Cooperation, Communication, and Consequences

One of the hardest, most humbling things about being a parent is those moments when your child communicates with you using strategies that you’ve used with him or that he’s seen you use with someone else–and you shouldn’t have.  We all have times when we do something to try to get another person to do what we want her to do, without giving enough thought to whether or not it’s a healthy strategy that we’d like our children to learn or that we’d like anybody to use on us.  My first child (now eleven years old) is an especially egalitarian-minded type: He doesn’t accept that adults have a natural authority over him by being adults, so he assumes that anything we can do to him is something he can do to us.  You can see this, rather humorously, in my story of why Counting to Three stopped working.  Since then, we’ve had many interactions in which Nick’s attempts to treat us the way he perceives us as treating him have been painfully enlightening!

Although these issues have been magnified by parenting, the same problems can come up between adults, especially adults who live together and/or have known each other for a long time.

What communication strategies am I talking about?  Here are some examples:

  • I want you to do something right now, so I just keep ordering you to do it in an increasingly angry voice.  No matter what you say about why you can’t do it this minute or why it might not be the right thing to do, I won’t listen or acknowledge hearing you.
  • You ask me for something, and I attack your desire to have the thing, bringing up a bunch of barely-related things that you asked for when you should’ve known better or that I gave you but you didn’t appreciate enough.
  • I want you to do something, and when you resist, I start complaining about all the other things I wish you would do that you haven’t done.
  • You ask me for something, and I list a lot of other things that I have done for you, making it sound like you ask too much of me.
  • Instead of asking for what I need, I work myself to exhaustion doing things that benefit both of us or just you.  When you don’t seem to notice, I feel resentful.  I keep working, refusing to pause to take care of myself, until I suddenly blow up at you and act like you are stupid for not knowing what’s wrong.
  • I complain about how I’m tired and having a bad day and overwhelmed by the things I need to do.  Then, without asking about how you’re doing, I tell you that you have to do something nice for me.

We saw a counselor a couple years ago who didn’t work out so well overall but had one really good point that has stuck with me: “The key to family harmony is emotional self-regulation.”  It is easy to say to yourself, “His nasty behavior put me in a bad mood!  I shouldn’t have to be nice when everyone’s being so awful to me!” but then you are putting other people in charge of your feelings and actions.  This is particularly problematic when the other people are children and you’re supposed to be their role model.  You have to snap out of the “person who has been treated badly gets to treat others badly” cycle and set a more positive tone.  It is hard, but in my experience it pays off.  Feeling like my family members are constantly ruining my day and I’m powerless to stop them is hard, too, and really wears me down in the long run. Read more of this post

What I’ve Learned By Reading Too Much (and 4 other books!)

In addition to finishing the books I got for Christmas in time for my birthday, I’ve read a few other new-to-me books recently, including one that actually has the alternate title What I’ve Learned By Reading Too Much!  I learned something from each of these books.

The Dance of Anger by Harriet G. Lerner

This is one of the most helpful self-help books I’ve ever read.  It explains several ways that anger typically functions in women’s relationships (with men, family members, friends, and co-workers) and how our handling of anger often keeps a relationship stuck in frustrating patterns.  Although the book focuses on women and makes some generalizations about what women do vs. what men do, it’s more insightful than stereotypical, and some of the strategies could easily be useful to men, too, when they find themselves stuck in the same situations.  A particularly helpful section talks about the formation of triangles in which “we reduce anxiety in one relationship by focusing on a third party, who we unconsciously pull into the situation to lower the emotional intensity in the original pair.”  I’ve sometimes realized that I was doing this, or that two people had pulled me into the middle of a conflict that was really between them, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to get out of it.  The book explains how to figure out why it’s happening and how to get out of it by “staying calm, staying out, and hanging in”–none of which is especially easy to do, but the clear explanation of steps makes it sound possible, at least!  I also appreciate this book’s clear explanation of a pattern in which one person consistently “over-functions” (does too much) and the other “under-functions” and why both people find this difficult to stop.

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

This dystopian techno-thriller starts with a fascinating premise and goes on into a saga that seemed kind of muddled… Read more of this post

One Brave Girl

This article from The New York Times was reprinted in my local newspaper.  In Afghanistan, a mullah who raped a 10-year-old girl in the mosque was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Most Americans would agree that anybody who rapes a child is a horrific criminal for whom 20 years is a light sentence, would be especially disgusted by such behavior from a religious leader, and would rally around the girl as an innocent victim.

This girl’s family considered murdering her to protect the family honor.  This girl has been raised in a culture in which that is traditional.

But when the mullah spoke in his own defense and claimed she had seduced him, the girl stopped sobbing and pulled aside her veil enough to speak directly to him. “Hey liar, hey liar,” she said. “God hate you, you are dirt, you are dirt, you are a vampire.”

Can you imagine the courage that took?

I used to be a Girl Scout leader.  When one of my girls was ten, her dad took her to an all-ages concert in a bar, where, she said, “a man, or maybe like a really old teenager, like in college” leaned over her saying she was pretty and asking for her phone number.  She did not know what to do.  Her father grabbed the guy by the collar and said, “Hey, leave my daughter alone!  She’s only TEN! YEARS! OLD!  Idiot.”  That is the kind of treatment men who hit on preteen girls deserve, and men who rape preteen girls…  Dirt.  Vampires.  It breaks my heart that this girl had to speak up for herself, but I am so very glad that she did.

This girl’s courage, and the courage of all those who are helping to bring the rapist to justice, will help to make Afghanistan a safer place for girls and women, who have been treated so badly for so long. That’s something that is working in our world. Visit Works-for-Me Wednesday to read about many other things that are working.

Prevent the Post-Party Sugar Crash!

My eight-year-old has attended many birthday parties at a bowling alley or similar venue where guests are served pizza (with white-flour crust), chips, soda pop, frosted cake, ice cream, more soda pop, and sometimes candy too.  That’s a lot of simple carbohydrates!  It’s the kind of meal that may be enjoyable while you’re eating it but tends to make you “crash” an hour or two later.  It’s even worse without the pizza and ice cream, which at least have some protein–frosted cake and soda pop on an empty stomach is a recipe for hyperactivity followed by meltdown.

I often attend these parties, too, because these “fun center” places are out in the suburbs, far from home.  Often I end up eating some of the food, if there’s extra.

We’ve always made a point of eating a solid, healthy meal not too long before the party, so that we don’t put the junk into a completely empty stomach and don’t overeat junk because we’re hungry.  I also try to plan for a healthy meal not too long after the party so that we eat again before getting hungry.  It’s the moment when the simple carbs are burned up and you suddenly have no calories to power your body that feels so awful.  After a party is no time to run a bunch of errands on the way home, unless you bring sandwiches or stop at a healthy restaurant–you will end up snapping at each other as you drag around some store, in our experience.  I’ve also learned that drinking too much coffee before or after the party will make the sugar crash worse or at least make me more irritable about it.

After the last such party we attended, I drove Nicholas straight home–40 minutes in the car, which was extremely hot at first, along an under-construction highway, in sunlight that seemed very bright after two hours in a bowling alley, with Nicholas clamoring, “Look what I drew on my dry-erase board NOW!” every few minutes (the board was a party favor), and then stop-and-go traffic through our neighborhood because of the detour around the tunnel renovation–so when I was finally getting out of the car and Nicholas was saying, “Can I watch TV?  I only watched one half-hour today, so can I watch another half-hour now?” and I said, “Well–” and he screeched, “YOU’RE INTERRUPTING!!!”, it was hard to resist clobbering him.  As I stomped toward the house, vowing for the hundredth time never to eat supermarket-bakery frosting again, I suddenly remembered a tip I had read a long time ago but never tried: Read more…

You do not know what you are asking.

This fall, our church has launched a new Bible study session, on Sundays between the two church services, to discuss the portion of the Gospel that will be read in church that day.  As Episcopalians, we follow a lectionary that tells us which scriptures to read each day, and this fall the Gospel readings for Sundays have been sequential passages from Mark, so each week we’re getting the next part of that story.

I’ve read the Gospel of Mark all the way through several times, but this time I’ve been especially struck by all the places where Jesus says or demonstrates that the way to get what we need is to ask.  Several people are healed because they asked Jesus to help them.  Jesus asks the disciples to hand over their few fishes and loaves of bread, gives thanks for them, and manages to feed thousands of people.  When the disciples are afraid to ask Jesus what he means by what he’s said, they don’t learn anything.  Jesus says that anyone who calls upon his name (asks to borrow his power) to drive out demons is doing the right thing, even if that person isn’t a recognized disciple.  He says that people who come to him like little children seeking his blessing will receive it.

Over and over, I’m hearing, “Just ask!  You can have whatever you need.  All you have to do is ask!”  I tend to have trouble asking for what I need, and this includes asking God–I often realize that I have been praying for help accepting the situation as it is and doing what I think I’ll have to do, instead of for what I really wish would happen, because I guess I think that’s more humble or polite or something.  This often makes life really difficult for me and leads to my resenting people for failing to do what I hoped they would do, though I never asked them to do it.  I’m working on it!  This Bible study and the discussions we’ve been having–when other people talk about things they’ve asked for and how it worked out–have been helping me a lot.

But a couple of weeks ago, nobody showed up for Bible study except for my seven-year-old Nicholas and me.  Nicholas had attended all the previous sessions, and sometimes when we talked afterward I could tell he’d been listening pretty closely, but he’d never participated much.  This time I was determined to get him involved.  Read more…

Things Not To Do: Toddler Toothbrushing Edition

Our son Nicholas is seven years old now and sometimes puts up a fuss about brushing his teeth, but he’s nowhere near as resistant as he was when he was a toddler, and the lesson I learned then still seems to apply.

Soon after his teeth emerged and we started brushing them, the novelty wore off and he began to resist this drippy, tickling intrusion into his mouth.  I understand the objection, but I was determined both to take good care of his new little teeth and to teach him that toothbrushing is part of the daily routine.  He’d turn his head away, refuse to open his mouth, run away, and sometimes cry.  Some nights we’d let it slide, but one day when he was 22 months old he had sardines for lunch and garlic for dinner and horrible-smelling breath, so I was determined to brush his teeth…and it took forty-five minutes to get it done!  I wrote this account of the ordeal: Read more…

Bullying: an article I wrote, and three I don’t have to write

Although I am discussing my work here, the point of view is my own, and this is not an official statement of the Pittsburgh Youth Study.

As the data manager of a long-term research study, I recently helped to write this academic paper: Bullying Perpetration and Victimization as Predictors of Delinquency and Depression in the Pittsburgh Youth Study.  What we found, looking at data collected from the 503 men we’ve been interviewing repeatedly since they were in first grade, is that bullies are more likely than non-bullies to grow up to be criminals, and bullying victims are more likely than non-victims to grow up to be depressed.  That’s not really surprising, is it?  But it’s good to add to the hard scientific evidence that bullying is a serious problem with lifelong consequences.  This whole issue of the Journal of Aggression, Conflict, and Peace Research was a special issue on school bullying, with 7 more articles on the subject.

I had been kind of thinking I should write something about bullying that might be read by people who don’t read dull academic journals.  But I felt very shy about it and afraid to admit that, well, I know there’s a problem and can prove there’s a problem but can’t claim I ever solved this problem for myself or anybody and tried so many things that didn’t work and when I even think about it I get so scared and what if– Read more…

Religious Education with Ramona Quimby

I’m an Episcopalian now, but my parents joined a Unitarian Universalist church when I was seven years old, so I was raised in that denomination. There were many things about it that weren’t compatible with my spirituality, but I did learn at least one valuable lesson there: Some secular books contain wisdom and moral dilemmas that can be valuable catalysts for religious discussion and development. I’m a big fan of the Bible and prefer attending a church where it’s the main text.  It’s just not the only book that can speak to the truth in our hearts.  Last Sunday, I had an opportunity to apply this idea in my Episcopal church. Read more…

Vain is the Deep of Man

About 14 years ago, when I was new to the church where I’m now a well-established member and new to living with my boyfriend, I walked into church on the first Sunday of Lent with the dry mouth and raw eyes and heavy heart of a person whose Saturday night had involved too many tears and not enough sleep.  I don’t remember now what Daniel and I had argued about.  I just remember that I handled the conflict horribly, snarling words I knew would hurt him worse than he had just hurt me, because I wanted to win. Read more…

Mama, you happy?

One reason I’m glad I did so much writing about my early motherhood experiences is that, just a few years later, I’ve forgotten some of the stages my child passed through, the stages that seemed to be lasting forever yet vanished very quickly. Here’s something I posted on a discussion board when he had just turned two years old, and until I read this again I’d forgotten all about it!

“Mama, you happy?” Nicholas asks this question about a million times a day. Sometimes he asks Daddy instead. It’s kind of bugging us! Read more…

Parental Profanity Policy

Disclaimer: We only have one child.  He is unusually observant and tends to pick up social rules fairly easily and accurately.  What works with him may not work with every child.  We are only two parents, and the two of us share extremely similar values.  What is comfortable for us may not be comfortable for everyone.

Our son Nicholas will be starting kindergarten tomorrow in a large, urban public school.  It’s possible he will observe undesirable habits and try them out himself.  Who knows what we’ll encounter?  But there’s one kind of bad habit we’re not too concerned about: using crude language in situations where it’s inappropriate.  Daniel and I are not easily offended by profanity, but we think it’s important to avoid offending others.  We think that the policy we’ve had about profanity so far is working pretty well! Read more…

The Path at the End of the Road

I wanted to be an architect.

From the moment I first learned what architects do, when I was about ten years old, I knew that’s what I wanted to be: a person who designs buildings that make people comfortable and happy.  Right away, I started reading architecture books and magazines.  I was fascinated by floorplans (and other drawings too, but especially plans) and began drawing my own.

This clear career goal motivated many of my decisions in junior high and high school: Read more…

Treasuring Each Day

Last Thursday was a tough day for me. Yes, it was even harder than the previous Thursday. It was the day we were supposed to be on our way to Origins, a huge game convention where we see a bunch of our best friends, but instead I was sick in bed. That “coming down with something” feeling had unfurled in the center of my skull while I was writing about tie-dyed socks during my lunch break Wednesday, and by the time I admitted that a cough drop was not enough to vanquish it, I’d finished all the work that really had to get done before my trip, so I went home early for a nap . . . and I loaded up my dinner with infection-fighting raw garlic and various vitaminous vegetables . . . but in the early hours of Thursday morning, the illness abruptly shifted from just a nose-and-throat thing to the kind with hourly violent vomiting of horrifying fluids that are not supposed to leave the body.

Not only did I feel absolutely awful physically, not only was I using one of my scarce vacation days being sick instead of playing IceTowers with my friends, but I was gypping the other two members of my family out of a day of Origins, too!!! It was a huge bummer. I felt so rotten that I couldn’t do much reading or anything to distract myself. I was asleep at least as much of the day as I was awake, but when I was awake I felt a lot of regret and anger and worry about how long this would last.

But there was one lucky moment that improved the whole thing as vastly as it could (which was not very much, but enough to be worth writing about!): a tiny instant of pleasure as I gazed out the window at the neighbor’s ivy-covered brick wall against the blue sky reminded me of how my dad keeps saying that he tries to treasure each day.

My first reaction was, “Yeah, and that’s the one treasurable moment I’m going to get out of this day!” but I went on to recall some advice I’d heard about childbirth: No matter how much it hurts, by this time tomorrow it will be over and you will have survived. Well, that wasn’t necessarily true of my illness–it’s possible to be that sick for several days straight–but most often the “can’t even keep down water” phase lasts only a few hours. I remembered another game convention, GenCon 2003, at which I attempted a recycling project that was way too huge for one person; I remembered sitting in my office on the Tuesday before I left for GenCon worrying about how it would go and then thinking, “Well, no matter how it goes, next Tuesday I’ll be sitting here again and I’ll know how it went,” and making a conscious decision to work with each moment as it came. Sitting on the bathroom floor last Thursday, shuddering and suffering, I reminded myself of all the moments of GenCon that I treasure six years later, some of which have nothing to do with recycling because there are always other things along the way.

I also thought about my secret journey on this summer sick-day that felt similar to that one. Having once endured feeling queasy for two whole months, I could get through this one little virus! But that argument just felt preachy and annoying to me in the midst of this misery–and at least pregnancy nausea was worthwhile, whereas this nausea was perpetrated by some evil germ bent on spoiling our vacation for no reason! I fell asleep angry and had another episode of the day’s recurring nightmare about a really big centipede wearing a jacket–a satin windbreaker-style jacket–the nerve of him, following me around!

In my next rational moment, I talked myself back to thoughts of life’s journey and treasuring each moment and the unexpected lessons and blah de blah, and since I wasn’t receiving the miraculous gift of hearing in my mind the perfect song for my situation, I consciously chose to “listen” to the song “Every Day Is a Winding Road” . Lay back; enjoy the show. Everybody gets high; everybody gets low. . . . I had no choice about whether to catch this illness or not; all I could do was see what was around the next bend. Yeah, I’d rather be at a high point, but crossing the valley is an experience too. There was no knowing how long I’d be sick, but it couldn’t go on forever, so with every moment, every breath, I get a little bit closer to feeling fine. I’ll get up high again soon, and then I’ll be able to look back and see where I’ve been, and the contrast will make my happier days all the more enjoyable.

This all sounds a little trite, but it was surprisingly effective. I mean, having a crushing headache and an all-over clammy feeling and a nose full of slime and regular bouts of violent digestive revolt is AN ABSOLUTELY MISERABLE WAY TO SPEND A DAY and all the more so when you have a specific place you’d rather be! But accepting it as part of life and just riding along looking at the scenery made me about as happy about it as I was going to get. Instead of raging about where I ought to be and how my body ought to work, instead of frantically laying plans for every possible contingency, instead of feeling guilty about failing to fill my role in the family vacation or in the day of life with a four-year-old that was proceeding downstairs, I was just there on the winding road, soaking up the experience for whatever I might get out of it, thinking only one bend ahead. Next step is to rinse my mouth. Next step is to pull up another blanket. One step at a time, I get a little bit closer to feeling fine.

Really, it all worked out very well. By Thursday night I could eat a little bit. By Friday morning I was up and about in a fairly normal way, although still feeling clammy and blowing my nose and coughing. We got to the convention by late afternoon Friday, and the hotel didn’t charge us a cent for cancelling the first night of our reservation (we called, but pretty late on Thursday), and they gave us a room with a refrigerator, which we hadn’t expected to get. I didn’t have my usual stamina, but I managed to do most of the things I wanted to do, including staying up really late Saturday night. By Sunday I was skipping and jumping around with my kid. I’m still not fully healthy, but many moments of my weekend and today have been brightened by marveling at how much better I feel.

If I’d spent my sick day wallowing in negative emotion and insisting that everything was ruined, would I have been sick longer and missed the whole weekend? I don’t know. But even if the duration of this viral infection was preset, I’m glad I found a positive way of enduring the experience, of treasuring even a day that was hard to treasure.

What I did with the Mad my kid felt

Nicholas at four years old likes to negotiate about how he spends his time.  It’s mostly a good thing: Of course he should have some say in what happens, and compromising and prioritizing are important skills.  The trouble is that he has so many things he wants to do and so little time at home–he’s in childcare while we work full-time, and on weekends we tend to have a number of errands and other activities.  Often, the time between getting home and needing to go to bed seems to fly by, and at the last minute he tries to renegotiate and stay up late to pack in all the activities he earlier was willing to bargain away.

Sunday night, he was having a great time playing with his visiting uncle when I reminded him that bedtime was approaching.  Nicholas said he would not have any bedtime stories so that he’d have more time to play.  I agreed.  Of course I expected some delays when it was time to get ready for bed, due to uncle-related excitement, but once we were alone in his room I was firm about our agreement that he would go right to sleep without stories.

Well, now he had changed his mind.  Just one little story, pleeeease???  No, the agreement was no stories.  Nicholas got very upset.  He wanted to do lots of things!  He wanted stories, and I was being so mean by denying him stories, and he was NOT sleepy!  He began bouncing around in what I recognized (noting his sagging eyelids) as a desperate attempt to stay awake.  By now it was 20 minutes past the time he ought to be asleep.  I reminded him that when he bounces, then I cannot lie down with him because I do not like the bouncing.  He stopped for a few seconds.  When he started again, I got up and left the room.  He flew into a shrieking rage.  I stood outside the door waiting for him to quiet down a bit, then offered him a second chance.

When I lay down again, he was physically still but complaining fretfully that he wanted to do this and that and it wasn’t fair to have no stories.  I briefly considered giving a second ultimatum (“If you want me to stay with you, be quiet so I can get to sleep.”) or doing the active listening thing (“You really like playing with Uncle Ben.  It’s hard to go to sleep when you want to do other things.”), but both ideas made me feel exhausted and seemed likely to fail with this tired, unreasonable child. Read more…

Second Chance

Disclaimer: We only have one child.  Other children may react differently to this technique.  Give it a try and see if it works for you!

I started into parenting thinking that it’s unfair to impose a consequence on a child without warning him first (except in a dangerous situation, of course) and that once you’ve chosen a consequence you must stick to it, to show your child that you mean what you say.

Here’s what I’ve learned from Nicholas, who just turned four years old:

Often, warning a young child that his behavior will result in a consequence has no apparent effect or perhaps gives him “permission” to do it one more time. Read more…

Navigating into the New Year

Nicholas just turned four years old.  Over the past few weeks, we’ve become more confident that the tantrum stage has finally ended, but he still gets into moods where he acts extremely annoying.

Yesterday was a tough one.  Nicholas and I woke at the same time, and before we were all the way down the stairs he’d launched an elaborate negotiation to watch every television program available on this rare weekday at home.  We reached an agreement about which shows he would watch, and he abided by it, but at 11am when the listing said “Mister Rogers” would be on, the station was instead broadcasting a lecture about brain maintenance for aging adults.  That was upsetting.  Nicholas became so irrational we decided he needed an early nap, which was achieved fairly easily.  He’d slept in his clothes the night before and now decided to even things out by changing into pajamas for his nap.

After napping, Nicholas noticed the nice weather and suggested he and I go out for a walk.  That sounded good to me too.  I pointed out that he was still wearing pajamas.  He said, “I know that!  Now get me dressed!” in a tone of withering scorn.  Read more…

Really Only Very Small

This is one of the simplest yet most profound parenting tips I’ve heard:
When your child is driving you absolutely insane,
and you wish he’d just get with the program and act like a civilized human being,
and you’re sick and tired of his getting in the way of all the very important things you need to get done,
and he’s making the most aggravating noise you’ve ever heard,
and you’re beginning to understand how it is some people throw a child against a wall,
Just take a moment to really look at your child and see how small he is, how soft and fragile and new, how inexperienced in coping with the stresses of life.  Why, just a few years ago, he didn’t even exist!  It’s really not so surprising that a brief delay in his acquisition of raisins strikes him as a great tragedy, or that his feelings overwhelm his polite communication abilities.  A problem that looks small to you looks very big to such a small person. Read more…

What right have you to be angry?

Nicholas still acts up in church sometimes. A couple of weeks ago, we had an even more difficult time than the one I wrote about last year.

It started with Nicholas wanting to go to the bathroom just as I was listening eagerly to the Old Testament reading, which was the story of what happened to Jonah after he got out of that fish–although I knew Jonah had his own book of the Bible, I’d never read or heard any of it other than the part about being swallowed by a fish, so I was curious.  But I didn’t get to hear it because Nicholas had to go to the bathroom, and he’s only three-and-a-half years old and afraid to wander around the church hallways alone, so I had to go with him.  Well, that couldn’t be helped.  I would read it in the service leaflet when we got back.

The moment we got back, Nicholas grabbed my leaflet and began scrambling the pages around, scribbling on it with a pencil, crumpling it, and generally rendering it unreadable even if I ever managed to get it back from him. I resolved to read Jonah at home later, and I turned my attention to the next reading.

That lasted about twelve seconds before Nicholas began whispering at me. Read more…

Great system, bad example!

We’ve been struggling with our three-year-old’s demanding behavior and angry outbursts and have sought help from several books.  The most recent was Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline by Becky Bailey, frequently recommended in online discussions.

Overall, it’s an okay book.  The main idea is that a conflict is an opportunity to teach your child skills he can learn to control himself on his own, and she explains very clearly why this is such a great approach.  The book has a few very good parts: Read more…

What’s wrong with these Earth policemen?!

Pittsburgh police killed Nang Nguyen because he was waving a meat cleaver.  Okay, he should not have been doing that, but did they really have to shoot him dead on the sidewalk?  Consider the details of this story: Read more…