Parenting River has always been pretty cut and dry. He's a great kid, and I'm not just saying that because he's my son and obviously I think he's the greatest kid that ever was. Parenting two completely different people really challenges me to go with my instinct, because what works for one kid doesn't always work for the other. Now that Austen is reaching the age where I believe consistent discipline is key, I'm curious to see what will work for her, and what won't.
But despite the speed bumps that come up now and then, they are always just phases, and we get through them without too much crying and hair-pulling (if I can stay patient with him). There are two things that have made parenting more pleasant for me. The best book I have ever read on parenting in called Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline. I took so much from this book. It is so worn and loved and underlined. I want to freakin' declare from the mountain tops what an amazing book this is. If I could buy a copy for all my friends with young children, I would. In fact I've considered doing a giveaway on my blog, just to get this book in someone's hands.
One of my favorite things about the book is that the author explains the psychology and development of a child's brain and offers ways to parent in a way that can build up a child to be the best person they can be. This book is perfect for any parent who is dedicated to gentle parenting, but wants techniques that actually work. I'm not going to lie, it is hard to parent in this way. It would be so much easier to smack a kid on the bottom and scare them into obedience. But the techniques in Easy to Love get to the heart of the matter, and I've even seen it work with Austen, who is my high-spirited, stubborn, intense and easily angered child.
Among the latest parenting woes with River have been arguing and cleaning up after himself. Since he's been two, I've encouraged him to do little chores here and there, but I haven't been consistent. And a lot of the arguing, I've realized, stems from me not allowing him to do things because I don't want to clean up the mess afterward. Maybe this should have been something I'd thought of myself, but one kind woman on Facebook suggested to cut the arguing by just expecting him to clean up after himself. Oh, right. That makes sense. I feel that now, at nearly four years old, he is at the perfect age where I can start giving him regular chores.
One of our constant clean-up battles is books at bedtime. He loves looking at books. I've never minded him reading books in bed, because when he is very sleepy, he will fall asleep quickly without a problem. If he is less sleepy, at least he stays in his bed and is doing something quiet. For a while, I had the rule that he could only take three books to bed. But he would always argue (Can I take five? Just one more? Just seven. How about twelve. Just twelve books, Mama.) and eventually I gave in, and every night he takes piles upon piles of books to bed. One night I decided to count his books after he'd fallen asleep and he had thirty-seven! When he is finished with one, he knocks it to the floor, and so in the morning books are everywhere. The task is daunting enough to me, so I usually ask him to "help" me put them away, which means he puts away three or four and I'm left with the rest.
This morning I was about to chide him for the amount of books he takes to bed and complain about how much I dislike putting his books away, and then I remembered the advice of that fellow mama. His room was atrocious and I knew expecting him to clean it up on his own was both impractical and impossible, so I cleaned up his toys and then put his books in the hall next to the bookshelf, and told him to put them away.
Five minutes later, he came to me and sighed. "Mama, I'm done putting books away. I'm tired."
One of the chapters in Easy to Love explains parenting with empathy. Parenting in this way had never even crossed my mind before. Maybe this means I'm an awful parent, but my first instinct is to respond in a patriarchal way. "Excuse me?! You don't tell me you're done! I told you to put them away, now go to do it! It's not that hard. Stop complaining and just do it." Most of the time, in the moment, I want to snap at River to cut the complaining and just obey. But this is both disrespectful and inefficient. Just because he is a child doesn't mean he doesn't deserve understanding. Do I still expect him to obey me? Absolutely. I am his mother, and I know what is best. Gentle parenting doesn't mean I let my kid do whatever he wants. But working with him rather than against him makes our days go so much smoother. Cue empathy.
"I know it's hard to put them away. It's a big job. You're tired, and you've been working at it for a long time. It is really hard. But you have to keep going," I said. He sighed and slumped his shoulders. "Yeah. Okay." and walked back and continued to clean up.
Let me tell you, it took forever. I think the whole process spanned about 45 minutes. But he did it! And he did it well! At one point, I walked past just as he was putting a book with the pages facing out. He corrected himself and turned the book around, "Whoops! The binding goes out," he reminded himself. Squeal! Um, my kid is adorable. (Anything that involves books or cleaning make me really happy.)
When he finally put the last book in, he excitedly announced, "I'M ALL DONE!"
This is where my another of favorite parenting techniques comes in: parent without judgment. The whole concept takes a while to explain and I'd heard quick explanations of it before, but it didn't make much sense to me. Essentially, the idea is to avoid words and phrases like, "Good job!" and "That's so cool!" when responding to children's attempts at doing things (such as mastering the monkey bars, getting themselves dressed, or in our case, cleaning up) and instead, to use non-judgmental language, repeating back to the child what he has accomplished in a positive manner, and letting him come to his own conclusions about what he has done.
This is one of my favorite ways of responding to my kids, because I feel it also makes me a more perceptive parent. It's easy to say, "That's great!" and harder to use descriptive language. By noting the accomplishments of my children, I listen better and pay more attention and appreciate them on a different level.
"Wow!" I said. "Goodness, that was hard. You got really tired, but you kept working, and you did it! That was a lot of books, and you put them all away! Your room is so clean, now!"
He stood and put his hands on his hips, superhero-style. "Yeah. I did a great job!"
Whoa. That makes it all worth it. *climbs off mountain top*