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My Son Made Me Miserable Until I Killed Him ... With Kindness

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Guest blogger Katie: My son, Charlie, was a difficult child. But he wasn't always that way -- eleven months ago, he was my baby boy, my easygoing cutie who laughed easily and a lot. But then his sister was born, and he changed -- almost overnight. Once he became the middle child, he turned into an angry, moody little poop (sorry, it's true), and no matter how often we'd explain that he was loved as much as ever, nothing seemed to change his negative demeanor.

woman hugging son

Each day when I woke up, I braced myself for Charlie's morning antics: the foul mood, the refusal to get out of bed, dressed and washed or to get to the table for breakfast without me having to tell him many, many times to do so. By the end of the morning, I was sick of my own voice and in a bad mood myself, snapping at Charlie and his older sister like a version of Joan Crawford in "Mommy Dearest." It was only after they'd been dropped off at school that I could breathe and go about my day in peace. And then, as it neared time to pick them up again ... well, I'd brace myself for a repeat performance.

It was after Charlie's teacher called us in for a conference that we realized the serious problem we had. We learned that his behavior had been just as bad in the classroom, and that counseling was being recommended for him. Wow. Counseling? My husband and I sat down and talked about a solution, but we were at a loss as to what to do. We'd already tried everything: grounding, time-outs, taking away his favorite possessions -- and nothing seemed to work.

It had always been my husband's opinion that Charlie's moodiness was a result of wanting attention -- even if it was the negative kind he was attracting. Yet I felt that I was giving all I could with an infant in the house, and honestly ... I was worn out. Charlie had been making our lives miserable, and oftentimes I'd just want to be away from him. His attitude had rubbed off on the whole family, and we found it hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Not long after, though, I came across an unlikely source of parenting inspiration: a book called "Cheaper by the Dozen," by Frank Gibreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, which is the true story of a couple who raised 12 children. What struck me most about this family was the fact that the parents didn't raise their voices when they disciplined their kids. However improbable that seemed, it did plant an idea in my head with regards to our son. A lot of yelling was going on in our household, and I was game for anything that would bring some peace into our lives. So we decided that whenever Charlie got moody or negative, we simply would not react -- and when he did do something worthy of punishment, we would carry it out with a calm and matter-of-fact attitude. I prepared myself to "kill him with kindness" -- just like the mother did in the book -- even though I thought it might kill me to do it.

That first morning, instead poking my head in his room and announcing, "OK, let's get going, time to get up!" I sat down on Charlie's bed and stroked his head and softly woke him, kissed him on the nose and told him to get up and going. "Let's have a good morning, sweetie," I said, and then I went to the kitchen to start breakfast. I was doubtful, but in ten minutes Charlie was at my side, dressed and pressing his face into my back while I finished frying the eggs. What? A hug? This -- and the fact that I'd only had to tell him to get up once -- was worth some positive attention. I hugged and kissed him back, and the morning proceeded smoothly. I was a little apprehensive (I was just waiting for something to go wrong), but that afternoon, we got the same results: I was "nice mom" when I picked him up from school, and our afternoon/nighttime routine was nice, too. The next day? Same thing. And the next, and the next ....

It only got better. The following week, he came home from school with a certificate for "Student of the Week," a note from his teacher saying he had gotten "all 4's" for his behavior that day and a test he'd gotten 100 percent on for a fourth-grade-level book he'd read (he's in first grade!). When I asked him what had gotten into him, he responded, "I'm happy in the morning, so I'm happy in school." I definitely knew how he felt -- I'd been so happy in the mornings, my days were peaceful, productive and lovely as well.

We're now two weeks into our experiment with Charlie, and while it hasn't been perfect, our home environment -- and his classroom behavior -- have been transformed. We give him positive reinforcement when he's doing things right (to clarify, he doesn't necessarily have to be doing anything outstanding; it's just when he's not doing anything wrong, such as not complaining or not fighting with his sister), the idea being that what you notice, you get more of.

I encourage you to give this a try if you're going through a similar situation with your child -- as unnatural as it feels to be non-reactive when he's being a pain, or calm when you have to discipline -- and see what happens. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

4 comments so far | Post a comment now
MarkSpizer May 3, 2010, 5:36 AM

great post as usual!

Just Sayin' May 3, 2010, 9:49 AM

Awesome! Isn’t that so much better?
Thanks for sharing that with us.

forex robot May 3, 2010, 7:07 PM

found your site on today and really liked it.. i bookmarked it and will be back to check it out some more later

Badmommy June 10, 2010, 10:31 PM

I’m going to try it with my 9 year old tomorrow. I’ll keep my fingers crossed….and maybe a valium in my pocket too….just in case I need it.

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