Spanking

Closing out this section on “Good Ideas and Bad Ones” is a topic I’m definitely not proud of, and yet I’m not sure I can say I’m ashamed of.

I have, indeed, spanked my kids.

One of the most—maybe the most—inviolable rules of the fost-adopt training, was: As a foster parent, no corporal punishment. Period. This was “We’re not joking, we’ll have Child Protective Services come and take them away” serious. Not that I minded. Being a hippie/pacifist at heart, I always figured that logical and compassionate reward/consequence systems would take care of most behavioral problems. (Also, my father was a belt man. And you know what? Neither my sisters nor I put that on the list of “things we recall fondly about dad.”)

So for our first year together—when my kids were still legally foster kids—we made use of a variety of non-physical behavior strategies, many of them described elsewhere on this blog. Like most things, these strategies worked pretty well most of the time, except when they didn’t. And by the time we finalized the adoption in court that November—at which point all foster-related restrictions were off—I had gotten so used to “no spank” parenting that it didn’t enter the picture for a very long time.

Until it did. You would think I would have a clear memory of the monstrous crime, the tremendous calamity, that cause me to put my son over my knee and connect palm to rear.

You would be wrong. I have no idea which action, or which kid, caused the first move into physical territory. I do remember they must have been at least 8 and 10, maybe even 9 and 11, which means we had been together at least three years by that time. As I pointed out to them, these were ridiculous ages for them to start getting spankings, since that was around the time most kids were stopping getting them.

Never let it be said that my kids aren’t sometimes a step or two behind their peers.

In any case, here’s what I do remember about spankings. One, they lasted for a period or two or three years—maybe a bit longer for Mark—and the total number for both kids combined can’t be more than a dozen. So, for what it’s worth, the house didn’t turn into a regular smack factory.

Two, spanking was always a second-line response. It usually looked like this: Kid does something. Dad responds with consequence/lecture/etc. Kid gets mouthy and belligerent. Dad tells kid to simmer down. Kid does not respond in kind. Dad warns kid that the options now are a) go along with the original consequence/lecture, quietly, or b) if the belligerence/mouthiness continues, get a spanking. And on those dozen or so occasions over those few years, option b) occasionally won out. And Dad and his hand responded in kind. (And in case you’re wondering: No, in practice, this didn’t play out anywhere near as calm as it sounds on the page.)

Three: The majority of spankings went to Mark. This is where Daveon’s headiness came to his assistance: When he started spiraling, he (usually) was still able to process the a/b options and come up with the solution that worked to his advantage. Mark, who is much more a gut-level player, generally has no such filter. When the spiral starts, it just keeps on keeping on. I often felt like spanking Mark was equivalent to those scenes in the movies where person A starts to get hysterical, person B gives person A a sharp slap across the cheek, and person B, now fully calm, says, “Thanks, I needed that.”

Believe it or not, Mark has never thanked me for spanking him. On the other hand, it certainly did calm him down. One therapist, while not condoning the practice, did say that for some kids, that kind of physical response can cut through and break things down in a way that words or other behaviors don’t. So there’s that.

I am not trying to justify the spanking years, which—to the great relief of my hand, my kids, and their butts—ended quite a while ago. But it would feel like “keeping secrets” if I didn’t come clean about piece of our family puzzle.

And now that I’ve gotten that off my chest … on to something more fun!

Next: Straight People

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Time-Ins and Tantrums

As we get close to the end of the “good ideas and bad ones” section of this blog, I’d like to share two good behavior strategies I’ve picked up over the years. One I learned from parents far more experienced and wiser than me, and the other one I’m pretty sure I made up.

Note: If you read the second one and think, “You didn’t make that up. I told you,” please don’t take it personally. I have a lousy memory. Also, please don’t sue me.

The strategy I learned from my betters is the time-in. This is a variation of the famous time-out, or, as those of us of a certain age might remember it, “Go to your room.” (Or, as Dennis the Menace remembers it, “Go sit in the corner.”) For those of you raised by peaceniks or spankers, the time-out concept is simple: If you keep jumping off the couch or teasing the dog or hitting your sister, etc. after being told to stop—usually after a warning or two—you take a time-out. This usually involves going to your room, or the corner, or a separate room and sitting in a designated space for a designated time—one minute, 5 minutes, the rest of the day. For kids of a certain age, sitting for 5 minutes feels like the rest of their life, so you have to gauge accordingly.

Both during my AASK trainings and in dealing with a few child therapists, the recommendation was instead for a time-in. A time-in works exactly the same as a time-out, except instead of sending the kid out to another room, you have him or her sit in the room with you. The theory makes sense: Foster/adoptive kids usually suffer from a sense of abandonment, so you don’t want to do anything that creates a feeling of isolation. You need to work extra hard to communicate, “There is a consequence for ripping Snakey’s eyes out when I told you to leave your brother’s stuffed animals alone. And, I’m still here, I still love you, and we’re still together.”

Plus, what could be more effective than having your kid continue to see his victimized sibling continue to play—in plain sight—while he needs to sit in a chair?

Not to mention: In an era where every kid has his or her own phone and/or tablet, a game console, and a TV, “go to your room” is about as harsh a consequence as “go spend a weekend in Vegas.” Not exactly fear-inducing.

Meanwhile, the strategy I will claim to have invented: the structured tantrum. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but bear with me.

Being a big believer in the “let it all out” approach to dealing with feelings—in another life I was probably Yoko Ono—I am all about tantrums. Also crying, moaning, sobbing, laughing hysterically, and other outbursts. I believe they are good for the soul. The only problem is, unlike with those other forms of expressions, tantrums can break things. And hurt people.

So we had a tantrum rule: If you get really mad, have a tantrum. Go all out—make the neighbors worry for our safety.

But do it in your room. Ideally, on your bed. Where punching, kicking, and throwing are involved, limit it to soft things: pillows, mattresses, covers. Within those soft constraints, the sky’s the limit—easier to replace a pillowcase than a shattered vase, not to mention your brother’s head.

You might not be surprised to hear which of my kids was the tantrum-thrower. (Hint: I used to encourage Daveon to throw more tantrums, which is pretty weird on one level, but makes a little more sense if you think about it in terms of trying to get a heady person a bit outside of his head.) For Mark the structured tantrum approach worked surprisingly well. When he would start to get steamed about—well, he used to get steamed about a lot of things—the cue “If you want to throw a tantrum, hit the bed” was successful almost all the time. And he would inevitably feel better after getting it all out—the whole point of a tantrum, after all. So it was a win for all of us—him, his feelings, the vases, and his brother’s bones.

Next: Spanking

Evidence

When it comes to confirming whether your kids did—or did not—do something, parenting strategies fall along a spectrum ranging from “constant vigilance” at one end to a 100% honor system at the other. (This latter often turns out better in theory than practice).

One approach that I found simple and effective in bridging the gap between these extremes: Asking for evidence.

For example: For many years the kids got a small allowance—a practice that has, strangely, tapered off as they moved in to teenhood, a period when you’d think they’d want some more money in their pockets. In any case: To get your allowance, you had to do your jobs—just like in the real world. These jobs included weekly room cleaning, twice-a-week dishes … and daily bed-making. In our world, bed-making did not involve hospital corners, properly turned covers, or fluffed pillows (no chocolates, for that matter). Basically, if I looked in the room and the bed covers looked roughly flat—or, as I liked to put it, if the Queen came by to visit and I wasn’t embarrassed if she took a tour of the bedrooms—that counted.

(I will describe our unique relationship with the Queen later.)

I don’t remember the context, but at some point there were some ongoing issues with Mark and the making of the bed. I’m pretty sure it went something like this: Most weeks I didn’t check on the beds or the rooms (I try to avoid opening my kids’ doors as often as possible—it is usually an extremely terrifying experience). Week after week he would happily claim allowance. And yet, on that third or fourth week where I got my nerve up and actually took a look in, his covers were invariably in a heap, or on the floor, or both—often in the exact same position they had been in the last time I had checked, three or four weeks prior.

This indicated that, just maybe, Mark was claiming allowance under false pretences.

Given that I wasn’t trying to become “daily room-checker,” we did the next best thing: Every day Mark would take a picture of his room, showing his “flat enough” bed. Thank God for digital cameras, especially ones that date the photo automatically. This became his way of providing evidence that he was indeed doing his jobs, and we carried it on until, you know, the battery died or I forgot or some such.

Other examples of where evidence has come in handy: If I was going to be out and I wanted to make sure the kids were home by a certain time, I have them call me—from the home phone. Luckily, there voices aren’t remotely alike, so I didn’t have to worry about one impersonating the other (at least, not successfully). I’m sure there is some way that they could have called from their cells (while out doing illicit, illegal, and probably dangerous things) and have it come up on my display as the home phone—but quite honestly, if they were that slick, them making curfew would be the least of my problems. (Note: They are not that slick.)

We’ve also done the wet toothbrush—which is a little silly, how hard is it to wet a toothbrush?—and the “let me see your clean hands,” and a few others of the classics. Reverse evidence also came in handy: If we kissed goodnight and your breath could have caused a car accident in San Francisco across the bridge, that made it pretty clear you didn’t brush your teeth. And to the inevitable, “But I did!”, the safe stock answer: “Great. Now do it again.”

If either/both of my kids becomes a detective, judge, attorney, or even just a jury member, I think they will be pretty good at their job. Where analyzing evidence is concerned, they’ve had plenty of practice.

Next: Time-Ins and Tantrums

Musical Tributes

Thanks to my kids, both of my parents ended up getting some kind of musical tribute. Each tribute took a very different form—which, if you know my parents, makes perfect sense.

Starting with my mother (which, again, if you know my parents, makes perfect sense): Her tribute came courtesy of Daveon. Since he is a DJ, one year he decided that his Christmas present to his grandmother would be a CD mix of her favorite songs. Athough it wasn’t a holiday collection, it did start and end with the opening and closing of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” as performed by Grandma Connie’s all-time favorite, Johnny Mathis (sorry, Andy Williams). I did some research with my sisters to think of songs we remember her loving both throughout our childhoods and more recently. What I learned: As much as I feel my musical tastes are all over the map, clearly I come by it honestly. Grandma’s mix ranged from 50s instrumental “Cherry White and Apple Blossom Pink” by Perez Prado (her high school prom theme) to 70s and 80s rock from Robert Palmer, Billy Joel, and the Moody Blues—with stops along the way for the Eloise Trio “Zombie Jamboree” and the theme song from Laverne & Shirley.

(Random side note: Along with Johnny Mathis, my mother’s other all-time favorite, in the movie star category, is Tab Hunter. Both men in their later years came out as gay. This is so ironic on so many levels, I don’t know where to start …)

Daveon “DJ Dreme” put the mix together in such a way that over 20 songs or snippets blended seamlessly into one another with no break, mixing and matching tempos, intros, and outros to create a unique blend. How did he do? On Christmas day, my mother called from my sister’s, where she had just arrived for dinner. She had played the CD in the car and said she was crying so hard all the way down, she had to pull over a few times. My nephew, who was too young to understand the concept of “tears of joy,” told me he was worried when he had to take the phone because mom had burst into tears again.

I think it was a hit.

My father’s tribute came courtesy of Mark, in a much more roundabout way. At one of Mark’s competitions, I saw a pairs group skate to a piano instrumental that made me think of my Dad—it’s one I remember from his big collection of 60s easy listening instrumental albums that we used to listen to at dinner. (Dinners at our house growing up were not very exciting.)

Me being me, I didn’t note the name of the song and lost the performance program. So when, a few months later, I decided I wanted to get a copy of the song, this became quite the detective job. I asked at the rink, but no one could find a program or remember the pairs group—let alone the actual song. I tried re-creating the little bit I could plunk out on the piano for both Mark’s violin teacher and Daveon’s sax teacher, but it didn’t ring any bells. Finally taking matters into my own hands, I created a 60s easy listening Pandora station. And then I listened. And waited.

And waited. I sat through about four months of the most schlocky instrumental tunes you can imagine. For readers of a certain age, think lots of Percy Faith and Ferranti & Teicher. As these things happen, I was so numb to the overwhelming blend of syrupy strings and “tasteful” background vocals that when the song finally did make its way into the playlist, I almost missed it.

“Almost,” luckily—I don’t think I could have sat through even one more rendition of “Theme from a Summer’s Place.”

As it turns out, the song isn’t schlocky at all—it’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” by the wonderful Vince Guaraldi of “Linus & Lucy” (and other great Charlie Brown classics) fame. To complete the circle, Mark took to the song instantly and asked his coach if he could use it for his skating program music at some point. Outcome TBD. But I am happy to think that the bonds created through music in our family extend beyond our wacky bedtime hits collection (more on that later) and stretch across the generations.

Next: Evidence

Music

Another item I need to include to paint a complete picture of our life as a family is music. I will later describe Dad’s crazy bedtime hits, as well as our perhaps unhealthy love affair with musicals. Here I am talking specifically about my kids’ musical endeavors.

The roots of these endeavors started in the fall of 2008? 9? when I took the kids to “Family Day” (presented by Target) at the San Francisco Symphony. This was kind of a big deal. As anyone reading carefully has probably figured out, we are not exactly a symphony-type family.

Because I clearly have a problem with lowest-common-denominator expectations, I was sure we would hear Peter and the Wolf and that Saint-Saens thing where the tuba represents an elephant (or maybe a hippo). Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and complexity of the performances. More important, the kids seemed to soak in every note. When the concert was over, all Mark could talk about was the flute. Flute, flute, flute … and for good measure, flute.

About six months later, at the end of the school year, I told the kids I wanted them to pick an instrument to learn. They would start over the summer when school wouldn’t be an issue, and they had to commit to take lessons for six months, to learn the basics. At the end of the year, they could decide to continue or stop. This was one of the only times I made the boys pursue a particular extracurricular activity. I am firmly in the camp believes that musical education enhances and enriches learning in a variety of ways.

Daveon chose saxophone, which lasted about two weeks. The teacher said his hands were too small, and that he should start on clarinet instead. The bad news: She didn’t teach clarinet, nor could she recommend anyone who did. The good news: Daveon was agreeable to the switch, so we went to the local music shop to rent a clarinet. We asked the salesperson if she knew of any good teachers, and she did. And that teacher was: herself. She—Carolyn—ended up working with Daveon for well over five years, swapping up as his hands grew to tackle alto tax, then tenor—the next Coltrane. Carolyn came to our house for Daveon’s lessons, so that automatically would put her in a tie as my favorite kids’ music teacher, if I—and more important, Daveon—didn’t already like her so much.

(Small world aside: Carolyn was playing in a woman’s big band jazz ensemble and invited me to attend one of their shows. I went, and it turns out that the one of the women running the band was … the original teacher who recommended the switch to clarinet, and thus was indirectly the reason we met Carolyn in the first place. Because, of course.)

Meanwhile: Remember Mark, he of the flute fascination? For his instrument, he, of course, chose … violin. Once again we lucked out in the teacher department, and Mark studied with K.C.—the co-winner for my kids’ favorite music teacher—until as recently as last fall. Although she didn’t come to our house (Note to K.C.: Could you work on that?), K.C. gets bonus points because she not only talked with Mark about skating and the relationship between practice and performance on an instrument and on the ice, but often comes to his competitions. Plus she has a brother who lives in Hawaii and rents out his back cottage, so she is a good person to stay friends with.

Along the way Mark dabbled in piano, which lasted all of a month when he realized that practicing two instruments was actually kind of a lot of work.  He and his brother did learn a mean “Heart and Soul,” though. So if you’re ever in need of some party entertainment …

(Randomly related note: When we were kids, my sisters and I all took piano lessons, anywhere from, say, three to eight years. So we weren’t bad. My mother’s biggest gripe was going to school talent shows to hear her trained kids bust out some Mozart or Schumann, and having to sit through well-meaning, if slightly less well-taught, fourth-graders plunking their way through “Heart and Soul.” I haven’t had the heart—no pun intended—to rat out my kids to her.)

Next: Musical Tributes

Cooking

There are many ways that I can finish the sentence “I have the great good fortune that ….” One of the ways I have great good fortune is that my kids like to cook. And they’re actually pretty good at it.

Because we do everything in a democratic, consensus-based style, one day when the kids were about 10 and 8, I said: “Starting now, one night a month, you guys are going to cook dinner.” The explanation was pretty simple: As they might have noticed, in a family led by a single dad, having a guy who knows how to cook turned out to be a pretty good thing. Since we had no idea how their futures would play out, this would be a good skill to carry with them.

The rules were also simple: The boys would, together, decide what they wanted to make, I would get the ingredients, and then they would be the chefs. I would supervise, but from a distance. Otherwise, dinner was on them.

Here’s what I thought would happen: Lots of hot dogs, English muffin pizzas, and tater tots. Why I expected this, God only knows—you’d think a guy would know his own kids after a few years.

What actually happened was this: Daveon’s class—we’ll call it 4th grade, give or take—went to the library. In addition to his usual Harry Potter knock-off/rip-off fantasy books, he got not one, not two, but a whole set of about a dozen “Cooking from Around the World” cookbooks. I think it a Time-Life series, for those of us of a certain age.

Anyway, here comes my little man home with his huge stack of (thankfully, very) thin cookbooks. Since we could only keep them for a couple of weeks, the boys’ next task wasto go through the books and put a post-it on any recipe that looked interesting (which, now that I think of it, was the same process I went through to “pick” the kids all those years ago). I copied those pages, put them in a binder, and thus was born our Sadusky family custom international cookbook.

Now you might be thinking: “That all sounds cute, but I bet when the kids actually ended up in the kitchen, out came the English muffins.”

You would be wrong.

Within the first six months we had, among other dished, Korean dumplings, Irish stew, and chicken cacciatore. All of them were delicious, and I don’t even like stewed tomatoes. I’m a little embarrassed to say that most of the meals the kids made actually tasted better—and were certainly more elaborate and labor-intensive—than the basic spaghetti and meatballs or roasted chicken I would typically throw together. So, score one for team effort.

Over the years, following the typical pattern, trying to get the kids to collaborate in the kitchen became more trouble than it was worth. So teamwork’s loss became dad’s gain: Instead of working together on a single monthly meal, each kid eventually got his own monthly cooking night. Double bonus!

After the first year or two, I also retired from supervising—all I needed to do was buy the groceries, which they needed to figure out and list. After those early years of experimentation (yes, we bought a Harry Potter cookbook, and yes, Daveon made shepherd’s pie out of it), things settled into kind of a routine. Daveon regularly made steak—some of the best I’ve ever had, in all honesty—and baked fish, while Mark’s typical menu was “whatever Daveon made last time, until Dad reminded him that it might be nice to come up with an original idea once in a while, at which point he grunted out a frustrated ‘fine,’ grabbed a cookbook, and picked whatever looked easiest to make.”

Believe it or not, since Daveon went away to school, he no longer cooks for us on any kind of regular basis. Neither, for that matter, does Mark, which a) doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and b) says a lot about how life rolls with older teens.

But the good news, when push comes to shove, they know they can whip up something tasty. To their future partners/spouses/kids: You’re welcome.

Next: Music

Prayer

Like many people in the San Francisco Bay Area, my spirituality is a hodgepodge of various traditions, custom-tailored along the lines of ordering Chinese takeout: pick one practice/belief from column A, two from column B, one from column C, and so on. I am sure this—among roughly a million other realities of my life—gives my very Catholic mother fits. But she might be happy to know that there is one particular practice I can trace directly back to my Catholic upbringing. That is our family’s version of prayer.

If there’s one thing Catholics are good at, it’s categories and grouping. Check out any Catholic resource and it can tell you the saint’s day, liturgical season (with appropriate vestment colors), day of obligation (which now I believe are more like days of recommendation), and other connected obligations/recommendations such as fasting or abstinence for any day of the calendar, from now till 1,000 years in the future. Not to mention seven sacraments—and their evil twin, seven deadly sins—three cardinal virtues, five decades of the rosary, and 14 stations of the cross. (We can’t take credit for the 10 Commandments, although I assume that was God’s way of testing out how this whole numbered-system thing was going to play out.)

As far as prayer goes, in the Catholic tradition, there are five types: prayers of praise, love, contrition, thanksgiving, and petition. While I personally have spent more hours than I care to remember asking for forgiveness for one failing or another—especially since becoming a father—with the boys I decided to focus on columns D and E: saying thanks, and asking for what you want or need, either for yourself or on behalf of someone else.

In practice, our thanksgiving prayer looks like this: Every night at dinner, we join hands and go around the table, with each person saying something he is thankful for. This could be general such as food or health or a good day, or a specific thing that happened—getting accepted to college (Daveon), landing a triple salchow (Mark), being told that the roaster was out of his favorite coffee beans, and then finding that they had one bag left (Dad). Even with Daveon away at school, this is one tradition that Mark and I faithfully (no pun intended) carry on. And when friends and family join us for dinner, they join our ritual of thanks also.

The “petition prayer” ritual has faded away, but when we were all under one roof and subscribed to roughly the same bedtime, it went this way: Just before bed, as part of our check-in about the day, each person would list anyone they wanted to pray for, as well as anything they wanted to ask for. The “pray fors” could be anyone in our family or friendship circle in general; people we know who could use a little extra thought because of illness, a loss, or other challenge; or folks in need on a larger scale such as disaster victims. The “ask fors” were wide-open, as I encouraged the boys that it’s OK to ask for anything they want, and not to be afraid to feel a little “selfish” at this time.

We say/said all three prayers in a non-specific way: “Thank you for …,” “I want to pray for …,” “I want to ask for …” From my perspective, it doesn’t matter whether the boys conceive of this as praying to a being or spirit, or just putting the energy out into the world. What does matter to me is cultivating a) a spirit of gratitude—because really, for all the struggle they went through, all three of us have so very very much to be grateful for—and b) an understanding that the good words and requests we express to the universe have the power to bring about real changes or results in people’s lives. Our rituals have also reinforced that we should remember the people we care about and who care about us, and that it is a good and important thing to ask for things on our own behalf. Regardless of what traditions they embrace or reject moving forward, I hope that these core principles will stick with them and become integrated in their beliefs and practices.

Next: Cooking