Monday, April 30, 2012

Anti-Snowflake Training, from an Anti-Helicopter Parent

Yesterday, I happened to find myself in conversation with an anthropology graduate student who does summer camp work with adolescents and teenagers. I had mentioned Twelve, and asked him, mostly jokingly, if he had any advice on how to successfully navigate the upcoming descent into her being awful. To my surprise, he actually had a response! He suggested positive reinforcement.

The idea of positive reinforcement struck a bit of a delicate nerve, actually. Lately my feedback to Twelve's performance of her household tasks has been more along the lines of get-back-in-here-and-do-it-right, so there's room for improvement there. I can always do better at remembering to comment when she does a good job, I replied thoughtfully.

Later, though, I realized that if she's not doing her tasks properly, giving her positive feedback is a terrible idea. The last thing I want is for Twelve to turn into one of the overly delicate 'Snowflake' students that post-secondary educators so love to complain about [points to self]. These students complain about low scores because they spent so much time/worked so hard on the assignment, when in fact they failed to follow the damn instructions/produce the right answers. Somehow, the connection between Doing it Correctly and Getting a Good Grade is missing in their brains.

Experts tell us that these members of the Millennial generation have been raised with so much positive reinforcement that they don't know how to handle failure when they (perhaps inevitably) do. Their 'Helicopter' parents also tend to keep awfully close tabs on their college experiences, going so far as to contact instructors directly to demand grade adjustments.

Ummm ... I think I'll decline the opportunity to Helicopter around Twelve when she's in college, thankyouverymuch. Not-Helicoptering has worked really well so far, after all, and to be perfectly frank - I don't have time for that shit. Calling instructors to complain that she didn't get a good enough grade in Writing 121? I'm sorry, but I have better things to do, like re-mow the grass that I just freaking mowed last weekend.

Twelve, if you have a problem with a score you earned, fair and square, you're going to have to whine to your instructor yourself. Only ... please don't, since chances are you're attending a university at which we know at least one faculty member, and I really don't want to get that phone call.

So, my conclusion? I'm not going to praise Twelve for sub-par performance. She's perfectly capable of doing her tasks correctly, so when I find a glass that's smeary, I'm going to hold her accountable as best I can. I need to work on this, actually, as it's often so much easier to just re-wash the glass myself. At the same time, when Twelve does well, I'll make a point of letting her know that I've noticed:

Twelve, these chocolate chip cookies are delicious, and it's very thoughtful of you to bake them for your volleyball team. [Pause] I'm an honorary member of your volleyball team, right? [Eats six cookies.]

Friday, April 27, 2012

Stay Focused, Eyes on the Prize, Follow Your Instincts

I'm shaking with adrenaline. This is what happens when I've been exchanging emails with my ex about his time with Twelve.

For over two years, I've been dealing with an annoying legal situation that he initiated. Basically, after five years of almost no contact with Twelve and three years of two or three annual visits, he wanted me to pay for half of the costs of her visiting him six times a year. While I obviously have no issue with her visiting him as much as possible, there's no possible way that I can afford to pay for half of the cost.

His income is five times mine. He pays less than ten percent of his income as child support.

The short version is that after months of fruitless negotiation, we ended up going to trial, a process that cost me thousands of dollars. Thousands. We now have a very expensive official document that indicates the time he's supposed to spend with Twelve. I am highly motivated to follow this official document; after all, I spent the equivalent of two years' rent on it. When it says that he "shall have the child for two (2) three-week blocks" in the summer and that "the summer parenting time may be exercised as one (1) six-week block" if "the nonresidential parent has maintained regular meaningful contact with the child since the parties' separation," I am all about doing what it says: Two three week visits sounds about right.

He wants one (1) six-week visit. Keep in mind that from age three to age seven, Twelve saw her father perhaps three times. There may have been a half dozen phone conversations. She's never once received anything in the mail addressed by his hand. I have pretty good powers of reading comprehension and scored really, really high on the verbal portion of the GRE, so I'm confident that his contact with "the child" has been neither regular nor meaningful since we separated. Therefore, logic indicates two three-week visits.

Now, I may not have an extensive knowledge of child development; I haven't read any books on the subject of how long it's okay for a twelve-year-old to spend away from home. I haven't really even grilled my Child-and-Family-Therapist friend about it. Guess what? I don't need expert advice on this one. I've got instincts, and the thought of Twelve going for a six-week visit gives me an awful feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach.

I don't believe in 'mothering instincts' as an essential characteristic of females who gestate and give birth. There are plenty of women for whom mothering doesn't come naturally and doesn't feel instinctive. For me, though, being Twelve's mommy has been almost 100% instinctive - or at least felt that way. Yes, I've had excellent resources in the form of a middle class family and a very committed and involved full-time mother. Even though I've undoubtedly learned a lot without necessarily knowing it, the practice of mothering has been very natural for me. So, when I say that Twelve being gone for six weeks straight this summer seems like a terrible idea, I mean that TWELVE SHOULD NOT BE GONE FOR SIX WEEKS THIS SUMMER.

Finally, common ground with Sarah Palin! 'Mama Bear Mother of Twelve' it is, then. I shall order a new batch of calling cards.

Would Twelve survive being gone for six weeks? Undoubtedly. I've been convinced for several years now that Twelve is going to turn out just fine (unless she makes really bad choices or something catastrophic happens). Is being gone for six weeks best for her? Not in a million billion bajillion years. I'm certain of this, deeply certain, fundamentally and really truly certain.

She's in a delicate state, Twelve is; a fragile developmental balance of positive and negative. She still knows who she is and is confident of her self-worth and identity. She hasn't yet - quite - fallen off the cliff of adolescence. She's started to tentatively experiment with stomping away and slamming doors, but she still wants her bedtime backrubs. She completes her daily tasks with marked halfheartedness, but still initiates utterly ridiculous poke-and-tickle giggle-fests with R.

Something deep in my being says that being gone for six weeks isn't a good idea. I can't quite articulate why (see above), but my instincts have been damn good for the last twelve and a half years, so I'm inclined to trust them, despite my ex's heavy-handed demands.

Stay strong, Mama Bear! Stick to your guns. Don't let anyone convince you that you don't know what's best for Bear Cub Twelve. Calm down, deep breaths, don't hyperventilate. Fight off the adrenaline. Have a cup of tea.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Twelve is back from her trip, safe and sound and pretty much her usual incorrigible self. I’m incredibly relieved. As I sat waiting in the airport outside security the other morning, I was dreading the possibility that she’d be sullen, distant, and not happy to see me. However, when she came into view she was smiling in the usual manner, ready for a hug as usual.

I watched her carefully (surreptitiously of course) for a few days, just to be sure. Perhaps there are deeper-seated issues that don't show right away, I thought. Maybe it will take a few days for the change to kick in. Nope, still wants to be tucked in and back rubbed at bedtime. Still sleeps with Soft Blanky. Still gets up and ready for school reliably. Okay, sigh of relief, we're in good shape.

And then she started driving me bonkers.

She's been good at finding ways to annoy us for awhile now, and it doesn't usually get too far out of hand. Usually she pushes it until I get really annoyed, and then she backs off. Hovering is a pretty awful technique; that's when she stands right behind you, puts her hands on your shoulders, and whispers breathily, "hover hover hover." It may not sound like much, but it's the WORST THING EVER and she knows it.

To quote Ramona Quimby's father's grandmother: "First time is funny, second time is silly, third time is a spanking." We've altered this somewhat for Twelve: Third time is I'm taking away your iPod.

The latest annoying thing is startling me. As in, literally, finding ways to activate my fairly sensitive startle reflex.

I startle ridiculously easily when people appear unexpectedly. I've been known to scream when roommates come into the room. R has learned that if he comes home when I'm in the shower or in my sewing room, it's a really good idea to jangle the keys in the living room, rattle the bedroom doorknob, and/or make noise coming down the stairs. (What, it's not fun to be hollered at when you get home?)

Twelve has taken this one step farther. Imagine you're getting ready to exit the bathroom, just minding your own business, and when you open the door, boom! right there at eye level is a face: Huge, wide-eyed, grinning. It's as bad as hovering, with the added awful element of surprise. And then, of course, the giggling, which is infectious, so your protestations are that much less effective.

She also likes to try and sneak into the room. Simpler, but effective enough when it works, and it doesn't require standing motionless in wait outside the bathroom door. Luckily this house is old and creaky and she is terrible at suppressing giggles, so it doesn't work very often, but every now and then I turn around and there she is.

Twelve, you're completely obnoxious, and you know it, which is why you're laughing uncontrollably. Yes, I do think it's funny for about seven seconds, but then you must stop or I must run away. I can tell that you know this as well, because you're saying "I love you" and trying to hug me through your laughter in that play-placating way that you have so finely honed.

I'm so glad that you're home, Twelve, and you'll never know how relieved I am that you're still yourself. Now, cut it out or I'm taking your iPod!