January gets to me every year

Today my work life, my parenting life, and the quirks of my mood have converged badly.  Even a walk did not lift my spirits as much as I hoped.  It helps when I remember that January always feels like a long month to me.

Lucky

Even after walking to the top
of the hill and looking back
to see the road twisting like a snake
below me, and the neighborhood pond
distant and tidy, realizing again
how different things are
just coming up here, past
the place where the field
rises so steeply from the road
that there’s only sky
above its stubbled arc,
feeling my cheeks grow cold
and then warm again,
lengthening my stride
and remembering
other walks and seasons,
I’m still sad, still feeling
discouraged and depleted.
The world hasn’t worked
its magic for me today.
But I know it won’t
be this way forever,
probably not even
tomorrow.

Live by the sword; die by the sword…

As you may know, I’ve implemented a new system for school nights.  The deal is — no screen time for the kids Monday through Thursday, regardless of whether or not homework is finished before bedtime.  Between snow days and holidays, the policy has been in effect for all of seven actual school nights.  But the system has been awesome!  Well, in my opinion, at least.

With our jobs — and the kids’ after-school, and activity schedule — homework often doesn’t get started until 6 p.m. or later.  Even if a lot of the work has been done before we get home, I still need to look it over and make sure everything is finished and that they’re not completely off-track on an assignment.  I used to think it was enough for them simply to get the work done, but a spate of bad grades has made me realize more quality control is needed.  Alexander, especially, has a habit of rushing and handing in sloppy work.  Under the old system, if homework was done by a certain time, the kids could watch a half hour of TV or play on the computer before reading/ bed time.  The problem was that they became obsessessed with reaching the “screen time” portion of the evening.  They hurried through their work and became agitated and angry if they thought they might not be able to have screen time.  I even found myself bending over backwards to ensure that they had this reward each night, because they would get so worked up about it.  (Another example of rewards backfiring.)

So far, the new system has worked exactly like I hoped it would.  The kids are much more low-key about their homework and more accepting of me checking it over.  The pace has slowed.  And, as an added bonus, we’ve had good times after the work is done.  One night (after Zander had initially been disgruntled about not watching TV), the three of us ended up on the floor together building with Legos.  It felt so relaxed and pleasant to me, and neither child seemed to remember that they had been deprived of television.

Here’s the rub.  Since last May, we’ve been having weekly family meetings.  I learned about family meetings in the book Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen.  The idea immediately spoke to me.  The family meeting, as described in Positive Discipline, offers a sort of family safe haven — a built in time for coming together each week to touch base, plan, anticipate, and problem solve.  The typical family meeting includes compliments, looking at what’s ahead for the week, meal planning, and discussing any issue that a family member puts on the agenda.

We’ve had great family meetings and cruddy ones.  Zoe has stormed off several times, and I think Alexander has stormed off at least once.  Often I feel like the “enforcer”, since I’m adamant about having the meetings every week unless we’re out of town.  The rest of the family is — to varying degrees — less enthusiastic about it than I am.  But I still feel strongly about sticking with it.  Looking ahead to the teen years especially inspires me to continue to work on and strengthen our family meeting ritual.

Still, it has been pretty much my deal — and I’m not sure anyone would notice — much less protest — if we just didn’t do it one weekend.  Until recently, that is.

Not too far into the new no-screen-time-on-school-nights policy, Alexander was struck with a brilliant idea:  I can put this on the family meeting agenda.  Suddenly, he was a child possessed.  He rushed to where the agenda was hanging on a bulletin board in the kitchen, armed with many colored pens and a determination to make this system work for him.  His agenda item for revisiting the screen time policy is circled, written in red, and highlighted with the word “urgent”.  Our meeting is tomorrow.

So, dear friends, what do I do?  I want to honor the process of joint problem solving — and not discredit the whole family meeting process as a sham — but I really really (I mean really!) want to keep the no-screen-time-policy in place.  Positive discipline promotes problem solving by consensus, making sure that solutions are related, respectful, reasonable, and helpful.  We have put these principles into action and seen them work.  But in this situation I just want to say, I’m the boss, and this is how it’s going to be.  Help!

Ideas and experiences welcome, please.

And I promise to let you know how it turns out!

In case you were wondering…

Thursday was the first — and, so far, only — day of the new no-screen-time-on-school-nights regime. Here is a quick recap:

On the way home, it was clear the kids were well-aware of what was in store (even though we hadn’t talked about it much). There was mention of “having nothing to look forward to.” Both kids suggested that since their homework was already done and would only be corrected by them in class, and not handed in to the teacher, there was no need to go over the work. I pointed out that actually understanding every assignment was an important part of learning and doing well. They did not buy it. I reminded Alexander of his self-proclaimed new year’s resolution to get all A’s. He decided that he had changed his mind about that.

Once at home, we had dinner, followed by a rather extravagant dessert, which the kids claimed would fuel them during the homework session. After that, they became very silly. They played a game of being slo-mo zombies. For a long time. It was funny — until it wasn’t anymore.

At last, we sat down at the table and started reviewing their math worksheets. Both kids had some of the answers wrong, and we went through the problems together. They were acting a little whacky, but basically cooperating (somewhat to my surprise). They were also working together remarkably well, which doesn’t usually happen.

We finished going over homework by around 7 p.m., which normally would have given them plenty of time to watch TV for 30 minutes or an hour before they started reading. I almost wavered and changed the plan based on the homework being successfully completed. But then I realized that this would be sheer madness.

I announced that I was going to work on a new jigsaw puzzle if anyone wanted to help. Zander went into the living room and turned the television on. I wrestled him for the remote, and turned the TV off. This happened again. We wrestled again. I yelled (I would call it “mild” yelling). Zander stormed off to his room.

Zoe and I worked on the puzzle for awhile. Alexander came downstairs pouting and complaining. After awhile, he joined us at the puzzle table. He did something to make Zoe mad, and she stormed off to her room. (I think they were arguing about who would get to put the last piece in the 1000 piece puzzle when we finished it. Yup.) Zander and I worked on the puzzle a little longer. Then he asked if I would “do questions” with him on the big bed (an activity he had earlier rejected as too taxing on the brain).

An earlyish bed time was easy to achieve. Things were peaceful. Zander’s last words to me as I turned out the lights were to blame one of my friends for “giving me this idea” and assert his right to watch television the next night, since it would be Friday.

All in all, I considered the evening a success.

New Year’s wrap-up

During the weeks before Christmas, various ideas for blog posts were swirling around in my head, but I just didn’t have time to sit down and write.  Things continued fast and furious up to the day we left on our trip for New York on December 21.  Despite the busy-ness and mixed sense of excited anticipation and impending doom, we did remarkably well on the packing and preparation-for-departure front.  In fact, I’m pretty proud of all of us for our generally stellar attitudes and sense of adventure throughout the trip.  Top on the list, I must give kudos to Dirk for not completely losing it on our NINE HOUR DRIVE from Mt. Kisco, New York to Washington, D.C. through driving rain, strong winds, and relentless stop-and-go traffic.  Very impressive, indeed.

Now, the holidays have passed, the new year is upon us, resolutions are being formulated, and I am itching to write — but where to begin?

For the sake of expedience, I’m going to go with a numbered list:

1) Family travels:  By and large, the kids did really well with our whirlwind holiday itinerary, which involved tons of driving, numerous transitions, meeting new people, interacting with relatives, and tiring days trekking around two major cities —  New York and Washington, D.C.  Reflecting on the trip, I appreciate the kids’ resilience and good spirits.  Highlight:  How quick and easy they were in their interactions with other children we met along the way.  (I managed to squeeze in visits with three good friends from law school in a two-to-three day period at the end of the trip, and they all had kids who Zoe and Alexander played with).  This was so nice to see!

Sightseeing highlights:  The train show at New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx — beautiful and magical and, because of the abnormally warm weather for December, it was a great day to stroll around the garden. 

In Washington, D.C.:  The photography exhibit “Ocean Soul” at National Geographic Headquarters — gorgeous, spectacular, and educational — a feast for the eyes!  And free, which we didn’t realize when we paid for our tickets to go into the museum (the tickets allowed us to get into two other exhibits, but the photography exhibit was, by far, the best).

(snip from Brian Skerry photograph)

2) Positive Discipline:  I love this book!  I started re-reading it today.  It literally makes me laugh and cry.  Here is a link to the Positive Discipline website, which includes tons of articles, resources, ideas:  Positive Discipline; Creating Respectful Relationships in Homes and Schools.  Really, though, the best way to become familiar with Positive Discipline concepts is to read the original book by Jane Nelsen.  As the new year begins, it feels good to re-visit this wonderfully compassionate parenting guide.  Some of the basic principles: allow children to have input into developing solutions; treat children with dignity and respect;  use kindness and firmness at the same time; use encouragement; see mistakes as opportunities to learn and, one of my favorites:  Being kind means being respectful to both you and your child.

3) A new approach to school nights:  After a quick pre-Christmas poll of my Facebook friends, about half of whom do not allow any screen time on school nights, I felt emboldened to make a big change in our weekday evening routine (which we’ve continued to struggle with throughout the fall).  Beginning this week when the kids go back to school, there will be no “screen time” on school nights, regardless of whether homework has been completed.  I’ve found that the draw of television (or computer time) adds an unhealthy element of tension to our evenings on school nights, leading to hurried homework, angst, and frustration.  Time to do things differently.  Instituting a policy for the kids, unilaterally, without their input, does not really comply with the principles of Positive Discipline.  But the bottom line is that grades need to improve, and I can’t stand the unpleasantness of our current system.  So I’m doing it.  And I’m kind of excited.  Kids have been informed, and there’s been some discussion.  To my shock and amazement, they did not immediately throw themselves on the floor and start screaming in protest.  More on how it works out in a future post.  In the meantime, I’ve allowed total screen-time overload since we got back from our trip (in hopes of saturating them?)…  Bleh!

4) The new year:  So here it it:  2012.  In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit, I absolutely believe in making new year’s resolutions and harbor no cynicism for any goal, ambition, or scheme, despite the fact that many of these new resolves will undoubtably fall by the wayside sooner or later (sometimes almost immediately).  I find resolutions  inspiring and illuminating.  I’ve seen that incremental tweaks often lead to great improvements in quality of life and, sometimes, unexpectedly, to more significant realizations and changes.  For me, in 2012, this pretty much means more of the same — only, hopefully, better!  I’ve slightly revised my simple daily goals.  Flossing is still included (!) and, of course, exercise — but I’ve removed a few things and added a few, including “doing something creative”.  hmm…  Internal challenges (within my control):  wasting time “playing” on my iPod and just generally being slack.  External challenges (outside of my control):  financial stress (bleh!) and, of course, the kids, who I can never control and must keep trying to embrace that utter (and marvelous?) lack of control while becoming better at finding ways to teach, guide, inspire and accept them.  Whew!

So, signing off with another mantra:  clear head; peaceful heart; energetic body…  (easy, right???)

And wishing everyone a happy and healthy new year!

Please share your resolutions, if you like.  Seeing what other people are doing and thinking provides inspiration and great ideas!

Nobody likes to be criticized: Exhibit A or “learning to think more like my kids”

Over our Christmas vacation, I was chastised by a relative for not sending enough — or the right kind — of thank you notes.  My response?  I felt angry, indignant, humiliated, inadequate.  My immediate reaction was to become defensive AND to go on the attack.  Or, in the alternative, to simply slink away and avoid any meaningful interaction with this person in hopes of avoiding being hurt again.

Thinking about this experience a week later gives me some insight to how my kids may hear and receive my criticism.

Near the beginning of her book Positive Discipline, author Jane Nelsen poses the following challenge:  “Think of the last time you felt humiliated or treated unfairly.  Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?”

A friend of mine who is a psychologist leads parenting groups teaching Positive Discipline methods.  She recently told me about an exercise that involved having an adult stand on a  chair while speaking to another adult in the group who played the part of a child.  This role play was incredibly powerful, she said.  It evoked strong emotions and helped her and the other parents realize how intimidating, critical, and discouraging they might seem to their children from their positions of power and authority.

Yet, somehow, I expect my children to welcome my corrections, suggestions, and critiques.  It baffles and frustrates me when they pout, get angry, or refuse to listen to what I have to say.

I consider myself a skilled communicator — empathetic, insightful, able to articulate important points and generate good ideas.  This is a big part of how I see myself.  And most of my experiences in the adult world reinforce my sense of being very capable of positive and effective interactions with other people.

But in the world of children, it seems, all bets are off.  The tools I views as strengths don’t work the same way when I’m talking to my kids.  Because my “talking skills” are something I take pride in, I think it’s been especially hard for me to accept that “reasoning” with the kids (aka — lecturing, nagging, guilting, over-explaining) is just not working!  Similarly, I’m sure my relative did not perceive that she was hurting me deeply with her comments or that there was anything inappropriate or ineffective about the way she approached what she wanted to say to me.

Receiving criticism, from time-to-time, in some shape or form, is inevitable.  But the bottom line is nobody likes it!  Thinking about this from my children’s point of view (which, interestingly enough, has more in common with my own point of view than I realized) has helped take the sting out of “the thank you note incident”.  It’s also made me realize I need to approach my communications with them differently.  I’m not sure what this will look like, exactly — and it will definitely be hard for me.  After all, I do generally think I’m right and know what’s best!  So, in the year ahead — a challenge:  more creative communication and thinking outside of my box when I interact with my children.  Wish me luck!

More about our holiday travels and new year’s resolutions in the next post!  : )