At the end of the day

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So done.  I am almost ready to read a parenting book.  I have nothing left.  My children are behaving like they are on a sitcom.  Walk-ons in a sitcom where naughty children who are too bad to find endearing bring a rain of destructiveness and meanness down on the maligned main character.  Somebody please take over.

Loving them when I can’t like them

I have been trying for the past three days to dig out from the laundry and destruction they have created, and if anyone so much as breathes a sigh that sounds like “make them help you clean it up” I will Chuck Norris roundhouse you through this computer screen.  When the only good part of your day was Facebook, you know it was a complete waste.  And that’s even with my “super-homeschool mom” trip to a country park to walk the trails to find different kinds of leaves for our leaf book.  J and L wouldn’t hear of it and said “I’ll just see them on the ground.”  I don’t even have a picture to show you because it was so obnoxious that even the dog ran away.  (She did come back, covered in rank duckweed and slime.)

The coup de gras (which as a Spanish student, loosely translates to me as “top of fat”) was the complete sham of a bedtime routine we just pulled together that spanned the ranks from JR putting his pull-up on upside down in bed with his feet banging the wall during prayers to Lumpy having a complete fit about using the potty.  It was a battle I wasn’t about to lose, after spending each morning clogging up the washer for the first three loads of the day with tinkle duty since Friday.  Growth spurts hit this family hard.  As I was reduced to yelling at Lumpy to get her pull-up on, I realized that there was no parenting happening.  Just a full-on fight.  Parents versus kids.  Her only need was to say no to me.  My only need was to get her to comply.

You’re expecting me to say something like “and that’s when I took a deep breath and realized…”  But no.  Heck-freakin’ no.  All day long that little girl pushed me and disobeyed me and taunted me.  This garbage has to end.  I gave her space.  I let her twist her actions into compromises.  I was firm.  I put her in time out.  But at the end of the day, there was nothing left to teach.  Unlike JR, she never tantrumed and raged uncontrollably.  She fought tenaciously.  I got the pull-up on her, but I can’t say that I won.  I set her, screaming, in the bed and walked away, disgusted with it all.

Fine, laugh at me, but I really am trying my best, and don’t know why my kids don’t appreciate it.  But, I’m not supposed to say that, because that’s the kind of weakness older people see as an excuse to make a condescending comment about.  And I would tell someone this: Kids aren’t ever going to appreciate anything, because they are inherently selfish, as they were made to be.  Yes, I know that.  But what it feels like is that I must have done something wrong.  I must have ruined the day and spoiled my kids.

But in the middle of this lump of poop day, JR wrote down his own song today called “I love God.”  Cal pushed Hoss on the swing while I took Lumpy to the Port-a-Potty.  And Lumpy stopped pulling Hoss’ arm out of the socket when he screamed and bent down really low and asked “Hey, Hoss, do you want to be the princess now?”  And, I got Lumpy back and sweet again in time for a good night kiss.

At the end of the day, when all of my efforts were for nothing, sometimes all I get is a small reminder that I can try again tomorrow.


Heavy Work

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Today was our third day at Vacation Bible School in our church.  With my three big kids and two “nieces of the heart” attending, I figured I better strap Hoss on my back and participate.  I have been stationed with the three-year olds as self-appointed potty master, spontaneous game provider, and conversation starter.  I love it.

The best thing about it is a little boy in the group who just reminds me so much of JR at 3.  He needs to wander sometimes, has to touch things–ok, everything– and interrupts with brilliant ideas.  For fun, let’s call him Matt.  Matt is simply not designed for the contained movement /quiet listening activities that an indoor class requires.  He can do it, sure, but only for short periods of time.

I seriously love him.

The other kids (even bouncy Lumpy) are content to sit and listen to a story while Matt’s feet are tapping out heavy metal drumbeats on the floor in front of him.  What on earth are we supposed to do with a child like Matt?  Like my JR?

Heavy work.

Little story for you.  Sometimes a woman in labor is interrupted by getting in a car, an unsettling nurse or doctor, or having an anxious relative in the room.  If this woman’s body secretes an adrenaline rush, it can take 20 minutes of vigorous physical activity (or a whopping dose of Pitocin, no comment) to overcome its effects.  Vigourous activity refocuses the body.

Antsy kids are very similar.

You can start disciplining them (“Sit still, Matt”), physically redirecting them (“Hold my hand now, Matt”), or punish them (“You’re going to have to leave the room if you can’t participate, Matt”).  But, you’ll fail.  The thing that reverses the antsy-ness in these kids is heavy work.  All of my kids need this some days.

I didn’t always call it “heavy work.”  I learned the term in this incredible adoption book, which should really be re-packaged as a plain old parenting book, The Connected Child.

I watched the practice of it through two amazing adoptive parents who committed fully to helping their son overcome his destructive behaviors.  It works like this: instead of making our expectations more clear to a bouncing, distracted child, my husband and I try to put their muscles to work.  Here’s how we do it.

1)  We set the task.  Note, no correction, I go to kid, and make the offer, no preamble.  A distracted child has a very hard time knowing what will bring him back down to earth.  This can be:
-“I really need someone to move 12 logs from the woodpile next to the shed.”
-“Can you please pull this laundry basket filled with all the books on the floor upstairs to your bedroom?”
-“Can you take all of the cans and put them in this box for me?”  

It has to be weird enough that the kiddo is intrigued.  Also, it can’t just be just a running activity or a large body-movement activity.  Those activities seem to ramp my kids up and encourage more distraction, with the calm alertness following maybe 30 minutes later.  It needs to have some resistance to make it count.  By setting the task for him we are also ferreting out true “energy overload” from disobedience. (The disobeying kid will refuse in a nasty way…well, my kids will anyway.)

2) Let go of any expectation that kiddo will return to a chilled-out state immediately.  Let him do heavy work until the group starts a new task.

3) Don’t make a big deal of it.  Thank him, and move on. Defend him if other kids ask what that was all about: “JR was just helping me with something.”

Today we were two hours in, and fresh from the creative (light) play room, where there was no splashing allowed at the water table and you could use playdough while sitting only. This meant music time was doomed from the start for Matt.  The problem came on suddenly, and I intended to step back, as one of the counselors was his regular babysitter. But I intervened when he was cornered, and about to be begged to sit and listen.  

I approached them and asked Matt to push the chairs across the carpet for me, which he could accomplish soundlessly and out of the line of sight of the other kids.  Without hesitation, he complied.  He moved heavy wooden chairs one side to the other five times while I stood back and “ignored” him.  The teacher, however, noticed, and came up to correct Matt, leaning on the chair he was about to start moving to get him to stop.  I don’t fault her at all.

The traditional model of good teaching means full compliance from every student, to ensure the knowledge is transferred and none of the other children are distracted.  But Matt is three years old.  He has ages to put in place the ability to override his body’s need to move in a way that is deliberate and calorie-burning and with great purpose.  But, he also has a good three years to be corrected, disciplined and pushed before he is ready into this desired outcome.

I came up to our teacher a half-second later, and briefly explained he was doing the work for me.  It really wasn’t fair of me to spring such a radical idea on her, directly in her line of sight, while she was in charge of the whole class.  She did smile indulgently at me, and continued the class, like it was part of the plan. Wonderful woman.  But, I thought it was worth the risk of insulting her, because Matt was so, so good at it.  When he initially refused to sit down, he wasn’t asking for unstructured, special exemption, breaking the rules time.  He was asking for something he could do with his body that would let some of the anxiety he was feeling burn itself out.  

At craft time, 10 minutes later, he sat down, was engaged in the craft, and was just part of the class.

And I felt really good.  Actually, egotistical parent that I am, I came here to brag about it.  But, mostly, to give you, and your kid, another tool. Our children were designed to learn with physical movement and play at this age.  We are transferring so much knowledge into them at such a young age, desk time is considered more and more valuable.  Maybe these ideas will let our classroom-bound little ones have access to heavy blocks instead of light-weight cardboard ones.  Or carry weights in relay races instead of light batons.  Or have full-weight balls to hurl at a target instead of lightweight foam balls to gently toss. Are we truly trying to teach our children that they must always be gentle? I’m not.

Heavy work can be lifeline for children who have not yet mastered homeschool or traditional classroom expectations of impulse control, contained play, fine-motor skills, and good listening.  I hope that someday when they are able to do these things, they will not be defined by the discipline and stigma of who they were as preschoolers.

Natural Horsemanship Parenting

I don’t know anything about horses. In fact, they scare me to death. Horses are big, powerful, magically trained, and about 10% of the time I’ve ever been on top of one, I’ve ended on my butt on the ground.

But, I also love horses. My dad, ever a certified garbage picker, once rescued two ancient draft horses from slaughter and we had horses on our farm for a year or two. My dad used to break horses when he was younger, but he said he was too old for that by the time I was old enough to be interested. He was. My dad was 47 years old when I was born. His days of agricultural adventure were past. Once I watched my dad drive a friend’s team of Percherons pulling a big green and brass wagon he had picked up somewhere. I had no idea how you got from ignorant kid to knowing what to do with such incredible animals.

I had a horse obsession as a preteen that started with a Horse Encyclopedia at Christmas, and ended with 12 magical lessons. I had the nastiest horse and the most dismissive, grumpy instructor. I couldn’t mount by myself. The boots I picked out had shamefully deep tread, and the concept of posting was explained so poorly, I was sure I was the dumbest kid to ever sit in a saddle. When I fell off yet again, I was told I needed to buy $90 chaps to help. Even I didn’t believe that. I realized that there was a magic to horses that I would never get. I didn’t have the gift, and I was born too late to learn it.

Fast forward fifteen years. Through a series of unusual events, I ended up taking a friend’s son to horseback riding lessons at Beekman Therapeutic Riding Center in Lansing. What I learned there changed my mind and perspective about horses forever.

Yes, I know, you’re envisioning me sidewalking with a physically handicapped kid who overcame the odds to ride on his own one day. Well, they did that, too. But that’s not my story.

What I learned there was that no predator has the right to hop onto the back of a prey animal without establishing trust first. Groundwork. Gentle halters tied to reduce irritation. No bits. Asking permission before saddling. Being gentle with the horse’s body. Being gentle with his heart.

The program was being developed there, and the horses were being trained in therapeutic Natural Horsemanship techniques. The results were honestly frustrating as different instructors taught different methods that first year. But, in spite of that, the concept of natural horsemanship filled my heart. I started volunteering at the riding center, and was even hired to be a work-at-home volunteer coordinator.

Teaching some Kindergarteners about being a good Alpha horse (That’s JR on my back, and that familiar blonde haircut is Cal.)

I still knew nothing about horses, but for the first time, watching my friend’s son take his lessons, saw the magic was still… magic. But it was teachable. Logical. Learnable.

All of the horses were donated. Many of these horses were bored. They were kind, but stubborn and refusing. Yet, under the deliberate, consistent work of a few women and men who wanted to make the idea stick, the horses began to deliberately, consistently, and intentionally yield.

I had no experience at all, but I was allowed to join the Savvy Seekers club, a group of volunteers who wanted to learn more about training our horses’ hearts to watch and learn. I was scared to death. I had once seen the mark on a man’s chest at the fair who had been kicked squarely by a flighty draft pony. Being on the same surface as such a powerful animal made my heart race.

When I picked up the soft loop of rope, I was happy that our first task was only to teach our horse that we were not scary. I had the marked advantage, as I was the terrified one.  We made them watch us, while we looked away to reward them. Meat animals (humans) are praised with direct eye contact. It makes horses feel like they are being hunted.

The day of that first clinic, it happened. I stopped a horse dead in its tracks with a look. It was powerful. It was humbling.

What’s more, it was all done in the language of horses: looks and touch. We were not to say a single word, because we would say what we needed to show with our bodies and hands.  We adopted the motto: “It takes the time it takes.” I nearly wept at the undeniable rightness of the lesson.

And, I tell you that so I can tell you this:

The most powerful lessons about motherhood were taught to me in a few hours, days, and moments in that underfunded program, in that barely adequate barn.

  • When two ways of knowing meet, the person who will be in charge must adapt to the one who must submit.
  • The ways of speaking must accommodate the child. The goal of discipline is to teach rather than punish.
  • The kid needs to first not feel fear, and then learn that the adult can be trusted.
  • The child is a part of the herd.
  • The most important goal of my child’s life is to belong. Belonging is safe.
  • Every kid is different.
  • It takes the time it takes.

In parenting, I am the one in power. I must deliberately keep myself in check to make the kids, who don’t set the course, feel safe. I have to talk to them with my actions, example, touch, eye contact, time, hearts in crayon sent in the real mail, to tell them in their own words that I am not going to swarm them or leave them behind. Discipline is appropriate to the action. I can’t go too far (angrily give punishment) or want to avoid disciplining more than they do. Yes, I know my children have received greater injury being held for the peaceful parenting “time in” than a spanking. Sometime, spanking is necessary. I need the discipline at the moment that will interrupt the behavior, make amends for what went wrong, and repair the relationship.

Cal’s first horseback ride ever. In good hands

Today, I got a frantic call from my neighbor, who was watching the kids for an hour while I went to the doctor to fill out forms. JR was missing. He had pouted, locked the back door, and bolted through the house. They couldn’t find him anywhere. A long, anxiety-filled twenty minutes later, I was on my hands and knees under my bed, looking into the sweaty face of my five-year-old son, who had gotten himself in too deep. His prank had escalated while he tucked himself under my headboard, sweating bullets. I relayed the good news to Mrs. D and her husband, and they were so gentle and kind.

I wanted to throttle the kid.

Instead, I went back upstairs, and gave him permission to end it. Gently. With my hands and my voice. I looked away when he wouldn’t meet my eye. He started crying from the unleashed tension of it all.

I asked if he wanted to talk. He didn’t.

I asked if he wanted a bath. He did.

Thirty pruny minutes later, we decided that he needed to fix himself up with the D’s by bringing them some cookies. His consequence?  He lost his dollar for garage sale Thursday.

The thing is, I wanted to spank him. This definitely qualifies as something dangerous. But, it was so obvious that he didn’t need it.

His sweat-covered forehead and relieved tears meant that the punishment he deserved would overwhelm his emotions, and push him straight into fear, out of the reach of learning. So instead, I backed down from my need to punish him for the fear, embarrassment, and grief he caused me and our dear neighbors. Because our relationship has grown so close, I risked the chance that I was wrong, and gave him the lightest of corrections.

I don’t know why this child pushes me to the limits, but somehow I think my response is grounded in those few years at the riding center. Where logic won out over magic. And spurs were beaten out by a look.

The results aren’t always visible right away, but there are little signs that we’re making progress each day.

It takes the time it takes.


About a year ago, a good friend was struggling to understand her very strong-willed six year old. The more she talked, the more I realized, she was describing me as a child.

I was a smart kid. Like, giving me a standardized test was like asking Paula Deen to bring a few cookies to your bake sale. When I got angry, though, I would ramp up to a very agitated state and, no matter how much I wanted to, could not come down from the anger. I had no way to make things right, or “fix yourself up,” as we now call it in my house. My friend was at a total loss, wondering what she’d done wrong as concerned friends gently suggested therapy and others rudely suggested beating it out of her (not kidding).

Seeing her at her wits’ end, I sat down and wrote out all the things that I wish I could have said as “that kid” back then. The letter went on for four pages, and came back to the same idea, again, and again.  I lost it when I felt patronized and misunderstood, when I was forced to be wrong.  I was a very tough kid to be in charge of. Just ask the daycare worker who locked me alone in a dark room with a cot when I wouldn’t nap for the hundredth time. I was screaming “My mom said I don’t have to take a nap!” over and over.  No one listened.  I was afraid of the dark.  The walls were sound-proofed canvas that could be rearranged to make larger meeting spaces.  I was too afraid to look around.  I just stared at the sliver of light under the door.  I screamed myself to sleep.  I remember every minute of it. My mom dealt with the staff, but the fact remained. At the age of three, I could irritate an adult enough to make them treat me like a much older child. That “caregiver” was just proud she had found a way to get me to sleep.

So, I have an unusual compassion for kids like me who are begging to be heard, begging to have someone believe that they really don’t want to be this way.

And, I have two children who are just like me.

Last night, my very patient husband, Andy, was in a standoff with JR that would make lesser men weep. I watched JR ramp up to higher and higher levels of emotion and Andy warn, and get stricter and stricter, reasonably increasing consequences with every passing minute. And then, the worst of the worst: physically dragging the child to timeout. Some would have argued we should have spanked him at the first sign of insolence, but that just would have gotten him to the heightened rage faster, with less opportunity to repair it.

Now don’t get me wrong, this is not a democracy, and we aren’t worried that we are crushing fragile egos by enforcing a bedtime. But, what we do need to worry about crushing is his God-given spirit. When these explosions occur, there is something chemically firing in his brain, forcing him to stand his ground, not back down for anything, and never apologize. He is not capable of making that cascade stop, even when he wants to.

I know, because I can feel it, too.

This fight-to-the death feeling cannot be dispersed by punishment or discipline, but can only be diffused from within. That’s a tall order for a five-year-old boy. For a three-year-old girl. Even 28 years later.

So, how can I take what I’ve learned in a lifetime to make overcoming the control of this chemical anger, as I call it, possible? Can a five-year-old learn to channel his rage into something that won’t make life so punitive for him? Can his three-year-old sister?

We have taken the first steps already.

The first thing was to let the kid know that they are safe.  As a parent, I can be that.  “Safe” means I am capable of not making him pay for my frustration or anger over his offenses.  Safe is a person who doesn’t need anything from the child–because he has nothing to give.  JR now knows that when he gets in this rage, I will not continue to meet his challenges, and I will not escalate the situation.

Andy has never felt this way (he quickly learned to duck under the radar under punitive discipline), and can’t get over his incredulous “You have no idea what would have happened to me if I pulled that as a kid…” And not in the “I wish I could do that to him,” way, but in the “I am killing myself to be such a thoughtful and deliberate parent—for what?!” way. As a result, many of the escalations happen under his watch because he doesn’t feel the warning signs like I do. But, he’s an amazing father, and is fighting to see.

So, to give my friend’s daughter and our son (both sharp little tacks) a chance, I invented a term. At any time when he feels himself about to explode, JR can say “Porcupine!” What it means is “I don’t know how to stop being angry and I feel myself going off the deep end and I don’t know how to stop!” Porcupine means he does not admit he’s wrong. It means he gets some space. We don’t hound him. We don’t demand resolution. We soften our hearts when he can’t.

Also, we don’t get to say porcupine.  It is a precious tool only the child can use.  We can stick a kid in time out in his room, but only he can say that he can’t handle what’s happening.  This power gives him a tool of self-awareness, too.  When he calls “porcupine,” he is my kid who can’t handle what is happening, and needs me to just be his mom, and not his teacher.

Gentle discipline advocates say kids parented appropriately never get to this stage. I say go jump off a bridge.

Why is rage in a small child a sign of a bad kid? Bad parents? When JR calls down he’s ready, I throw a strip of pH paper in by asking him “Is your heart soft enough to learn the lesson yet?” Nothing ticks off a raging child like pansy talk about soft hearts. If he says “no,” he takes more time. If he won’t stay on his own, he’s ready to fight, and didn’t really mean his “Porcupine.”  That has never happened yet.

But, I just won’t destroy a little boy who, in a rage, can punch his grandmother in the stomach, destroy his sister’s favorite book, and tell the baby he hates him. Because when he’s himself, he calls me over to whisper “You’re the best mom in the whole world,” tells his little sister she’s adorable, and paints pictures for his Amma, “So she won’t forget me.” And don’t go thinking about master manipulator capablities. I’m here. I know genuine.

What’s not genuine is a little boy who, when he gets scared and can’t find his way out of the darkened room of the emotions running through his mind, fights to the death.  He screams himself exhausted in the frightening world of these intense, genetically given, chemical surges. Maybe you would medicate him out of these extremes that happen maybe once a week. I wouldn’t blame you. But, you’d be wrong to do that to my boy.

I know, because he’s me. And I wish I had a porcupine to defend myself back then, too.

Pick your battles.

I was reminded of the pithy advice to “pick your battles” last week in a friend’s status update.  These three words helped me spend my time wisely in college (apart from those hours of light saber assassin and “learning” to play guitar at 4 in the morning) not fight too many people in college over politics, abortion, or race relations. 

The idea that you can just let something go is becoming distant and unrealistic.  I live with a horribly behaved 2 year-old and a very stubborn 4 year-old.  This close to the edge of complete anarchy, I cling to each battle; our future depends on it.

No one is safe.

Right now, I am being hit by Lumpy who wants to hit little Hoss because JR is holding him.  (break) Apparently my restraining arm was too far away because she just whomped the 4 week old.  I don’t have time for time outs as I’m now nursing Hoss, so I aggressively grabbed her, flipped her upside down onto the floor and yelled “Don’t hit my baby!” She only has two responses to discipline: an angry “No!” or crying.  I aim for crying.

Here are the things I did not “let go” in the past hour:

  • Changing her leaking diaper 
  • Putting her pants on so she couldn’t remove the fresh diaper
  • Laying on top of Hoss and squishing her face into his
  • Sitting in her seat to eat cereal
  • Pulling her sister’s hair
  • Bringing a pile of wet leaves into the house

In fairness here are the things I did “let go” in the past hour:

  • Having her binky out of bed
  • Taking her pants off
  • Unsnapping her diaper (JR put it back on for her)
  • Going outside in the rain wearing a t-shirt and diaper (JR was already out there)
  • Coming inside onto our freshly cleaned carpet with mud all over her feet

I have no idea how I am going to do the laundry today because she will make me defend every square inch of folded territory with some crazy yoga poses and The Force.  But, I will win.  I am bigger.  I am more experienced.  I despise moral relativity.  I am the boss.

This is war.