We have had something big happening in our home these last few months, dealing with our resident All Boy All The Time. I wasn’t going to share about it, because it’s a tad on the personal side. But it’s been such a tremendous victory for us that I wanted to encourage other parents out there who might be in the same challenging position.
As many of you know, or may have deduced, Henry is a whippersnapper. We have known this to be true, and there’s been this part of me that has always sort of stood back assessing and wondering how much of Henry’s personality was a product of his environment vs simply who he was/is. He is a delightful little guy, to be sure, but also what one might consider to be “strong willed.” About a year ago, when I was desperate for resources to get us through, I reached for the classic “Strong Willed Child” Handbook, and decided I might need the amped-up, turbo version. This wasn’t just any strong-willed child. This was THE strong-willed child.
Last year, as the start date for kindergarten loomed larger and larger on the calendar, I was equal parts excited and terrified. I had hoped for some time that the start of kindergarten would be the end of our issues with a boy who regularly would not go to bed, would not obey, would wander off and ignore all pleads and missives to return. He was his own man, end of story.
Oh my goodness, I’m so glad not end of story.
Too often I would overanalyze the situation and really try to consider why my young son was the way he was. A big part of it, I reasoned, was that he has four (much) older brothers. Henry was four. He thought he was fourteen. There are no other little boys around our home, and his standards for living life are that of the pre-teen/teenagery set. We would go to events and Henry would be off working the crowd just like his brothers. He would never get lost, because he was, you know, right there. With himself. And a few hundred of his closest friends.
So it’s true, part of this issue has been Henry is very outgoing. He loves talking with people. He will either be a Bishop or a talk-show host.
But underneath our love of his delightful personality was sheer exhaustion at a lack of control. Bottom line. I could go into it, but those of you who have ever been in this situation with one of your children will understand what I mean. One of our favorite family mantras, “When I Call You Come,” well it meant absolutely nothing to this child. It was more like “When I call, you ignore. And then I call. And then I call again. And then I come find you and grab you and drag you to where I say.”
It was exhausting. We were exhausted.
And then kindergarten started. And I thought, “moment of truth time.” The entire first day of school, I waited for the teacher to call and say “the charade is up. Come retrieve your child.”
But she did not. There was no call on the first day.
The call came about a month later. The call I had been sort of dreading but also knew was inevitable. The teacher called and Paul and I went in to meet with her.
Basically, her assessment was exactly what I anticipated: your son is a delightful, smart little boy who has zero interest in toeing the line.
We had a really good meeting and discussed the possibility of attention issues and hyperactivity disorders. But none of us — me, Paul or Henry’s teacher — were inclined to go that route.
Finally, Paul and I kind of took a deep breath, looked at each other, and then made a deal with the teacher.
“Give us a month,” I said. “We know what we need to do.”
We had been having this conversation for some time — what are we going to do about this boy, what are we going to do? We were overwhelmed and worn out and frustrated beyond belief. And that ultimatum (the one we gave ourself) was all the motivation we needed to start doing what we should have done a long time before. We got to work on training our son.
That night, we had a family meeting. We put Henry and Isabel to bed and explained to our bigger children that we were in Bootcamp Mode. We turned off the television, we kept computer to a minimum. we told the boys we needed them on their absolute best behavior because their little brother needed the best examples he could have.
And then — here is the key — we started a little thing called “follow through.” Which meant that every time Paul or I told Henry to do something, we got up off our duff and made him do it. When I call, you come. And if you don’t come, I walk over to you (immediately) and there are consequences for not coming. The main consequence being you will no longer get away with simply ignoring us.
We also created a chart, titled “Henry Obeys the First Time.” Every time we saw that connection, where our boy did what he was told to do right away, he got a sticker. The first chart only needed 15 stickers to get a prize. We needed a quick reward to help make the connection. The second chart, the one he filled a few weeks ago, took much longer and the reward was a bigger treat.
What we realized, in our weeks-long endeavor, is that our dear sweet child was in large part a product of our lackadaisical parenting. At least when it came to him. Because once you start dealing with big kids, it’s very easy to see the issues of a smaller child as insignificant. This one child not coming to get dressed when I call, well it just doesn’t seem like a big deal compared to other issues (homework! drivers license! wanting to go ride bikes!). What’s the big deal?
Except, it is a big deal. It’s a very big deal. It’s training and it’s important and when you don’t tow the line with these younger children (in a loving, sane fashion) there is a huge price to pay.
This has been such a victory for us, and for our boy. He is thriving in school. Things aren’t perfect, don’t get me wrong. We have not reset the switch and created a robot. But where we were three months ago seems so far from where we are now, in a very good way.
If you are at your wits end with your small child, I do want to encourage you. You can do it. Don’t give up. Follow through on everything you tell that child. Get up out of your chair when you want obedience. Don’t settle for being willing to repeat the lad’s name over and over and over again. Say it once. Then make it happen. We were amazed at how quickly our smart, sweet little boy caught on. All this time and he was simply doing what he had been trained to do — to do whatever he pleased until I got around to making him obey.
In many ways, I feel like we got our life back. When it’s bedtime, I don’t get that sick feeling in my stomach anymore. And we can absolutely sense the peace in our son — children need and want those boundaries. They want to know they are not the boss — despite their behavior and attitudes to the contrary.
One last quick disclaimer: I am not making any judgements on ADD and ADHD. I understand those are valid diagnoses. But we knew in our gut (in our lazy gut) that the problem was with us, and it was time to get to work.
The efforts are worth it. Life is so peaceful, especially for our dear sweet boy.