For some time now, my husband and I have been very disappointed in the seemingly self-centered attitudes exhibited by our children. There is definitely a "mememememe" factor that has nothing to do with voice exercises and an apathy that reminds me of zombies. This WILL NOT DO!
The big moment of change came this summer. The children were out of school and I had signed them all up for the various reading programs at the local library. The first day came and I bustled everyone out of the house and into the library. It was a madhouse! There were people everywhere!
We were there for the older kids that day but we were a little late and the program had already started. I didn't know where they were supposed to be so I told them we would just get some books and leave. Our library has a play area for younger kids. My plan was for the older kids to take turns watching the younger ones while I helped them find their books. I thought they would be able to stay corralled and entertained for the 20 minutes or so it would take to find the books we wanted. In their defense, it was VERY crowded but, bottom line, it didn't work. I got yelled at by the librarian because some of my older kids were playing with the baby toys and even fighting with toddlers while my little ones were running laps up and down the aisles.
But wait. It gets better (or worse).
We did not have library cards. I had tried to get one a few weeks earlier but I didn't have proof of residency so I couldn't get a card that day. "No big deal" I thought. "I will get it next time." But the process was very time consuming. It took over half and hour. The children were chasing each other around the circulation desk, playing on the motorized chairs, spinning the giant dictionary around on the table behind me, pounding on the computer keyboards, older ones dragging younger ones kicking and screaming (LITERALLY!!!) back to where I was filling out applications, the baby tired and screaming on my lap. It was probably the most embarrassing and horrifying day of my life.
I went home 100% convinced that I had, indeed, FAILED as a mother. There was no more room for doubt. I now had irrefutable evidence and about 50 witnesses that I had not taught my children a blasted thing! I had not raised well-mannered children who would grow up to be valued citizens, who contributed to society. Instead, I had a pack of monsters who would plague society with their lack of respect for others and complete disregard for rules and authority.
It took every ounce of self- control (and probably a healthy dose of divine intervention) to keep those kids alive, unbroken, unbeaten, and not abandoned on the side of the road.
Years ago, I had a friend who gave me some advice about motivating children. She said that when her kids were not behaving, she stopped doing the "extras". She fed them, but didn't treat them. She cleaned but didn't go out of her way. Basically, she did the bare minimum until they had changed their attitudes. At the time, I didn't know how to do this. My kids were too little to really understand this kind of discipline.
But this day, this horrible, depressing day, my friend's advice came back like a lightening bolt on a stormy night.
We went home and I laid it out for them. No more TV. No more video games. No more Popsicles. No more Kool-aid, they could have water. No more cold cereal, they could have oatmeal. No more dessert. For snacks they could have fruit; no chips or crackers or yogurt or candy or anything remotely enjoyable. I threw away whatever snacks we had. If they came up with something they wanted to eat or play or do that was remotely fun, I said no.
Then I put them to work. They were going to clean their rooms every day. Spotless. There were going to be chores done; laundry, vacuuming, dishes, weeding the garden, whatever I could find. When all of that was done, they could go outside and find some way to entertain themselves. No bubbles or chalk or water sprinkler. If it was too hot, they could play inside. They had quiet time every afternoon while the youngest kids napped.
Sounds horrible doesn't it? At first it was. I couldn't watch TV because they would find ways to come in and stare, no matter what I was watching. There was also a lot of somberness in the house. I was not about to forget what they had done, nor could I simple forgive and let it go. They pleaded for forgiveness. They begged for leniency. I remained unmoved. They learned quickly that I was not going to let up so they accepted their fate and sulked for several days.
It had to be this way. I had to get the point across. I had to hold out long enough to break them of their terrible habits. I knew I had to pack a bag and bring a lunch because we were not going home 'til the job was done.
After the initial shock, they started to find things to do again. They rediscovered their toys and their imaginations. They realized they were not going to starve without cookies and popcorn. Their thirst was quenched by water and milk. They got used to playing outside. They became friends again.
It was amazing! Coming down so hard and sticking with it for so long (about 3 weeks) went a long way to showing them who was boss and that I really was capable of following through on my threats. They started listening more and acting quickly when I told them to do something. They stopped complaining. It was wonderful! But more than that, we all learned that we really didn't need those things. We were just as happy without TV or dessert or snacks. We had fun playing with each other.
One testament to the power of this punishment came weeks later, after I had started to allow a few luxuries again. We were in Vermont visiting family. One day, my 7 year old son came to me and said "Are you still mad?" I didn't know what he was talking about and asked for some clarification. It turned out he wanted to play a video game and was wondering if he was still being punished. I let him play but I was thrilled to learn that he was still aware of the earlier punishments and was not about to over-step the lines.
I am sorry to report that we have gotten slack again. The kids have been lazy and disrespectful lately. There has been a lot of fighting and teasing. So I guess we will have to try this again. But I know it works. I know the power of consistency and limits. And pulling the cushy, thick-piled rug out from under their baby-soft, callous-free feet.
I also learned about my past failures. One failing is that the punishments are not always strong enough to get the point across. Time-out doesn't work well for us because I can't ignore them if they talk. It ends up being a one-on-one conversation with a child who wants attention anyway. Taking away one luxury doesn't always work either. I have taken away things from the girls for months at a time and that works. The boys don't care so much. Taking away TV and cereal and dessert was much more traumatic for them.
I don't like being the bad guy. That is probably why I have struggled with finding the right way to discipline my kids. We live in a world that pounds on us every day. I don't want to add to that. I would much rather love them and talk to them and listen to their problems. I want to be their guide, not their warden.
The reason this worked so well for me is that I didn't deprive them of the necessities. They were still fed healthy food. They still had things to do. I didn't risk their health. And I knew that in the long run, it would be better for us all. I want them to grow up to be good people. I often say to myself "I'm not raising children, I am raising adults". That helps me keep perspective. I want to teach them the skills that will be most beneficial to them as adults.
Sometiems that feels like hurding turtles. Sometimes it feels like holding back the tide. Mostly it feels like having a handful of that goop stuff that is made of Borax. It runs through your fingers but gets hard if you apply too much pressure. It takes a lot of practice and trial and error but it can be really cool once you get the hang of it!