Monday, April 24, 2017

Follow Through

I looked out the window one morning recently as the rain came down and saw our backyard strewn with toys. Again. Chloe's tricycle was getting wet. Every year, it seems, as the weather gets warmer I tell myself THIS will be the year the kids always put away all of their toys before they come inside for the night. But, here we are again.

Of course, children don't naturally think to pick up after themselves. Ever. So obviously a habit like that has to be learned, and practiced. Which brings me to the crux of the matter: follow through.

The more I think about it, the more I'm realizing follow through and consistency is probably one of my weakest parenting areas, yet it's critically important. Good habits are developed, not instinctive. Discipline comes through practice. Obedience is a less attractive option to your kids when they know you don't really mean what you say, anyway.


Follow through with your kids is a lot easier when you only have one. I suppose that's obvious. If you tell your little one to pick up all of her toys, and she doesn't, you have a little more time, energy and focus to stay with her and make sure she picks up all of the toys. You can do it hand over hand, if you have to. If you're a first time parent, this seems so draining, and tedious. But when you have other kids distracting you, vying for your attention, interrupting, and possibly fighting, it becomes much more difficult. Notice I didn't say impossible. That is the lie we buy into. This is, I think, why oldest children seem more disciplined and structured and the younger ones get away with murder. It's very easy to throw in the towel and say, "I'm just too tired to deal with this."

I've started reading (or actually listening to) a book called The Five-Second Rule. It's all about the way we're able to talk ourselves out of just about anything in five seconds or less. Our bodies truly aren't wired for discipline, for making the better choice, for denying ourselves what feels good in the immediate moment. She talks about how she's used a simple 5-second exercise of counting down like a rocket launch ("5, 4, 3, 2, 1...blast off!") to propel herself into doing something she really doesn't WANT to do. While I originally began listening to this for an extra push in the area of eating and exercise, it of course could apply to every area of life. Including the kids.

It's really easy to tell your kids they HAVE to do something. But what happens when they don't? The critical thing is not what you tell them to do, but what they actually end up doing. I recently told Anna now that theatre is done for the year it's time to pick up some additional chores at home, including cooking dinner for the family one night a week. Okay, cool. But it's not like she's going to do this on her own. How many times, after the initial requirement, have I just become rather blasé? Often a few weeks later, I'll say, "Oh yeah, we were going to have you do that...." Still, no follow through. This time, I said she needed to do her research on what she wanted to make, then write it down and hand it to me with the required ingredients before I go shopping. Yesterday I asked her again and she said she'd do it when she got home that night. Guess what? She didn't do it. So now she HAS to do it today, because I'm going shopping tomorrow.

If this all feels rather tedious, it's because it is. Which is why we avoid follow through. Or at least I do. But what are they learning, when we don't follow through about them following through? They're learning it's not important to follow through, of course.

Recently I had to volunteer to do something that I really didn't feel like doing. I had signed up, I knew I needed to be there, but I didn't WANT to be there. "Just don't go," Anna told me. Of course, that's always our default option. I told her I had to go because I said I'd be there and they were depending on me. And I hoped she was making a mental note that even parents sometimes really don't want to do something, but do it.

Follow through is especially difficult with Ethan and screen time. You know how people say if you're going to hand out a certain punishment to your kids, you have to be able to deal with the consequences of that punishment? So if you tell your kid they can't watch TV all day on a rainy day during summer vacation, what's your plan? How are YOU going to survive the punishment, when your child is nagging and whining at you This happens with us and Ethan all the time. Taking away screen time is really the most effective punishment, or consequence, we have for him. But we have to know what we're getting into. A day Ethan is not allowed screens can often be brutal. He doesn't want to get ready for school because "there's nothing to look forward to when I get home." There's crying. Maybe tantrumming. Lots of whining and saying he doesn't know what to do. Lots of trying to sneak the screens when we're not looking. Refusing to do homework. The list goes on and on.

Lately Ethan has taken to sneaking screen time and lying to us about it. The sneaking is bad enough; the lying is a path we really want to nip in the bud as much as possible. Dan caught him last week and took away his screen time the next day, but when I found out, I started to panic. Why? Because I knew he had a baseball game that evening, and how hard it would be to motivate him to put on his uniform and get him out the door if he had no screens that afternoon.

But: Fear of our kids' behavior can't stop us from following through. Maybe sometimes we have to make some adjustments or modifications, but still, we've got to do it. What's "cute" now won't be when they're a teenager, or working a job where they just don't "feel" like doing what the boss has told them to do. We've got to put in the time now, the investment now. Jut as we have to do with ourselves, when it comes to self-discipline.

I still have a LOT to learn about this. I really feel as if I'm just beginning. But awareness is the first step. Nike was right. Sometimes we have to grit our teeth, take a deep breath, and just do it.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Letting Boys Be Boys...Kind Of

I knew there was trouble when I glanced out the back door and saw Ethan attempting to climb up a large ladder (not opened correctly) he'd gotten from the garage, which was perched against a tree on our sloping hill in the backyard.

"STOP!!" I cried out. "That's completely unsafe!"

"But I HAVE to climb this tree!!" he insisted. The lower branches were a little too high for him to reach. And so he did, after I made him open the ladder correctly, and find a more level spot.

I call it compromise. I make attempts at this whole "free range kid" thing, but it's not completely for me. I don't think it's completely for Ethan, either. I know someone who regularly lets his son roam around the neighborhood, through people's backyards or back doors, and even in a patch of woods, and doesn't bat an eye. I turn my back for five minutes, and crazy things are happening without Ethan going anywhere.

People say this is what it's like, having boys. I wouldn't say I'm surprised. I always had this idea that maybe having a boy was would be like living in Charlotte's Web with Fern's older brother, Avery. Remember him? The one who toted around a BB gun, carried frogs in his pocket, and liked to poke all sorts of inappropriate things with sticks? Only this isn't 1948, so it's not quite like that, and Ethan's not going to roam around in an old barn (none within walking distance, although we do have a number of abandoned tobacco barns in town), or around town (stranger danger!). Our garage is dangerous enough.

Okay, so here's the thing. We're always telling him to get off the screens and get some fresh air. But apparently fresh air is boring. And Ethan happens to have a friend next door who like him needs excitement or a challenge.

Things started innocently enough. Well, not really. They started their own version of Poke-E-Ball that involved essentially pelting each other with all kinds of balls. Only they'd run around sometimes to the front and near our busy street, and balls would sometimes go into the street, and I'd find out after the fact they were running out there and getting them.

Okay, deep breath. They DO need to learn how to safely retrieve balls from the street.

Then the swing set challenge. At nine Ethan has essentially outgrown our swing set, particularly because it doesn't have monkey bars (that never crossed our mind, when we purchased it, unfortunately). He is bored with the swing set, but he enjoys using it if for new challenges with his friend. So, the minute they see each other, I'll hear something like, "Why don't you climb up the slide backwards to that board and hang upside from it?" Or "Let's try jumping off from the platform."

I hate to watch them like a hawk, but I also hate to hide out in the kitchen because I don't want to know what's going to happen next. It feels wrong to tell them to stop (Would Fern and Avery's parents have done that? We're wimps nowadays!) but the thought of someone getting hurt makes my own head hurt.

The swing set competitions were bad enough but they have evolved into a game of Let's Find the Most Dangerous Thing in the Garage and Fight with It. Thanks to Anna's input from a slumber party game she played years back, I caught them not long ago playing their own version of the Hunger Games, going after each other with different sections of a roof rake. They are often fighting with sticks. The sharper, pointier, more jagged edge, the better. I told them they had BETTER stay away from the axe.

Then there was the day recently when Ethan came across a sledge hammer and he and his friend decided to attack some stuff we have in our garage waiting to be carted away by whoever I finally getting around to call to remove it. There's an old toilet in there, and TV. I stepped outside and heard smashing sounds. Then I saw small bits of white porcelain on the ground and followed the trail to the garage, where they were gleefully smashing at the toilet and yelling, "TOILET DESTRUCTION!!" A very small part of me was kind of glad they had broken the thing down a bit so we could shove it into the trash can. Dan took the more parental view that someone was going to get hurt and they needed to stop.

I try, I really do. I try to be all relaxed and chill and let them do stuff. But then I think about my child or his friend breaking their foot with a sledgehammer or having a piece of porcelain fly up and permanently blind them, and I end up launching into the mom speech.

It didn't help. The next day I found them in the garage smashing the TV. I wondered just what Ethan's friend said to his parents when he walked in for dinner that evening  ("Their garage is a mess, but we helped smash some things into a million pieces!"). I wondered if I'd be getting a talking to soon. These are nice people. We are probably not a great influence.

There is a part of me of course that is very happy Ethan has a friend to play with and that, while they fight sometimes, they also have a lot of fun together. I just wonder what's next, and I wonder if there is anything they can come up with that's not violent or destructive.

A few weeks ago I peeked outside and saw Ethan again with the ladder, this time on our deck. I told him to go put it in the garage...only he made a detour heading back to the garage and set up the ladder under the sloping back roof of the garage. When I looked out there again, he and his friends were sitting on the garage roof, their legs dangling off the side.

"WHAT ARE YOU DOING??!!" was my predictable response.

"Mamma, we just needed to feel what it was like to be on the roof. I love the roof. You KNOW how I've been wanting to go on it." This is true. It all started when my Uncle Warren allowed him up on the roof of our camp when he was fixing something last summer. Ethan has become so enamored with the roof he even begged to be allowed on the roof on his birthday, as part of his birthday present.

"GET DOWN NOW!" I hissed, shooing at both of them. At dinner Ethan's friend would announce to his parents, "And today we climbed on Ethan's roof!...."

They slowly climbed down, with unmistakable looks of satisfaction on their faces. I couldn't blame them. The roof IS pretty cool. In fact, I seem to remember secretly climbing out one of the bedroom windows in my grandmother's house onto a roof below. The freedom! The view! And I was the biggest goody-two-shoes ever.

There is a side of me that enjoys all of this exploring...and another side that wonders how we will escape this unscathed. Ethan likes to brag that he has never broken a bone. And then he climbs the tree in front of our house, the one with weakening limbs, and every time decides he needs to climb a little bit higher. Last time he yelled out, "If I fell from here right now, would I DIE??"

Yeah...there have been lots of quickly muttered prayers lately.

I'm not sure I want to know what they'll come up with next.