Monday, January 19, 2015

Parenting & Disciplining Younger Siblings: My Secret Mistake

I'm owning up to a parenting mistake that will probably sound pretty obvious when simply stated, but was made so naturally it took me a while to notice it.

I also think it's extremely common and predictable - what with the stereotype of parents being hardest on their first borns and all, but I'm still here to question myself and these practices, anyway.

I've been way too easy on my second and third born children.

It wasn't intentional, and I chalk it up to some sort of human programming. I'm trying to look and nail down exactly what causes this, but it's almost like looking out of the corner of your eye for something that's not really there. I'm struggling to see why we do this - humans, parents. It goes hand in hand with the phenomenon that parents experience as their babies age - your perception of "baby" grows along with them. Until you have another one, you still think your 3 year old is tiny and squishy and innocent. It's that evolution of our perception that causes this, I'm sure of it.

I first noticed this with the kids' eating habits. We hit a point when we were really sick of the complaining and whining and the "how much more do I have to eat to get dessert" crap at the dinner table, so we created some guidelines to limit the struggle. Our dinner rule is: You have to try at least 1 bite of everything on your plate, and you have to finish 1 thing. They get to decide which 1 thing they finish (even if it's the carby starch). This system gets them trying different things with the hope that repeated exposure changes their tastes to them, gets at least a tiny bit of nourishment in their systems, shows them that they need to eat a decent amount of actual food before they can be rewarded with treats, and minimizes the questions they need to ask about what they're required to do.

It works really well with Luke. He's a regimented rule-follower - give that boy some guidelines, and he'll go to town. Henry on the other hand? Nope. Might as well have given him the instructions in Chinese. He doesn't. care. 

So Luke would follow the rules and earn dessert, and Henry wouldn't follow them but....he'd still get dessert. What? I know. The thing is, we were worried about creating the middle child scenario (ya know, where he feels less loved between his valued older sibling and his adorable younger sibling). We were under the impression that he simply couldn't understand the rules at his age, and would instead only see the transaction where we handed his older brother a cookie and then told him no. Kids can pick up on situations and inequalities before language, so I was more concerned with his mental well-being. But the fact is, we let it go on for too long.

Henry is a quiet-type. He doesn't let on how much he knows. Luke focused on language and discussion during his first few years, and during the phase when we should have all been frustrated about not being able to understand our toddler, we knew exactly what he wanted, needed, and was feeling. He was ahead of the curve in being able to communicate, and Henry had no interest in that. He was (and is) more of a doer....and guess who dictates what he does? Henry James.

Really, he was just crafty at working us. It was apparent even with his baby milestones. For example: Luke went through about 4 stages of mobility before he perfected getting around at around 8.5 months old (rolling, scooting, army crawling, and finally crawling). Henry showed no signs of being mobile, and a few days after he turned 7 months, he took off crawling like he'd been doing it forever. He did the same thing with pulling himself up, climbing, and walking. He just.......did things, and he didn't explore them or talk about them first (ya know, once he could talk). So we were always behind on understanding that he was capable of more. And to Henry's credit? Luke was a conversationalist by 15 months old, but Henry knew all of his ABC's and numbers to 20 - and not just memorizing how they are said, also being able to recognize their symbols - by 2. Even now, he can spell ALL of our names (Mommy, Daddy, Lukas, Henry and Jakob). Lukas could only do that last year (he just turned 6).

Luke likes to be the center of attention - he wants people to know what he's capable of. Henry likes to sit back and slowly acquire skills while flying under the radar, trying to go unnoticed until he can't anymore. It makes me worried for his adolescent years (yikes!), but the point for right now is - we constantly make the mistake that he can't understand his environment as well as Luke can, or did at his age.

We cut him off of the "free dessert" pass, and it was ugly at first. He didn't accept explanations or bargaining - he's Henry James and he didn't want to do it, darn it! But we eventually got through to him, and with age he was able to understand it better, too.

You would think that we would have learned from our mistakes between #2 and #3, but no. We did sort of refine our parenting in many forms - the balance between attachment and instilling independence was more more equal this time around, and I didn't sweat a thing through Jake's first year. But now that he's a busy (I mean, BUSY) toddler, this whole relaxed discipline habit is rearing its ugly head again.

Thankfully, we don't struggle in the food department. Jake is an excellent eater and will eat almost anything you put in front of him (unlike Henry, who never touched baby food, and had a diet of 5 items for his entire second year). He is, in turn, THE messiest eater we've ever had (seriously, I sweep 2-3 times a day, and his highchair should really be burned at this point). But food isn't the point here.

He gets into EVERYTHING. Absolutely everything. And I wholeheartedly want to encourage curiosity, adventure, creativity and autonomy in my kids, so I generally let them run wild (safely) with what they get into. This drives Matt nuts a lot of times, but I kinda feel long as he's seated, who cares if he's sorting a mountain of unsharpened pencils (yeah, we have about 400 pencils in our house)?  Who cares if he rolls around in the newspaper and makes it rain coupons? So what if he's walking around the house with every single measuring cup and spoon we own? He's exploring! I want him to do that stuff.

Except when he crosses the line. And....newsflash, we aren't doing enough when he does.

Just last week, he picked up a nasty habit. We have one of those free-standing baby pen things opened up and wrapped around our TV stand to keep him away from all of our electronics and chords. Well, he figured out how to get inside it. I would let him go back there and just stand around and see what's up - again, I'm kosher with exploring. But when he gets back there, he turns the Xbox on and off, rapid fire. That can't be good. He pulls the card out of the satellite receiver. He turns the volume on the sound-bar all the way up. He's going to break something (maybe our ear drums!) So we spent a good three days picking him up and walking him away from his wrong-doing about 50 times a day. Mixed with stern "No No"'s and "Don't go back there!"'s. This was a ridiculously insane repeated process, until it dawned on me - he needs to be further removed from this situation.

I realize that some are against "time outs", but if done age appropriately, I think it can be better than many other alternatives. So after a particularly frustrating round of fighting against his constant attempts behind the gate, I tried it with him. He was confused and angry, but when just over a minute went by, I released him...and he finally started listening to me about not going behind the gate when I said no. He'd still run off and throw a little fit about it, but he started to listen when he knew he'd get caught. Getting him to listen even when he won't get caught is another can of worms, but one step a time, right?

Clearly, he can understand a least a little bit of gentle discipline, even though it's hard to comprehend because he's so much younger and smaller than his brothers.

Looking back at Luke's first two years, I had a totally different set of standards for what I expected him to know and rules I expected him to could follow. It's so interesting to me that I've gotten so far from that point. Some of it is for the best - I mean, we had that typical first born child, "my offspring is a genius!" attitude about everything (maybe not as bad as some, but it was there). Sorry to anyone who experienced our wrath back then - we've since learned!

Yet, expecting more of him produced results.

Example: this video was taken when he was 12 months old.

from Jenn Rych on Vimeo.

Could you hear in my voice how I expected him to get the right answer? How I just knew he was capable? I never would have expected Henry or Jake to do this at 12 months. Jake is almost 15 months, and I still wouldn't expect him to be able to do this. Is that ability speaking? Or my own perception of his capabilities? Why does this happen?

My first thought is to say that it's partially out of necessity. When you have more than one kid, daily life is a struggle to focus attention and take care of needs. When there are three kids of varying ages, finding the time to sit for hours and talk about pictures in a book is hard to come by. You know the other day, I counted out how many trips of the car it takes me to get my two older kids to and from school and sports - just school and sports - and came up with 20. TWENTY! That doesn't count grocery shopping, errands, doctors appointments, or any of my personal plans or obligations including volunteer work at school and PTA obligations. That means there's likely 20-30 out-of-the-house interruptions in our weekdays, and those moments mess with sleeping schedules and meeting basic needs. Once we iron those out (and no day is exactly the same at our house, our schedule changes day-to-day and week-to-week), I have some time to spend with my kids, but do I want to spend it studying? Practicing words and pictures and skills? I'll be honest - nope. My free time with my kids is focused on much simpler things. Love, laughter, play, smiles, tickles, hugs and kisses, running around, and being creative and imaginative.

Those things are SO much more important to me than their ability to correctly identify pictures or count to 100 or being able to read a book on their own halfway through Kindergarten. My kids are only kids for a little while, and that's not what we have time for in the time we're given.

But when it was just Luke? Sure. Why not? We had no where to where to go, unless we wanted to. It was just us. We could play freely and still have time to review facts and practice skills. Because, why not? It was just me and my Luke and maybe 0-5 out-of-the-house interruptions a week. I had time to expect more of him.

Regardless of birth order or age, I've consistently expected certain things of my kids. Politeness, kindness, apologies, and appreciation (though they are all works in progress). And at the end of the day, if my kids have those few things down, I will feel successful as a Mom. The rest doesn't really matter to me.

Yet, I have to remember that just because my little guys are smaller - just because they don't talk as much, haven't experienced as much, and aren't as clear and understandable as their oldest brother - doesn't mean they can't grasp the concepts they really need to learn. I need to give them more credit!

Did you find yourself thinking this way with your later-born kids without even realizing it? Crazy, right? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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