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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Raising parents well

PARENTS: Please don’t read this column – it’s for your kids’ eyes only – but please do take reasonable steps to bring it to your kids’ attention.

This may require that you cut out this page and tape it over the computer monitor, wrap the kids’ DS, Wii controls, iPod or cell phones inside it, or that you remove the bathroom mirror and tack this column in its place.

Beware that putting this column in your child’s social studies book, school agenda or backpack will guarantee that it’s never seen again (and you may inadvertently be contributing to the fire hazard that has accumulated in the bottom of their school cubbies or lockers).

If you’re an especially dedicated caregiver, you might txt, Tweet or Facebook the contents of this column to your kids, but be careful to immediately forget what you’ve read when you’re done.

Dear kids, after many years of using this space to help your parents better understand you, I’d like to give you a turn.

This column is for kids only. It’s about how to raise healthy parents.

Managing your parents’ behavior is really a very easy thing to do. All of those tantrums and tears, screaming and complaining are unnecessary. Here are five simple rules that will help you get what you want when you want it:

* Have you ever seen your mom or dad faint? It can be quite amusing. Here’s how:

They expect you to argue and complain. They expect to have to nag and remind you about chores and homework, turning off lights and closing drawers. Your parents’ fragile, near-senile thinking probably can’t cope with the unexpected.

Next time Mom or Dad asks you to do something, smile, say, “Yes, ma’am,” or, “Yes, sir,” and then do it.

It might be difficult at first to interrupt the really cool new video game, to get up without changing your Facebook status or to let the next download wait a minute or two, but the outcome is worth it. Watch what happens:

Mom says, “Did you make your bed yet?” (In her head, she expects you to ignore her or grunt something meaningless. Her blood pressure is already increasing, the muscles in her back are tensing and those lines across her forehead are already curving downward. She’s getting ready for battle.)

You say, “Nope. I’ll do it right away,” and then immediately put down the cell phone, let go of the mouse, leave the bag of chips where they are, get up and go make your bed. Do it right, not the “but you didn’t say how to make the bed” way.

Don’t forget to tuck in the sheet on the far side against the wall where you can’t reach easily. Arrange the stuffed animals neatly.

On your way out the door, pick up yesterday’s jeans and this morning’s damp towel, say, “Oops, sorry! I forgot these!” and throw them in the hamper without being asked.

All that pressure built up in her brain and muscles will drain out suddenly like air out of a balloon that you let go. As a result, she’ll get dizzy, her eyes might roll around (very amusing special effect) and she might faint.

Make sure she isn’t standing on the stairs or near an open window at the time. No medical attention is necessary. She’ll be fine. You’ll get back to whatever sooner than if you’d argued or ignored, and next time will go a lot easier.

* Negotiate. You can avoid some of those back-and-forth “Yes, you will!” “No, I won’t” arguments painlessly. Mom and Dad probably are really motivated to get you to do as they say. That means doing chores and homework, being polite, eating with utensils, cleaning up after yourself. They don’t enjoy all the screaming and punishing.

Next time Dad reminds you that bedtime really is 9 and “not 9:15, young lady!” try this:

“I know, Dad. I’m trying, but I need some incentive. If I’m in bed by 9 Sunday through Thursday, can I have a later bedtime Friday and Saturday?”

You’ll find some things aren’t negotiable, but others may be. There’s no harm trying and lots of possible positives. Not only will this help to keep your parents calm and earn you some extra privileges, learning this skill now is great preparation for a career in the business world!

* Take blame. This is a hard one, but you can do it. If you think about it, you’ll realize that all your past efforts to blame other people for things you did got you nowhere. Mom and Dad never believed your invisible friend spilled the cranberry juice on the new white carpet or that your infant sister wrote the swear words on the bathroom wall. All those excuses did was put off the punishment a little longer and probably made the punishment worse.

Taking the blame for your own misdeeds and bad choices will win you so many brownie points for maturity and responsibility that any punishment that follows will be trivial. Here’s how it works:

Mom: “Billy! Did you eat the last cookie?”

Your reflex is to say, “No way!” and blame someone else, but you stop yourself, take a deep breath, look her in the eye and say: “Mom, it’s true. I ate the last cookie. I know you told me not to.” (Stop there! Your urge to say, “But …” and make an excuse won’t help.)

Mom: “Well … I really appreciate that you admitted it. What are you going to do next time?”

Billy: “I won’t do it again, Mom. I’ve learned my lesson.”

* Kiss up to your brothers and sisters. This may be even harder, but the investment is worth the pain. All of your arguments about “Its not fair! Why does she get to and I don’t?” have failed. Instead of getting you the same thing your sibling got, this complaint probably got you in trouble.

Make nice. Kiss up. Treat your brothers and sisters like they’re human beings with feelings and watch what happens! All of a sudden, Mom and Dad will be giving you all the attention and ignoring them! They’ll realize just how mature and responsible and able you really are and then the privileges will start rolling in.

Your little sister bugs you? Try saying to her, “That’s OK, Sally. I know you’re just a little kid still. You can have mine if you really want.”

Your big brother won’t include you? Try saying, “I know you’re still pretty young that way, Freddie. I understand. Don’t worry, I’ll always include you when you want to play.”

The twins took your stuff? No tears. No yelling. No complaints. Find a calm, quite moment and tell Mom: “Hey, Mom, I let the little guys have my old thingy. It wasn’t in such good shape and they really liked it. How do you think I could earn a new one?” (See No. 2 about negotiating).

* Do extra. This might also make them faint. Here’s how it works:

You have very few resources. You don’t have a lot of money or skills. You don’t drive and you don’t have a credit card. They do. You want things that they control, such as a later curfew, gift cards, rides to your best friend’s house, permission to take a “mental health day” off from school. You could always negotiate for these things, but you’ll always be in a better position if your folks feel like they owe you.

Do simple, nice things today and watch how easy it becomes to get privileges tomorrow.

What can you do? Simple stuff without being asked:

Make your parents’ bed for them just because.

Set the table because you know dinner is soon.

Sweep the garage just because its dirty.

Pick up dirty laundry, put the dishes in the sink, hang your coat on a hook.

Beware that this won’t work if you do something extra and then immediately say, “I just made your bed, can I go to the movies?” The whole idea is that you did extra to contribute to the family. Because you care. Because you’re nice. Later, when you do ask for something, the investment will work in your favor.

Dr. Benjamin Garber is a child psychologist in Merrimack. To order his latest book, “Keeping Kids Out of the Middle,” or to reach him with comments and questions, call 879-9100 or visit www.healthyparent.com. Copyright 2009 Benjamin Garber, all rights reserved.