December 29th, 2013

Perfectionism and Perspective: Loving _The Explosive Child_

I'm rereading Ross Greene's fantastic book about inflexible-explosive children (I may not be a child, but reading this book is like reading a description of me -- and being reminded of all the work I have done over the years -- decades! -- to accommodate my basic nature. And while my children are sweet and loving, at least one of them is Just Like Me). I ran across a wonderful sentence that is exactly what I was trying to articulate, and failing to express clearly.

"The ultimate antidote for perfectionism is perspective: Here's who my child was, here's who he is, and here's who he's likely to be -- I should try to stop insisting that he become something he isn't."

It's true as a parent. It's true for how I relate to myself. It's true for how I relate to other people, and what I expect of them. It's really really really true.

Obviously, when I express this, I'm going to not get it quite right, because that's just kind of how I am and I continually try to improve, but I have to be realistic about my communication skills. But if you ever talk to me about my kids, and I say, "This kid is not going to ever do X." (say, this kid is never going to drive a car), I will not parent in a way that gets in the way of that kid learning to drive a car. I will do everything in my power to help my kid get to a point where he or she can learn to drive a car in compliance with the law, safely, etc. But while I'm doing all that, I'm setting expectations for me, my family and the community we exist in so that as my kid develops, if he or she never drives, that's not viewed as a failing.

And if my kid, by some miracle, _is_ someday able to get a license and drive, that will be properly appreciated as the miracle which it truly would be.

The envelope of expected outcomes for any child should be set so that the child, with a reasonable amount of effort, can exceed those expectations and, by failing to exert any effort, their failure is not spectacular, but merely a less optimal result still within the expected envelope. If the absolute most effort the kid can expend, constantly, over time, will barely meet the minimum, and that only grudgingly, then the people around that kid have created a world of expectations so cruel that it can only be experienced as a form of Hell.

Let's do better than that.

ETA: I should add -- I usually do -- that a large chunk of my prediction about my child and driving is driven by two salient facts often not in the possession of my audience. (1) I probably would never have learned to drive if I could have avoided it (and numerous members of my extended family do not drive because they were a lot better at fighting The Pressure than I was). (2) I have a set of expectations about what our world will look like over the next few decades that suggests driving will become less and less of a normal/useful/typical adult activity. As we centralize -- for many reasons -- driving becomes less necessary, more complex and more dangerous, requiring better emotional control, cognitive ability and executive function. By the time my child might be mature enough to consider learning to drive, my child will likely have established adult routines that render driving largely uninteresting and optional. That appears to be already happening with children in general.

A Little Reframing

There are, alas, moments in _The Explosive Child_ that could use a little work.

"some kids don't adapt well when a solution doesn't go exactly as planned. Mike, a remarkably rigid thirteen year old, had agreed with his mother over when (12 noon on Saturday) and how (with her help) he'd clean his room."

Unsurprisingly, Mike can't do it by himself; he requires organizational assistance. Then, mom was an hour and a half late and without preamble, wanted to start doing it at that point. No evidence in the text that she called him at 11:45 to renegotiate because she was about to be late to her appointment with him, which is of course what Well Behaved Adults Do in a world of cell phones, and even before that if they were somewhere with access to a phone. I'm assuming the Mike family home has a phone.

They fight. Duh. If you're an hour and a half late without telling me, even odds I won't ever speak to you again because You Are Unreliable (obvs, if you are in the hospital, lost cell phone, etc. then I'll rethink it, but I'm going to expect an apology, minimum, modulo hospital/unconsciousness/sufficiently major other surprise disaster. It is just not that hard to let someone know you are going to be late). Does the author characterize this situation as a parental error? Nope.

"What Mike needed was a complete renegotiation of the original agreement. He was just that rigid."

Well, _yeah_ he needed a complete renegotiation. She totally blew him off. That's not being rigid.

_The Explosive Child_, Ross Greene, reread

Subtitled: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children

I've got the second edition, Quill Press, 2001. I initially got it and read it in or around 2003, and it's one of a relatively small number of books I am willing to say Changed My Life. It helped me better understand myself; it gave me confidence that I could raise a kid who was like me. Which turned out to be fortunate, as at least one of my kids shares a lot of the emotional difficulties I have.

Greene's approach is Very Simple, but that does not mean it is necessarily Easy to implement -- altho once you are well along the path, you may find yourself confused and irritated that everyone else doesn't Just Get It. Indeed, that is the basis for my decision to reread the book. I did not expect to learn how to do what Greene suggests (I already had); I hoped instead to learn how to explain it to others. I will discover in the coming months and years whether I was successful.

Greene reframes children who throw temper tantrums long after more ordinary children have stopped. Rather than treating these children as unaware of the rules their parents and teachers expect them to follow, or unmotivated to follow them, Greene suggests that some children (people) have a variety of problems (with executive function, language, social communication, self-knowledge, sensory processing, general irritability perhaps as an effect of some or all of the above, etc.) that make them more likely to experience frustration and emotionally disregulate as a result (altho he doesn't ever use that word, I don't think). Parents and teachers can help these children by making the environment less trigger-y, and helping them learn how to calm themselves and to problem solve in difficult situations.

He advocates prioritizing rules into three baskets: the MUSTs, the we are working on its, and the never minds (he calls them A, B, and C). Safety is a must -- a parent or teacher will tolerate and manage a meltdown to prevent the child from hurting herself, others, destroying property, etc. The "working on its" evolve over time, and involve the kind of collaborative problem solving characteristic of Thomas Gordon's excellent _P.E.T.: Parent Effectiveness Training_. Everything else is a never mind (at least for now, but hopefully over time some of these can work their way into the working on it category, as everyone calms down and gets along better).

In a way, Greene is just advocating what every competent parent and teacher learns relatively quickly: you must choose your battles, and you must stay a couple steps ahead of the little ones. Reducing demands on children who cannot cope with multiple, incompatible, ambiguous demands is a matter of staying ahead of the little one: if you _know_ that too many rules at once will set the kid off, then you should also _know_ not to fucking do that again. If you are going to give in on a particular rule after a tantrum or meltdown, then you really might as well give in pre-emptively, so as to not teach the little one that tantrums get you stuff.

I feel bad for Greene, because he is clearly constantly up against it with all the Positive Parenting, Consequences, etc. approaches to "discipline". They all think he's too permissive and a wimp. Meanwhile, more radical parents will find Greene, like Gordon's _P.E.T._, inadequately respectful -- at least at times -- of children as people.

Greene has truly found an effective Sweet Spot in the business of teaching people how to better raise children, whether as parents, teachers, administrators, therapists or other. This is a book that everyone should read, even if you are not a parent, a teacher, work with children, etc. It can help us be more supportive friends of parents, teachers, etc. It can help us participate more usefully in setting public policy. It can even help us better understand ourselves, and other adults who have the kinds of cognitive, emotional and executive function problems which he describes in children.

While Greene touches upon autism/PDD, his approach is extremely verbal, which a problem. However, he does make an effort to simplify and clarify communication, which is not nothing. There are better authors for conveying the mechanics of communicating empathy. Finally, he really doesn't have any specific advice for ensuring safety when a child is violent, so his approach in the book is mostly aimed at children who are elementary school aged. The approach can absolutely work on larger/stronger/older people (and he has clearly applied it there), but that may be beyond the scope of what parents can manage so leaving it out of this book makes sense.

Making Beds

I don't make beds. I mean, obviously I occasionally do. But I have a principled objection to making beds. It's complicated, and not really worth getting into here (short form: if the bed is made, I'm much less likely to take a nap, and anything that gets in the way of me napping is Very, Very Bad) and I'm not suggesting no one else should make beds, only that I don't.

I was not always this way. As a child, I not only made beds, I was damn persnickety about how they were made. I wasn't a coin bouncer, but only because I was operating on a different aesthetic (domestic vs. institutional). When I was time crunched in the late 1990s, I resorted to a bottom sheet and a duvet, but I still made sure it was all straightened. Not Making Beds was a decision I arrived at later in life and it was conscious.

As you can imagine, I'm pretty reactive to time management, domestic management and child rearing advice on the topic of making beds. And I ran across a remark that triggered me, so off I went to the interwebs to find out if people actually do make beds, other than when company is coming. (For the record, there's really only one person who I will make beds for, out of deference to her arrival, and I don't think she's ever been in this house. And no, not my mother.) I was searching innocently on how many people leave beds unmade or something along those lines and ran across Stephen Pretlove's heavily covered work (there was a burst of publicity in 2005 and again in 2010) on the subject of dust mites dying faster in unmade beds, because they aired/dries more completely than made beds.

Didn't see that coming. I'm not sure I believe it. But humorous.

A model, validated by comparing to 3 beds in actual rooms. Looks like you have to pay to get the full paper?


ETAYA: The stuff about head size of bed occupant is hilarious. I'm kind of starting to believe in this guy's work. D'oh! Ends on a cliffhanger! I need to find the next paper . . .

Having trouble finding the full text of some of the other papers (the pilot study one in particular *sigh*), however, it may be that _not_ making the bed in this instance may be almost as organized an activity as "making" the bed. That is, if the goal is to really reduce moisture/improve ventilation, maybe the idea is to fully separate all the linens and maximize air flow. I dunno. But here's yet another perspective:

I feel like this might interfere with napping as well, but it is an interesting idea. It would guarantee that anything the kids lost in the bed and then got kicked towards the bottom of the bed would be discovered in a timely fashion, saving one the time of searching for it elsewhere in the house.

ETA still more: Not only do electric blankets reduce dust mites, but so does air conditioning, by reducing the humidity.