Archive for the ‘Week 11: The Slippery Slope’ category

It’s only natural

June 21, 2009

Some natural consequences are definitely harder to watch than others. Recently, Fenner had plans to spend the day with her friends at the local pool. “Mom, do you think I have everything I need?” she asked. “I really don’t know. Do you have sunscreen?” I responded. “No.” “Okay, here’s the new bottle I just bought. It’s waterproof.” “Okay!” “Do you need help doing your shoulders?” “No, my friends will help me.” “Alright, have a great time!” And off she went.

Fenner has my complexion – blue eyes and fair skin. My mother tried to protect me from the sun growing up, but I still got my share of nasty burns along the way. I remember how much they hurt, but I also remember how much fun it was to peel the dead skin off in big pieces several days later. Skin cancer and wrinkles were just things I sometimes heard grown-ups discuss. It wasn’t anything for me to worry about.

Now I’m forty, facing wrinkles head-on, and I’m also a science writer. I’ve written detailed articles about what the sun does to your skin on a molecular level. And I’ve watched both my parents and also Jerry get treated for various forms of skin cancer, including melanoma. Luckily it was caught in time. Meanwhile, for eleven years, I have meticulously protected Fenner from ever having a sunburn. So when she came home from the pool with a bright pink face and asked me why she felt so hot, I frowned at her. “Did you put sunscreen on your face?” “No,” she said with wide eyes and a nervous smile, “I forgot!” I looked at her arms and legs. Bright pink. “Did you put sunscreen on anywhere?” “No…” she said bracing herself for my reaction. “Are you mad?” she asked. I was a little, but I said, “No … just … that’s really bad for your skin.” “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “Okay,” I said, “I just really expected you to wear sunscreen.” “Sorry, mom.” I nodded and went back to doing the dishes.

As I washed the dishes I thought about how many times I had to learn the hard way about the sun. It seems like every spring I would forget how easy it was to get a burn, even on an overcast day. How could I possibly expect her to just take my word for it? I’ve taught her what I know, I’ve provided the means for her to protect herself, and the rest is up to her. Even knowing what I know, I now have to stand aside and let her learn from experience. (Better put some after-burn lotion on the shopping list …)

The next day I found a note taped to my jewelry box:

I wrote back and taped it to her door: “Dear Fenner, thank you for your note. Apology accepted. I did the same thing when I was your age. I just want to help you take good care of that beautiful skin! And you’re the best 11-yr-old a mom could have!” (Whoops, that was praise, wasn’t it?!) Later I noticed she had placed my note carefully on the shelf next to her bed.

ps That outing at the pool was 5 days ago. Right now her new suit and towel are still in a wet ball in a bag in the mudroom. How many times have I said, “Wet towels left in a ball will start to stink”? Countless. Time to stay quiet and let her discover the joys of mildew all on her own. (And to refrain from saying “I told you so!”)

pps Today was family meeting and I had to contain myself as Fenner read her appreciation for Charlotte. Keep in mind that 3 months ago Fenner would complain bitterly at the slightest chance of being left alone with Charlotte. But this morning, she looked over at her sister and said softly, “I appreciate Charlotte because she keeps me company when I’m alone.” Charlotte beamed … and so did I.

Questioned authority

June 19, 2009

Tonight was one of those evenings when the chorus of “Mom!” seemed never-ending. Sometimes, when I get home from a long day, I yearn so much for a bit of solitude that I let the requests for my attention push me little by little toward the edge of the rabbit hole.

Also Charlotte has been testing us lately. Are we serious? Are we sticking to these changes? And she serves as my parental barometer. Are we practicing the crucial c’s? Encouragement? Following our road map? She lets us know. Every day.

So at our house, eating takes place only in the kitchen and dining areas. We’ve had this rule since the girls were babies. (I can’t stand cleaning food off rugs.) When I got home today, Ellen immediately wanted to play a game. I said yes, as soon as I get settled. She set it up in the den and as I came downstairs I heard Ellen’s voice, “Stoooop! Charlotte, stop!” “Charlotte, would you like to play next?” I offered. “Yeah.” “Ok,” I said and sat down to play with Ellen. A minute later, Charlotte appeared with a granola bar in her hand. She sat down next to us and took a big bite. I stared at her. “Um…Charlotte?” “What?” “That food belongs in the eating area.” She looked at me and took another big bite and didn’t move. I was so tired I couldn’t think of anything except scolding her, but I didn’t. The word ‘choices’ popped into my head just in time and I said, “You may sit there on the step, or in a chair at the table, what do you choose?” “Okaaaay.” She got up and walked toward the dining table. A minute later, she came back with one of our child-sized chairs in her hand. She plopped it down right next to us and sat in it and continued eating. I looked at her. “What?” she said, “I’m in a chair!”

Now I was at choice, and I was already crabby. I said, “No, Charlotte, the chair at the dining table.” “But I’m hungry and I want to watch the game!” I looked at Ellen. “Would you be willing to play this on the dining table?” “No!” she said. At that point I snapped a little. “Ok, well I’m not willing to sit here and play while Charlotte eats in the den.” And I got up and walked away. “Charlotte!” said Ellen, and reluctantly picked up the game and followed me to the dining table. She put the game down and sat in front of it. I stayed standing. My whole body was tense and I couldn’t seem to shake it. “What, mom?” said Ellen. “I don’t know,” I said, “I don’t feel good about what just happened … Charlotte, do you want to apologize to me with your words, or write a note?” “Sorry,” she said in a low voice. And then she asked, “Why do I have to say sorry?” “Because you brought food into the den and kept eating it after I asked you not to and now there are crumbs on the rug that I have to clean up!” She looked down and her shoulders slumped. I took a deep breath. “I’m sorry you guys, I need a couple of minutes in my office. I’ll be back in two minutes.” I closed the door and sat down and picked up my list of strategies. Choices, I thought, right, that didn’t go so well … distraction, hmm, … humor, yes, humor. Have to find some way to inject humor, even when I’m tired and crabby. That’s one of my biggest challenges. I stayed in my office and relaxed a bit and then I opened the door and gave myself another chance.

Soon after, it was Jerry’s turn for a challenge. During the game I heard yet another “Moooom!” coming from upstairs. “What?!” I answered. “I need toilet paper!” Fenner called. “I’m trying to play a game with Ellen!” I called back. Silence. We continued the game. After several minutes Fenner came downstairs. “Mom, I was sitting on the toilet! I thought you were coming with toilet paper!” “Oh,” I said, “no.” She rolled her eyes and walked away. Jerry had come in from the living room and chimed in, “Fenner, you know what would be great? If you took some toilet paper up there now.” “No,” she said, “I don’t feel like it.” I looked at the expression on Jerry’s face and said softly, “Would you be willing…” He repeated after me, “Would you be willing to bring some toilet paper upstairs?” “No,” she said. I cued him again, “What would you be willing…” “What would you be willing to do?” he said. “Eat a cookie!” said Fenner. Uh-oh, I thought. He didn’t like what he was hearing, but he stayed calm. “But Fenner, what happens when you’re up there next time and there’s still no toilet paper?” “Well, by then someone else will have done it.” “But if not you, then who?” “You or mommy!” she said cheerfully. I didn’t hear the rest of it, but it did not escalate. As much as Jerry cringed at what he was hearing, he stayed calm and was able to let it go. That’s big progress.

And we got good information. Namely, something needs attention: Fenner’s relationship with Jerry? Her image of herself as a person who contributes to the family? Providing motivation to make those small but important contributions? Yes, yes, and yes. All of the above. Phew. This is work. Hard work. But as Vicki says, what else have we got to do?


June 17, 2009

The strategy I’ve been most skeptical about is distract/redirect. I haven’t consciously tried it during this program, and I wasn’t sure it would have much value for me … until tonight.

I had dropped Charlotte off at my parents’ house on the way to taking Fenner to gymnastics. I remembered she had a library book in her hands when she got out of the car, and when I picked her up, no library book. I didn’t say anything. (I quit my job of library-book-tracker weeks ago.) Halfway home she wailed, “Ohhhhhhh, mooooooom, I forgot my library book!” “Oh … well, Nana will take good care of it until we go there again.” “Noooooooo I want to get it nooooooow!” “Maybe we can stop by and get it tomorrow.” “Noooooooooo!” etc., etc. I stopped responding and as we pulled into the driveway she said, “If you don’t go back and get it I’m going to sleep in the car … I mean it, and I’m not brushing my teeth!” “Ok,” I said, “goodnight!” I got out and went in the house.

She stayed outside for a while. I peeked out the window and saw her in the car, talking to herself, but not crying. Finally she came in. “Mom, I’m feeling kind of mad at you.” “Oh?” “I’m mad at you because you left and walked away and you don’t even care. You don’t even care what I’m feeling! You just keep eating your food!” Maybe if I just casually talk about something else, I thought, and then I said, “Yeah, I’ve been wanting to try these cookies for a while, but you know what? They’re just not very good.” “Ugh! Mom, see? Like that! You don’t even care about me!” Then she started to cry. For a minute I was at a loss. Then I remembered Vicki’s example of pretending she saw something out the window in the midst of a fight with her daughter. I looked around and frowned. “Charlotte, I heard a strange sound.” She immediately stopped crying. “What?” she asked. “I don’t know. It sounded like … like … a huge bug.” I walked quickly toward the steps up to the second floor porch. Charlotte followed eagerly.

I opened the door to the porch and said, “Ohhhhhhh, it’s just the mini windmill that Papa made. It was making that sound like a big, flying bug!” “Oh, yeah, mom, it makes that sound when it spins!” “That’s all it was…” “Mom, it’s cold. I’ll race you downstairs!” She ran ahead of me. “First one down the stairs to the kitchen wins!” she called out cheerfully.

She disappeared ahead of me down the stairs along with any doubts I may have had about distracting and redirecting. It totally works. I’m sold.

Doctor’s office

June 17, 2009

I usually dread having Charlotte tag along to the orthodontist. Something about it winds her up. They have interesting chairs in the waiting room and baskets of colorful toothbrushes that look like candy. And they have lots of shiny, interesting things in the exam room. And then, of course, there’s me — the one who’s been feeding and growing her unsavory behaviors for years into a big, bushy, flowery weed. Fenner and Ellen are both in treatment, and instead of focusing on them and what questions I might have for the doctor, I usually have my eyes glued on Charlotte: “Come back … no … don’t touch those … keep your voice low … that’s the doctor’s chair …” etc., etc.

So yesterday Charlotte came along to Fenner’s appointment. I still dreaded it, but not as much. I had my new strategies to call on, and that was comforting.

When we got there, Fenner went inside and I stopped outside the door and turned to Charlotte. “Charlotte, can you and I make an agreement that you will stay with me in there, and not run around?” She looked at the ground, “Okaaaaay.” “Ok,” I said. (Something didn’t feel quite right about that approach—too last-minute or something—but worth a try.)

As soon as we walked in the door, things started to happen. A friend of mine was in the waiting room and we started talking. Charlotte immediately interrupted. At first I did the old thing and looked at her and said, “Charlotte, I hear you but my friend is trying to tell me something.” Errr, I thought. I know that doesn’t work! I’ve been doing that for years, it never works! It’s just so automatic, I have to have it right in the front of my brain to ignore, ignore, ignore. Charlotte stopped interrupting then, but only because she had moved over to the wooden bench and pulled the cushion off and was now balancing it on her head. I was determined to stay calm. “Charlotte, you may sit on the cushion or lie down on it, which do you choose?” “Allllriiiiiight,” she sneered. She put the cushion back and lay down up against the back of the bench and then started wriggling so her body slid down behind the cushion and pushed it off the bench onto the floor. I could feel myself tensing up. “Charlotte, on the cushion. You may lie on the cushion.” “I did! Why are you so squealy?” Squealy? I thought. Uh-oh, she’s on to me. I’m losing my firm and kind already! I took a deep breath and watched as Charlotte went over to the basket of toothbrushes and took one of each color. “Charlotte, one toothbrush. You’re allowed to take one.” She put all but two back. “Two?” she asked. “Just one,” I said. Her shoulders slumped and she dropped one on the floor and walked over to me with the other in her hand. I put my hand out and she gave me the toothbrush to hold for her. “You can have this as soon as you pick that one up.” She rolled her eyes and stomped back over and picked it up. The woman next to me chuckled. Oh, if you only knew, I thought.

They called Fenner’s name and we went to the exam room. The bathroom was on the way and Charlotte stopped to use it. “Mom, there’s more toothbrushes in here!” she laughed. Humor, I thought, what a great idea. “They’re everywhere!” I said, “You can’t get away from them!” She giggled.

She came out and joined us as the doctor was looking at Fenner. There was a ball chair pushed to the side of the room and she sat down and quietly bounced as we finished the appointment. Then as we walked out she exclaimed, “More! More toothbrushes!” This time the doctor answered, “Yeah, you can’t escape ‘em!” She laughed again and then waited patiently as I scheduled Fenner’s next appointment.

The takeaway: Do not, under any circumstances, underestimate the power of humor. Just that little bit completely changed the atmosphere between us in that office, and we left relaxed and smiling. Amazing.

ps A tidbit from this morning: Charlotte has not been brushing her hair. Before doing this program, I would follow her around with the brush waiting for her to sit down and then I would pounce. Often I would do this in a hurry because we would be running late, as usual. She would start crying and then I would remind her that she has a “choice” — “I know it hurts. This is part of having long hair. Either I brush it or I cut it off. What do you choose?” I now know this was actually a threat disguised as a choice. No wonder she would start crying harder!

Here’s how it went this morning: “Mom, will you help me look for my camera?” “Yes! As soon as you brush your hair.” “Ugh. Now I have to go all the way back upstairs. Thanks a lot, mom.” She may have dragged and stomped her way up, but her hair still got brushed, and not by me, and no threats, and no tears. 🙂

Firm and kind

June 15, 2009

My first thought as I reviewed the list of seven strategies to consider during this week was, why didn’t we get this list weeks ago? The answer, I think, is that we weren’t ready for it. The list functions under a big umbrella called: firm and kind. Firm and kind is made possible through being at ease from the inside out — at ease with the situation verbally, physically, and emotionally. Six weeks ago we weren’t at ease. We were cautious and confused. We were anxious and overwhelmed. Our buttons remained sensitive and exposed.

Now, however, I feel a steadily growing sense of calm and confidence. Look how far we’ve come in just ten weeks! The new patterns are not 100% by any means, but each day they become more second nature and automatic.

And we see the girls growing into it with us. The other day, Fenner sounded almost cheerful as she said, “Mom, is it going to be like this after the parenting class, like, for the rest of our lives? Just like this?” Then I noticed Ellen wrote on this week’s appreciations board: “I appreciate me because I kept all my agreements.” And tonight Charlotte got in and out of the bath on her own and when I went up to say good night she had already brushed her own hair without one word from me. Bliss!

So these strategies for avoiding the slippery slope into the rabbit hole feel like icing on the cake. Some of them I’ve already been using, but consciously placing them under the firm-and-kind umbrella is new. Here they are in a nutshell:

  • Choices
  • Natural consequences
  • Ignore/Walk away
  • Re-direct/Distract
  • Humor
  • Yes, as soon as …
  • Would you be willing … ?

I aim to use all of them one way or another this week to practice my firm and kind demeanor and to remind me of what works, what feels right to me, and what might be a flop.

Stay tuned….