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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

it's time for some good old fashioned parenting

I'm pretty sure that this weekend the kids thought I had lost my mind.

I want to start this story by describing the phenomenon that has happened to me.  It is that thing that happens when something isn't working well and you don't really know how to fix it so you sort of ignore it, sort of avoid it and sort of resign yourself to it because you feel powerless to change it.

I think in some circles people call this denial.

Yes, I have been in denial about how bad our kids' fighting had become.

It has gotten so bad that I find myself anxious and tense when I am alone with them, bracing myself for the next blow out.  Anytime I leave the floor of the house they are on (to put laundry away, for instance) I am not gone for 5 minutes when I hear the screaming: "MOMMA!!!!" followed by some litany of the wrongdoings of the other.

I can't go the bathroom without refereeing fight, can't go outside to clear snow without something coming out to tearfully report the transgressions of the other.   Nearly every every fun thing we do  ends in some sort of emotional upset by one or both.  Nearly every day after school one or the other is so grouchy that sibling play is impossible.

I had become so used to it that I was, without really knowing it, trying to bend myself this way and that to keep this one happy and then the other one.  But lately I've found myself more distressed, feeling very torn and like I can't win, like my pretzel can contort no further and being unable to take a deep breath when my kids were at home.

I didn't let myself acknowledge how much it was interfering with our family life and my own personal happiness until I was with the kids almost nonstop during Christmas vacation.

It isn't like we haven't tried to fix this, haven't discussed it for hours, but Sandi and I had just sort of resigned ourselves to it.  After all, we have modeled generosity, acceptance and inclusion, shown our kids that they don't need to compete for love, attention and affection.  We are peaceful, loving people and surely our offspring would grow out of it.

But it has gotten worse.  They have gotten older and stronger which makes them craftier, more manipulative and able to physically hurt each other.  We had tried to send the message that meanness wouldn't be tolerated.  We had taken away TV, iPads, beloved toys, special outings, etc. but nothing was having a lasting impact.  What could we actually do about it?

Just a few days ago Sandi told the girls she would pay them each a dollar a day for every day they didn't fight.  She could see how much they were wearing me down in her absence.  Maybe a little old fashioned bribery was the way to their hearts and their sisterly bond.  They couldn't even make it one full day.

After a few conversations with people about their kids sibling relationships (wherein kids fight from time to time but also play together a bunch) and feeling like I was up against a wall with anxiety and discontent when I was alone with my waring children, I decided that something had to change.  I simply couldn't stand to feel so powerless and to feel like my six and nine-year-old held all the cards.

Sandi was on call all weekend and was called in both days.  This meant a rather unstructured Saturday at home with just me and the kids.  I told them that before they went to the twins house to play (while I went to do a massage) they needed to clean their room.  Part of the goal was to get rid of toys they didn't want anymore so that they had more space to play.  (They had recently told me they liked having less stuff in there and having it clean so this was not a forced clean exactly.)

I told them I would help them when I got out of the shower.  Skip over to the part where they fight and argue and keep barging in the bathroom and I threaten them.  I finish getting ready and go in to find Maya hiding under her covers and Ella organizing her headboard which can take hours and doesn't add to the general cleanliness of the room.  I ask them why they aren't cleaning and they scowl at me.

I had HAD it.  So I did what Sandi had suggested months ago when our kids were in a particularly entitled stage: I took all their toys out their room.  I dragged shelving units and toy boxes and soft-sided stuffed animal totes.  I took it all.  I made them go downstairs.  I didn't yell; I just took it out.  It looked like the Grinch had been through there.

The girls were crying and screaming at me. I guess I had said earlier that if they couldn't be bothered to take care of their toys, I knew there were kids who could.  So they assumed I was giving all their toys away and they were freaking out.

Ironically, bound by crisis, the girls leaned on each other.  I heard, "Ella, she's taking all our toys! What are we going to do?!" and "You're the meanest lady in the world!" and then to her sister,  "Isn't she??"  "She's TAKING OUR TOYS!!!"

I actually found myself giggling a little.

The next thing I know, Ella, bawling her head off, comes at me with the telephone. I think, oh, boy, who has she called?  (I have to insert the image my friend Brenda gave me of the kids dialing 911 and saying, "Help! It's an emergency! Mom is giving away all our toys!")  I looked at the phone and realized it was Sandi who had just happened to call from the hospital to check-in at that unfortunate moment.

She was, understandably, concerned at the level of sobbing and distress but I calmly explained that I had had all I could take and I was taking drastic, but thoughtful measures.  She all but said,  "Carry on" and that is just what I did.

At this point I had to take the girls to the twin's house and get to work.   As they climbed into the car, puffy-eyed and sniffling, Maya said to Ella, "At least Kaylee and Kendall have toys at their house...." as though they had been living toyless for years.

Now at this point you are either thinking I am a total bitch or an absolute genius.  Allow me to finish.

Things have turned around here in mere days.  We have stripped the kids down to bare bones.  The toys I took out of their room are off limits for now (they still have some downstairs) as are their iPads and TV watching.  For each day they get along they can pick one toy to take back.  As Sandi said, it takes 30 days to form a habit so if they get a toy back per day by the end of the month they will be in the groove.  We are making it very clear that all the privileges they have day in and day out will disappear if they cannot get along- play dates, gymnastics, fun outings...all of it is up for grabs at this point.

I really believe that our kids had the wrong idea about how the world works.  They think their life is hard if their iPad is out of battery, if supper doesn't consist of their favorite foods or if their favorite shirt is dirty.  We want our kids to be more appreciative, have more perspective, really comprehend how fortunate they are and understand what it means to work hard.

The girls will continue to clean up their own plates after meals but added to that will be clearing up the whole table as well as helping to set it and help make supper when it is asked of them.  I will not be bullied by whining into not taking them to the grocery store or having them help clean the house.  I confess, I have stopped insisting on some things (such as if you want your favorite shirt clean then help fold the laundry) because I can't stand the complaining.  But avoiding these painful conflicts with them has given them a free pass to not help, to have this life that is carefree but unbalanced because it is absent of any real worth ethic and equal participation.

The expectation is that they not fight and learn to treat each other with kindness and thoughtfulness.   We don't expect that they will never fight but we want them to learn to walk away from each other instead of inflaming each other.  And as I told them, no amount of punishment from me has altered how they relate to each other so this is going to be up to them.  They will have to decide that they want to get along and work together to figure out how to.  I am putting it back on them to solve this problem they got themselves into.  All their privileges are on the line and the choice is theirs.

It feels so liberating.

We get a say in whether or not our kids are sassy, entitled and unhelpful citizens of their generation.  I just forgot that for a few minutes as I worked hard to keep my denial intact.

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