My son has been having a hard time lately. Lying. Stealing. Making poor choices. Just plain being mean.
As I’ve talked about before, we are no strangers to this dance. He is a sweet and respectful kid 90% of the time, but when the other side strikes, you better watch out. The poor behavior seems to come in cycles – we can go weeks, now months even, with nothing more than some bickering with his sisters or a bit of whining over homework. And then, wham. Without notice, there will be a string of out-of-character, but not really out-of-character, acting out. It used to take the form of temper tantrums that would make my head spin, but this latest episode was decidedly more calculated (dare I say “mature”?). There is nothing that make my blood boil quicker than dishonesty. He knows this. He used this.
I strive to model my discipline on logical consequences. He loses my trust: he loses out on activities that require trust until it is earned once again (ie. unsupervised playdates). He has hurt my feelings or those of his sisters, he must make it right (my house got nice and clean this weekend via our theory of ‘restitution’). You get the picture. But as I was sitting home with him on Friday night while his sisters were at My Gym and my wife was at dinner with our friends (where I was supposed to be, but based on his behavior could no longer trust him to be kind to the other children), I couldn’t shake the feeling that this episode needed a little something more. After
stewing thinking for a bit, I came up with my plan.
A lifetime ago I was a camp counselor and one summer I had a really difficult kid. He was a bully and was constantly getting into fights with the other children. I sat down with him once and asked why he continued to make these poor choices. I expected some excuse about the other kids annoying him or even just a detached “I don’t know” but I didn’t get either of those things. His answer will stick with me forever,
“It’s who I am.”
I thought of that child and his heartbreaking answer as I thought of how to help my son. Because this cycle of misbehavior is so familiar to us, I couldn’t help but fear that my sweet boy was starting to think of it as part of who he is. We needed to work on re-writing the script.
We started by tearing up the old one – literally. I wrote the behaviors we wanted to say good-bye to on paper and let the kids tear them to shreds. These behaviors were not representative of who we are, and we were visualizing a fresh start.
Next, we traced their bodies on craft paper, and I asked them to decorate themselves with words that describe who they are on the inside. Forget mistakes or struggles – who are you in your heart? [And for comedic relief, he added, “It was a good idea to get brown paper Mommy. That saves me a lot of coloring.”]
My son (7.5) was totally into it. The girls (3 and 4) humored me for half a second but got much more out of talking about the process and why we were doing it, rather than putting marker to paper.
The finished product was even better than I expected. “I am…loving, sweet, kind, thoughtful, cuddly, respectful, silly, funny, happy, strong, brave, fast, honest, hard-working, helpful, a bucket filler…”
Yes. Yes, my love – you are.
We have the project proudly, and prominently, displayed for a reminder whenever one is needed. Though we all make mistakes in life that we are not proud of, whether that includes lying, stealing, using rough hands, yelling or overeating (::raises hand::) – those are choices, not definitions of who we are. My son, this is who you are.
While we were working on this project, the Frozen soundtrack was playing in the background (because, of course) and my son shot straight up when he heard the line in ‘Fixer Upper’: “People make bad choices if they’re mad or scared or stressed…”
“Hey! That’s like me!” Bingo.
Thank you, Disney, for adding the perfect musical accompaniment to our weekend of remembering who we really are.
We aren’t saying you can change him
‘Cause people don’t really change
We’re only saying that love’s a force that’s powerful and strange
People make bad choices if they’re mad or scared or stressed
But throw a little love their way, and you’ll bring out their best
True love brings out the best