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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

summer starter success

I'm not sure that I should publicly boast like this, but I'm going to anyway.

In preparation for the summer, Sandi and I had a long talk about how I would survive.  Having a full understanding of my need for many hours of exercise in a week and needing to pay for childcare to work, it seemed clear I needed a plan so as not to lose my mind in a state of overstimulated frustration, being taken down by bickering children and no capacity to deal.

It is true that I could send my kids to camps or pay my sitter to watch them so I could exercise, but neither of those feel like great options for a family that still has another 16 months to go with only my part-time income.  Plus, it is really important to me as their mom to have a great summer with them.  To me, summer is one of the major building blocks of childhood with day upon fun, carefree day tumbling together in an endless stretch.

That being said, what kids want a bitter, cranky mom schlepping them from fun thing to fun thing?

In order to balance it all I made a few key decisions:

1. I would cancel all scheduled activities. The only schedule I want in the summer is my 1-2 (mostly half) days of work. 

2. I would get up early, as early as it took, to get in some of my exercise.

3. I would keep a calendar for Ella to refer to so she wouldn't ask me 658 times a day what we are doing next.

4. Somehow, someway, the fighting between the girls would stop.

Sandi has to leave between 5:20-5:30 a.m. Monday thru Friday.  She returns home at 4:30-5 and then hits the office to work on care plans for the next day.  She comes out for an hour for dinner and bedtime and then goes back in the office to work and then goes to bed by 9.  We get about 15 minutes to chat before bed.  Allow me to say for the record clinicals sucks way more than the didactic part and the trips to Portland.  At least when she went to Portland, our pantry was stocked with items from Trader Joe's.

Lucky for me the sun is up early these days so I have options.  I get up with her around 4:15 am and go running. 

Easy incentive:

I also informed Ella that she would be going to the gym daycare with me 1-2 days a week so I could take classes. She earns a star (more on that later) if she goes without complaining and she gets to pick her own snack - blatant bribery I'm proud of. 

On Saturday's I get up and go biking with Emilie at 5:15 and set out every box of cereal in the house for the girls so they can let Sandi sleep (dubbed the "cereal buffet"). I find I need at least one day of 2 + hours of hard work exercise. Then I'm home by 7:30 for Sandi to leave for a day of studying. (Honestly, I worry soon that this time won't be enough. After a 35 mile bike ride I feel like I am just getting going. I tell you, I am fit but very high maintenance now.)

I am way past the point of preferring sleep over getting my needs met.  The mornings I get up early to run, I still have time to empty the dishwasher and write or work on the computer before the girls get up.  My days are infinitely happier.

But probably most important to my summer plan was figuring out to get the girls to stop fighting.  By the end of the school year they were embroiled in daily power struggles, often coming to blows.  I had fallen into that despicable parenting grove of just yelling at them to stop yelling at each other.

This is what I did and it is working:  I sat them down and told them that I was looking forward to a fun summer with them, but that we would only be doing the multitude of outings and adventures if they got along.  There would be no swimming, no ice cream, no beach trips for fighting, whiny kids. 

It took a few painful day to enforce the limit.   If they whined, they lost the TV.  If they complained they lost dessert. If they fought, I would cancel a trip or make them earn it back with exemplary behavior conditional to my approval.  I've been sitting with them when they have conflict to help them work it out and teaching them how to walk away when the other is being grouchy.  I'd like to think I'm even teaching them the art of "don't take it personally." I tell them I expect them to be friends and that Ella can't exclude her sister in favor of her friends. 

And you know what?  It is totally working.

The other day the girls got into an altercation while changing into swimsuits in the bathroom.  One had flushed the toilet prematurely on the other and was then smacked in the face.  I gave them one warning and they couldn't stop so I put them in a room together and told them that we wouldn't leave until they made up and came out as friends.  I figure it's better to bond them together against me if I have to.  They came out 30 seconds later holding hands.

Ella told me flat out that it is hard to be this nice to her sister.  We had a long conversation about building habits.  She wanted to go to a late birthday party last week and I told her she could only go if she was good to her sister for the entire two days prior.  An hour before the party, the fatigue of being nice had set in and she snapped at Maya.  Midway through, "MAYA! I told you-" she stopped herself, changed her tone and said, sweetly, "Maya, do you think you could please..."

I almost fell out of my chair.

Part of keeping the calendar for Ella is for my own comfort (I'm not a fan of repeat questions) and to allow her the freedom to occupy some of her own time. I say things to them like, "We are going to the Smith's at 11.  From now until 10:30 you can do what you want with your time."  There are specific TV guidelines so they know not to ask outside of those times.

A beautiful thing called momentum is happening so that now the girls just go off and play together. They make up with games, speak to each other kindly (!),  Ella reads to Maya, they pick out each other's clothes (okay, Ella picks out Maya's clothes) and there is a foreign presence in the house.

I believe it is called PEACE.

One of the other things that is working really well is that Ella is starting to be motivated by money and we are using it to our total advantage.  It was clear to us that she needed to have more control over things in her life (she actually said to us, "I need more control.  You're too bossy.")  She gets a "star" for certain chores and she can choose to do them or not do them.  No haranguing from us- she earns the money or not.   Each star is worth $.25 and the amount accumulated in a week is paid out each Saturday morning with 20% paid to her savings jar and the rest for her to spend as she wishes.  The other day she cleaned her whole room without being asked (normally a torturous event with a great deal of crying) and she earned 4 stars.  You get the idea.  Simple yet transformative.

I went from feeling victim to my kids behavioral patterns to feeling confidently in charge but putting them in charge of their own behavior. 

All of this leaves us time to have fun.  Like having my friend Chris and her daughters over to play:

(I'm getting miles out of this free sprinkler.)

Saturday night potluck campfire brought with it the excitement of morning glory sparklers:
And the disappointment when they burn out.

There was a lot of running with fire, an event normally frowned upon and so enormously enjoyed.

(These pics are so very blurry but I thought they were still kind of fun.)

In honor of the upcoming Olympics...
And I love this one mostly because Reed has his hands down his pants:

Hope you are all having a great start to your summer!  I'm going to go knock on some wood right this minute.

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