Perspective

Over the years, I have spent a fair amount of time re-washing dishes that my kids supposedly washed. (Because I am a Neanderthal, and mean, we do not have a dishwasher.) This can—and does—lead me to useful thoughts such as, “Boy, when my kids do the dishes, they don’t do a very good job.”

Most of the time, when I have such thoughts, my mind focuses on the last part, and I feel aggravated. The next meal together would then usually include me making such witty comments as, “The whole point of cleaning dishes is to get them clean,” followed by step-by-step instructions. I’m sure the kids were taking careful notes.

However, on the rare occasions that I am in “wise mind” mode, I remember that the first part of the sentence is pretty important, also: “When my kids do the dishes …”

From about our second week together until the day we dropped Daveon off at college, my kids had two dish nights per week. I took the other two, and on the seventh day we usually got a pizza, ate out, or otherwise slummed it. (Hey, it worked for God.) On your dish night, you set and cleared the table as well as washed the dishes and soaked the pots and pans. My kids did this for two nights a week each, for years, without ever complaining … once.

Other things they have consistently done/do:

  • Clean their rooms weekly.*
  • Do their own laundry.
  • Strip their beds, wash the sheets, and put it all back together. In fact, during his bedwetting years (roughly age 5-8), Mark would strip the soiled sheets, spray and wipe the mattress cover, and put new sheets on—all by himself. That’s kind of impressive, now that I think about it.
  • Feed the rabbits and clean their litter box and cage.**
  • Empty the trash, recycling, and compost bins on trash night, and spray and wipe them out.
  • Cook dinner for the family once a month each, from start to finish.***

* As the boys have gotten older, the definitions of both “clean” and “weekly” have become subject to increasingly loose interpretation.
** As of February, we are down to one rabbit. But you get the idea.
*** I buy the groceries. I’m not
that mean.

All of which leads to the big lesson learned: It’s easy to lose perspective—to think in terms of, “Hey, when you did your 17 chores this week, you left a sock on the floor!”

Not that I am speaking from experience.

Perspective challenges come in all shapes and sizes. While in high school, Daveon came home one day from cross-country practice with a backpack he had found on the sidewalk near BART. It contained a laptop and an iPad. He tried to see if it belonged to anyone near where he found it, but when no one claimed it, he brought it home to see if we could identify the owner. We could, and did, and the guy got it back the next day. Later that night when Daveon was supposedly doing his homework, I found out he spent most of that hour or so texting. Right away my mind went to, “You said you were doing your homework, but it turns out you were texting”—as if this were some violation of the sacred family trust, and never minding the fact that a kid who could have easily hidden the cool gadgets he found in his room, undetected by dad, did the right thing and presented them front and center as soon as he walked in the door.

I am usually better at perspective when it applies to how other people treat my kids. Pretty much always, but during elementary school especially, my kids are/were pretty chatty with their friends in class. This, believe it or not, annoyed their teachers, and I have had more “Daveon/Mark talks a lot in class” conversations than I care to remember. As part of those conversations, I always felt obligated to communicate this message: “These boys were born drug-exposed, had somewhere between four and seven homes by the time I got them, and have never known either of their biological parents. While I understand—and will address—the annoyance their talking causes, quite honestly, if the worst thing anyone can say about either kid is that he is chatty in class, I think we’re doing pretty good.”

And I tell the boys the same.

Next: Fit

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Contracts

Shameless plug: The awesome blog The Handsome Father has graciously invited me to post a column as a guest blogger. You can read the 10 at 10: Lessons Learned entry on their site.

Meanwhile, continuing with the theme of “good ideas and bad ones” …

A few  months ago, a parent friend told me that she was feeling really bad. Her kid’s behavior on a certain issue was not improving, to the point where she finally, reluctantly, resorted to having the kid sign a behavior contract. She felt quite guilty about this—to her, a contract seemed so legalistic and formal that it didn’t really belong in a family situation.

I’m glad my kids weren’t in the room when she told me this. They would have fallen out of their chairs laughing. If contracts make a family too legalistic, we should have set up a shingle outside our door declaring ourselves “Sadusky, Sadusky, and Sadusky, Esq.” pretty much from day one.

No joke. For as long as I can remember, the kids and I have  set up contracts for just about everything:

  • Behavior in general (“I agree to clean my room once per week.” “I agree not to hide the gummy bear vitamins by dropping them behind the stove.”)
  • Behavior when they are together (“We agree that when we can’t agree about what to watch on TV, we will try these things to resolve the problem. ‘Bash my brother on the head with the remote’ is not one of the options.”)
  • Behavior when they are apart (“We agree that when one of us is not home, the other one will not go in that person’s room to look through his journal, scribble on his notebook, or take his socks.”)

Not to mention, the most common contract between kids and parents in the 21st century: The one regulating cell phone use and texting. We have gone through many versions of these—at one point, it seemed like one kid or another was signing a new contract every six months. For as well-behaved as my kids are in general, with regard to their phones, they always seem to find new and creative ways to cross the line that I hadn’t yet thought of when I came up with the contract terms.—the way hackers are always one step ahead of anti-malware solutions.

And that’s before we get to the online porn …

The second key part to any contract is the consequence: “I agree that if I [do/don’t do the behavior mentioned in the contract], I will give Daddy a quarter/give up my phone for a week/write 10 nice things I can do for my brother—and then do them.”

Maybe I’ve just been lucky—OK, I know I have—but I have found contracts to be ridiculously effective for managing behaviors. Because the kids need to read the contract aloud to me, they know exactly what they are (literally) signing up for. They always have the opportunity to request changes before signing—maybe a different consequence, or slightly different terms—and we negotiate something we are both comfortable with. The best part is, if and when they break a rule, all one needs to do is to pull out the contract and remind them what it says—no muss, no fuss.

This might be stretching a point, but I think it’s possible that contracts have even more value when you are getting kids who are at least partway up the path to the age of reason (assuming we still consider that age to be somewhere between 8 and 13, and not when reason really kicks in closer to 35). Contracts seem to strike a good balance between recognizing that your kid is already a formed person whom you respect enough to give some say in how you and they manage behaviors, and letting the kid know that you are setting up clear boundaries and limits (i.e., structure, i.e., safety, stability, home).

I tell my kids that in 10 or 20 years or so, they can come back and tell me all the things they’re mad about from our time together. I’ll keep you posted whether contracts make the list, but I won’t be at all surprised if they don’t.

Next: Perspective

Structure

The next group of posts fall under the category “good ideas and bad ones”—parenting approaches and strategies I have tried over the years, some more successful than others. Hopefully these entries will give new and prospective parents (and, what the heck, maybe even some veteran ones) a little food for thought.

Today we look at one of my overriding philosophies toward … well, pretty much everything, to be honest: structure.

In our fost-adopt training at AASK, we learned about the four kinds of parenting approaches:

  • High love/low discipline—This results i spoiled kids who won’t listen to you after about age 7.
  • Low love/high discipline—This results in kids who will do whatever you tell them, but can’t wait to leave home.
  • Low love/low discipline—This gives you the the worst result: Kids who feel like they are on their own, every man for himself.
  • High love/high discipline—The ultimate.

Some day, when my kids have their own blogs, they can say how we did on the love side. My own sense is that most days here, especially early on, were something of a love fest, with lots of physical affection. Reading nights on the bed usually turned into wrestling matches, and I was famous at Ascend for, when I dropped the kids off in the morning, picking each one up, lifting him to my eye level, and giving him a big smooch on the lips. (Setting aside the gay thing, as an Italian, I teach my kids that this is expected behavior between men.)

And as for the part of love that says, “Hey, somebody is really paying attention to ME!” … Being 1-on-2, I’m sure what often came across was “Hey, somebody is really paying attention to [this combined unit known as US KIDS!]” But I hope I managed to differentiate, at least once in a while. I guess we’ll find out in those future blogs.

On the flip side, I can say with confidence that I was pretty good about setting up discipline, or what I would call structure: clear expectations, roles, and responsibilities, lots of consistency around rewards, consequences, and schedule. Apparently this comes naturally to me: When I was an assistant director at the special ed high school, one of my tasks was to create the master schedule for the roughly 20 students, coordinating their individual and group classes, counseling sessions, and other activities so that everyone got what they needed based on their individual plans. It was a big puzzle, and over a two-year span my colleague Dominique and I managed to get everyone into their slots without even one straggler.

When I got my kids I made a conscious decision to make myself central in their lives, to a point that others might consider (and that, in retrospect, maybe was) excessive. Want something to eat? Ask. Watch TV? Same. Going outside? Let me know. Have a lot of homework and need to skip chores? Let’s talk. And so on, and so on.

My reasoning was twofold: 1) They had never had a parent who was a “center,” so I felt like we had a lot of catching up to do. And 2) I wanted to try to instill the belief—especially in Daveon—that it’s possible to get what you want by going through the person who can provide it to you. You don’t have to figure out everything on your own (he did), you can trust adults (he didn’t), and they won’t let you down (they had). So rather than him raiding the fridge on a whim, or walking up to someone he had just met and fiddling around with their hair, we spent a lot of time—a lot—on, “Ask. If you want something, or want to touch someone, just ask. You can trust that the answer will be yes, or at least, we’ll work something out.” This message didn’t always sink in—often, for example, when told to close the fridge door and ask for something to eat, Daveon just decided he wasn’t hungry and left the kitchen. But I felt that it was important to reinforce the message whenever possible: You can get what you want, and the people around you will provide it. And of all those people, the main provider is me.

As part of our discipline/structure puzzle, we had charts. Lots and lots of charts. Schedule charts, chore charts, reward charts, consequence charts. Everything broken down into the most understandable, clearly communicated, chunk possible. Our walls were an art gallery of chart. The deal with the charts was, anything that went on them was negotiable—we could talk about appropriate rewards and consequences, or how you want to schedule your day (up to a point), or who feeds which pet when, etc. etc. But in the end, if it was on the chart, it was law—at least until someone asked if we could make more changes.

The charts have been history for a while now, although they clearly served their purpose. I recently had to tell Mark that at this point (he’s 17) I really don’t need to know if he wants a snack or is going to watch TV. I guess I did the structure thing a little too well.

Next: Contracts

Caught

The final piece to complete the portrait of my kids, before we move on to lessons learned and magical moments …

This is another “how my kids are alike” piece, but it’s a little different from the previous two. Normally I would say, “My kids are really good at getting caught, and that’s [just like/completely different from] me.”

But in this case, the comparison is irrelevant. Growing up, my sisters and I were neither good nor bad at getting caught. This was directly tied to the fact that we almost never did anything wrong (seriously). This, in turn, was directly tied to the fact that my parents each chose highly cutting-edge, progressive, forward-thinking discipline methods: One went with what is known in child development circles as “rage,” while the other employed what the literature refers to as “guilt.” Having been lucky enough to produce highly sensitive offspring, my parents ended up with some really, really well-behaved (terrified, on-edge) kids.

Believe it or not, I do not recommend this as a child-rearing approach.

Meanwhile, back to my kids. As I say, they share an extraordinary capability for getting caught when they “mess up” in some way. Depending on how you look at it, this has made my life substantially easier, or harder, than if they were a little smoother as criminals:

  • Easier, because I really don’t have to do much detective work to find out when they did something screwy.
  • Harder, because I end up feeling obligated to address many situations that I would have happily ignored—if only I didn’t know about them.

One day my then-neighbor Ted saw me outside, and said, “You know, Mark has been throwing food out his bedroom window.” Mark’s bedroom is on the back left corner of the house, and Ted and his family lived to our right, with no view to that far corner. So I was, understandably, curious how Ted could have possibly known about Mark’s shenanigans. It turns out that the neighbor behind us—who has a clear view of Mark’s window—saw Mark tossing cucumber slices out the window into his (the neighbor’s) yard. Said neighbor—I don’t know his name—just happened to be home, and happened to be out in the yard, at the time. Because Mark is black, and Ted is black, said neighbor put incorrectly put 2 and 2 together, came around the corner, went to Ted, and complained to him about the cucumber dump. Ted, rightfully remembering that his own teenage son a) didn’t have a window that opened onto said neighbor’s yard and b) didn’t eat cucumbers, put 2 and 2 together. And promptly came and told me.

So only because my back neighbor was in the yard while the crime was being committed and knew Ted and found Ted at home when he came over, and only because Ted knew us and made the connection that the guy was referring to one of my kids … did Mark get found out. (Now that we are safely years past the incident, I feel that I can point out that Mark had simply flushed the offending cukes down the toilet, none of this would have happened. Also, I might as well thrown in that he asked me to buy cucumbers for him. Just to make the whole episode completely ridiculous.)

But that’s nothing compared to his brother’s bad luck. One weekend Mark and I were out of town for a skating event (whenever Mark and I are out of town, you can pretty safely assume it’s for a skating event). We left early on a Friday, when Daveon was still asleep. The plan was for Daveon to get up whenever, call his Uncle Ray (who was working at home), and then head over to Cedric and Ray’s apartment for the remainder of the day and an overnight. What he did instead was, get up almost as soon as Mark and I were out the door around 6 am, chat with friends online, ride around on BART, and then skateboard home from North Berkeley. He finally called Ray around 1pm, and didn’t head over the apartment until about 3.

How did I find out about any of this? When Cedric went to work, a co-worker said, “I saw your nephew on the BART train.” This co-worker had met Daveon once at Cedric’s office a few years back. When Cedric met up with Daveon after work, he asked about it, and the whole story came out—not willingly, from all reports. So Daveon got busted because his uncle’s co-worker happened to be on the same BART train as him, happened to see and recognize him, and happened to mention this to his uncle.

These are just two examples, but honestly? This kind of thing happens all the time. On the one hand, I’m glad my kids feel safe enough here to mess up. On the other … you know how they say that when someone tries to get caught, it’s a cry for attention or help? Sometimes I wish maybe they wouldn’t cry quite so loudly.

Next: Structure

Competition

Continuing our mini-series on “celebrating the ways my kids are like each, but could not be more different from me!” (AKA, “Learn to love your differences with your adopted kids—because there’s bound to be a ton of them.”)

This week’s topic: Competition.

Being sort of a “lefty hippie peacenik,” I think it’s fair to say I don’t have a competitive bone in my body. On the rare occasions where I do something competitive, I might go all out to win, but it’s based on challenging myself—not about beating anyone else. When I bowl—one sport I actually enjoy participating in, as opposed to just watching—all I’m looking at is the distance between my score and 300. (For the record, this distance is usually a substantially large number.) I probably wouldn’t even notice my opponents’ numbers if modern alleys didn’t flash them Vegas-style on big screens. I am ridiculously gracious in defeat and even more ridiculously consoling in victory. I never want anyone’s feelings to be hurt. (Cross-reference: Ways Daveon and I are alike.)

If you ever see my kids participating in athletics out in the world, you might be under the false impression that they are just like me. At both baseball games and cross-country meets, Daveon spends more time wishing kids on the other team good luck than he does warming up (which I’m sure has nothing to do with his lack of spectacular success). And even in the supposedly prima donna world of figure skating, Mark considers his closest competitors good friends, to the point where his coach often has to remind him to try and limit his socializing until after his events are over.

But against each other? There is some serious Jekyll-and-Hyde action going on, folks. By which I mean, both public Dr. Hydes suddenly discover their inner beasts. Square them off together, and it’s “Just Win, Baby”—at all costs. (Yes, we root for the Raiders, as painful as that usually is.)

They will cheat a mini golf, at video games, at finishing a book. This led to charming exchanges like:

“What page are you on?”

“What page are you on?”

“I asked you first.”

“Well I asked you second, and two is higher than one.”

And so on, until one of them (guess who?) inevitably got tired and tossed out: “Page 83.”

Wouldn’t you know it—his brother always managed to be on page 85.

Probably competing to see who can rock faster

Probably competing to see who can rock faster

When they used to cook together—another story for another time—it was a competition to see who could make the most dumplings. If I ever needed anything to get done quickly, the easiest way was to ask: “Who can get their room cleaned up first?” I should have bought a supply of plastic trophies.

It’s not just the obvious stuff—there are more subtle forms as well. If one kid does well at an event or on a test, the other one chimes in with how he would have done just as well, or probably better. A variation is, “Oh yeah, when I did [some version of whatever you just mentioned], I got an A/gold medal/letter of commendation from the President.” Given that none of these stated achievements took place in the years we were together, it’s fair to say that my kids accomplished more by ages 4 and 6 than most of us could ever hope to tackle in a lifetime. They are the world’s greatest self-invented prodigies.

(I am eternally grateful that they never ended up competing against each other in the same organized sport. If they were both ice skaters, every day would be another Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan episode.)

As with many things related to the boys, as they have gotten older, this intense “beat your brother at all costs” attitude has lessened. I’d like to think that this is a sign that each can defer to the other more gracefully. But I think the truth is that their lives have become so separate and individual—they don’t even cook together anymore—that there aren’t really any overlapping areas within which to compete. Maybe for my 50th birthday I will set each kid the task of coming up with his own gift to me. If the competitive fire kicks in, I could make out pretty well.

Next: Caught