Now I can't say I won't allow certain privileges, like use of a Nintendo DSi XL, that help mitigate a particular situation -- in fact, I have already done just that since changing my ways -- but I will say NO to the big treats the misbehaving child doesn't deserve.
Yet these people are much more than friends to us. They are family. Not the family I was born into but the family I created when I chose to become a mother in an unconventional way. My friends' children are half-siblings of my boys through their anonymous-donor father. S is one month to the day older than Christopher, and N is two years to the day younger than six-and-a-half-year-old Charlie. (March 25th is quite a milestone day, indeed, as it is also the anniversary of my mother's death.)
The kids get along great, and I am very fond of their two fun moms. If I met them in my town or in any other way, I would want them to be my friends. I consider myself very lucky to have them in my modern family.
Since not all of the moms are on board yet with disclosing to the kids our connection to one another, we just refer to each other as "friends." It has been tough for me to keep the secret from my boys, but I have parceled out hints. Christopher and Charlie know they have half-siblings scattered across the U.S., and they know they have met one family of them. I haven't revealed which one. "It could be a family in our town, a family we know out of town, or a family we know out of state," I've said cryptically.
Then I have asked each boy to guess which family it might be, and they both guess this family. Perhaps it is because I have described this family as "special" to us. Perhaps it is because this family, like ours, has no father in it. Or perhaps it is because my smart boys sense a different kind of kinship with the daughter and son. Indeed, part of our enjoyment in spending time together is watching the children interact with one another -- how they immediately fall into good-pal mode despite not seeing one another for a long time and how Charlie (my rambunctious one) leads N in fun, boyish physical activities like a sweet big brother.
It is beautiful to watch the four of them together.
Now in order for me to make the ninety-minute trip down to their house in Rhode Island and return the next day, I need to feel fairly rested. The problem is: I frequently don't feel this way. I suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome for about four and a half years, so I have to pace myself. Or I will seriously regret it.
When it comes to the Rhode Island family, however, I have pushed myself beyond my limit because I haven't wanted to cancel plans once they are finally made. But last Saturday, a new problem arose: it was SNOWING! The first real snow of the season, though it didn't accumulate in our area and barely stuck on the ground at all. I even forgot to pick up a handful, and now I've lost my chance. Driving in the snow is NOT one of my favorite activities, especially at the very beginning of the season when I (and everyone else) are out of practice. Still, I was willing to do it that day because I needed the happy break that visiting the family always provides. I envisioned watching the daughter play basketball then going back to their house for a pizza, beer, and salad dinner; relaxing with good conversation, heaps of laughter, and a child-friendly animated movie -- it was "Despicable Me" last year -- and retiring for the night with my boys on the carpet of their renovated basement floor. (I like camping, whether it's outdoors or indoors.) In the morning, we would all eat a big, leisurely breakfast then leave in time to make it back to Gloucester for that show rehearsal at noon again.
Given the snow, I needed to be EXTRA rested for the drive. I expressed that sentiment to the boys that morning. In other words, DON'T GIVE ME ANY DRAMA! But Charlie The Younger lives in his own world, so he ignored my plea and launched into his usual routine of tackling Christopher in too rough a manner. The protests erupted; the tears flowed; and the retaliatory fighting ensued, prompting more protests and tears. And it escalated. I got mad and separated the boys.
I CAN'T STAND this behavior of Charlie's. It is my single biggest problem with the boys when it comes to family dynamics. It would be one thing if Christopher liked the roughhousing. Then it would only be a matter of making sure they kept it under control so no one got hurt. But that is not what I have on my hands. I have two boys pretty close in age who are opposites in terms of their personalities and interests. I am perpetually being put in the position of having to referee these skirmishes, physically break apart the boys (not easy to do without reinjuring my fifty-one-year-old back), and punish the offending party (Charlie, always Charlie).
Then there's Christopher. He also HATES it when Charlie invades his space and won't leave him alone. He runs to his room (well, their room) and starts to scream, "I hate you! I wish I didn't have a brother! I can't go on like this!"
The truth is: NEITHER ONE OF US CAN GO ON LIKE THIS.
And that is why I decided on Saturday that the buck stops here. I was going to set an example. I would lay down my iron fist. I canceled the trip to the Ocean State. I announced my decision in the car on the way home from Charlie's basketball clinic and the bank. "As much as I wanted to go to Rhode Island, I agree with you that you have to cancel the trip," said Christopher, who is mature way beyond his nine years.
"Snow, snow, snow," said Charlie, trying not to take responsibility for his behavior and instead blame my decision on my not wanting to drive in the snow.
NOTHIN' DOIN'. I was not about to let Charlie believe for ONE SECOND that he wasn't the cause of the change in plans, "NO, Charlie, YOU ruined our weekend with your bad behavior this morning. I would have driven in the snow if I had felt rested enough. But you WORE ME OUT before 10 a.m. You made it IMPOSSIBLE for me to be able to make the drive," I said.
"Snow, snow, snow," Charlie kept muttering.
Frustrated, depleted, and depressed, I informed the boys back at the house that I was off duty for the rest of the day, and they had to entertain themselves without fighting -- in the house. Yes, they could use technology. It was a very quiet afternoon and evening as the severity of what Charlie had done sunk in. I retreated to Facebook to reach out to my friends, and they responded in full force with praise for my decision. It seems it is very common among mothers to threaten to cancel impending fun plans when a child is misbehaving . . . but it is equally common to fail to follow through because the parent wants the fun plans to happen, too! One friend summed the problem up by calling herself the False Threat Queen. Then she gave me permission to borrow the catchy moniker. I was very grateful to be able to communicate with my friends under our stuck-in-the-house circumstances. They made me feel much better, though I by no means felt good.
As the afternoon progressed, photos of an event occurring in our town began to pop up on my Facebook page. It was Santa's arrival by boat. He was accompanied into the harbor by stand-up paddleboarding elves. I kid you not. Only a quaint coastal town such as ours could dream up such a unique Christmas festivity. Well, I couldn't exactly reward a badly behaving child with a trip to the park to meet Santa now, could I? Certainly not. If I'd had more time between returning from the bank and the start of the event, I might have thought to call the mothers of some of Christopher's friends to ask if they could take my obedient son. But I was still processing what went down that morning. My head wasn't clear enough for me to come up with an alternative plan. Besides, I didn't know how Charlie would take it if Christopher was allowed to leave the house. He might have staged some kind of a revolt -- a possibility I was not willing to risk given the fact that things had calmed down since we'd gotten home.
Instead, I made a point of showing Charlie the Facebook photos. "See? This is what we ALSO couldn't go to because of your bad behavior," I said. Charlie is a tough kid. Looking at the photos did not faze him, at least not outwardly. It was only after I'd scrolled through quite a few that he finally pulled the red blanket on his lap over his head. For his part, Christopher continued to support my efforts to drive the point home with Charlie that what he did had consequences and would not be tolerated in the future.
It has been five days since I canceled the trip to Rhode Island, and I have to say Charlie's behavior has improved considerably. Just to be sure my clamping down has made an impact, however, I have followed it up with two more actions designed to keep him in line.
The first is setting up an Elf on the Shelf in the family room, the room where we spend most of our time. According to Christmas tradition, the slender, red-suited male doll watches the behavior of children in the home by day and reports back to Santa by night. This is how he knows who's naughty and who's nice. When the elf returns from the North Pole each morning, he plants himself in a new location in the home.
We have named our elf Larry. Charlie's choice was Mike but -- in a rare and most-welcome show of giving in (good boy, Charlie!) -- he agreed to Christopher's pick, which was the name Lily on "Modern Family" gave her baby brother when it looked like her two dads Cam and Mitch would be getting one via a surrogate. Christopher and I, of course, love "Modern Family" and watch it religiously together every week.
The second additional step I have taken is to make a clear, bold sign delineating the house rules. The collection of NOs, now prominently displayed on a family-room wall, covers the gamut of Charlie's bad behavior at home from just-for-the-heck-of-it screaming to unwanted roughhousing that leads into fighting in all its various forms both verbal and physical. The sign will remain on the wall permanently as a constant reminder of what is not allowed.
Something tells me Larry will be sticking around through the off season as well!