Saturday, October 3, 2009

The True Cost of a Fifth Grade Social

My ten year old needs money.

In the worst way, too. You see, there's a fifth-grade social tonight in our town and it costs ten dollars to get in. Our family policy is that mom and dad will pay half of the entrance price for school sponsored activities such as this, and the kids need to come up with the other half. She receives a five dollar allowance each week if she completes her chores without being asked--and yes, I know some child specialists frown on that, but I have my reasons--and she's known about this social for two weeks. Her allowance is broken down to one dollar into savings, another to charity or church, and three to do with as she wishes.

She has been gathering pennnies and quarters around her room for the last week. Instead of just doing her stuff for two weeks, she still lives in the world of magical thinking and planning; the world where five bucks shows up on your sidewalk an hour before you need it. Today, as she spent her time playing on the computer, watching television, and talking on the phone, she seemed oblivious to the fact that she was still lacking in funds.

She has four chores to do each day, altogether taking approximately ten to fifteen minutes to complete. The agreement is that for her to receive allowance, she needs to get her stuff done before she does anything else--phone, computer, tv, friends, etc. And yet at four this afternoon, she was lounging on the phone, trying to find out the time of the social from a friend.

She knew the rules. She knew the consequences, even if she didn't want to accept them. And when she saw my face, she got off the phone.

"I'm taking care of my stuff right now," she said.

"It's too late," I said.

I heard her begin to cry and I left the room.

My daughter is an incredibly bright little girl. She is sweet and smart and loving. But she is the most disorganized and procrastinating person I've ever met. I wonder if she'll end up on that show Hoarders one day because she can't seem to part with anything. For as long as I've known her, I could always tell where she was because she leaves a path in her wake. I remember being similar as a child in the sense that I was not a good organizer. I still suck at it and I still procrastinate. But certain things we don't procrastinate on. Certain thing--such as central areas of the house, picking up one's own stuff, running errands that have to be completed, and caring for one another--are expected and routine.

My mother was the kind of parent who would have gone crazy with this child's behavior. She could barely tolerate MY mess, and mine was so much less than my daughter's. Disorganization is my mother's biggest pet peeve, and has been her entire life, I think. To this day, whenever we visit, she is constantly rearranging things. Order makes her feel comfortable in her home, and I get that. Disorganization makes her feel nutty. Screaming, yelling, punishments, constant nagging were part of her repertoire when things were out of order. But the worst I remember is my perception of her disappointment--that I wasn't good enough for her. That I couldn't do it right, and even when I tried, I failed. I spent a large part of my childhood feeling disengaged from my parents and as though I was a disappointment to them. Whether it was cleaning my room or completing my chores or even my weight--from my perspective, I let everyone down. It took me a long time of healing and many years as an adult to understand that most parents--including my own--do the best they know how to do at the time. Sometimes we excel and sometimes we don't. But most of us keep on trying, determined to do better by our children than was done by us.

Which brings me back to the child at hand. This child is one that I could spend my day nagging. That I could take away all privileges until everything is done to my satisfaction. That I could bribe with extra rewards for appropriate behavior. But I choose not to. I chose to let her choose what would happen tonight. And my gut tells me that if she makes this choice enough, she won't make it again.

Parenting is tough stuff and definitely not for the faint of heart. Parenting children with special needs or rough starts in life can be even tougher. I understand her need to keep things, so I shut her bedroom door and wait for opportunities like this one to rear their heads and motivate room cleaning. There's too many other things to think about, to worry about, to insist upon. With children like mine, consistency and structure are super important. When they were young, we followed a schedule to the letter and it helped them internalize some structure and feel some safety that they had never had before. As they have gotten older, the structure has loosened but we tighten it again when it's feeling too loose and there are problems arising. But another thing that I've learned is that compassion and trust are just as important. I can't expect any person, much less a child, to respect my opinion when the need for rules overrides everything else. Listening to my daughter's honest tears earlier was painful. I hurt in my gut. I wanted to say, "Why did you do this? Why would you make this choice? You KNEW what would happen and you're smart enough to keep it from happening!" But the answer to that is that she's just a kid. And she's impulsive and not the best planner. She struggles with disorganization and magical thinking. We talked about it. We commiserated over the choice she made. We snuggled and watched a little tv.

So instead of a social with her friends, she's doing her chores and hanging with me. We'll pick up something for dinner and watch some tv and enjoy each other's company. I'm definitely not as cool as a social. But I can hear her, independently, completing her chores as I write this. And I'm proud of her, either way. Because even though she demonstrated some irresponsibility three hours ago, now she's demonstrating character--and to me, that rocks.

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