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

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