United States of Motherhood: On Spirited Children, Behavior, Consequences, and Birthdays Lost

Friday, January 18, 2013

On Spirited Children, Behavior, Consequences, and Birthdays Lost

We've been having some issues with my youngest, my 5th grader, both at home and at school.

Ultimatum after ultimatum, privilege after privilege was take away...there was nothing left. Slowly, over months with multiple chances, he lost everything. No iPhone, no laptop, no TV, no Xbox, no books in his room, no fun during holiday break, no play dates, no DS... Incrementally we used up all our currency. 

At school, he lost recess after recess.  He lost his right to use playground equipment for the rest of the year and was forced to sign a contract. Nothing mean spirited--just an inability to control his impulses and follow rules. 

When caught, he'd argue the merits of the rules or their uneven, sketchy enforcement. The last straw for him at school was going down the slide headfirst with three kindergartners on his back. He was written up three times and we got a call from the vice-principal that day.

In the classroom?  This kid in the gifted program, the one with test scores through the roof? 

At conference time, he had a report card full of uncompleted assignments we didn't even know about--two missing book reports and seven missing writing assignments.  

That list has increased, not decreased, in the last two months since. Even in his gifted program, the fun project became a task procrastinated.  Yelling and tears ensued.

At home?  Attention span is five minutes max unless it's something he loves. 

He absolutely admits doing what he wants to do now is worth any consequences we dole out. He admits that while he loves us, he does not respect our rules and does not wish to obey. He lacks the control to obey. 

Sometimes I wonder if he can really help himself.

So what to do? All our leverage was gone. We were at our wits' end. 

Nothing left, but to threaten to take away his birthday. 

 Nope, nothing to celebrate if he couldn't get in line, do his school work, clean his tornado of a room clean, and obey right??  

And did it work?  Nope!  

He continued to not do his work, not follow directions, and not obey.  

So there I was with a husband who insisted we follow through--that we hang tough with our threats.

We did leave it open for him to earn his birthday back next month...but it wasn't looking good.  

Finally, he did finish all the assignments, so I pleaded with CG that we celebrate after all--on time.  My husband, probably rightly so, insisted perhaps a partial part of the problem was my inconsistency and Li'l Man's realization that often I do not follow through with my threats stated in anger and exasperation.  

He insisted we stay the course.

So today was his birthday. I was so sad this morning as I wished him a happy birthday at breakfast--knowing there would be no recognition of his 11th year on this Earth. 

I hugged him.  I told him I loved him.  I just do not not how to handle this kid.  He is so different from his older siblings in most aspects, but then his school assignment issues and distracted lack of focus is an exaggerated mirror of his brother's.  His brother with ADD  which makes me wonder if ADD has struck twice?  Or is this just 11 year old pretty bad behavior? 

Back to his day,  I wished him happy birthday...and I knew there was a sadness and aching feeling in those big blue eyes of his.  There was no anticipation of fun to come.  He knew it and I knew it. 

I felt like the WORST mom in the world. 

Then outta nowhere, on her magical unicorn, came my friend and Li'l Man's newly minted Aunt Julie to the rescue.  As we chatted on the phone, I mentioned my dilemma.  She begged me to reconsider. She had some sad memories of her own to share of the repercussion of missed birthdays. Of hurt feelings decades later and emotion scars due to a missed birthday as punishment.   I held tight.  

So guess what arrived during dinner time tonight?  

Aunt Julie had a massive balloon and cupcakes delivered.  Li'l Man had his birthday.  No presents or party...but a small celebration that recognized that no matter his behavior, he was and is loved and he deserved being celebrated for being in our lives.

Was there still a legitimate consequence with no party or presents?  I would argue yes.  However do I think having a single candle on a cupcake sent a mixed single? No. Was singing happy birthday sending a mixed signal?  No.  And watching him drag his massive balloon around for over and hour and then carefully take it up stairs to bed as the only gift he received? I realized he was just so grateful for feeling special on this special day.

Good friends are hard to come by, but Julie?  You rock for seeing past my stubbornness and fear of causing marital discord and seeing this small, forming little man needed some attention.

Thank you Julie for braving my husband's annoyance and  recognizing, as a fellow mother of a spirited child, no matter his transgressions, my Li'l Man needed to feel that love.  His smile and lifted spirit was incredible.

Trying to stuff this square peg child into a round hole had me so caught up in the behavior and stubbornness we failed to see the boy who still needed and deserved a birthday.

This has spurred me once more to seek out new techniques because Julie is right, it's impossible to build a positive on a negative foundation.  We need to figure this out.  Clearly threats and removing privileges is not working.  Any thoughts or advice you have will be much appreciated.

On a personal note: Those cupcakes from Confetti's on Front street??  Too die for!!  Nom!  Yep, so much for my thirty day challenge.

I used a spoon and took a small bite of each flavor.  Caramel corn?  Nom?  Carrot cake?  Nom. Red velvet?  Come here lovah.  Good thing I did my crazy crossfit workout and then an extra 2500m row and 100 sit ups. I also had chugged antacids so a little wheat? On this special day?  Nope, not going to worry about it one bit.  So worth the cheat.

PPS Here is one project that our guy finally did finish and it turned out awesome.  I am so proud of him.  He came up with a great idea and I was happy he was able to share his humor with his class:

Happy Birthday, Li'l Man!!


Non-Stop Mom said...

When you figure out the answer, will you please let me know? I've been going through some of the same issues - some worse than others - in several of my kids. I just don't know what to do anymore. Nothing seems to work :/

Love this post. Definitely makes me feel like I'm not alone out here.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't get past that a 5th grader has an iphone and a laptop. Sorry.
Being in the education profession I see this a lot....it starts very very young with the rules and consequences.

Mominator said...

Such a sad and heart wrenching stuggle for your son. I'd highly recommend you have him tested for ADD/ADHD which is hereditary. There are tons of resources available to him in the school system once diagnosed. He is a classic case!

In the end, you did the right thing. Parents have a big job of always, regardless of behavior, making their children feel loved, valued and wanted.

I have been in your shoes and do hope you soon find some peace and help for your son.

Desiree said...

Absolutely get him tested for ADD/ADHD. But along with that, find out what really makes him tick. He seems to be very comfortable in front of the camera. Maybe he needs the extra attention that being on stage (or performing for the camera) brings?

I had some of the same problems he's having when I was growing up, and none of the negative punishments really worked (but they did make me feel resentful and unloved). My mother frequently said "I don't know what to do with you." All I really wanted was to be loved and accepted, as I am. Praise for good behavior let me know when I was doing something right. Treats for accomplishments gave me some motivation to get stuff done. But attention really made me feel loved.

So if that video is the sort of thing Lil man will consistently get done, then make sure he has that creative/performing outlet.

Lisa said...

I'm with everybody else. Get him tested. It sounds like he can't help his impulses. If that is the case, it doesn't matter what you dangle in front of him, you are just punishing him for what he cannot control.

Erin said...

Parenting With Love and Logic (http://www.amazon.com/Parenting-Love-Logic-Updated-Expanded/dp/1576839540/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1358626077&sr=1-1&keywords=parenting+with+love+and+logic). I also read through Taming The Spirited Child (http://www.amazon.com/Taming-Spirited-Child-Strategies-Challenging/dp/0743286898/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1358626043&sr=8-6&keywords=spirited+child) while struggling a bit with my youngest and her sensory & behavior issues.

You mentioned trying to stuff a round peg into a square hole and that reminded me of something Stimey said recently about one of her kids - that when you do that, you ruin both the peg AND the hole.

Parenting is no fun sometimes. I'm sorry you're in one of those not-fun periods.

mamikaze said...

Get a referral to a developmental pediatrician. There are several at Children's. My chips are on ADHD, but every case has its own nuances. I also recommend a series of sessions with a child psychologist. That has made a big difference for us. Fluffy is the same age and we have been working on this for several years now. Hit me up any time if you want to compare notes. XOXO

Mamacita (The REAL one) said...

My first suggestion: Ask his teachers to assign him two seats. If he must move, wiggle, stretch, etc, he will then have a legitimate place to go - straight to his other seat. Hijinks along the path are not allowed, of course, but these kids genuinely need to move, so why not give them a place to go?

Next suggestion: Limit the sugar. We do this naturally for tiny children, but some people are unable to tolerate sugars well into adulthood. Remember that fruits are full of sugars, too. Don't forbid it, but limit it. Sugar can, in some people - not all, of course, but some - cause a kid to lose self-control and go "bonkers." (not the bad kind, just the annoying and socially self-destructive kind)

Finally (not really but I'm hijacking your post as it is) Since his personal choices trump any and all consequences, have you ever asked him exactly what it is that he wants to do with himself? Our most passionate artists have trouble with other people's rules, and while all of us must conform to some extent, conformity isn't in the makeup of a quirky, artistic, brilliant, out-of-the-box person of any age.

Lastly: Your kid is really, really cool. Brilliant, snarky, kind, and cool. I'm so glad you can see that, lurking away behind the rebellious git he's pretending to be while he figures himself out, too.

Birthday acknowledgment but no party or gifts? Excellent response!

Lunasea said...

Honestly, it sounds to me like you have a gifted/ADHD kid on your hands. I think you should definitely have him tested - if you've been through it before with your oldest, you probably are aware of the limitations of ADHD assessment, but if he's struggling with the same impulse control stuff, it's going to be really hard to just use consequences to modify his behavior.

Anonymous said...

I don't really think that being consistent with consequences makes you a bad parent as you said on Twitter. We have issues with our daughter, mind you not ever at school, but there's something to be said for staying the course, if the course is something that you've decided you're staying.
Losing a birthday party is crappy. It's no fun. But it doesn't mean that you don't love him or that he's not worth celebrating.
The thing, at least for me, is that people often become frustrated with their children and throw around empty threats, which is worse than not threatening at all. But maybe, just maybe, if the tactics that you've employed haven't been working, you may consider trying something different. Like the comment above says, with some children these punishments serve only to create resentment and destroy self confidence. An outlet is a great thing. Positive reinforcement is a great thing. And if you feel that consequences are the only way that you can get through to him- YES you need to be consistent. Not let your guilt get to you at the last minute. Consider whether or not the crime fits the punishment, and if it does, then stick to your word.
And when you start to feel that guilty feeling- ask yourself whether your son lets his guilt stop him from making poor choices.

Anonymous said...

Why is everyone always so quick to jump on, "It's ADHD/ADD".
Try changing his diet before you seek a medical diagnosis.

Amber, theAmberShow said...

Ten, twenty, thirty years from now, the discipline of him totally loosing his birthday will likely have zero effect on who he is as a person.

The scar of not having your eleventh birthday acknowledged AT ALL would probably still sting years later. It certainly would for me.

Anonymous said...

11-years-old with an iPhone? There's a hint right there. I don't believe ADD is something that can be used as an excuse for a child who can't be controlled unless he has an extreme medical condition. ADD, in so many cases, comes from parents who replace attention with electronics and spend far too much time talking about themselves online and taking photos of their food to post on Instagram.

He looks like a happy 11-year-old who gets out of control because he knows he can get away with it. In the end, he's a heck of a lot smarter than you!

Lisa said...

You are always worth the click. Your love and honesty inspire me.

josetteplank.com said...

I agree. Start with a thorough physical and a nutritionist. I have a kiddo like that. She needs to exercise 2-4 hours a day to be able to settle down. She works out hard for at least an hour before school every day, waking at 5:30 AM. Only then can she sit through classes. I'd also try sports that really challenge physically and mentally with an edge of danger - martial arts, ice skating, skate boarding, rock climbing - as well as improv theater classes.

And yes, consistency no matter what. And very limited use of electronic media. Some kids have a sort of "rebound" effect of bad behavior when they don't have the "doping" effect of dealing with a screen.

Anonymous said...

Your post will help a lot of parents. Thank you! I can tell you are a good mom and love your kids. They sometimes don't feel it when we offer conditional love through behavior modification types of discipline. I've been there. As a teacher I thought I was the best disciplinarian since I am an expert at managing a class but I learned that my own children need to feel unconditional love and that means less behavior modification techniques and more requests. The book Parenting with Love and Logic is helpful but also the book Raising your spirited child. You are a good mom, hang in there!

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