Recently Z said to me, "Mom, quit telling me what to do!" It was a school day morning and I replayed the last hour in my head. He was right: just about everything I'd said to him from the moment he woke to the time we walked out the door was a command. Clearly, I needed a parenting refresher.
The last time I read a parenting book, I felt as though it was the only advice book I would ever need. "Unconditional Parenting" by Alfie Kohn felt completely right to my sensibilities. His basic tenet is that the more time we spend connecting and empathizing with our kids, the more likely they are to trust us, confide in us, and allow us to influence them. Here's the kicker, though: do this without punishments or rewards.
I realized I had been drifting further away from Kohn's philosophy. More and more I was threatening to withhold ice cream or story time. Really, it just worked so well. But then one evening Z said, "I don't care about stories." And I realized I was digging my own hole.
I picked up Mr. Kohn's book and looked for the chapter on "What to Do When Your Child Turns Into an Asshole." Sadly, it wasn't there. Instead, that chapter was called "The Child's Perspective." Ah, yes. We're asked to remember that when your brain is wired like a 5 year old's, you should probably accept that drama exists at all levels, especially ones involving toys and their positions at the breakfast table. Since getting out the door for school is when we struggle most, here are some ways I've been trying to get back to unconditional parenting.
* Wake Up: You parents who have early rising kids complain about never getting enough sleep. But admit it, you could skip that episode of Breaking Bad and get your 7 hours and not feel so exhausted. When you've got a kid who can't pry his eyes open before 8 and will kick and scream in his sleep as you're trying to pull off his pajamas, you decide who has the bigger problem on Monday. Early to bed does not mean early to sleep so we read and talk and sing and let him tell us how many minutes he needs until we can leave the room. If he asks for 10 we counter with, "How about 8 long minutes" and that usually works. He can't settle himself before 9:00 so even if this routine is happening at 7:30 he still thrashes in bed. We already know he will pledge to a fraternity.
* Get Dressed: When Z was three we spent a few months working him up to his visit from The Binky Fairy. He took it in stride the morning he awoke to find all his pacifiers gone and a toy in their place. We figured his 5th birthday could be another touchstone for self-reliance and told him how, when you're 5, you "get" to dress yourself. I even bought "The Little Engine That Could" hoping it would spark a can-do attitude in him. I spent weeks laying his clothes out in the morning but had to redirect him every 5 minutes because he became distracted by his Legos. Then I started hanging his clothes on the towel warmer in the bathroom which worked better but only after I redirected him from the Legos. Now I've finally succumbed to lifting him out of bed, after the screaming and kicking has died down, walking him past the Legos and into the bathroom. We save even more time if I just dress him myself. I'm hoping this will go better by the time he's 10.
* Eat Breakfast: I'm a bit of a stickler when it comes to food, so it's simply impossible for me to hand Z a breakfast bar as we're walking out the door. I tried once to give him an egg and cheese between a wholemeal English muffin, but he ended up deconstructing it and rendering it un-portable. I won't buy kid cereal because I'm terrified it may trigger diabetes. So I've started mixing nut butter with Nutella and spreading it on his grain-free muffin. We call it "frosting" on his breakfast "cupcake" which is made up of ground almonds and zucchini held together with eggs and dates. This breakfast is only available to children who are already dressed down to their socks.
* Brush Teeth: When Z's dentist in Seattle told me that I should be brushing his teeth for him until he was 8 years old my eyebrows raised and I expected him at any second to slap his knee and say, "Just kidding." But he didn't. I hadn't brushed someone else's teeth since Middle School when we had to start brushing our dog's teeth. Honestly, the only thing easier about brushing a child's teeth is that his breath doesn't smell like cat poop. If Z manages to sit still long enough for me to brush his teeth, his head will start bobbing. If he manages to stop his head from moving his torso will twist. Solution? He's actually doing much better with this routine since the day I told him the natural consequences of poor oral hygiene involve a big needle and a drill. "You decide, Mister."
* Putting on Coat, Hat, Gloves and Shoes: Here we have the same issues: once awake, this child does not stop moving. So getting the outdoor gear on is like trying to lasso a greased pig. Recently I discovered he can move quickly when I tell him he can have his gummy vitamins once he's wrapped up and standing on the other side of the door. When I told C how clever I thought this was he just said "You did this right after brushing his teeth?" Does anyone know if glucose in kid vitamins causes tooth decay?
* Walking to School: I used to think that once out the door I could heave a big sigh of relief. I myself can make the walk to his school in about 6 minutes at a brisk pace. With Z I budget at least 20. I'll have to tack on a few more minutes now that he's taken to picking the moss out from between bricks. Fortunately, there are two adorably dimpled classmates on our route, and he'll pick up the pace when I remind him that he can walk with the girls if he doesn't doddle. If that doesn't work, I challenge him to an air race between Matchbox cars and let him win every time. Try it!
Once at school he pulls off his coat, hat and gloves so quickly in his rush to see his buddies that I'm left behind without a kiss or even goodbye. I know this is a thankless job for awhile. But I know my only hope of seeing him much as an adult is if we raise him without constantly demanding his attention and cooperation. I knew my husband was a keeper when I learned he always invited his laid back mother to travel with him, whether it was across hot and crowded India or on the back of a camel in Australia. If my son is anything like my husband, I'll get to keep traveling with him well into my 80's.
So, though I strive to do what Kohn suggests, I have to credit my dad for revealing what I think is probably the best secret to good parenting. Dad always said he couldn't (or wouldn't) take credit for how my brother and I turned out. "I just got out of your way." Not in a way that left us bereft of a moral compass, but one that gave us the freedom to mess up. And forgiveness when we did.
So I truly feel that parenting with a minimum of punishments or rewards won't turn out a self-centered, demanding kid. I think it will help him decide what kind of person he wants to be, not what we want him to be. When he first started school I wanted him to be the nice kid so the other parents would enjoy hanging out with us. Now I'm trying not to tell him how to act around other kids, just what the consequences might be. ("You know, if you body slam Ellie she might not want to have a play date with you.")
You may think I'm crazy. I might just be crazy and this may all fail miserably and I'll spend hours and hours in the principal's office. But when Z crumples into a pile of tears and, between hiccups of sobs, reaches out to me and says, "I need a hug"' I feel as though I might be doing something right.
Today marks the belated inauguration of the Z Quote of the Week. I'll try to match them somewhat to the content of the post, but rest assured, there will be a fair number of complete non sequiturs.