to them on a different level.

But damn is it going by fast!!!

I definitely have regrets. And I’ll see an occasional video show up on Facebook from five years ago and it’s scary how quickly I forget. I forget what the kids looked like and what they smelled like and what they sounded like. I know that happens.  But has it happened more for me because I’ve been letting so many opportunities with the kids pass me by?

I spend a lot of time with my kids. I mean, I’m the one who is usually home with them.

But I feel like I’ve been absent for a lot of that time.

I’m in the same place as them, but I’m not really present.

You know, like the stereotypical husband sitting across the table from the wife, reading the newspaper, and not listening to a thing she ways and just uh-huh-ing her without even looking up from the paper or actually listening to a word she says.

So there was that realization.

Then there is the fact that some of the kids are having issues with behavior. They happen to be the kids I spend the least amount of time with.

Maybe it’s just coincidental, but I don’t think so.

I am certain there is a direct correlation between kids behavior and the amount of or quality of interaction between them and their parents.

My kids need my attention. My focused, undivided attention. They don’t necessarily need hours and hours of it.

But they sure as shit need more than they’ve been getting.

So for the first time in years, I made the conscious decision to spend a significant amount of quality time with my kids while they were home last week.

And something ironic happened.

I didn’t get sick of them. I didn’t find myself getting pissed and annoyed and short on patience.

Don’t get me wrong. They did stupid and infuriating stuff. They still tried to annoy the shit out of each other and me. The are kids. That’s what they do sometimes.

But they started doing it less and less.

I spent more quality time with the kids than I have in a long, long time. And instead of me getting to the end of our vacation and feeling exhausted and exasperated and desperate for a break, I felt kind of sad that the break was over. I could have used a couple more days.

What the fuck?

I have never, ever felt that way.

I have spent every vacation for the last couple years desperate for the kids to go back to school so I could have a break.

And the kids (who are usually at least a little bit excited to go back to school and see their friends) were bummed, too.

Number 4 had no desire to go back to school. That’s never happened before.

At least ten times last week, she just looked at me — not in response to going on one of our adventures or in an effort to get something but just out of the blue — and she said, I love you, Mom.

Whoa.

I guess I am having one of Oprah’s proverbial light bulb moments.

I’m not going to stop working, drop everything I want to do, start homeschooling and construct a huge family bed.

But it’s clear that my priorities need to shift. Or at least the way I structure my time does.

Last week the kids and I had one of the best weeks we’ve ever had together. Possibly, the best week we’ve ever had.

I know we did some fun things. But it wasn’t really the fun things that made the break so great.

It was the fact that we did them together.

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Just The Tip Of The Iceberg

If you know anything about an iceberg, then you know the part that you see above the water is just a small fraction of it.

The majority of the iceberg is underwater.

Hence the saying, the tip of the iceberg.

This is especially true with your kids.

If they are demonstrating a certain behavior that is frustrating the living shit out of you, the behavior is just the tip of the iceberg.

The cause of the behavior, and the reason why they are demonstrating this behavior is the big part of the iceberg.

So you can punish your kid for the behavior.

You can send your kid to time out and ground him and take away the phone and then take away everything.

When the punishment doesn’t stop the behavior, you can come up with something even harsher. And harsher. And harsher.

Or you can bribe your kid. You can use toys and candy and special outings and money to get your kid to stop. Or to start. Whatever it is you are hoping they will stop or start doing.

These things may work in the short run. It may stop the behavior immediately.

But inevitably, the behavior returns. Sometimes worse than before.

Like a virus.

It’s now a superbehavior, and it pushes you way over the damn edge. It pushes every single one of your buttons.

When I attended the Positive Discipline training last month, Jane Nelson, the founder of Positive Discipline, showed us this picture of an iceberg.

At the very root of any behavior is a child’s desire to belong and feel significant.

When they don’t feel like they belong, when they don’t feel significant, they start to believe certain things about themselves.

The develop mistaken beliefs.

So they start exhibiting all those challenging behaviors that push us over the edge.

When your kids talk back, when they are defiant, when they give up, when they retaliate, when break shit, when they beat the crap out of their siblings, when they do all the things that drive us batshit crazy over and over and over and over again, even though it seems like it, they are not doing all that stuff to be assholes.

They are doing it because they have a mistaken goal.

Their goal is attention, revenge, power, or assumed inadequacy — the desire to give up and be left alone.

And our kids have these goals not because they want to drive us insane, but because underneath the water, where most of the iceberg is, they feel like they only matter when they are getting all your attention, no matter how they get it. Or they only feel like they belong when they have control. Or they don’t feel loved so they lash out and hurt people and destroy things. Or they feel like they’ll never get it right and they’ll never belong, so they just stop trying altogether.

I know we want the behavior to be about the kids just being douchey.

But it’s not.

It’s about how we are reacting to situations and behaviors.

What? It’s us? No f*cking way! My kid knows better. It’s not me! It’s my damn kid being a tool!

No. It’s not.

Our kids are never going to be perfect. Kids test things and push buttons.

But if we can react to situations and behaviors in a different way, we can start dealing with the part of the iceberg that’s below the surface of the water, rather than just constantly addressing the small percentage that we can see above the water.

There is a lot to address with each of these mistaken beliefs.

So for starters, I’ll start with the belief behind the power struggle behavior.

This behavior can make us feel challenged, threatened, defeated and determined. Determined to break our kid until he or she gets it.

And so we most often react by doing one of four things.

1) We fight back. This just intensifies the power struggle.

2) We give in. This make us doormats and our kids now know they can take advantage of us if they are persistent enough.

3) We say to ourselves,  I’ll make you. More power struggles ensue.

4) We engage in getting to be right wars. Again, the power struggle gets more intense.

We may dominate in the short run. But the behavior will return.

And what we are doing in essence is rather than catching an arsonist, we are repeatedly putting out fires.

We aren’t looking for what is causing the fires.

We’re just dealing with them once they occur.

So what can we do differently?

Well, we can respond in a different way.

And we can think about the message our kids are really trying to give us.

Although it may feel this way, when your kids defy you, they aren’t necessarily saying Go fuck yourself.

There is a really good chance they are trying to say to you,  Let me help and Give me choices.

So rather than fighting back or giving in or not stopping until our kids get it and we make them, we can do something else that will not only help to put out the fires, but to also change our kids’ mistaken beliefs about what they need to do in order to feel a sense of belonging and importance.

So the next time you find yourself heading into a power struggle, consider trying some of these strategies instead:

  •  Put yourself in a time out. Take yourself out of the conflict. Give yourself time to calm down.
  • Acknowledge that you can’t make your kid do something, and instead, ask for help. I can’t make you unload the dishwasher, but I would really appreciate your help.
  • Be kind AND firm.
  • Validate feelings. I know you want to eat ice cream, AND we are not having dessert tonight.
  • Show understanding. I can totally understand not wanting to put your clothes away, AND it needs to be done before you watch television. 
  • Make agreements in advance. I know you don’t want to fold your laundry, AND what was our agreement?
  • Redirect!   You don’t want to take a bath AND let’s do it together. Want to race to the bathroom?
  • Allow them to make a choice and then decide what you will do and follow through. I know you want to keep playing Minecraft on the iPad AND you’ve had your five minute warning and time is up.  You can turn it off now, or it will be put in my closet until next weekend when you can try again.
  • Offer a limited choice. Do you want to brush your teeth before you put your pajamas on, or after? You decide.
  • Let routines (rather than you) be the boss. If you have a routine chart, this is when you ask them, What is the next thing on your routine chart you need to do when you get home from school?
  • Get help from your child. Ask him/her what would be reasonable in this situation? What are reasonable limits? How much time do you think you will need to get ready for bed? What do you think is reasonable? What time should we start the routine so you can be in bed by 8:00? When your child is involved in determining how much time he/she needs, he will feel like he is a part of the process.

These are just some of the things you can try to get to the root of the problem, rather than repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) dealing with just the tip of the iceberg.

If you are looking for more help, I highly recommend these Positive Discipline tool cards.

I use them all the time when I find myself about to lose it.

You can even use these with your kids when you are heading into a potential power struggle or blow out.

Let’s get the tool cards and see if we can find a card that will give us some ideas so we can come up with a solution together!

 

I’m telling you, it works!

If you are sick of putting out fires, there is a better way!

A better way for you, and a better way for your kids, and a better way for your whole family.

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What Behaviors Challenge You Most?

Yesterday we got over fifteen inches of snow here in CT.

All the kids were home from school.

Number 5 was still recovering from (f*cking) Norovirus, and I never even got out of my pajamas.

By 7 pm last night, this is what things looked like.

I was reduced to letting Number 5 style my hair.

So glamorous.

Needless to say, after about fourteen consecutive days of at least one kid being home sick from school followed by a snow day with every single one of them home, I was presented with just about every parenting challenge known to mankind.

I know I wasn’t alone yesterday.

And two questions came to mind.

First, when it comes to your children and their behavior, what are the things that drive you crazy? What are the challenges that you face right now?

And then the other question…

What are the characteristics and life skills that you are really hoping to teach your kids? What are the things you think are really important for them to learn?

I’m working on something, and I’d really love to hear your thoughts! (And I’d also love to hear what state/country/area you live in if you are willing to share that info too)!

I’ll start…

The kids fighting challenges the living hell out of me, and one thing I’m hoping to teach my kids is accountability, because I think we are seriously lacking that as a society.

Okay! Can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

 

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