A particularly helpful thing I've done as a parent in the past few months when encountering difficult parenting moments is to create something like negotiated, written documents with my five-year-old. Let me explain. The first time inspiration hit was in July, when Matthew was scheduled to take four weeks of daily swimming lessons in a private pool just outside of the city. The problem was that, after the second day of lessons, Matthew announced that he was never going to swim again; with a bit of guesswork and some casually-asked questions, I learned that he was a bit scared of both swimming and his teacher (who was, granted, a drill sergeant). So I decided to try something new. As we were driving back towards home, I suddenly pulled over to the side of the highway and parked the car on the shoulder. I took out of my purse a little notebook that I always carry and, right then and there, Matthew and I brainstormed about his swimming lessons: what he liked about it; what he hated about it; what scared him; what his goals were; etc etc. I asked a zillion questions and wrote down everything he said. When we were all done that exercise, I asked him what he'd like me to write down for him so that, before his next swimming lesson, I could read it out loud to him and remind him of his thoughts about swimming. This resulted in his dictating to me the following:
Things to remember about swimming lessons:
At first, I was scared and wanted to quit, but then things got better and I stopped being scared. I like this about swimming lessons:
1. Going down the slide; using the floaty boards and flutterboards and kicking and doing ears and bubbles, but it was hard at first until I got going. It was hard to get my head up at first but I kicked my legs hard and that helped.
2. Getting the ring from the step, even putting my whole head under the water to get the ring
I am not supposed to talk to Mom during the swimming lesson because my teacher wants me to focus on swimming. Even though I was scared at first and didn’t want to go into the water, I love swimming and want to learn how to swim. Next class, I want to remember that I've been scared other times at first when I do other things, but I want to remember that I like swimming and want to go to his swimming class. I am going to work hard to learn how to be a great swimmer.
The next morning, before his swimming lesson, I read his statement to him a few times...slowly. When we arrived at the lesson, he got into the water and finished the whole lesson without complaints. Afterwards, when we were driving home, I again pulled over and asked what he had liked about it - I added to his statement what he wanted me to write. Before the next several lessons, I read his whole reminder to him and it was like magic - after a while he didn't even need the reminder because he started to love his swimming lessons. After twenty days of lessons and to this very day, Matthew loves the water - he jumps straight in, swims under water from side to side of the pool, dives for things at the bottom, does somersaults under water, etc etc. And this is a boy who struggled to be able to put his face into the water just a few months ago - amazing!
I have since employed this method of negotiating a written agreement with a couple of other things that were hard for him (eg. skating lessons recently) and it has worked magnificantly. He has opportunity to have input and to say all of the negative and the good stuff about an activity, and when we write out his statement/reminder, it is his own words that are injected into the written statement and which convince him that it's good to do the activity despite his reservations or fears.
My most recent effort happened yesterday afternoon, after getting our H1N1 vaccine - after which he pronounced that he was never going to get another needle. After thirty minutes of discussion and note-taking about his thoughts on vaccines (the good, the bad and the ugly), this is what he had me write yesterday, to remind him off the next time he has to get a needle:
A needle can be painful. It is worse than stubbing your toe when it gets poked into your skin, but the needle only hurts for a few seconds and a stubbed toe hurts for much longer. I was scared before I got the needle because I was worried that it would hurt. And it did hurt for a few seconds. But then it felt better almost right away.
I'm glad I got the needle, so that I won't get sick from a bad flu or disease.
Next time I should maybe take a teddy along. Also, having a sucker after I got the needle helped.
If I need to get another needle, I only want to know about it a few minutes before I get it, so that I won't be anxious about it for a long time.
Getting a needle wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.
(Signed by him and by me)
It's amazing - these are his words and thoughts (not mine) after much discussion and acceptance of the fact that it was painful and that he hated needles. We'll see how well this reminder works when he gets his five-year-old vaccines shortly, or when he gets his yellow fever shot before we head to Ethiopia. But I'm willing to bet that it'll make a difference because spending that time and writing down his own words has transformed a number of very difficult and contentious events into very manageable things that I no longer have to be the sole driver of. I'll let you know how the next shots go!