I read a fabulous book over Lent that I am just bursting to share! I have one child who drives me a little bit crazy and someone (well, several someones) Recommended A Book. Now the kind of women I like always Recommend A Book whenever anyone shares anything. So when I shared with some friends that I was being challenged beyond my ken and they responded with a Book Recommendation - well, I was thrilled.
This was not the first parenting book I've ever read. To be precise, I think it is the two hundred and fourth parenting book I have read to date. It is, with no competition, the best.
I read it really, really fast. It was gripping. It was a parenting page-turner. It dazzled and blinded me with one paradigm shift upon the next. There were so many new thoughts racing through my mind, I couldn't process or act upon any of them. So I read it again - really, really slowly. I put little check marks in the margins next to everything that astounded me. Some pages were covered with check marks.
Then, I took notes. I read the book a third time and wrote down a summary of everything I had checked off. This was a LENT, folks! I rewrote those notes in a more organized fashion, dividing everything I most liked into four categories (with three self-created "stages" for revamping my approach to parenting). I wrote a third draft of the notes, more neatly and succinctly. I began studying them nightly as I used to study for graduate school exams. Did I mention what a l-e-n-t this was?!?! I prayed over the notes. I began implementing the first stage. And then the second. And now the third.
And it has all gone so marvelously.
After enthusiastically recommending the book to every parent I know (plus some people who have no children), I still have more enthusiasm left. I'm now going to recommend it to people I don't know. The book is titled Parenting With Grace and it is written by the Greg and Lisa Popcak. [Some caveats: I find their tone often borders on nearly unbearably "holier-than-thou". I also take issue with a few borderline snarky sounding comments about the Protestant "theology of the child", if you will. But after reading so many wonderful Christian books containing snarky comments about Catholics, I've developed an ability to take what is good from a book and ignore what is not! And truly, the book is good. It's been a massive turning point in my experience of parenting. PS - I read the second edition, which I believe contains a lot of great material that was not in the first edition.]
Until reading this book, I really, really, really believed (though almost without realizing I believed this) that the best way to tell how I was "doing" as a parent was to look at the way my children behaved. Were they Obedient? Polite? Honest? Obedient? Kind? Obedient? Reading? OBEDIENT?!?!?!?!?!!? (Incidentally, I also believed that this was the best way to tell how someone else was doing as a parent. If anyone had tried to dissuade me from this opinion, I would have written her off as one of those "Marshmallow Mother Trying To Be Her Spoiled-Brat-Kid's Best Friend, Good Luck When She's A Teenager" kind of parent. I was probably being a wee bit harsh.... Possibly judgmental.....)
I am grateful to the Popcaks for freeing me (and my children) from this painful, high-pressure, vice-like grip on demanding that my children act in a certain way in order to validate my all-consuming desire to be a Good Parent. My friends, most likely, are grateful as well.
Instead, I'm convinced now that the litmus test for "how I'm doing as a parent" is how warm and loving is my relationship with each child? If that piece is securely in place, discipline is far, far more effective. To the degree that the attachment is weak, all discipline will fail to some degree. (I mean, what parent really wants to produce a perfectly behaved child who hates your guts?)
Even though I have resisted this parenting theory for almost six years, during my years as a teacher I had instinctively understood it. Without ever being told, I knew that as long my students knew I really LIKED them, I could discipline very gently - almost imperceptibly - and they'd behave for me (according to the reasonable and high expectations of the school as a whole). I taught for three years at a high school just outside of New York City and never had a student who I really could not manage. That is the truth. My only secret was that I liked them. Yes, all of them. Sincerely. And I showed it unreservedly - they knew! Certainly there were days when a student acted up, and there were students who I found more challenging than others, but I never once walked out of school on a Friday in despair about returning on Monday. I always was utterly confident that with enough thought, creativity and time, I was going to win over the student and secure her cooperation. Teaching like that was the most rewarding, fulfilling, satisfying experience imaginable. Even during seasons of moderate depression, I was truly happy during my working hours.
So why was a five year old able to undo me in a way that 18 year olds had not.....????
To figure that out, I had to reflect on my second teaching experience. From the day I walked in to school #2, I felt physically and emotionally intimidated by my students. The behavioral expectations at that school were extremely lax and it was difficult to persuade my students that mine were not unreasonable. The tone that defined my relationship with these classes was wariness, not affection. Without that unguarded, happy rapport that I'd shared with my first two hundred students, all the same formerly successful disciplinary techniques were now failing. Badly. I could not control these students. A few began physically intimidating me. I became more cold and even my affection for growing pockets of students became more and more difficult to express. I often started crying as soon as I got in my car to drive home. I was utterly unsure of myself, certain I was failing, overwhelmed and clueless about what to do to fix it.
A lot more reminiscent of some of my days as a parent.....
None of my four children intimidate me. I'm not wary of them. But I'm tired (and also exhausted). And also fatigued. I'm busy. I'm multitasking. Questions can start to seem exasperating. Ditto for Standard Childhood Behavior (dawdling, bickering, whining, spilling, etc....). I have clear, high expectations that will be enforced, as per school #1. But I've simply forgotten to make it my number one priority every day to show affection. And, as I learned while teaching, affection makes all the difference in the effectiveness of discipline.
So, "Phase One" of my Motherhood Renovation was simply to focus on showing affection (in insanely simple ways). More eye contact. Eye contact with smiles. More listening - really listening - really being mentally present. Putting the two babies down and making room on my lap for the bigger kids. Rumpling hair as I poured juice. Taking the bigger kids out on just one short one-on-one outing every single week. None of this is hard. I just had forgotten. I realized that sometimes, perhaps, the only way my oldest child could really get me to stop everything, look her in the eyes and give her my undivided, riveted attention, was to do something sort of awful to one of the other three. And so she did.
The book said that it would take at least two weeks to see a behavioral change from increased affection. It took two days. I decided to move on to the behaviors I had identified as "Phase Two". These were changes I knew it would be harder to make or to be consistent about. Some turned out to be easier than I thought. For example, instead of getting exasperated every morning about how many times I had to remind and prod the 3 & 5 year old to get ready for the day, I simply posted THIS in the bathroom.
I made a similar one for their bedroom.
I have not had to remind, nag, plead or yell since. I send one child upstairs to do the bathroom list and the other to do the bedroom list. Then they switch rooms. My mornings are infinitely more lovely. I'm a visual learner myself (I do not understand or retain any information that is simply said to me -I have to see it.) It turns out that my children are just the same. My expectations are much clearer to them now that they can SEE them.
Other Phase Two changes (in my order of increasing difficulty!) include:
1. Showing respect (instead of exasperation) for all a child's stated and implied needs (including, especially, the ones that seem most ridiculous, frustrating or inconvenient).
2. Calmly teaching what ought to be done instead instead of punishing, criticizing or yelling about behavior that has been done.
3. Asking myself, "Do I do that?" about any pattern of bothersome childish behavior and striving intentionally to model the appropriate behavior. (In other words, if Child A regularly shouts at siblings or hits, is it possible that Child A has not learned from Mother how to appropriately deal with frustration.....?)
Phase Three is a list of the ten discipline techniques described in the book that I thought were most relevant and helpful given the routine behavior issues of the children (and mother...) in my house. Phase Three began concurrently with Phase Two, with the understanding that the emphasis at present is on Phase Two. Phase Three consists of habits that will take the longest and include:
-taking a child on your lap and almost whispering correction in their ear, rather than speaking harshly.
-offering an appropriate alternative to the undesirable behavior being exhibited (aka redirection)
-offering do-overs ("Please say/do that over again, but politely/gently this time")
-modified time-outs (before child leaves time-out, she must identify & role-play what she ought to have done instead. She must also apologize - and then she is given affection & affirmation)
-how to identify an appropriate and truly logical consequence. (what must the child do to fix the problem caused? or to practice what she ought to have done instead? or to grow in the virtue that is clearly lacking?)
Very few of the Phase Three suggestions are easy. None are short cuts. They all involve increased "self-donation". But I'm finding that as the weeks go by putting these things into practice, life is becoming far easier and more pleasant. I feel closer to my kids. I'm enjoying my days with them a lot more. I feel far more confident, peaceful, joyful and fulfilled as a mother. The kids are behaving better. Much, much better. I mean, they're hardly giving me any opportunities to practice at my Phase Three techniques.
And that is the whole point.......