Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Agent of Change

I don’t want to write anything on this blog that is going to embarrass the girls when they grow up and read it. I don’t want to splash their personal, private moments around the Internet. And some stuff…I just want to save for them and me anyway. At the same time, I don’t want it to seem like we live in an unrealistic perfect, happy-all-the-time little world either.

I must say, we are at a bit of a difficult stage. With both of them. If you asked me how it is going with my parenting right now, I would probably just say wearily, “OK.”

Monday was dreadful. In addition to numerous “WHY?” moments such as we’ve been having lately—1/3rd of a package of brand new table napkins found wadded up and sodden by the downstairs bathroom sink; the emptying of an almost-new bottle of Palmolive in the kitchen sink; and looking into my sink in the bathroom and seeing a murky pool of pink water, the result of squirting out a good portion of a tube of Tinkerbell toothpaste, stopping up the sink, and adding water (all courtesy of Elaine)—we’ve just been having various difficulties with both girls.

The main thing is mouth trouble. The constant noise. It is driving Darren and me mad. We live in a house with hardwood floors. Noise carries. We are not only two quiet people, we both work at home at jobs that require quiet and concentration. We’re awakened each morning by thumping, shrieking, loud atonal singing, fighting, tattling, screaming, and other noise that continues throughout the day. It takes numerous times of calling a child’s name to get her attention. We’re frequently raising our voices to be heard. We’re continually imposing time-outs and separations that don’t work at all. And it seems that our directives are now met with either “But MOM!!!” from Lucy or the simple and direct, “I don’t want to” from Elaine.

Now I understand that they are little kids. There’s a certain amount of noise that goes with the territory. And I want them to have fun, giggle, be silly, and be able to sing and laugh and dance. I am the mom who lets them put on the Riverdance soundtrack and dance around the house. But we have slowly crossed the line to the point of being inconsiderate to others, disrespectful to their parents, and disobedient. That is not acceptable. Consideration, respect, and obedience are some hills I will die on as a parent.

Darren and I had a conversation after the girls went to bed on Monday night about how things just aren’t working around here. It’s frustrating, and it makes us angry and sad. It’s not fun to be a parent or a child when everyone is constantly at odds with each other.

We definitely realized that we need to pray more both with and for our girls. That is key.

Another thing I have revisited is the crucial need of stating expectations before things happen. So now in the morning at the breakfast table before devotions, I state that this is a time to listen. It is not a time to talk unless we’re asking or asked a question. It is not permissible to get up from the table and run around. It is not permissible to interrupt and whine for a glass of milk.

When we went to the library yesterday, I stated before we got in that they are going to use their library voices. They are to walk quietly, not run and skip and swing like wild baboons. They may each check out two DVDs. (No books today because they cannot find their previous library book—lost in all the mass of books they cart around, hide in their covers, or toss behind their bookshelf and under their dresser.)

And a new thing I have instituted: the incentive program. They now each have a small plastic jar with their name on it. Each morning I will put a small amount of change (e.g., ten pennies) in the jar. Throughout the day, if I hear “But MOM!” or “I don’t want to,” incessant moaning like a ghost for no discernible reason, tattling, screaming, arguing, or really anything I deem unacceptable coming from their mouths, they will need to remove a coin from their jar and give it to me. If I have to say each time we get in the car, “Put your seatbelt on” (Those words will be engraved on my tombstone, for real.), I get one of their coins. At the end of the week on Saturday, if they have enough money, they will be able to buy a pack of gum. If not, well, better luck next week.

So, at swimclub yesterday afternoon, because it took me four tries to get Lucy’s attention while she was a mere two inches away from me and then because she was making crazy, hooting, monkey noises at the blowdryers, she now owed two pennies. When Elaine screamed at Lucy in the car because she offered her some hand sanitizer, she now owed me a penny. They each owed a penny this morning because they greeted the day at 6:15 a.m. with a loud song consisting solely of the words, “wow wow wow wow” over and over again while Darren and I were trying to sleep. (After I informed them of that and stumbled back to bed? They were absolutely silent until I went in to get them at the acceptable rising time of 6:50 a.m. Awesome.)

Today, they each get four nickels. Each infraction merits one of their nickels and then we’re back to the pennies. (“They’re going to end up owing us money by the end of the week,” prophesied Darren.) But…they seem to be getting it. It’s obviously a little harder for Elaine, but they are starting to catch themselves.

You might say, isn’t that bribery for good behavior, Alice?

No, not really. Believe me, I’ve bribed for good behavior. I’ve said “If you smile for the camera and don’t wiggle around until we get good pictures, you will get a treat” and the like at various times.

This is a little different. I heard a great sermon a year or so ago from the book of Proverbs. I remember leaving the kitchen (I was listening on my laptop) and pulling down my Bible off the shelf to write notes in it so I would always remember. One point was that I am selfish if I don’t discipline my child. I actually don’t love her if I don’t do it. That is hard for me because I hate to discipline. I much prefer cookie baking, finger painting, singing, reading, playing…anything but disciplining my girls. It hurts me. But if I love them, I will do it.

Here was the main thing though: Discipline is not just talk. It gets to the mind of the child, not just to her will. “Parental training is the artificial application and amplification of wrong choices and consequences.” (James MacDonald)

In other words, my kids aren’t going to stop acting up unless it negatively affects them, not just me. They have to understand it. The greatest treat in the world to my girls right now in their little lives is gum. With this small incentive system, I am hoping that they discover that their actions have consequences to them. If they act badly, it will not go well. If you don’t control your mouth during the week, you won’t get gum on Saturday.

Right now it might seem silly and little. It’s just pocket change. And what I'm really working toward is that they will learn to do the right thing simply because it's the right thing. That is my ultimate goal. But I hope that these small seeds planted at ages 3 and 5 will take root and grow. I hope that by learning to ask politely instead of screaming in frustration, they will learn some problem-solving skills. I hope by learning gracious compliance instead of defiance, they will do well at school and in the workplace. I hope that by learning self-control over their mouth, it will keep them from hurting someone else’s feelings or reputation someday. I hope that by learning to catch themselves and attempting to tame their tongue, it will keep them from damaging a friendship or their marriage someday.

If the cost of a pack of gum can help purchase any of those lessons, it will be priceless.


kellygauger said...

At last! I thought your parenting skills were exceptional as your girls seemed to be the children we strived for.
My children love to run around acting/talking like monkeys.
I think Tim and I were having the same conversation you and Darren had. We're just several years behind and doing this at age 7 and 9 so good for you.

Juliet said...

Pennies and nickels...better than giving them MasterCard! And I think your plan is working for their benefit.

Mae said...

Keep up the good work with the girls.

I do have to laugh when I read all the things that Elaine finds to do.

Ann-Marie said...

Great advice for my future! Thanks for the update. P.S. - We have a TON of gum left over from when Brett was at Cadbury, so if you want that...please let me know. I'd love to get rid of it!

Jill said...

I feel your pain ... I think all parents do as we struggle to develop our children into responsible adults. Love the nickel idea. We use allowance with Mary - whose 8 - and take away amounts for bad behavior depending on the infraction.... I'll look forward to hearing how things progress....