Turning Bad Behavior into Good

Dec 02, 2018

Sometimes our kids are just... well... awful. 

It's ok. We parents can be too. 

The good news? Sometimes that big giant steaming pile of yuck can bloom some pretty nice flowers if you know how to till the soil. 

Let me explain:

It's a Saturday. My husband has been out running errands all morning with my older son. They get home around 3. At 3:30 I have to leave with both kids to go pick up the car from the service center and then take them to a music lesson they never really want to go to at that hour on a Saturday. The lesson is demanding, it's a Saturday, and while the experience is actually great, they would always prefer to do NOTHING. It's tough on a good day, and on a day when my oldest has been out all day, this is like trying to get the Grinch to decorate a Christmas tree for an orphanage. 

Oh and on this day, in this moment, he's busy playing drums downstairs. You might think, "Perfect! He's playing drums! Surely he will want to get in the car and go play drums where he is supposed to be playing drums!"

Go ahead, think it.

Now let me laugh in your face. And then let me cry on your shoulder. 

See, some people have Yes kids. Like "Yes, take me here, take me there, I want to do this and that and can we, please??" My older son in particular is a No child. As in "No, nope, nada. Not my idea, not happening. I care about nothing as much as I care about saying No, so take away whatever you'd like. I am never ever no way going to say yes. And you can't make me." 

I will leave it for another day to explain that I have a hunch that much of this is connected to the fact that he had to have early, very intense, life-saving surgeries that he was never able to say yes or no to, so I am pretty sure that is where this feeling comes from that he will NOT do anything else ever again that he does not want to. Or maybe it is just his temperament, and he would have been like this no matter what. 

Either way, it's, um, difficult. 

So he has been home for about twenty minutes, and is now playing drums when I go down to remind him gently that it's time to go to the lesson and that we have to pick up the car before we do. 

He refuses. Like, actually, refuses. 

I say I know it's hard, but he has to. He says no, starts screaming, and throwing drumsticks. (Not chicken ones, real ones). 

I wonder if he is hungry and ask when he last ate. He does not answer that question but does continue to scream at me and say he won't go. I continue to hold the limit that we will. He begins hiding around the house. 

Yeah, I'm getting annoyed and stressed out. My husband needs to work and I need to go, and this is not what I feel like dealing with. Plus this behavior drives me NUTS.

My brain can easily go to a place where I think he is spoiled and difficult and in the same moment I am judging him, I am somehow simultaneously worried he will be eaten alive by life. I am no good when my brain goes there so I do my best to breathe and remember that we will somehow make it out of this. We always do and we will again.  

And here is how we do it, in all of its chaotic ugly beauty:

1. I tell my son I know how hard this is for him, and that I'd like to make it easy. I know he has been out all day, and I am happy to make this better by letting him use my phone while we get to the car place. He is too busy fighting to realize what a good deal this is so he says No (of course!) and lays down on the floor, deadweight. His brain is gone and he is working not just against me but also against himself.

2. I ask my husband to help me corral him. We get the wild horse caught and bring in the lead ever so slowly, by coming at him from both ends and offering him his shoes, and then his jacket, and ushering him out the door. He refuses it all but we are firm and get him out. He throws the shoes, and I tell him that this is truly unacceptable behavior and that he is entitled to be mad, but this is going to cost him. He has to learn to be able to do things he does not want to do. And if he can't then there will be a limit on the freedoms I can offer him. (We have a general rule in our family that good judgment gets you loads of freedom and poor judgment means more parental control is necessary, not in an angry punitive way, but in a realistic "I will drive the car til you can" kind of way.) So I remind him that his freedoms are eroding and that includes the freedom to use his computer largely at will. His brain clicks on for a second, just enough to tell his own body he should get himself into the Uber. 

3. The Uber is a cold, cold ride my friends. He refuses to talk or even acknowledge my existence so I spend some time chatting with my other son, but I don't want to pit them against each other so I am careful not to shine too much light anywhere.  I keep things quiet and low-key. I can feel his frost melting. Not that he'd admit it. But the fact that I have kept my cool makes him trust me. As does the fact that he knows our family has boundaries and expectations and that he will be held to them. He knows better than to ask me for the phone I had offered earlier knowing that offer has now been silently rescinded. He hates me for this but he loves me too. It took me YEARS to learn the power of being quiet. But I trust in it now and let it work its wonders.

4. The largely silent ride has come to an end. We get out and my son chides me for bringing his jacket. I say, "That's ok, no need to wear it my love. I just brought it for you in case." This conversation could be translated as Son: "You know I am still going to be difficult here, right?" Mom: "Yes my love. And I have got this. I am the deepest ocean and steadiest rock you will ever know." He shrugs and we head inside. 

5. I stand at the cashier and the mood is decidedly better. The boys are playing a bit as we wait and suddenly they discover a Good Humor ice cream bin. Ugh. But ooh wait...maybe this is an opening...

Here is the thing. We are a family pretty darn dedicated to healthy eating. We have spent years on gluten-free and dairy-free diets, and let's just say Good Humor is not on our shopping list. So when my boys come to me with sparkly eyes and wilting faces, I know I have an opportunity here. I ask my younger son to consider his body and how it reacts to dairy. He looks for a sorbet option. Nope, nothing. I let him decide what he wants to choose for himself. He goes for the big chocolatey Oreo drumstick-looking thing. Again, drumsticks. (What is it with today?) He is experiencing the freedom of having had good judgment earlier and being able to run off with his ice cream now. I am not keen on his Good Humor judgment but his body will police him for that choice later, so I don't have to now. 

I turn to my older son. He is also asking for an ice cream drumsticky thing.

Part of me thinks : "Are you kidding?!? After what you pulled half an hour ago???" But a smarter part of me is thrilled. I know this is an opportunity to reconnect. And a chance to learn, for both of us.

See, if I just say no right now, we will spiral ever downward. I won't teach anything of value except that I can be spiteful. I have MUCH MORE to gain by working with his desire than against it. 

So I Iook at him all side-eyed and smirk. My eyes are full of both warmth and warning. It is a look that says "I hate what you pulled earlier but I love you."

My words say: "Mm, hmm. Good Humor, huh? Really? Well, how are we going to do that? You know what needs to happen here, right?"

He smiles sheepishly and looks down at the floor. "Uh, yeah, I guess I need to um apologize."

"For what?"

"For throwing things."


"For being difficult and not leaving the house."

"Yeah. What was that about?"

"I don't know. I was tired. I didn't want to go."

I laugh in his face. But sweetly. 

"Hm. Seems like a problem. If that's how you act when you don't want to do things. We need to do better than that, don't you think?"

Because I am being real but not confrontational he is open to hearing what I have to say. Because he wants that ice cream, his brain is in an open receptive state and I take advantage of this being a moment to let a little bit of what we clearly have to work on settle into his brain. He apologizes and promises to do better and get good at knowing how to handle it when things happen that he doesn't like. We shake hands, promising to work together on this new emotional project we clearly have to take on, and he goes off to get his ice cream. 

As I think about the chemicals entering their bloodstream I also remind myself that this means at least they won't be hungry during the lesson and I choose to let myself run with that. Short term and dubious wins for all of us but I'll take it for now. Maybe it will grow into something better. 

We get in the car and my son asks me if I want to know what he really thinks about all this. I say yeah. He says, "No, not what you want me to think, but what I really think." I say yes. This closeness that he is offering me is a gift. I would prefer it any day to the answer he thinks I want to hear. And I prefer it to what would have happened had I lost it today or chosen to punish him with no ice cream. 

He goes on to talk a bit about why he felt the way he did, and how he knows he needs to get better but he just flipped. Over the drive we continue our chat. I ask him if he knows why I think it's important and good for all of us to have to do things we don't want to. He says he thinks it's dumb and there is no value. I say "Well yeah, then it makes sense you acted the way you did. But if you HAD to say where the value was what would you say?"

"Um, I guess because it makes you stronger, more adaptable."

Yeah.  "And how might that affect your life when you are a grown-up?"

"I don't know. You might not throw your desk at your boss?"

"Yeah, and who do you think has more job security? And money? And respect? And gets their ideas and creations out into the world? People who throw their desk, or..."

He laughs. Laughing is good. It signals a flexible brain. "Um, people who know how to have things happen they don't like and know how to make it better."

"Yeah. So I love you and I want that for you. How much of a difference do you think that might make in your life, personally? Like 1-10, how important is this skill we are talking about?"


Yeah, I am thinking "8, 9, 10 even."

We drive in silence again. But this silence feels warm.  We are on the same page, and now I am able to see some of the long-term wins we may have from this episode.

He is invested in the lesson, not pushing against it. He is internalizing it, because it was served to him on a platter of love, limits, and good humor. Literally. 

I drop him and his brother off at the music lesson. I come home to write this essay so I can share this with all of you good, hard-working families out there. To share the guts AND the glory. 

I am still writing when it comes time to pick up the kids. My husband kindly offers to go get them, and as they all come home, my son bounds into the house full of joy, exclaiming:

"Hello beautiful home! Hello beautiful doggie! Hello beautiful mommy!" 

I smile and ask him how the lesson was today. He gives me a happy thumbs up and heads off to the bathroom like none of this ever happened.

But I wrote it down so I know it did. :)

I also know it did because my son asked me some of the most interesting questions tonight: "Mommy I don't want to be disappointed so when exactly am I going to be able to open up that present you bought me that's waiting in the closet? I want to get my head straight about it." OR this one: "I know I can't play Fortnite tonight but when is the next time I can?" Ahh, the delightful sounds of a growing brain. You can almost hear the neurons forming...

Parenting is HARD sometimes but also super enriching. If you are having too much struggle, if you're having too much trouble, then I invite you to apply to mentorship so we can make a plan to get you the growth you need to see, for everyone's sake.  

P.S. Have you snagged your MFA STARTER PACK yet? 👇