Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sweetness and light

I might have given the false impression that life with Ben is nothing but one battle after another these days.  Well, he can be a little stinker sometimes, and I'd be worried if he weren't.  But he's still one heck of a sweet and amazing kid.  Tonight, while we were cuddling before bed without his equipment on, he laboriously worked his fingers into the "I love you" sign, thrust it up into my face and said, "Look, Mom, it's an I love you sign!"

Shortly before that, when Neil came in to say good night, Ben asked him if tomorrow is a school day.  Neil signed yes.  Ben then pretended to cough, pointed to his throat and said, "My throat's a little sore.  I'm not feeling so well."  Little stinker.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Tiger Mom (Episode 2)

Okay, so this installment has more to do with the nuts and bolts of parenting a three year old.  Not that I've mastered this art, by the way.  But it is, understandably, a current preoccupation of mine, so I'll expound on some of what I've learned so far.

First, a quick poll:  To spank, or not to spank?  Speak up, and unless you assert that you routinely pummel your child with blunt objects just because it builds character, we'll try not to judge.  I'll start:  I have spanked Ben a couple of times.  It's more along the lines of what my mother always referred to as a "love tap" -- and with only a little bit of irony.  In other words, a swat on the butt that can be felt but is nowhere near hard enough to cause damage or actual pain.  Of course, if it's just a glancing caress, then obviously it has no deterrent value whatsoever.  The other crucial thing is that it shouldn't be how I vent my anger.  That's not to say I'm not angry when I do it, but before I raise my hand, I should pause, reflect carefully on what I'm planning to do and how, calculate how to do it so that it's a formative and instructive experience for my child, and only then go forward with the spank itself.  It needs to have that element of emotional detachment, reflection, and calculation.  If it's to be done at all, it's because I truly believe that it's in Ben's best interest, rather than because I'm so steaming mad that I just have to take a whack at something.  Another important lesson I'm teaching him at this stage is that while anger is a natural and healthy emotion, it's never okay to take out our anger on people or things.  Hitting him out of anger is wrong for so many reasons, not least because it would teach him a contrary message about anger management.

I sound like an old hand at it, but honestly, I've only done it twice.  And I wasn't too thrilled about it either time.  I think it's best to avoid it if at all possible, but if there's a circumstance where it seems like it will advance the cause better than anything else, then it can be done in a non-abusive way.  And I gotta say, it was remarkably effective at adding some real teeth to my other, preferred form of behavior management.

That being the handy "Do I need to get angry?" line.  So let's talk about anger for a moment.  I have a friend who is an excellent parent of a six year old, and I have turned to her for parenting advice on a couple of occasions.  This friend is a very mellow, warm, positive person.  She told me that when she was growing up, she saw almost no anger in her household (I gather that her parents did all they could to shield her from it), and so it was quite a shock when she started encountering it on the outside, and it took her a long time to figure out how to process her own anger, especially after she became an adult.  So one of the things I've incorporated into my parenting is an authentic (but age-appropriate) display of healthy emotions. 

One of the main jobs of a three year old is to push his parents' buttons.  Seriously -- it's an important developmental phase, where the child establishes a sense of identity separate from that of his parents.  Remember that a newborn doesn't understand that other people exist, and even after he figures this out, those people are just blobs, like the crib and the light fixture, except that one of them has tasty boobs; there's no understanding that they are beings that are both similar to and yet separate from him.  That is a lesson that is a long time coming, and it's an essential precursor to developing empathy, sympathy, and a whole host of other social skills.  My point is that preschoolers really know how to make us angry, and this is not, on the whole, a bad thing.

Which is fine, but at the same time, we have a responsibility to curb bad behavior and reinforce good behavior, and therein lies the mystery.  How?!?  Your child is using everything in his procrastinatory arsenal to avoid putting his pajamas on -- not because he really has any objection to wearing pajamas, but because he knows that you want the pajamas on and, therefore, he doesn't.  His arsenal includes such tactics as whining, fussing, throwing himself on the floor, insisting that he wants the other parent to do it, insisting that he wants to do it himself, insisting that he needs help, insisting that he wants to do it in the other room, insisting that he needs to go potty, discovering an urgent need to put all of his stuffed animals into a new configuration, developing an intense interest in counting things on the dresser, etc.  And you're getting angry.  Something that should take thirty seconds is stretching out to five minutes, and there's no end in sight.  You gotta do something, but what, how, and when?  Do you come down hard at the first sign of trouble?  Do you pretend to be unimpressed and unprovoked, so as to take the wind out of his sails?  Do you invoke some system of rewards and punishments, and if so, how did you establish that in the first place?

As rookie parents, we muddle along as best we can, learn from our mistakes, and hope that gradually some method emerges from the madness.  So far, the thing that seems to work best for me is, "Do I need to get angry?"  If he's not too committed to the infraction, he'll say no immediately and the problem behavior ceases.  Otherwise, I let the anger start to ramp up, and I keep him informed as to its progression:  "Ben, do you see my face?  I'm getting angry here.  Can you hear that I'm raising my voice now?"  And almost always there's a point where he recognizes that he's pushed me too far, and he's willing to cease and desist.  But there were those two occasions where we never seemed to find this point.  Since I can't simply ramp up the anger forever without some sort of destination in sight, I warned him that he was headed for a spanking.  I explained what a spanking was.  The first time, this actually piqued his curiosity, and, well, I satisfied his curiosity.  The second time, he remembered that it was something that he really didn't like, and it was almost an effective deterrent, but he soldiered on -- with the inevitable result.  (You certainly can't make a threat like that without following through on it.)  I'm hoping that we've now learned that we don't want to go all the way down that road, but I wouldn't be surprised if we have to relearn this lesson a few more times.

This post is far too long already, so I'll seek a little closure here and take up the thread again later.  Two key things about using your anger as a behavior modification tool are that it can't come out of nowhere, and it has to be connected to the bad behavior.  You can't just play Nice Mommy until that moment where you snap and suddenly become Mean Mommy; the child has to see you ramp it up gradually, and know where it's going.  After the moment has passed, I'll usually have a debriefing with Ben:  "I didn't like yelling at you, but I was feeling very angry because you were doing X and you weren't listening to me."  Also, what does this have to do with Tiger Mothering?  Not much -- except that I wanted to explain some of my thoughts about basic behavior management and how to handle noncompliance, before I talk about some of my hopes for the future and what (if anything) I plan on doing if I meet a little resistance along the way.  Look for Episode 3, in theaters soon.

One last thing.  Imagine the whole scene with the pajamas, and throw in the fact that your child is deaf and (under the circumstances) very pleased with himself about that.  My signing is improving, but I'm not yet at the point where I can sign, "Get the freakin' pajamas on before I blow."  We haven't sussed this one yet.  We're getting much more capable and confident with discipline during the day, but when the equipment comes off, it's a whole new ballgame.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Episode 1)

Some of you might recognize that as the title of the controversial new book by Amy Chua.  An excerpt was printed in the Wall Street Journal, everyone threw a hissy fit, and Chua herself received death threats, even after her older daughter published an open letter in the New York Post defending her mother.

Why?  Well, the way the book has been hyped, it's an exaltation of Chinese parenting in contrast to western parenting, and full of horrifying stories of how Chua threatened to give her daughters' toys away if they didn't practice their instruments (piano and violin) for six hours a day, or how she would demean and insult them into bending to her iron will.

Except that it's not.  It's actually a really good book, and I highly recommend it.  I read the WSJ excerpt and was intrigued; reading between the rather sensational lines, I could see some glimmers of wisdom, and a lot of it resonated with me and reminded me of aspects of my own upbringing.  Also, it goes right to the heart of some parenting issues that I've been grappling with for the last few months (more on that in Episode 2).  I'm certainly not going to adopt Chua's parenting model lock stock and barrel, but reading about her experiences gives me renewed confidence to adhere to some values that my parents instilled in me, but I wasn't sure how to instill in (impose on?) Ben.

A few words of warning before you read the book.  First, you have to get on board with Chua's self-deprecating style of humor.  The book is hilarious; I find myself laughing out loud on just about every page.  Even if it's not obvious at first, almost all of the jokes are at her own expense, as she looks back with irony at how her approach to mothering has evolved over the years.  Second, the story really is about that evolution, and how she is trying to stay true to her core parenting values while adapting to the reality of her daughters' radically different personalities.  Third, this is extreme parenting, folks (at least from a western point of view); feel free to take it down a few notches if you want to try implementing aspects of it yourself.  For example, if you feel that six hours of piano practice is a little much, scale it back to five.  After all, the kid is only three.  (Just kidding.  Ben is three, and I don't make him practice more than two hours a day.)  (Just kidding.)

My parents started me on violin lessons when I was four.  A four or five year old doesn't typically make astounding progress in a hurry. You're basically in grind and squawk mode for a few years.  However, I believe it lays the groundwork for the kind of discipline and musicality required for later success, and I am eternally grateful to my parents for providing me with this opportunity.  When I was about seven, I decided that I was done with the violin.  I didn't enjoy it anymore, and practicing was a time-consuming chore.  I'd given it a fair try.  Sounds very reasonable, no?  Reasonable parents would have agreed with me, and let me give it up and devote the time to something more enjoyable.  My parents were not reasonable, and they absoutely refused to let me quit.  I recall some rather unpleasant discussions of the matter.  To make a long story short, within a few years I was back in love with the violin, and being able to play it well has enriched my life ever since.  (In the interest of full disclosure, they did let me give up the flute, but only because something had to give and we all decided I should devote more time to the violin.)

Not only that, but I wasn't allowed to watch any TV until all my homework was done and I'd practiced the violin for an hour.  And even then, it was only a little TV, under parental supervision.  Yeah, I balked occasionally at this sort of thing, because it was more restrictive than in my friends' households (although less restrictive than Chua's), but even at the time I appreciated the value of it.  Oh, and my parents insisted that I get straight A's, too.  Being bright didn't get me off the hook; if I was capable of it, then I'd darn well better do it, and no whining about being "bored" or under-challenged.  And if I had a lousy teacher, that was no excuse either -- it was still my job to learn the stuff and perform well.  (In the interest of full disclosure, I didn't always get straight A's.  And man, did I hear about it when I didn't.)

My point is that some of the most important things that my parents did when raising me are basically Tiger Mother things.  Some of the key lessons they taught me, such as the value of hard work and delayed gratification, are Tiger Mother lessons.  They unapologetically accepted some of the principles that Chua puts forth, such as the fact that children do not always know what's best for them, and that parents have the responsibility to override their children's short term whims and impulses in favor of their long term interests.  That doesn't mean you say no all the time, or that you should squelch their budding individuality and sense of autonomy.  But saying no under the right circumstances (and in the right way -- that's the part I'm still figuring out) can be the most loving thing you can do for your child.  I'm not talking about easy stuff, like, "No, you can't run out into the road, even though you really want to."  I'm talking about hard stuff, like, "I know this is the first school dance that you've actually been invited to by a real boy, and you've been looking forward to it for a month, and you and your mother bought a gorgeous red dress and your date is picking you up at seven, but I'm looking at this report card that you brought home today and I just don't see it happening."  (Just speaking hypothetically here.  Not.)  (Okay, so I was bitter about that one for awhile, but I'm totally over it, and that was one pretty impressive piece of parenting, I gotta say, in retrospect.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ben's joke and song

Ben's joke:  How many gorillas does it take to change a light bulb?  One, but it takes a lot of light bulbs.  (He learned this from the most recent Prairie Home Companion joke show.)

Ben's song:  "Mommies and daddies, daddies and mommies, every son's mommy, every daughter's daddy."  (This is sung to part of the melody from the song "Sisters and Brothers," on the Free to Be album.  The original lyric is "Sisters and brothers, brothers and sisters, every father's daughter, every mother's son," so Ben's version is actually a pretty clever play on that.  There's another song on the same album called "Parents are People," which features frequent mention of Mommies and Daddies, so I'm sure that played an inspirational role.)

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Deaf for awhile

After I got Ben up from his "nap"* yesterday, I asked him (in sign language) whether he wanted his hearing aid and CI.  He said, "No, not yet.  I will be deaf for awhile."

So we hung out in his room and played, I signed and he spoke, and he had a merry time being deaf for awhile.  Then he asked for his equipment.  I put it on and he went back to being hearing.

I thought this was really nice.  He has a choice of two ways of being in the world.  It's clear that most of the time, he prefers to be hearing.  But I feel good about the fact that he's not opposed to being deaf, or frightened by it, and in fact sometimes it suits his mood.  Mind you, he won't always get to choose -- he doesn't get to take off his equipment in the middle of 4th grade Social Studies just because he isn't interested in hearing how a bill becomes law.  (Some of us might like to have that option, but I'm not going to let him exercise it.)

Maybe I've just succumbed to criticism from the Deaf community that in deciding to give my child access to sound and to raise him orally, I'm operating on the premise that deafness is shameful and intrinsically bad, and I'm instilling that sense of shame in him.  (I'm not doing either, by the way.)  Could be -- I'm very sensitive to criticism.  Even if that's the case, maybe it's a good thing, if it makes me more thoughtful about my own attitude toward Ben's deafness and how it shapes his developing awareness of it.  Whatever.  Seems like he's on a pretty healthy track right now.

*Yeah, he's just about given up naps -- mostly.  We still insist on a period of Quiet Time, as they do at daycare, where we take off his equipment and he lies quietly in bed, and every now and then he'll surprise us by falling asleep.  But we can never count on it.  Sigh.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

B-B-B-Big Boy Bed!

Ben's current favorite video is an old VHS tape (another hand-me-down from my now college-age niece) from a series called "Geo Kids," put out by National Geographic in the early nineties.  Among its musical features are such natural history hits as "Kook Kook Kooky Kookaburra" and "Animal Doo-Wop".  The latter is great for phonological awareness, with lyrics like "P-panda, F-f-f-fish, T-t-turtle, L-l-l-lizard."  Ben loves this.  He has started adapting the technique for lyrics from other songs ("Sh-sh-sh-she w-w-woves you, y-y-yeah, y-y-y-yeah, y-y-yeah!" and "W-w-w-wocky M-m-m-mountain High, C-c-c-colorado").  And another thing:  He's been on a huge John Denver kick recently.  In fact, he insists (seriously, insists) that we call him John Denver.  This caused a little confusion at daycare the other day.   It all started shortly before Christmas when he became addicted to a CD of the John Denver Muppets Christmas special.  One youtube video led to another, and now he's singing "Rocky Mountain High" in the bathtub.  His tastes are eclectic, to say the least.

We finally made the transition to the Big Boy Bed last night (after Neil spent most of Friday assembling the blasted thing), and all went well.  After he got home, we told him there was a big surprise waiting in his bedroom.  He had pretty much figured it out by the time he was halfway up the stairs (we'd been showing him pictures of it and talking about it all week, while waiting for it to arrive), and he was one giant ear-to-ear grin when he saw it in person.

After some thought, he rearranged all of the trimmings in a configuration more to his liking.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tonight's Bennyism

"Ooops -- I have two weak parents."

There was actually a context for this, but it's too complicated to explain.  I figure it stands alone.