I think I’ve had a breakthrough with Emily.
I waited a week, to be sure; there are lots of things that seem like a great idea for a day or so, and then her enthusiasm wanes or mine does, or it’s just not something that fits with the way we run things here at Casa Insanity. We’ve tried daily checklists, of chores and behaviors. We’ve tried a whiteboard to help remind everyone of the week’s activities. We’ve tried behavior charts, stickers and calendars.
She embraces each idea with her trademark enthusiasm, offering ideas about how it can be done and helping get it all set up. And then, within days, it fades out, because it just isn’t quite right for the time or the family. I’m a firm believer in the idea that behavioral interventions, structured attempts to change, are only going to work if they can be absorbed within the larger family. It’s comparable, in my head, to how a simple deprivation-style diet doesn’t work for weight loss; the only way you’re really going to lose weight and keep it that way is to incorporate changes into the household’s eating style that feel natural and sustainable.
And what are we trying to change? Oh, any number of small but annoying offenses. Things like bossing her brother more often than she takes a breath, interrupting others in mid-sentence, leaving chores done poorly, blurting out rude or inappropriate comments without thought. It all falls under the larger umbrella of empathy, and I’ve been struggling mightily with how to teach a skill that had, until recently, seemed inherent. How do you teach someone to be aware of the feelings of others, if they’re not born with that tendency? How do you encourage her to stop and think before she acts, when every single action is impulsive?
I’m less concerned about her behavior at school. She’s been obnoxious there; disrupting class, speaking out of turn, occasionally mock-fighting or even shoving other students. We’ve seen the write-ups, it’s a pattern. But I feel that it’s the school’s job to mete out discipline at the school, and repeating any sort of punishment or lecture at home is just redundant. So at home, she’ll get in trouble on the days when she “forgets” to bring one of those write-ups home, but not for getting the write-up in the first place. A fine line, I know, but an important distinction, to me.
Such it was that we had a discipline quandary last week. I knew that she’d had at least two write-ups in recent weeks, because I had spoken to her teacher by telephone, but somehow they just weren’t making it on the long journey from Emily’s locker to my hand. After two days of this, I had her sit on the couch, and I asked for her input. “You need some sort of consequence, because it is not OK for you to be hiding these write-ups from me. That’s not a brave way to act, and it’s not honest. But I can’t think of a consequence that makes sense.”
I’m big on the idea of natural consequences – the idea that a punishment should fit the crime and maybe even create a little learning in the process. So, time-outs are reserved for moments when I feel she – or her brother – is out of control and needs several minutes to sit and think quietly, just to reset the flow of the interactions. Chores are an expected part of the daily routine, not a punitive measure. I like things like apology letters and losing relevant privileges, but in this case, I just couldn’t come up with something that made sense. Taking TV away, losing bedtime story, some extra task around the house… none of that felt like it would be the least bit effective.
When Emily couldn’t come up with an idea, either, I said, “OK, then, just sit here quietly on the couch for a while, and maybe we’ll come up with something.” After ten or fifteen minutes, I went back and sat with her again, and we had a repeated conversation about how she finds it hard to think before she acts, and how she doesn’t really know how to explain her thoughts and feelings very well. And finally the idea presented itself to me: get that girl a journal. Start a habit of writing things out, even if they start out small or inconsequential, because once the process of putting words to paper becomes natural, then it can become deeper and more meaningful.
I was very careful to present the idea in a positive, “Here’s something that might help you” sort of way, instead of feeling punitive – “Go write in your journal for 15 minutes, or else.” She was especially drawn to the idea of treating the journal like a time capsule in the making, a way to look back someday and know what she was like at 8. They use the idea of a journal at school to mean a very specific, structured sort of writing exercise, so we had to talk about the different types of journals. About how what I was talking about was completely unstructured – she could write poetry or draw if she wanted, she could choose any topic, she could write as neatly or as messily as she wanted – as long as it stuck closer to something resembling the truth as she perceived it.
She covered the front and back of four sheets of paper that first night, and has incorporated her journal into her bedtime routine, writing for a few minutes before reading, before lights-out.
I don’t know what’s in there, after the first few pages. She asked me to read those, and I agreed, and she is engaging and well-spoken and appropriate there. I told her that the journal is her private book; Willem and I will read it if she asks, but otherwise we will respect her space. I reserve the right to read it if I ever have real concerns about her health or safety, but I promised I would tell her before I did so.
We haven’t seen an instant personality change, but frankly that would creep me out. I have seen a slight improvement in her ability to put her thoughts into words, instead of going immediately to Drama Queen Mode. And there has been more than one occasion where I have watched things start to escalate, as she gets noodgy or upset or revved up, and then she will stop and say, “I’m going to take a minute to go write in my journal now.” And she will, and she’ll come back ten minutes later seeming calmer.
It’s no huge shock, I suppose – the daughter of a blogger being invested in the idea of a journal. I never kept one regularly as a kid, but that’s largely because I started dozens and then just forgot about them. Emily, once a habit has been formed, is a slave to that habit and will adhere to it fanatically; plus, we’ll remind her and help her stick to it.
And now I just need to continue working on my own personal fortitude, because it is really tempting to go read it every day while she’s at school.