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How I’m parenting these days

I also throw out tons of precious, irreplaceable art each day. I try to at least snap a picture of the more interesting pieces before binning them.

I also throw out tons of precious, irreplaceable art each day. I try to at least snap a picture of the more interesting pieces before binning them.

This morning I asked my five year old to retrieve her backpack from her room. She insisted it wasn’t up there. I was pretty sure it was. I also didn’t want to climb the stairs with my wonky ankles only to find it there. So I told my ten year old, “I’ll pay you fifty cents to go check Claire’s room for her backpack. And if it is there, you also get to go ‘nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah-nyah’ to her.” (Including taunting hip shaking and derisive jazz hands, naturally.)

Turns out, it was in the front closet. No wonder we couldn’t find it – it was put away where it belongs! I admitted I was wrong and Claire was right, paid Chloe her two quarters, and went about my business.

***

Claire is in a developmental stage with a lot of anxieties, especially about nightmares. She has trouble falling asleep, wakes up and comes to my bed in the night, and resists bedtime at all costs. I’ve worked with her to make bedtime less scary, empathized, expressed certainty that she can feel scared, have nightmares, feel bad feelings, and still survive, and that it will get easier. I’ve given her more bedtime help and support because she is truly in distress over this, and that is valid. But I also offered to pay her a quarter every morning that she doesn’t wake me up in the middle of the night. And also, when she leaves that quarter lying around in some random place, I take it and put it back in the stash and pay her with it again the next successful morning.

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The ten year old wants an Instagram account. I’m considering letting her have one (really, me getting one on her behalf and letting her post through me, since the age requirement is 13). But I’m thinking that I’ll make her write an essay about the potential risks and pitfalls of posting on Instagram and turn in it to me before we proceed. I will point her toward appropriate source material. But I will also grade it, and she has to pass to get an account.

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Sadly, I say, “Pick up your damn _________ and put it away!” way too often. I pledge to at least try to leave the “damn” out, even if I don’t manage to make cleaning up a well-planned, Mary-Poppins-themed game as part of a thoughtful and consistent daily routine.

***

I let them attend church with friends. Until I hear a report that they were offered the opportunity to get full-immersion baptized last Sunday. Then I flip out. Then I hear the further report that she may have misheard, and I calm down. Mostly.

***

Most of the time lately, I feel like life is kind of a controlled fall. I’m doing the best I can, feeling a bit frazzled, but also having fun with the girls. I keep waiting for life to calm down a bit, for things to normalize and allow some predictability and routine. But I’m realizing that this will actually probably never happen.

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Problem solving with kids

IMG_2094“I don’t want to go to gymnastics anymore! We have to do the high bar AND I’M SCARED OF IT!!!” *hysterical, terrified crying*

This popped out of nowhere right around bedtime this week. Instead of voicing my first thought, “They require 30 days’ notice before quitting, and if I’m paying, you’re going,” or even a more constructive, loving solution, I worked from the key fact – it was the end of the day, and Claire did not have the resources to discuss something she clearly found so distressing. At this time of day, and with this much emotion, there was no prayer of having any rational information go into her brain. So I empathized, telling her I understood that she was very scared and wanted to quit gymnastics. Then I said we needed to wait till tomorrow to talk about it more.

When she brought it up again the next day, we were lucky enough to have time and space for a mini family meeting. I told her about brainstorming. We would sit together and write down every idea we thought of for the problem, no matter how silly or weird. Then we would look through our list and pick one or two approaches to try first. She caught on pretty quickly, and gave me some ideas. Even one or two other than “I quit gymnastics,” so that was a great start! Here’s our list:

  • Mom helps Claire on the bars
  • Mom talks to teacher about alternatives
  • Claire quits gymnastics
  • Claire goes to drop-in daycare while Chloe’s at gymnastics
  • Claire does the high bar even though she’s scared
  • Claire doesn’t do that part of class and sits off to the side
  • Claire takes a water break during that part, and sits with Mommy

You can probably guess which ones were my contributions! I did tell her about the 30 days notice, and that I would expect her to go to classes we had committed to. So that helped motivate her to try some of the other ideas. In the end we decided to combine me talking to the teacher and Claire taking her water break during that part of class. She really is petrified by it – I think being physically separate from the gym floor and being right with Mommy during that part of class is helping her agree to this compromise measure.

I wanted to share this process because it would have been awfully easy for me to simply impose my own solution. Of course, the “traditional” parenting approach would have been “No, just suck it up.” My mushy mommy heart wanted to say, “Of course you don’t have to go – I won’t ever let you be scared!” The funny thing, though, is even if I had said, “You can’t quit, but I’ll talk to the teacher so you can take your water break during that part,” it wouldn’t have gone over well. Instead I allowed my child some space, giving her a voice in the process, and showing I respected her feelings and her problem-solving skills. I feel this really helped her accept a solution I liked better, plus it helped her build skills for the future. As she grows, this is a foundation for her to work around strong emotions, use reflection and openness, and feel more confident in her resilience when she faces something daunting.

Of course, I don’t always rise to this level of evolved parenting. Sometimes I don’t have the resources or I don’t stop to think. But I’m going to try to remember this experience and invest a couple neurons in creative openness in the future. I think it brought us both to a better outcome and prevented us from being opponents on this issue.

Parenting and external costs

milking

Want milk, kid? Here’s the cow.

When I studied environmental law, I learned about external costs. Part of the problem with pollution is that the cost of smog, fish kills, and flammable tap water are not inflicted on the polluting companies and their customers, but generally on the population. One idea in environmental protection is to internalize these costs. For instance, tradable permits for carbon emission internalize the climate change impact by charging companies for their emissions. This in turn should force the companies to consider their environmental impact as part of the bottom line, because pollution-heavy practices become more expensive.

So what does this have to do with parenting? It occurred to me that authoritative, empathetic parenting involves slowly internalizing the costs of our kids’ behavior as they mature. When they’re newborns, all their costs rest on our shoulders. Their messes, their pain, even their mental stress falls to us automatically, because they have no resources to deal with these negative side effects of being human. As kids grow and develop resources, parents can help their children internalize these “costs of living.”

Consider potty training.* My friend’s son has advanced remarkably, learning to use the toilet on his own initiative. Except it only works when he’s pantsless. Put pants on him, and those pants are going to wind up soaked in pee. I think most of us will experience some version of this: when you know your kids are capable of using the toilet, but they have accidents because it’s too much trouble to go, or they’re having too much fun playing and don’t want to stop, or they read Stephen King’s “The Moving Finger” and are terrified of the bathroom. (Wait, that last one is me.)

My friend wants to gently motivate her son to give some extra effort, but doesn’t want to use external rewards like stickers or M&Ms. So I suggested something that has worked for us –  internalizing the cost of accidents. It’s very much in the realm of “natural consequences,” and isn’t judgmental. When my 5 year old pees in her pants, I say, “OK, it happens sometimes. Now take off your pants and I’ll get you a towel to clean up the floor.” You don’t have to yell and scream, you don’t have to inflict a punishment or dangle a reward. But making a child bear more of the cost can provide enough motivation to make pulling down their pants, pausing their video game, or excusing themselves from the party worth it. After all, wiping up a puddle of urine is much less pleasant and takes longer than just using the toilet in the first place.

Meanwhile, making sure that kids start handling the less wonderful aspects of living helps keep us parents energized. Because after a while, handling 100% of someone else’s costs will wear you out. (See my post about burning out on AP.) Some days I’m feeling so overwhelmed by the mountain of household duties before me, and I can’t tell you how rejuvenating it is to see my 9 year old put away her own laundry and take a shower with no intervention on my part! I feel much less resentful of the burdens I have to help them with when they start shouldering the jobs they can easily handle.

So maybe it’s worthwhile to stop thinking so much in terms of motivation and consequences, never mind manipulation and punishment, and look at parenting from a bit of an economics perspective. Just like they do in big business, externalities can distort the give and take between us and create a bad atmosphere. Internalize those costs, and you’re helping everyone in the equation.

*I use this term in the same sense as continuing education or vocational training, not teaching a dog to sit. If you’re more comfortable with “potty learning,” go for it.

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