It's been so helpful for me to reflect on the family routines that we are working to get more shipshape: screen time, chores, and, today I'm chatting about behavior. Your comments and suggestions have been so helpful and encouraging – thank you!
For each of these aspects of family life I caught myself thinking, "How did we get here?" as the new year started. It seemed that all of a sudden I didn't love things that were happening in screen time, chores, and behavior in our family. So Chris and I had good conversations about how to address each of these things and started making changes this past month. Across the board I'm feeling a lot better about our parenting and family routines than when January started.
To wrap up this mini-series, let's chat about behavior...
The general behavior landscape
Although this is a post about getting our kids' behavior more shipshape, throughout the process I keep reminding myself that overwhelmingly my kids are so well behaved. Each of them gets glowing reports from teachers and the parents of friends whose homes they visit. So while we are working to tamp down some disrespectful tones and sibling bickering I do recognize that fortunately we are working from a foundation of great behavior. I do not take this for granted!
I also know that kids can exhibit their most out of sorts behavior at home because that's where they feel safe and loved unconditionally and that kids shouldn't be on their best behavior 24/7. They are figuring out boundaries, speaking up for what they want, and are entitled to their big, big feelings. I keep all of this in mind when dealing with behavior challenges.
In our home I would say our approach to behavior is firm but loving. We try to communicate clearly and often about our expectations for behavior and why we have those expectations. We also tell our kids that they are entitled to all of their feelings be it sadness, rage, annoyance, what have you, but that taking out negative feelings on others is not okay. We're trying to instill the value of respect which translates to speaking to each other respectfully (which goes both ways for kids and parents), respecting whatever space/environment we are in, and addressing conflicts constructively. Of course kids, inevitably don't always do these things we instill these values by guiding and correct over and over again.
In our home we don't yell and I think Chris and I show pretty incredible patience. Patience comes easier to me although of course is still very hard at times, and Chris especially has deepened his patience over the years. I think some of that patience comes with parenting experience. When you're newer at it, every sibling squabble feels like an emergency and can push your buttons. Now we know the tenor of an everyday spat the boys can work out themselves versus when and how we need to mediate. And we can do so (mostly) calmly, even if our buttons are still being pushed! But Chris and I both lose our cool sometimes and snap or use harsher tones than we would have liked. We are really good about talking with the kids later and apologizing if this happens. I feel proud that we have that kind of dialogue and that the kids see that adults can mess up too.
What I keep in mind about managing challenging kid behavior is that we are modeling for our kids how to handle big emotions and conflict as adults and future parents. Although we're the adults and they're the kids we don't want our words or actions to disempower or belittle them. Sometimes when I am so out of patience in a challenging situation with the kids I can draw on more patience by asking, "How do I want them to parent their own kids one day?"
The "how did we get here?" situation
Behavior feels trickier to write about because it's so situational. When my kids are at school and the house is quiet I think, "Our kids are so awesome and overall well-behaved!" But then later that same evening suddenly there's been hitting and very disrespectful attitudes and they seem out of control. I will definitely find myself thinking, "Wait! How did we get here?!" But hopefully I can give a good overview by touching on a few areas of behavior where I feel our kids (and our oversight) had strayed a bit far from the path.
The boys have been having friction lately in a couple of ways. One, they might be wrestle-playing and one of them in particular will suddenly be done and in response to the other will yell, "Stop!" in a harsh tone. This hurts the other one's feelings (rightfully so) and can often trigger a bigger outburst. On the other hand, the one who no longer wants to wrestle might have asked his brother to stop before that but his words were not honored. This whole situation is a well worn path in our house and one we would very much like to alter.
One brother has sometimes been using a biting tone to tell the other brother that he doesn't want to do whatever that brother suggested. This hurts feelings and sometimes causes bigger conflict.
And then of course Maeve brings the toddler Tazmanian devil energy to many situations. She's happy to play with a brother one minute and then wants nothing to do with him the next, which can really upset the dejected brother (understandably!). Or she comes by and just grabs toast off one of the boys' plates and starts eating it. These situations are trickier to manage, because toddler!, but it did seem like we should be addressing them directly instead of just trying to move everyone on.
Disrespectful tones and attitudes
How many ways can a kid show a disrespectful tone? Let me count the ways! This is a behavior challenge that has felt persistent and we are giving it more attention lately.
Attitude and disrespect can come up in lots of ways, like with siblings mentioned above, and another situations is around daily chores, especially showers! Even though showers have been a near daily expectation for, oh, at least six years, we can still find ourselves in arguments about whether or not a shower is needed. We do allow every other day showers sometimes in the winter or just a rinse off shower (soap but no shampoo). But our boys are also at an age where they can get pretty smelly so when they need a shower I don't want to argue! Additionally, we've found that when we have more infrequent showers that they actually fight us even more on showers because they claim they took one just yesterday...even if yesterday was two days or more ago. Anyway! I am so so tired of arguing about showers and the death stares I have received over them so we definitely want to make improvement here.
There's a similar theme for cooperatively taking care of a random task around the house that we ask the boys to do. We don't ask the kids to contribute more than a very reasonable share to household tasks and so when we ask one of them to take out the garbage or help tidy a room we expect a "Sure!" or "Can I do it when I finish this?" Not the "Mom! Why do I have to do that?" which was more common.
Unpleasant attitudes for family activities and outings
One challenging behavior for our kids is having good attitudes about family activities and outings. We have one kiddo in particular who can be pretty obstinate and resistant and he will let you know. As I mentioned before, it's okay with me if a kid isn't in a happy mood. We're all entitled to be in bad moods, and even to blow off some steam with a curt tone sometimes. Where we want to draw the line is using disrespectful tones with any regularity as well as outright refusal to go somewhere. The kids get ample free time to do as they please and be with friends so I feel confident we are being very reasonable here.
For example, if we're going somewhere as a family and that's not really what you want to do (and sometimes it feels like anything we suggest is not what a particular kid wants to do), I'm sorry you feel that way and I know it's not fun to do something you don't want to do. You can have a pouty face and not feel like chatting in the car. But you can't sit on the couch and refuse to go. Honestly sometimes you would think we are suggesting we all go shovel gravel for an hour!
As an example, one recent Saturday morning I told the kids I wanted to take them to a new coffee shop where I'd buy them each a pastry treat. They refused to go!! Well, the boys did and then of course Maeve followed suit. If this attitude comes up with fun things we can suggest you might imagine what the attitude is like if we need to bring everyone along for a more mundane outing like errands, etc.
One reason bad attitudes bother me so much is that I try to make things as enjoyable as possible. (See the coffee shop and pastry example!) If we planned a family outing it is usually with their enjoyment in mind. Also, my kids have not seemed to learned the secret that if they go along cooperatively we are so much more likely to say yes to a treat along the way or just generally be in a more agreeable mood for something they want. They actually saw this in action the other day when everyone was pleasant on our way to play frisbee golf. When they randomly asked to stop for ice cream along they way it was McFlurries for everyone! Make a mental note, kids!
Getting behavior shipshape
Chris had a great observation that all of the behavior flare ups are just part of the fabric of our days, not emergencies. This is one perspective that has helped us to get less flustered with sibling squabbles, disrespect, and grumbling. I don't expect our kids to have perfect behavior all the time so really our reality is just meeting my expectations.
Another perspective shift we've made is to hold firmer boundaries. There are a couple of reasons we had let boundaries around attitudes and behavior become more lax. One is that I do want my kids to feel empowered to express their displeasure about things. Sometimes they should even get the last word. But perhaps we'd become lax to the point that they were feeling a bit too empowered to voice their displeasure.
Another reason for some squishy boundaries is that we've had a persistent situation in which one kid's bad mood can erupt into a much bigger conflict. We've been figuring out where the line is on those situations between allowing him more space for his emotions and behavior versus firmer boundaries. We had been going with allowing more space and calmly ignoring some behaviors. But lately we've found that more firm boundaries seem to be more effective.
To address all of the undesirable behavior, a change we've made is to talk a lot about current behavior challenges, expectations, and tools everyone we can use. In a way we are trying to normalize that this stuff is going on; not to be accepting of the behavior, but to get it in the open and let everyone know what's acceptable and what's not, to be clear about how to handle situations, and what will happen if behavior isn't appropriate. Chris came up with the phrase, "We are not disruptive or disrespectful, and we don't harm each other or the house." It's straight-forward and seems to cover all situations!
In calm moments we say things like, "Hey, we are noticing these kinds of situations come up. Using disrespectful or mean words and tones are not okay. In our family we are not disruptive, not disrespectful, and we don't harm each other or the house. If we see this happening you'll get a warning. If it keeps happening there will be a consequence." For some situations, like unpleasant attitudes for family outings, sharing our point of view that we are trying to have fun as a family and feel really bummed that one person is making it gloomy for everyone seems to get the point across.
With the boys we've also talked about specific tools they can use in a disagreement. These include kindly but clearly asking someone to stop, respecting someone's request to stop, and coming to get mom and dad right away if words are not working. We're also talking about saying "no" to your brother's suggestion in a kind way.
When we do find ourselves with a surly tone before a family library outing (like we did on Tuesday) or a sibling squabble (like we did yesterday), it feels what we say is just continuing an ongoing dialogue. We know they have heard us state expectations, what tools they can use, and what the consequences might be. That familiarity seems to be helping, plus Chris and I feel very clear on what the boundaries and expectations are which also helps us be consistent.
We honestly don't issue consequences very often and try to set our expectations such that natural consequences result from undesirable behavior (i.e. no starting screens until you help with family chores). But we have felt that we need to be more strict on disrespect from the boys and so more recently told them that being disrespectful will earn a warning and then a loss of 30 minutes of screen time if it continues.We try not to assign any consequences while we're correcting a behavior but instead expect to talk to the kiddo about it later when everyone is calm and, if warranted, give a consequence at that time. A consequence could be a loss of some screen time and sometimes a verbal or written apology is expected.
Finally, a quick note about toddler behavior which is a whole separate beast! We were finding ourselves in a pattern in which Maeve was screaming and crying often about having things her specific way (often a very unreasonable or impossible specific way). Our toolbox of responses includes trying to find a compromise, validating her feelings, distraction, and sometimes holding a firm line. But we found we needed a more firm response in some situations.
What we've found to be effective is that if she is having a meltdown and nothing in our toolbox is working then one of us will take her to her room and sit in there with her. She is not happy about it but in those situations the tantrum train has left the station and there is nothing to do but let it run its course. I will try remind her of things that help her feel better: having a snack, holding a stuff animal, and reading a book. I let her know that we can't leave her room until we have a calm down plan. After a while she always runs out of steam and then wants to do her calm down plan. Often the turning point will be where her crying turns from rage to sadness and she'll come for a hug and wail, "I'm having a hard day!" And then we know she's ready to be comforted.
The more we've done this the more confident I've felt in the approach. I really like doing this kind of "time in" where we are with her. Especially for her personality being separated from us would just upset her more and not be productive. Even amidst her screaming and crying I can stay calm knowing that I'm showing her I love her but that being disruptive out in the house is not okay. Also, grabbing my Loop earplugs on the way helps!
That feels like a good overview of where we are with behavior and how we're getting things shipshape. It has been so helpful for me to think about each of these parenting challenges and organize my thoughts to write about them. If you didn't read my posts on screen time and chores you might enjoy those as well. Thank you for listening, empathizing, and for your ideas.
I'd love to hear what's challenging in your house around behavior and what approaches work for you and your kids, if you'd like to share!