Routines, rituals, and systems…oh, my!

As I grapple to get a grip on the parenting thing, I am constantly tweaking, testing, and adding new ingredients to the soup, trying to create routines and systems that will make our family life easier and more enjoyable.  My attempts have been numerous, ranging from charts to track TV viewing to bedtime schedules designed to eliminate nagging to developing a tradition of Sunday night being family movie/ game night.

I envision weaving together a seamless string of rituals that bring comfort, meaning, and joy to our lives.  However, what for me may seem like a pathway to peace and harmony often seems to the other members my family like a set of annoying rules that are either too complex or too onerous to follow.

Many of my systems are short-lived.  And yet, I don’t give up!  I continue to believe that with the right combination of creativity, ease, and consistency (in sticking to the plan), we will hit the jackpot of family happiness and our quality of life will skyrocket.

And a few things have been successful!  We’ve been having family meetings on a regular schedule for close to six months, and I definitely think they’ve been worthwhile.  (More about family meetings in an upcoming post.)  The kids have been preparing dinner on their own one evening a week since late spring, and that has gone really well.  And, as mentioned in an earlier post, Fun Day Monday lives on!  These are all systems that were instituted in an intentional manner.

Then, of course, there are the rituals that evolve organically.  Zoe drinks herbal tea every night before bed while she reads.  Alexander finds great joy in lounging around the house in his cozy plush bathrobe whenever possible.  I usually read the Writer’s Almanac website each morning as I look for poetic inspiration to begin my day.  Should I leave well enough alone with the rituals that have come about “naturally” and give up on the rest?

Am I trying too hard — or being rigid and controlling — in the name of “intentionality”?

Is it misguided to hope that the path to serenity can be spelled out in a word document?

Or do moments of beauty, grace, and order sometimes need to be constructed?  Would we miss some wonderful activities that will become part of our collective family memory if I had not pushed a routine or ritual forward?  Maybe only time will tell.

Let me know what you think.  What rituals and routines have you tried to create?  Which have succeeded, and which have failed miserably?

The orange reading chair — where I usually sit on weekend mornings reading and journal writing while everyone else is still in bed…


The Fisherman’s Wife

A few days ago, I received the stunning news that Alexander was being recommended for the Academically/ Intellectually Gifted (AIG) program in math.  My first thought was, “You’ve got to be kidding!”  This is a kid who has cried hot angry tears over math homework too many times for me to recount.  A child who despairs when he does not understand a concept and is irritated when problems are time consuming or take multiple steps, a child who refuses to learn the multiplication tables and begs to use a calculator.  Both kids have been in AIG reading/ language arts for the past few years, but MATH?  REALLY?

Along with my initial surprise, I also felt some immediate trepidation along the lines of “It will be too hard for him.  He’ll be frustrated.  He won’t do well.”  Quick on the heels of these thoughts was the certainty that Zander would not want to be in an advanced math class, which would be challenging and require more work; he would surely veto the idea.  However, I was wrong; when I broached the topic, he said he wanted to try it.

Then a funny thing happened.  Strange, fantastical images began to flit through my mind.  Visions of my child discovering his inner math genius, suddenly relishing homework and being excited about going to school, everything coming easily to him as he realized how much he enjoyed learning.  In other words, I envisioned an altogether DIFFERENT child.

That’s when it hit me.  I was being the fisherman’s wife!  I have a vague recollection of the fisherman’s wife fable from childhood.  The story is about a woman (the fisherman’s wife) who is granted a number of wishes by a magic fish and keeps wishing for more and more extravagant things until, ultimately, the fish, in disgust, takes away all she has gained and places her back in her original humble position.

I’ve referred to this allegorical tale in family discussions quite a bit, but I never envisioned myself as the fisherman’s wife; it was always someone else (usually my husband) that I was calling out as being a malcontent.  Yet, a little reflection leads me to realize that I have been more of a grasper than I realized when it comes to my children.

When the kids started public school as first graders (after attending their Kindergarten year at a Montessori school), they were literally at the bottom of their class in terms of academic skills.  There was actually a list (which I saw inadvertently) and my children’s names were last.  At the first grading period, it was suggested that perhaps Zoe and Alexander should be pulled out of first grade and placed in Kindergarten at another school.  This idea was discarded and instead tutoring was arranged and the kids received help from a reading specialist.  Of course, they did learn to read, and two years later, they both qualified for the AIG reading program.  They’ve grown and progressed in other ways, too, and have always been good kids who generally don’t get into trouble or cause problems at school and have plenty of friends.

Yet, I continue to wish for more.  Children to whom things come easily.  Children who always have a good attitude.  Children who rise to every challenge.  I’ll justify this by saying I want them to be happy — and I want to be happy, too!

But obviously the easier road to happiness lies in accepting and appreciating my children the way they are, rather than hoping for them to magically be transformed into something else.  It’s amazing how my own worries and stress can obscure this basic knowledge.

So, let the journey continue and the new math adventure begin — broken pencils and all!

The Saga of the Coat on the Floor

Tonight, I was planning to report on my various resolutions and challenges and give an update on how the kids have been doing.  Instead, I come to the computer in the grip of a discouraging dilemma that reared its ugly head in the final hours of our weekend.

Downstairs on the floor near the dining room table lies Zoe’s new ski jacket.  In bed lies Zoe, asleep now, but not long ago defiantly proclaiming that she will NEVER pick that jacket up from the floor.  I, on the other hand, am feeling pretty strongly that I, too, will never pick that jacket up from the floor.  AND I am certain that I am RIGHT!

So, there you have it:  A classic power struggle.  How did it happen?  And, more importantly, how do we fix it?

Quick back story:  We spent the afternoon in Blowing Rock Park.  Zoe and Zander played with their friends while my friend Leslie and I played tennis.  Then we took all the kids out for ice cream.  We were home by early evening.  The kids watched a half hour of TV and then played together, giggling and acting crazy in a pile of warm laundry on the bed.  The plan was a light dinner (very light — like a bowl of cereal or a bagel), and then the family would play a game together before bed time.

When Zoe and I went downstairs to get her some food, I noticed her jacket was still on the floor where she had dropped it when she came in.  I had asked her already to hang it up.  I asked her again.  She said she would pick it up after she ate.  I said she needed to do it now.  She refused.  And so it began.

The coat was not picked up.  Zoe did not have dinner or play a game with us.  Nor did she have her evening tea.  As the saga unfolded, I felt myself filled with a fiery indignation.  A litany of questions raced through my mind:  How could my child be so spoiled?  How could she be so irrational as to not see that it was her responsibility and no one else’s to pick up the coat?  How could I possibly continue to do things for her when she would not do even this small task?

The day ended with the problem not solved and with everyone feeling cruddy.  At this moment, I’m no closer to a solution.  I can’t take away the coat.  It’s new and nice, and Zoe needs it for winter.  I don’t actually want to leave it on the floor, since the whole point is that we don’t leave things on the floor, because that makes our home messy and chaotic and less enjoyable.  I’ve checked Positive Discipline A to Z, but haven’t found a spot-on answer yet.

Oh, and did I mention, Zoe is a tough nut to crack?  I have no doubt she can outlast me in any battle of wills.  But, honestly, as alluring as it may be to win this power struggle, I really don’t want to “crack” her.   I want my daughter to learn lessons for the right reasons — to act out of a sense of responsibility and caring, not because she feels threatened or because I’ve broken her spirit.  I want her to have pride in doing things for herself, rather than measuring her power in her ability to manipulate others into doing things for her.

So, right now, I’m coming up short on ideas.  I know I’m still mad.  And I know it’s hard to problem solve when you’re angry.  I hope that in the morning, with sleep and a little distance, I’ll discover some new wisdom — a little parenting magic — to bring to this situation.  That’s the best I can do for now.

Suggestions welcome…

To Reward or Not to Reward… or “how to earn a blueberry dwarf hamster”

Recently, I’ve been hit with the radical notion that I don’t want to offer rewards to my children to entice good behavior.  This feels radical because reward systems seem to be everywhere.  They are especially prevalent in school, but many of our friends also use them (including paying their children for doing school work and getting good grades) and, admittedly, we have tried our fair share of reward systems — usually in rather lame and desperate attempts to achieve compliance from the kids in areas where they should be behaving well without the need for any extra incentives.  Aside from the fact that these systems have been only marginally successful around our home, I am seeing more clearly how counterproductive and flat-out distasteful a reliance on rewards can be.  However, undoing the reward mentality may not be easy.

When the kids entered public school, the rewards began to come fast and furious.  The systems were elaborate and varied:  buttons in a jar, tickets for good behavior, chances to draw from “the treasure box”.  To add to the madness, candy was often used as a prize.  (This was totally shocking after three years at a Montessori school where children were not even allowed to have cookies in their lunches.)  I’ll never forget the day Zoe came home from first grade and reported to me in a disgruntled tone, “All I got today was a pack of Skittles and a lousy ‘Good Job’!”  Wow — talk about creating a monster!

Jane Nelsen, author of the Positive Discipline books says this about rewards:  “Praise and rewards teach children to depend on the external judgments of others instead of trusting their internal wisdom and self-evaluation.”  And further, “Do not bribe or reward children for doing what needs to be done.”  For example, “Caring for their rooms is their job to help the family, and they don’t need a prize to do it.” from Positive Discipline A – Z.

In her Positive Discipline blog, Nelsen writes, “Praise and privileges…can change behavior (for a while), but they cannot change the person who engages in the behavior — at least, not in the way we want. No behavioral manipulation ever helped a child develop a commitment to becoming a caring and responsible person. No reward for doing something we approve of ever gave a child a reason for continuing to act that way when there was no longer any reward to be gained for doing so.”  She points to Alfie Kohn’s book, Punished by Rewards:  The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes as a comprehensive source for information and research showing that rewards are not an effective teaching method.

Expert opinions aside, here are my quick observations about our experiences using rewards:

1) They don’t work terribly well and generally involve a lot of nagging and reminding, which is what I’m trying to get away from.

2) They are too complicated, and either we or the children forget to use them, creating inconsistency, which begins to chip away at any possible effectiveness they may have.

3) It makes me mad to reward my children for doing things they should be doing anyway.

4) They demand and expect rewards for anything and everything, begin to bargain for rewards, and constantly seem to be upping the ante in regard to what they feel they should earn as a reward.

5) Even when the rewards are “working”, I feel like an ineffective parent who is teaching the wrong lessons to her children; I know there has to be a better way.

All of this came to a head at a recent family meeting.  Near the end of 4th grade, we started a reward system where the kids earned a playing card each day that they did not fuss when it was time to turn off the television/ computer.  (This already sounds bad, doesn’t it?)  The cards could be traded in for rewards of different kinds, but they had to accumulate at least 30 cards — about a month’s worth — before they could trade them in.  The one saving grace of this system was that the kids thought of it themselves as a solution to our screen time tension. Since it was their idea, they were fairly committed to it, and it did seem to have some positive effect on their behavior.  During the summer, the system dwindled.  It was revived when school started again, but we were not using it consistently.  This past Sunday, I announced that we were not going to be using the cards anymore.  I tried to explain my reasons why (probably not very well).  Zoe immediately began to cry.  Unlike Alexander, who had already traded most of his cards in for a treat, Zoe had been saving hers for a hamster — a big reward that took 90 cards to earn.  (How did I ever get into this?)  Understandably, she felt like she had been duped and was terribly disappointed and upset.

But then we began discuss other ways she could achieve her goal.  I talked in terms of “getting ready” to have a hamster, rather than “earning” it.  We made a list of things she could do to get ready and talked about how these things would prepare her for hamster ownership much more than earning cards for good behavior that had nothing to do with caring for a hamster.

Here is the list we came up with:

1) Research blueberry dwarf hamsters — what they eat, the habitat they need, whether they are good pets.

2) Look at and price cages at the pet store.

3) Feed Sam, the rabbit, every morning and evening.

4) Learn how to clean Sam’s cage.  (I will show her.)

5) Plan and prepare a place in her room for the hamster to live.

We also set a tentative date for when Zoe might get a hamster after she had accomplished and practiced all these things.  To my amazement, she calmed down and accepted this plan — letting go of the onerous card system without further objection.  Gotta say — it was pretty cool, and I felt like I had done good!

So, now that I’ve seen the light, I’m wondering how this is all going to work out.  Will I be wise and creative enough to come up with good, effective alternatives to reward systems?  Is it hopeless to try to buck the trend of “praise, rewards, and gold stars”?  Who am I to think I can influence my children without some enticing pay-off to dangle in front of them?

And, most importantly, will this little guy be joining our family of three cats and a bunny?

(Picture made by Juliet van Ree)

Time will tell and, as with other challenges mentioned here, I hope to report back on my progress as the year goes on.

The Unbearable Sadness of Parenthood… Poetry on 9/11


On a Friday night
when I was drinking gin
and tonics on a restaurant lawn,
at the moment
my children
began to fight
and I realized, too late,
it was time to go,
a boy drowned
in our town.

His mother ran across
seven lanes of traffic
while his body
traveled beneath the road
and cars and buildings
on a private river.

Weeks pass.
It’s 9/11, and
I haven’t thought
about the boy for awhile,
but today he’s back
as I remember
driving my babies to daycare
and hearing the first report
on the morning radio.

Each day
I’ve grown towards knowing
there is no safety,
mourning, not the many
but the one
beloved body.

I wrote this poem on September 11th last year, but I’ve returned to it many times since then trying to get it right.  As always, poetry is a good, but not perfect, vehicle for conveying my thoughts and feelings about parenthood. The last stanza has been the hardest on this poem; I’ve written at least four or five variations.  The ending posted here is not the one that was most popular with my poetry group (which has already seen and commented on this poem), but it still seems to get the closest to my feelings.

There is a selfishness in parenting.  No matter what the tragedy, there is a small (or large) part of us that is flooded with relief that it was not our child who was harmed.  But there is also a powerful universality to parenting, which creates intense empathy for any parent whose child has been hurt.  Individual events, as well as large, dramatic ones, remind us that there are no guarantees of safety for our children.  This mix of emotions extends beyond our community to the world at large.  Similarly, our reactions to global events, even when they don’t pose an immediate risk to our own family, create a feeling of unease that we are raising our children in a dangerous and out-of-balance world.

On days like today, these kinds of thoughts swirl around in my head more than usual, even as I enjoy a serene morning in my sunny home and plan the day’s mundane activities.  What are other parents feeling today?

Oh, yeah, homework…

Just a quick post to report in on my “core mission” for this blog — the school year journey.  Tonight both kids had homework, but Zander seemed to have way more, and it took him a long time.  And this does not even count the spelling assignment that he couldn’t do because he had forgotten the spelling book at school.

Although there were a few dicey moments, all-in-all, it was not a terrible evening.  Zoe finished her work and went into the living room to watch a half-hour of television before her bath.  Zander continued to meander along in reasonably good spirits, but at a puttering pace.  At one point it suddenly hit him that he still had a lot to do AND that he would not have any screen time, in any case, because he didn’t have the spelling, so homework wouldn’t all be done.  He abruptly became very surly and despondent.  I coached him a bit on not going to the angry place — not sure if this helped or not (he did not take kindly to my encouraging words), but he did calm down and finish the work.  The rest of the evening (there was not much left — just time for a little reading) went fine.  I considered it a successful night.

What I haven’t mentioned (until now) is that last week we had a really bad homework night — all of the most challenging and worrisome behaviors were in the mix — crying, anger, helplessness, declarations of hatred for school and everything else.  I started several times to write a post about the experience, but I felt so unsettled and discouraged that it was hard to write about, and I never did finish the post.

So, is it two steps forward and one step back, or one step forward and two steps back?  If I had to call it, I would say that things are improving:  coping skills are being built in minute increments, perspective and maturity are gradually infiltrating Alexander’s ten year old world view.  I hope I’m right.

Meanwhile, I just realized I may have slipped up on my seven day challenge this evening.  Just a tiny bit.  Need to be alert and ever-vigilant.  Tomorrow is another day.