A Week of No Time-Outs

A Week of No Time Outs  

My oldest daughter is the kind of kid that is interested in color theory, other people’s emotions and the point of our existence. She’ll sit in front of a sheet of math problems while happily tapping her toes through each formulation. She is so much fun and so much depth. She is also still so much five year old, her imaginary games are rich and usually feature time travel, assumed scientific theories and inventions along with some sort of princess and cackling witch. She is a real, true joy.

My oldest daughter is also the kind of kid that falls apart in the face of the unexpected. She reacts with quick and loud anger to real and perceived injustice, her righteous indignation ringing against the walls of our house and my tired heart. I’m not without perspective here. I’ve been around other kids, she is neither as extreme as some or as measured as others. She is squarely in the middle, not easy, not difficult, just herself. Unfortunately, comparisons and the knowledge that “this is normal!” rarely help mediate our reactions.

When she would begin to lose it, when her eyes got wild and her fists clenched, I would start to lose it, too. Oh, no. Here we go. How long will this last? Will it become hysteria or settle before its peak? If we were in public, I dreaded the side eye of other moms. If we were at home, I looked quickly at our windows to see if they were open - imagining the shrillness of her discontent bouncing against my neighbors houses. And then my panic would begin to match her own. I said mean things like, “You are being ridiculous.” and “It doesn’t matter.” and “You are being so embarrassing.” I reasoned unreasonably, angry whispered and, on occasion, yelled.

I started putting her in time-out. It seemed the only way to protect one another from spitting words. I thought it would give us both time to calm down, reflect on what we’d done (or not done) and start again. It was the perfect solution, except that it made our lives so much worse. She cried out and slammed her hands into the door of her room. She yelled and begged and then would quiet down just long enough to say things like,

“I wish you liked to be with me when I am sad.”

Ugh. Damn. Kids. Am I right?

In between the ever increasing time outs, we were wary of one another. We escalated to frustration more quickly and Zuzu didn’t come and talk to me in the quiet moments of the day like she used to. We were spending more time apart physically and emotionally, and not just when we needed to cool off. My plan wasn’t working.

It was a particularly desperate day, I’d carried her lengthening body to time-out three times and cried twice myself. I turned on my computer and tuned out her tears. Somewhere between Facebook and my fifth buzzfeed quiz, I found an article on Time that claimed time-outs were hurting our children. I laughed a little….there’s a new guru every minute. But then, after I put away my smugness, I realized that while I couldn’t prove the time outs were hurting Zuzu long term, I did have circumstantial evidence that they were harming our relationship now. And if there was a way I could shape her and remain close to her - well, it was worth a try. I was so converted to the effort I even bought the book the article was based on, No Drama Discipline. It took me a few hours to read it and a few more to settle on attempting a little experiment. For seven days I would follow their recommendations to the best of my ability and see if it made a difference. If it didn’t, I would always have the option of a shot of whiskey at the end of every day...naptime….snack break. (Kidding! Totally! I would never. Probably.)

The Experiment

The rules were pretty simple.

1. Taking time to connect before taking time to react. When she was freaking out because she didn’t want to clean her room, hated the way dinner tasted, had her feelings hurt by the kid next door or just generally lost her bleep for no apparent reason, my first move had to be to go over and hug her. Let her know that I was there and would be there no matter what crazy antics ensued. Create a place of safety. Establishing connection would help establish more productive communication, even when the communication had to mean consequences.

2. Work to discipline, rather than punish. As the book pointed out, “discipline” comes fromt the Latin “disciplina” which means instruction, knowledge. Another word that comes from that Latin form is, “disciple” , one who is instructed, who follows. When Zuzu stepped out of line, I needed to put my focus on instruction and change of direction rather than carte blanch punishment. After connecting, move forward with instruction. Sometimes this meant consequences, cleaning up after intentional destruction, repairing relations with her sister, saying sorry, taking away tv after she lied about cleaning her room so she could watch one more show. Sometimes it just meant a really long hug and words of understanding, because don’t we all just have bleep days and bleep ideas sometimes?

3. Switch Time-Outs for Time-Ins.  This was the hardest and, perhaps most important, change. The theory goes that isolating your kids when they are at their worst teaches them that people will only want them when they are at their best. I can see both sides of this coin and understand that for many kids this would not be the psychological effect of time outs. I can also say this was EXACTLY how they were affecting Zuzu. I suppose her girlhood makes me especially sensitive to this topic - girls tend to be so predisposed to issues of self-worth and an unwillingness to make their voices heard. I wanted her to know I want her always and respect her voice enough to train it rather than silence it. So, when she acted out I would pull her closer. A bout of hysteria would mean a long walk together, reading a few stories or an invitation to help me with dinner. I guess it is the loving version of “keeping your enemies closer”. (Oh, your kids have never felt like your enemies? Interesting. Tell me more about your amazing life.)

I set the rules into place, breathed in some courage and got down to work.

The Results

I’ve always said I could never be a scientist because I have no sense of consistency. That was a true statement in the carrying out of this experiment. I was the parent I wanted to be some of the time, better than I had been most of the time and just really backslid a little of the time. I will say that the days I clung to my rules we had more peace, more understanding and less chaos. It wasn’t until four days into the seven that I realized she hadn’t pounded on one wall yet and I hadn’t yelled once. She was more thoughtful in her apologies and more thoughtful in her actions. When I sat down she started sitting next to me again and the questions that have always so entertained and instructed me started bubbling out of her mouth once more. She wasn’t defensive anymore and I found myself saying the things I wished I said rather than the things I wished I hadn’t said. Slowly, she began to seek alone time as an act of calming and meditation, a thing I had robbed her of by imbuing it with the colors of punishment.

By the tenth day our social experiment had turned attempted lifestyle. It was then that I finally took the time to acknowledge I needed the change as desperately as she did. When I think of ideal parenthood, I think of our Heavenly Father and Mother. When I am at my worst, they draw me in. When I am angry, they offer joy. When I am heartbroken, they succor me with the balm of infinite understanding. They would never make me weep, wail and gnash alone. They would never tell me I was unreasonable, ridiculous, acting as if I was too young. They guide, teach, heal and sanctify through the Holy Spirit. They lead and walk back to pick me up when I cannot follow. I mean, my goodness, when my mortal, mistake ridden, imperfect nature made reunion with them impossible, they did not throw their hands up in despair. They asked their Son to bleed alone in an empty garden and die, nailed to a cross, alone in a taunting crowd. They have never, they will never, shut a door in my shouting face. I’m trying to follow Their example.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend this has solved all our problems. I still find myself yelling at times. She still deals with anxiety and bouts of hysterical and regular old five year old fits of anger. We are a month past my little experiment and she has been put in time-out several times since then despite my best intentions. Hell, I put her in time-out this morning. I would still argue, despite everything I’ve learned, that once in awhile those time outs are absolutely needed and the only thing that saves us from each other. But, when we are at our best, when I am at MY best, I can feel us more closely emulating the relationship I know she already has with her Heavenly Parents. And while I am nowhere close to being able to even speak their names with complete understanding, I CAN see the worth they see in my little girl. And hopefully, in treating her as closely to how they treat her as I possibly can, she will begin to see that worth, too.

Amen.

 

I See You

Thankful for the people that can see me. Photo by the effervescent Heather Mildenstein.

It is nearly eleven o’clock at night and Viola’s cries creep out from under her door, tumble across the hall, and bounce in the kitchen from the unwashed pan to the blinds that need dusting out into the living room and onto my lap. Riley tells me to stay put as he goes to see what is wrong. And I do. Because I am tired. And I know she will cry again in a few hours. And right now, I need to pick up everything and place it on my husband’s square shoulders. I need to disappear, just for a moment. So, I brush the sound of her need off my skirt like so many specks of clinging dust and try to think about something else.

It isn’t working.

I have been so worried about my darling girls.

Viola is at that magic age, the one where the only real concern is whether she is eating and sleeping enough. While the answers to those questions change day to day, lately there have been more noes than yeses. Maybe she is teething? A virus? Riley, put your hand on her head, does she feel warm? And then she is up at 2am and 3am and not sleeping past 6:30, because my goodness, where would be the fun in that? But between the too short naps and too long cries, I can pick her up and make her smile. Because I am all she knows and right now, all she knows is enough.

I don’t know that I am enough for Margaret anymore. My goodness, that sounds a bit dramatic. Meg, you say, that is perhaps a premature pronouncement to make about a three year old. But it is true. She has feelings bigger than my capacity to soothe, fears more complicated than she can articulate and an occasional stubbornness that I can only engage if I am willing to stand till the ragged, tantrum filled end. I don’t mind the tantrums. They are fierce but few and I can handle myself just fine, thank you. No, I feel the most helpless when she collapses, when the light leaves her eyes and all that is left is panic without discernible meaning.  The times when I can see the anxiety climb up her arms and into her ears until it all spills out in hiccups and screams and MOMMY’S! It doesn’t happen every day, but sometimes I think the lines that connect one breakdown to another are becoming shorter.  When it does happen, I hold her close and play with her hair and speak quietly, oh honey, everything is alright. And then, because it calms her down I turn on a movie and give her SHINY BLANKIE and walk away until she comes back to me, all big smiles and bouncing questions.

I think the breakdowns come when she is tired. Or when she is hungry. Maybe they happen because she is a creature of routine. Or because she is bored. Perhaps she reacts poorly to processed foods. There is always the chance that she needs more iron…or less.

I am not sure of anything, except for all the things I am unsure of.

Last night after a mixed meeting with her preschool teachers, (She is a very bright girl! Sometimes she is a little upset.) I came home and cried to Riley. I don’t mind that she gets overwhelmed and breaks for a moment. We all do. And at three she doesn’t know that it is more socially acceptable to eat your anxiety away (chocolate, anyone?) rather than scream it away. (Between you and me, I think the screaming might be the healthier coping mechanism of the two.) No, what I hate is that I don’t know how to help her navigate around this obstacle. I want Zuzu and all the people around her to see exactly who she is. I can see her. She is kindness and giving and warmth and humor and intelligence and strength and dance out in the open with her eyes closed. She is whimsy and steel. I don’t want fear or hysteria to cloud her vision. I am her mother. I am supposed to guide her. I don’t want to change her, I just want to help her.  But, I don’t know how to keep my ignorance – how do I help her? What does she need? - from muddying the waters.

I went to bed last night heavy with doubt. Because if I can’t do this now how will I do this when she is 14? And maybe this is because I am not doing my job well enough. If only we read more, painted more, crafted more. A better mother would know what she needed. A better mother would know. Pressed against the wall, a continent away from Riley, he asked if I was alright. I nodded yes, and closed my eyes. The tears squeezed out hot against the cold night and the phrase repeated itself as I fell asleep - A better mother would know.

And then.

Riley and I fought this morning. I am not sure how it began, but I know just when it got going. He said I am too hard on myself more days than not – that I spill so many wasted thoughts on not being a good enough woman, writer, wife, mother. I told him that he had no right to tell me how I should feel. My goodness, I cried, what do you know about inadequacy and guilt? He isn’t in these four walls all day with two people hungry for more than cheerios. He leaves and I stay and try to be the things I want to be, should be, while wiping the crumbs off my clothes.  Can’t he see all the magic I leave out of so many days with the girls I have been given as daughters? Can’t he feel the weight of the stories that go thought and unwritten again and again until they are forgotten? Does he think I want to be the woman that is too tired for dancing when he gets home after a long day of work? How, I asked angry and misunderstood, how am I supposed to get through this part of my life feeling anything but less than what I wish to be? Do you have any idea what you are talking about? Riley slammed out the door to steam it out in the drive way while I stewed in the shower.

When he came back in Margaret was eating cereal on the couch and I had nearly finished my makeup in the bathroom. A small comfort, as I prefer to be presentable when making up to my husband. We kissed and he held me, sorry for the things we said and perhaps for a few that we didn’t.

He left for work and we survived the day.

Viola has stopped crying and in the rounded silence I have some clarity. Riley wasn’t telling me how to feel, he wasn’t negating my experience, or saying he could do it better. He was saying he can see me. And the woman he sees can do this. She can wake up with a baby who will not sleep. She can break through the wall built by a three year old's tears. She can write whatever she damn well pleases. She can be the wife she knows her husband deserves. She can dance even when she is too tired to keep standing.

I don’t know the woman Riley sees. But every once in a while, when he is looking at me, I see her reflected in his eyes. And right now, that glimpse is just enough to get me through one more day, every day.