Crowdsourced parenting

Ah, the joys of having two boys home for the summer. Together. Every day. Incessantly.

They’ve never particularly worked well together, what with the opinionated and high-strung (don’t know where he gets it) paired with the flamboyant and stubborn (don’t know where he gets it, either). Since the beginning, the eldest gives his brother exactly zero slack, and the youngest adores his brother until he perceives slight, and then he lashes out.

It’s good times. And has been for years.

So to keep from committing some form of -icide this summer, I’m trying a few techniques. And I want to know which YOU think might work better:

1. Put the whole cache of toys in time-out. Not initially, of course. But starting with the first shriek of disdain each morning, every nasty word, hit, kick, sneer, tease, and threat will trigger a toy being stuffed atop the fridge. The fridge where I prefer to keep the cereal and the whiskey will buckle beneath the weight of endless supplies of LEGO and Pokemon and traffic cones (geez with the construction cone obsession). I figure removing cherished treasures to psychologically beat them into submission has potential. Just not sure if I have enough time and enough fridge top. Or if imprisoning the distractions will bring on full-scale war.

2. Force them to say “I love you.” I realized tonight that each genuinely thinks his brother hates him. Really does. Peanut has no sense that his younger brother worships him, and Butter has no idea that the little acts of kindness that arise here and there are peace offerings from a brother whose always wanted to love but feared the wrath. So every time they hit, kick, punch, flick, pull hair, menace, or berate, if I make them say I love you, they should develop a healthy aversion to that phrase, distrusting it and using it as a tool in the same way most kids forced to say “I’m sorry” learn to distrust and manipulate that phrase. Win in the short-term, win in the long-term, seems to me.

3. Scream and wring my hands. Because talking about kindness and gentleness, positive reinforcement, and expectations for civil behavior have fallen on deaf ears for 4 years, I should up the stakes, right? Scream, wail, fling myself between them? It would, at the least, serve my need for the theatrical.

4. Sob and wring my hands. See above explanation and…and nothing. Just replace “scream” with “sob.” That’s not me being a lazy writer. That’s some serious strategic planning.

5. Effusively praise kindness. We’ve had success in the past with the “notice a kindness, put a marble in a jar” scenarios in which kindnesses accumulate toward a big friendly family event like movie night or a walk with glow sticks. I guess I could try that rather simple idea of calling attention to what I like and want from them. Sounds boring, though. Can we go back to writhing and wailing?

6. Maximize their chances for success. Get them outside and moving as early and often as possible. Hikes, runs, bike rides, soccer drills, tennis, walks, yoga, catch…anything that gets them into their own bodies and off of each other. This is the best thing we’ve come up with to date. But then, tonight, I hear during the daily recap of favorite-moment/biggest-challenge-and-solution-brainstorm that Peanut’s favorite was today’s hike and his biggest challenge was his brother kicking him on the hike. I’m not sure what part of the hike I missed, but I should have had a camera poised for this highly athletic child’s crowning moment in which he can hike and kick someone at the same time. Similarly, it would have been nice to capture the stage-averse eldest in this decidedly dramatic moment. I’m guessing he threw himself to the ground and writhed a bit. Don’t know where he gets it.

7. Combine them all. Toy-removal consequences, concordance rewards, screaming, sobbing, exercise outdoors, and forced professions of love. What could go wrong if I just throw myself into micromanaging every breath out of their contentious little mouths?

Anyone? Ideas for brotherly peace? Other than from the famous Camp Don’t Fight with Your Brother, which for some reason has a waitlist, what do you vote? Please tell me you’ve had success with the sobbing. That’s my favorite. But I guess it’d be okay if you suggest something else. It’s not like any of my plans are winning us a calm, silly, kind household.

 

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Now *this* is what I signed up for

I’m pretty sure the gardeners, whom our landlord insists on paying, stole our rake today. So after I muttered to myself and raked four small lawns with my kids’ toy rake, the little guy and I lay on our backs and watched the sky. And he gently pulled something from my eyelashes, telling me, “just be still, Mommy. You have something on your eye-brown.”

The cuteness, people, erases all the rake-theft grousing.

We were running late on the way to school and there were a few tantrums about not getting dressed and not going to school and not wanting a cream-cheese-on-pumpkin-pancake sandwich and not wanting a jacket because “it’s hAWt, mom!” And all of these ruffled my feathers not a little, on a day where there wasn’t much time to breathe. But the hour I had to chill a bit involved my oldest teaching me to play chess, as Spouse taught him.

The awe and connection, dear reader, eliminates all the tantrum exhaustion.

The doorbell arrived just as my seven-year-old put my king in check. I’m not a good loser, and I seethed on the way to the door. Damned delivery ruins my damned mojo and likely loses the damned game for me and this damned whippersnapper trained by his damned father…box from Cowgirl Creamery. No, seriously, y’all. A surprise package from my favorite West Coast cheesemongers and cheesemakers and cheeseteachers. Inside the familiar white paper and balsawood box, beneath the recycled-paper faux straw is some Mt. Tam, our favorite triple creme brie, a large wedge of Wagon Wheel, the tastiest and mildest aged local and organic we can find, and some seasonal porcini-mushroom-encrusted washed rind cheese. And a phenomenal cookbook I hadn’t known even existed (because each trip to the Ferry Building or Pt. Reyes Station has me tasting all the salty, nutty sheep’s milk cheeses I can find while blindly ignoring all the environmental staged thrusts of jams and crackers and cookbooks).

The savory, creamy goodness, y’all, eases all first-time chess losses. Especially when the accompanying cookbook solves, in just the first chapter, my dilemma about wanting phenomenal coffee at home without any plastic. (Yes, Chemex is probably ideal, and my almost-all-stainless french press is okay, but cold-brewing is exactly my kind of make-ahead and use-as-you-go goodness.)

So my eye-browns were tidy, my brain full of chess (and evidence that my son is a diabolical mastermind), and my belly full of cheeses. But dinner was fraught and bath was looming and the children were wrestling. Again. There is apparently something hilarious about kicking your brother, literally, out of bed. One hundred times a day and despite repeated requests for some feet on the floor and bodies in the bath. And I’d had it. So I called my mom. Because nothing makes the kids pay attention to me like my ear near a phone.

Sure enough, they started bickering and calling me to intervene. I shut the door. They hollered louder. I walked into their room and signed, “stop; you hear him say stop, then stop,” to one; and “you bath now” to the other. And they laughed a gleeful, devilish laugh and hid under the bed. Problem solved. I continued listening to a story about a friend’s daughter who survived a fire and my mom’s subsequent story  to her friend about my PTSD after the fire. Just hearing the woman’s harrowing escape I cried, sad that anyone has to go through those moments just after a tragedy in which they call people, trying to be logical and thoughtful moments before falling into a million pieces of writhing fear.

And I hear giggles.

The dreadful little monkeys had shed their clothes, hopped in the bath, and were laughing that they intentionally disregarded the house rule about emptying bladders before getting in the bath.

Ugh. Little goofballs stopped my fear and my tears with their artisanal urine brine because they were beaming with pride that they’d joined forces and tricked me. I love being bested by my bestests.

The silly beauty, my friends, staunches fear and sadness.

Here’s hoping your eye-browns and your chess set and your coffee grounds and your cheese needs and your grin muscles are all attended to this week. Because melting into the cute and the awe-eliciting and the delicious and the comforting will cure what ails you. I hope.

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Sibling rivalry: the foreign exchange edition

Before Butter was born, I read a lot about preparing children for a sibling. I read about how to handle conflict between siblings, how to channel competition into cooperation, and how to find family tranquility.

I forgot to do that before our foreign exchange student arrived.

My boys helped prepare her room and drew her pictures to decorate her walls. They helped me shop for groceries she might like. And Peanut, our seven-year-old made a list of places we should take her. All very sweet.

But since she arrived, Butter is completely unimpressed.

Okay, that’s an understatement. He despises her.

When our temporary daughter talks to him, he shouts at her. “Don’t talk to me!”

I remind him that we talk nicely. That if you don’t want to answer, you can say, “I don’t want to talk.” But screaming at our friend “don’t talk to me, stupid Rosí!” is a one-way ticket to alone time.

She is flabbergasted by his rudeness. She has asked him to be nice, and she has told him she doesn’t like yelling. In fact, at one point she told him he couldn’t come in her room. She explained that, “Mommy talks nicely so she can come in my room. Daddy talks nicely so he can come in my room. Peanut talks nicely so he can come in my room. If you want to talk nicely, you can come in my room. But when you yell? You cannot come in my room. Goodbye.”

It didn’t work. He walked out of her room and slammed the door.

I’ve explained to him that he’s my son and I love him. That she’s a guest and we have to talk nicely. That I’m not her mom…I’m his mom.

But he knows that she’s the new baby in the family, taking time and attention from mom.

In her kind attempts to tidy the house, she moves his treasures and puts his shoes in the wrong place.

In her need to understand or clarify or get directions, she is taking from him what he believes is rightfully his.

And she came in full adult form, so he didn’t get his chance to poke and pinch her and test her pain tolerance as an infant.

She interrupts him when he talks, not hearing his thinking pauses in part because she’s unused to the rhythms of a three-year-old.

When he needs something, she often needs something, too. Sometimes she has to wait, and sometimes he has to wait.

She often calls me Mommy.

Worst of all, for him, she often doesn’t understand what he says. She gently tells him, “I don’t understand what you said,” hoping that he’ll repeat himself. Or miraculously become more articulate than his three years will allow.

He bellows, “I said ‘don’t talk to me,’ stupid Rosí!”

¡Ay, dios mío!

As our Dominican guest told me this week, my children are making me an old woman.

Dog or cat

Since our sweet old cat died, the family has been embroiled in a convivial battle of “dog or cat?”

We loved our cats, but we might be dog people.

We adore dogs, but we might be cat people. (Okay, let’s be honest. We’re not cat people. But Spouse misses our cat and I miss our cat and we’re willing to accept that there might be one or two more cats out there somewhere who would be just perfect.)

The kids seem to like both cats and dogs, though they’ve been pressing for a dog. Peanut, our eldest, is an animal whisperer. Living creatures trust him, and he has the right balance of sincere gentleness and authoritative confidence with critters who are not his brother. Dogs love him, cats love him, sheep flock to him. He’s the kind of guy who can convince spiders to walk out the front door (ours is a no-kill house and we usually ask spiders to climb onto a piece of paper for the ride outside). I’ve actually seen cats hiding under a car come out for Peanut only after the rest of us walk away.

Butter, the three-year-old, is unpredictable. (That was redundant, I know. But I’ve heard there are a handful of three-year-olds who don’t calmly pet pets and then shriek and take off chasing them. Or, say, gently carry a duck’s egg for five minutes before pitching it like a baseball. Sorry, farmer lady!) I pity any pet who is near Butter if the wrong mood strikes. And since he’s three, the wrong mood always shows up at least…what…once an hour.

So during the process of getting ready to visit a few animal shelters today, I stopped fight number 8,314 with the reminder that we can’t bring a pet home until we can prove we can be friendly to each other. That pets are helpless creatures and they need absolute, inviolable kindness.

So the boys shaped up and played nicely and talked nicely and touched each other nicely. We didn’t find our new pet, but we got more information during the search.

And by bedtime the boys were at it again. Disrespectful to each other, saying hurtful things, reacting to hurt with fists.

I stopped them and reminded them that we have to be kind.

But Butter put his foot down. “Nope,” he said. “I don’t want any dog or any cat or any pet.”

I asked him why.

“I don’t like to be gentle and nice,” he insisted.

Fair enough.

So now I’m looking for a shelter that will trade a sweet dog for a sometimes-sweet preschooler. Let me know if you know of one. I’m sure they can adopt Butter out if they put clear guidelines on his kennel. “Does well with people and children and pets. Sometimes. Sometimes he’s a raging a**hole, so he needs just the right home where everyone understands that he’s not a bad guy, he just needs some positive reinforcement training to get some freaking manners.”

Any chance you have a pup you’ll trade for that?

Overwhelmed

I keep meaning to write, but I’ll be damned if I can catch my breath.

We’ve been riding a wave of birthdays and visitors while I try to manage client deadlines and intense sibling yuckiness.

If I had written last week it would have been a whine about being in over my head and forgetting to breathe and wondering whether to do law school or a doctorate to avoid having to make career choices about creativity versus finances.

When I get caught up in maelstroms of bickering and negotiating and working and not sleeping, I forget what’s important and focus in on tasks instead of flow. And when I neglect the things I need, the whirlwind feels faster and faster and bigger and…

Stop.

So I bought a copy of The Secrets of Happy Families. I’m less than a quarter of the way through, but I’m intrigued at how much breathing room new thinking creates.

And lo and behold, being intrigued by a book means I pick it up as often as I can (granted, that means a pathetic 15 minutes a day). A pressing desire to read a compelling book reintroduces one pillar of my core: reading. And it means the boys see me reading. I can sit in the same room with them, supervise without helicoptering, learn a few things, and model strong reading behaviors.

Even more breathing, even more engagement. Family time spent on the person who has been viewing family as work rather than a situation or a reality or a backdrop or a network of humanity.

And boy was I tired of family being work. I even texted a friend that I love being a mother but freaking hate parenting.

From a few ideas in the book and my increased mood borne of reading, the sibling fiasco is getting better bit by bit.

And as the siblings chill, I chill. And as I chill I do client work faster, which means more sleep.

More sleep means more chill-tastic moments, more reading, more creative work.

I’m still barely making it each day. But now the water is to my neck instead of my eyebrows. (Or eyebrow, singular, really, because the post-surgery side is still way higher than the other one. Stupid cancer. I hate you and I hate what you do to families.)

I’m not yet recommending The Secrets of Happy Families. I’ll read more and let you know. But I am highly recommending a little touchstone work for those of us who feel we can’t quite make it through the day.

I kept making lists of the things I needed to reconnect with: sleep, reading, writing, blogging, exercising, healthy eating, socializing, creating.

Turns out I just needed to boost one and the others got a wee trickle down. Which means my all-or-nothing philosophy of how to forcefully cram balance into my life took a big hit this week.

Don’t worry. I’ll build my black-and-white world back up once I once again stumble out of balance.

For now, I have to go read a paragraph.

 

 

Plan of Attack

So I posted a couple of weeks ago that I can’t handle the sibling interactions up in this joint. And with some suggestions from readers, some ideas from parenting books, and some long hot showers (okay, just one, but still…), I’ve come up with a plan. Well, not so much come up with as cobbled together. On the fly. Okay, I’ve MacGyvered a plan.

1. Kindness gets noticed and rewarded. Every kind word or action, every moment of gentle voices or gentle hands, every shared toy and shared moment garners positive reinforcement. Not only do I point out and thank the perpetrator of kindness, I also add a cotton ball to a mason jar in the kitchen.
A full jars wins a family celebration. Glow stick walks around the neighborhood before bed, a trip to the museum, a gorgeous hike, a trip on the train. Something to celebrate the accumulation of goodness that doesn’t involve treat foods. Because if we gave up chocolate until we were all nice the world would end with my chocolate collection intact. Nobody wants that. So, food-independent celebration of kindness.
Lesson: practice being nice and you’ll have a happier family.

2. Nastiness is shut right the hell down. Talking nasty, teasing, and namecalling are rebuffed with a reminder that we don’t talk that way, that we are a family and have to live together, and that we’re all teaching each other how we want to be treated. The second reminder involves removal from the situation. Any physical violence, threatened or executed, results in removal from the room and removal of any toy involved in the situation.
Tomorrow is a new day and you can have the toy back, but if you practice unkindness, I practice removing you from the situation.
Lesson: practice being nasty and you’ll be alone more. Alone is good for restoring and finding kindness. Come back when you’re ready to contribute not destroy.

3. The direct link between sibling tension and my adrenal glands is being severed. They can disagree and find a solution, and they need to be given the tools to do that. If they fight and call names and hit I can correct their behavior without biochemically equating it with being eaten by a tiger. Their emotional health is tied to my ability to keep cool. For years I couldn’t keep cool if they were terrible to each other because I felt, physically, that meanness portended a terrible end. End to what, I don’t know. I just know I absolutely freaked out each time one of them screamed. Or called the other a name. Or grabbed a toy from the other. I didn’t necessarily yell or overreact or lose it in front of them. But biochemically and physically I freaked out. And holding onto that adrenaline all day was destroying my ability to function.
So now I try really hard to visualize the chemical link between one child’s screams and my adrenaline response; and I pull up the drawbridge to that pathway. I try hard not to let their discomfort with being unable to get their way shortcircuit my patience or logic or love.
Lesson: I am not the repository for their conflict. I can teach, lead, guide, and function better if I stop the adrenaline before it flows.

The first two are much easier than the third. But practicing niceness will make them nicer, shutting down nastiness will make us all function better, and eventually allowing conflict to ram up against crappy solutions before finding the best way forward will not keep making my blood pressure spike. Because twenty years is a long time to have my shoulders up around my ears, my stomach clenched, and my muscles ready to fight or take flight.

So. Three part plan to sibling kindness.

Week Two, the only part that’s working so far is that I’m more detached.

Win?

Quality of Life

You know what, six-and-three-quarters-year-old? If you tell the toddler he’s wrong every time he does or says something, he’s going to be mad. And he’s relatively inarticulate. His defense mechanisms are few. So when he feels bad because you’ve told him he’s not Bob the Builder or he’s not actually a big guy or his truck can’t build a new road, he’s going to hit you. It’s not fair, it’s not nice, and I’m working on stopping it. But may I just state for the record that you totally have it coming.

You know what, two-and-three-quarters-year-old? If you walk up and slug your brother because you don’t like what he’s said or where he is or what his plans are for the day, he’s going to get mad. You’re lucky that he now just screams like his head’s been severed and stomps away and says he won’t play with you. For at least two years he’s gotten used to shoving you or hitting you back. That he now withdraws his friendship is well within the bounds of reasonable. And it’s what I taught him to do. (Minus the screaming. Jaysus with the screaming.) Howsabout you do what I’ve taught you, and tell him, “Stop it!” rather than hitting.

You know what, both of you small boys? You’re beating me down. I don’t need much, but I need you to be kind to each other. I’ve done some research. Seven-to-eight sibling fights an hour is normal. You fight less than that. But even one fight a day where one of you hurts the other or one of you says something mean is too much. Knock. It. Off.

Because you’re breaking my spirit. I’m about to be the mom who won’t get out of bed in the morning because whether I do or don’t, you’re screaming and hitting within 5 minutes of waking. Yes, the first four minutes are adorable. You’re quite lovely to each other when you stick to the script. After that, all bets are off. And I talk kindly and explain why you should, too. But I kind of don’t see the point anymore.

Why do you play nicely until I dart down the stairs to go to the bathroom? Or ask you to put on shoes? Or try to cook? Why you gotta be like that? The second my back is turned you’re hurting one another’s souls, guys. Why with the calling names? Our mantra here is “It’s never okay to do something to make someone feel bad.” (Mad props to the friend who taught me that one.) That goes for retaliation hitting and scratching and biting. That goes for namecalling. That goes for demeaning someone or their imaginary world. That goes for excluding. That goes for talking nasty when a gentle explanation will do.

At least once an hour one of you is genuinely kind to your brother. And I tell you how nice that feels or sounds. I tell you to be proud of how you used your words and your kindness to make him happy.

And at least once an hour on or more of you is terrible. Horrid. Criminally nasty. And I tell you that your behavior is unacceptable. That you are a good person practicing being mean, which might make you grow up mean.

Why does this not work? Why are you not fixed? Why can’t you be mostly nice and withdraw when you need time alone? Why can’t you go without hitting or yelling or psychologically punishing each other for just one day?

Don’t give me that “because we’re small children and need your constant guidance, without which we falter and can’t possibly be kind to each other.” Mama has to pee, guys. And read a book, some day.

This steady rhythm of sometimes-nice-but-often-shitty-to-each-other is wearing me down.

And summer is coming. Lots of together time. Lots.

Please. Help a mama out. Stop being nasty to each other.

[To all those out there whose children get along famously, please go give them an extra kiss tonight, because their contributions to family harmony are deeply important. To those who’ve successfully guided asshole children to kinder and gentler ways, please comment below. Ayudame. Por favor.]