Friday, March 5, 2010

Bad Behavior

I often look at my children and wonder about their lives. What will their strengths be? What careers will they pursue? Where will they live? Yesterday, I stared at the pair of them intently and wondered . . . am I raising criminals?

I would describe Daisy and Violet as spirited. They can be so sweet at times that I could just eat them up. Today was Daisy’s first grade teacher’s baby shower. My daughter made a card for her with shooting stars and flowers. Inside she wrote: “I am glad you are having a baby. I like you. I love you so much. I hope you’re OK.” It brought tears to my eyes when the teacher read it to the class.

But my daughters are defiant, angry, loud and straight up NAUGHTY too much of the time for my taste. My middle brother made a comment to my mom about the wild behavior he witnessed on the last night of his visit . . . he said he never acted that way as a kid. The girls were really wild that night. My parents and brothers watched as I unraveled in the face of the worst of it. As they walked me and the kids to the car at the end of the evening, my youngest brother gently reassured me that I was a good mother. His obvious concern and the number of times he repeated himself was not very reassuring at all.

And by the way, Middle Brother. When Mom told me what you said . . . I thought of you at the doctor’s office when you were about Violet’s age, screaming at the top of your lungs with your mouth open wide and your big teeth sticking out, kicking at the nurse who was trying to give you a shot, hiding under the examination table and refusing to come out. I think there was even some defiant urination. And I, as always, watched calmly, probably shaking my head or rolling my eyes. In control of my own self. So yeah, you did act that way. But I didn’t. And that’s partially what’s so challenging for me as a parent. I was never one to lose control the way my daughters do.

And don’t get me wrong, I did break the rules. I was just stealthy about it. I used to tell my students who felt like they couldn’t turn around without getting in trouble . . . you know how to make things better for yourself? Take care of your business . . . do your homework, remember your chores, play nice . . . and you’ll be surprised by how much more leeway you'll get. I’m not saying it’s all about whether or not you get caught, but being able to handle yourself in such a way as to make your life easier is huge.

When Daisy is really angry, she spirals out of control. She deliberately and aggressively does the opposite of what I’m telling her to do. She hurls insults, yells, throws personal belongings in the trash. She wishes she was never born to me. I am The Meanest Mom in the World. And it always concludes with her yelling at the top of her lungs, “IT’S ALL MY FAULT!” So smart . . . feeling miserable about yourself is the surest way to get back at your mother. I still remember the first time she was truly defiant as a two-year-old. She crawled up on her bed, turned around and stared at me as she dropped her pants and peed on her mattress (she takes after my middle brother in more than one way).

Violet’s rage is expressed in an even more physical manner. Things fly through the air. Furniture is pushed over. Although she doesn’t say much, she always screams, “Me no ike you Sis!” It doesn’t matter if her sister has anything to do with it or is even home. Her tantrum usually ends with a self-inflicted bump or bruise. However, her bad behavior is more typically under the radar.

I ran some errands yesterday, which I prepared for by packing four boxes to be shipped while shards of glass shot out of a nearby wall of glass blocks our contractors were taking out. Not feeling exactly calm after managing the kids in the danger zone and throwing stuff into boxes without thinking the shipping costs through, I weakly bribed the kids with a treat if they behaved for the errands. They did OK, so we stopped by a corner market when we were done. On our walk back to the car, I noticed that Violet had her hand under her shirt. I figured she had taken something but wanted to observe her a little. It’s useful to become familiar with what your children look like when they're hiding something. On our way home, I questioned her. She initially denied shoplifting with a look of fear. Eventually, a roll of stolen lifesavers was produced.

My 3-year-old stole with intent. We need to be nipping this one in the bud IMMEDIATELY. I took her back to the store today. She wouldn’t get out of the car, so I picked her up and carried her in. I explained to the owner what happened while Violet hid her face. The guy felt so sorry for her that he offered her a free candy bar. Are you kidding me? SHE’S IN TROUBLE. We won’t be taking any free candy today but thanks anyway.

The word criminal is a loaded term for me. I felt a calling to work with high school students who were sometimes criminalized. Some teenagers got into “the system” at a young age and couldn’t seem to make it through a weekend without an incident that resulted in another police report. I’m not talking about violent crime. Most of the offenses were fairly minor and related to standard teenage behavior. I’m talking about a person who doesn’t have the sense to stay out of trouble, and even worse, is like a moth to a trouble flame. That is what I am concerned about when I consider my daughters’ futures.

What I learned from my students is fair and consistent consequences make all the difference. It can be easy to forget consequences when kids are little because they’re so darned cute or you’re tired or the consequences punish the parents as much as the kids. It can also be easy to overreact and give kids the idea that something really important happened when they broke the rules, creating a fascination with the power of bad behavior.

Even though I know what I need to do, I still struggle every day with the right approach to disciplining my kids. I get frustrated, caught up in the drama, and sometimes say things that I can’t believe I’m saying even as I’m saying it. Daisy reflected this when she warned her sister in the car after the shoplifting incident, “Mom will call the police on you and SHE WON’T EVEN BE SORRY. Right, Mom? YOU WILL GO TO JAIL.” Is that what I sound like? Um, probably should tone it down a tad.


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