Thursday, April 30, 2009

***Diary of a Mad Housewife: Homemaking -- Whose Job Is It?

A few months ago, my friend Jo* and my friend Patrick** and I started an email discussion about homemaking, and we decided to do some parallel blogging on the topic.   Eventually we settled on a topic -- Homemaking:  Whose Job Is it? -- and a deadline --today!  Sometime this afternoon or evening, we are all posting  and cross-posting our essays -- so if you're not completely bleary-eyed by the end of my essay, be sure to check out Jo's at The Modernity Ward, and Patrick's at Loose Ends.

*Before Jo blogged at The Modernity Ward, she was one of the first and most influential infertility bloggers, and her blog The Leery Polyp was my introduction to blogging and my inspiration for beginning my own first blog, the wide tent.  Happily, Jo shed her infertility woes and is the proud mama of scrumptious Sophia and Daphne, but just as happily for the rest of us, she retains all of her thoughtfulness and wit.  This woman can write!  I feel so fortunate to be her friend.

**Patrick and I went to Earlham College together, but barely knew each other there.  As I have written before, though, to be an Earlhamite is to be part of an extended family, like it or not, and I like it very very much when it comes to Patrick Lacey.  Thanks to Facebook, we recently became reacquainted, and thanks to our respective blogs, have come to be much closer friends than we ever were as undergraduates.  I spent most of last evening reading the archives of Loose Ends, and dreamed all night about Patrick and his family, some of whom I also know.  As I wrote most of today (ignoring all my chores, I'll have you know!), I was acutely aware of how family-oriented my image of homemaking is, a limitation that has rarely occurred to me before I tried parallel blogging about homemaking with a single, childless gay man.  I'm grateful to Patrick for expanding my horizons, but mostly just for being my friend!

***I am cross-posting this under The Cost and Joy of Discipleship, but wonder if I shouldn't come up with a new category, since faith and homemaking so often overlap for me:  Diary of a Mad Yet Joyful Disciple? Diary of a Housewifely Disciple Joyfully Going Mad?  Hm.

And now, for our main attraction.


Sometimes I rue the fact that family circumstances landed my conversion to Christianity in the United Church of Christ, in which my partner Julie was raised, rather than, say, Quakerism (where I started my conversion when I joined Clear Creek Yearly Meeting of Friends when I was a student at Earlham College) or Catholicism (where I still sometimes think I may end up, especially now that Eileen McCafferty DiFranco, ordained a priest through full apostolic succession, if not with the blessing of the Vatican, is leading weekly Masses in Philadelphia).  The problem with the UCC – and probably any mainline, liberal Protestant denomination for that matter – is that when it comes to worship, we don’t do either of the things that I love most all that well: that is, gathered silence on the one hand, and high liturgy on the other.  A UCC worship service has the strong potential to be, well, a bit cerebral.  A bit ... tepid.  Not that it has to be, mind you, and when Julie’s jazz band plays at Old First Reformed United Church of Christ (as it will on Pentecost, and you should definitely come visit), they rock the house.  But most of the time, UCC worship services are not much to write home about, not if you are at heart a “Quathlic,” as one of my favorite nuns once called herself.

But here’s the thing about the UCC, the thing I love:  we believe that God is Still Speaking.  If you’re a member of a UCC congregation, that slogan may sound a little tired, even trite, but really, it’s a pretty profound thing, and what keeps me coming back (that, and my little church that could, there at the corner of 4th and Race; I do love that place, even when it’s driving me crazy).  What it means is that there’s room for taking faith, and scripture, and spiritual practice very seriously, and, at the same time, there’s room for being a doubting Thomas, like me – a heretic, even!

Years and years ago, when we first moved to Philadelphia and Julie was teaching at a small, private school in Mount Airy (which shall remain nameless but which Julie sometimes liked to call Project We Never Learn), she and I attended the Bar Mitzvah of one of the junior high students whom Julie had taken on many, many hikes, including a three-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail.  This young man’s Torah portion was the Noah story, and I still vividly remember his thesis, which was that at the time of the flood, God was still learning how to be God, but hadn’t quite gotten it right yet, and that was why God made such a terrible mistake in sending the flood.  The mistake, by the way, was not in killing all the wicked human beings and saving only Noah and his family.  No, the mistake was that so much of the natural world was destroyed – the natural world that this young man had come to love, in particular through his year of hiking with Julie.  It was inconceivable to him that God could have sacrificed all of that innocence and goodness just to teach us a lesson; surely, he concluded, God had made a mistake in God’s quest to figure out this Being God Business.  Now how cool is that, huh?  This thirteen-year-old kid with the confidence and permission to stand up in front of his community of faith and argue with God?  If that kid were a Christian, he would be welcome in the UCC, and that’s one of the things I love most about my church. 

Which is all a really long and roundabout way of saying that I have a little bit of a bone to pick with Jesus when he went to visit Martha and Mary in Luke 10: 38-42.  You may not be familiar with the story to which I refer, and if you don’t have a New Testament handy, here it is:

Now as they [Jesus and his disciples] went on their way, he [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10: 38-43 (NRSV)

I’ve heard several sermons on this text, and I’m well aware of the standard, feminist interpretations – that this is a wonderful example of Jesus not only treating women as equals, as worthy of studying with him, but actually extolling that over a woman’s traditional role as a homemaker.  And I’m down with that, that’s cool.  Lord knows the  Church has gotten more wrong than right when it comes to women’s roles, and it seems likely that if the Church (and especially the Roman Catholic Church) would just stick to what Jesus actually said about women, rather than putting words in his mouth and offering tortured interpretations of what he didn’t actually say, well then, things might not be such a mess.  So yeah, it’s cool that Mary is there studying at Jesus’s feet.  Very cool.

But if you look a little closer, I’ll bet you’ll find that the floor she’s sitting on is clean, right?  I’ll bet there’s not a lot of pet dander kicking up Mary’s allergies, or dirt and crumbs making Jesus’s feet feel oogie when he takes off his sandals.  And I’ll bet when Jesus came in, Martha offered him something cool to drink, and that when the lesson is over, they’ll all sit down to a nice meal she prepared, and I bet Jesus won’t be all condescending with Martha then.  The thing about homemaking is that when it is done well, it is almost by definition invisible, something that will be taken for granted.  A well-run household, one that is clean enough for health and comfort, one that is organized in ways that are simple yet pleasing to the eye, one in which tasty meals and quenching drinks are offered and laughter is frequent and conversation easy – this all can quite easily seem to be a matter of course, Just The Way Things Are Here.  That there is an architect behind all that, an artist even, crafting all this simple comfort and easy hospitality – that is easily missed.

One of my dearest friends  -- I’ll call her Dee – is also my homemaking mentor.  Dee’s home is stunningly and inexplicably lovely at all times (I know this, because I sometimes drop by unexpectedly, just to see).  The surfaces are always clear, or arranged as a pleasing still-life; there are never dishes on the counter or half-finished bowls of cereal on the dining room table, and the bathroom sink never has spooges of toothpaste; even the kids’ rooms are neat, for crying out loud.  It is the most comfortable and welcoming home I know.  Last fall, when our house was turned upside down with a basement renovation, I would go to Dee’s house and just sit on her couch and do whatever it was that I couldn’t bear to do in my own house because it was such a dirty, chaotic pit.  I still don’t quite understand how Dee maintains such utter homemaking discipline, especially since she actually has a Jay Oh Bee, albeit a work-from-home one, but still, a job that requires her to think about things other than homemaking for at least thirty-two hours a week.  Here’s the thing, though:  I used to have this sense that Dee just had some magic that I could never even aspire to, so why even try?  Right?  I mean really, aren’t those the kinds of friends you love to hate just a tiny bit, not the friend herself, but what she seems to be able to accomplish, the thing that just throws your own failures into relief? 

I was once at a party at Dee’s house, and a mutual friend and I went upstairs to check out the newly tiled bathroom floor.  This mutual friend, I’ll call her Em, is a working mother with three young children, and although I have never been in Em’s house, I understand, based on Em’s own description, that it is, well, not always as tidy as Dee’s, shall we say.  So I assumed I had an ally in Em, and as we ascended the stairs, I said in a mock conspiratorial tone, “Don’t you just hate Dee sometimes?  Her house is always soooo clean!”  I was joking of course.  Few people can love Dee as much as Em and I do, and I knew that Em knows that.  So I fully expected her to join me in the mock conspiracy, but instead she just said, simply, “No, not really, because Dee works really hard to keep her house so nice.”

Now I will admit to being just a bit chagrined at Em’s thoughtfulness and honesty, because it really highlighted how absurd my own magical thinking was.  Dee’s house is lovely and calm and welcoming not through some magic that only Dee possesses, but because she works really hard at it?  Duh!  As someone who works really hard too, albeit with less consistent results, I of all people should have known better.

And so I guess I should let Jesus off the hook too, because at the end of the day, maybe the problem really lay with Martha.  Not with her choice to offer Jesus hospitality, rather than sit at his feet and study, but in her own failure to honor that work by complaining about it.  Of course, the quotidian tasks of homemaking are definitely something to complain about if you don’t feel called to homemaking as a vocation, and you are just stuck doing the work because you’re a girl, or you’re poor, those being the two main reasons people who would rather not nonetheless get stuck doing the housework.  (I will note here that the quotidian tasks of homemaking can still be something to complain about even if homemaking IS your vocation, but generally I think anyone called to a vocation of homemaking would not find a visit from Jesus an occasion to complain.)  If Martha had a true vocation as a homemaker, she should have gone about her tasks, invisible as they sometimes are, without complaining, just because she loved them, or at least the homemaking gestalt of which they are a part.  If she did not have a true vocation as a homemaker, she should have stopped her work, as Jesus suggested, and sat down and listened.  Either way, I guess Jesus was right after all:  she definitely shouldn’t have whined. 

So, whose job is homemaking?  Well, for starters, I think homemaking should be the job of anyone who is called to it.  In my family, that is primarily me, a truth that took us all awhile to figure out and to honor.  And we had fewer hurdles than many families have – especially progressive, heterosexual families, in which gendered expectations can get in the way of discerning who, if anyone, is called to such a vocation.  I have known some women who love being home with their kids and making a home for their families, but worry that taking on such a role conflicts with the commitment they and their husbands have made to equality within their marriages.  I have known some women who worry that if they pursue a vocation of full-time homemaking, they will reinforce cultural stereotypes about what women and men can and should do in the world, and they especially worry about the influence those reinforced stereotypes will have on their sons and daughters.  These all seem to me honest and legitimate things to struggle with.  On the flip side, I have known not a small number of men who are probably missing their calling to homemaking because they cannot break free of the stranglehold that “breadwinning” and “career” and “success in the world” seems to have on the male ego.  I have also known a very small number of men who bravely pursue their vocation (and find along the way, I suspect, that humility is not a burden, but at the very root of happiness).  The irony of having been categorically excluded, until just recently, from the institution of marriage, and with it, all of its normalizing nomenclature that comes laden with such gendered expectations (come on, admit that “wife” and “husband” connote something quite specifically gendered in a way that “partner” is not)  -- the irony is that in many ways we, Julie and I, have been more free to truly pursue our vocations.  

But even so, a vocation to full-time homemaking was not easy to discern.  At least for progressive, middle-class, educated folks like us, there are many, many barriers.  I suspect that if those barriers came down tomorrow, we would all be surprised by how many people would pursue homemaking; I also suspect that many more than a handful of them would be men.  But even in a barrier-free world, I suspect that the vast, vast majority of both men and women would NOT feel called to homemaking as a full-time vocation, which leaves us, even in a perfect world, with a lot of houses that need cleaning.  And whose job is that, indeed.

Let’s start by talking about the barriers, shall we, and then we’ll get to the problem of all those dirty houses left even after the barriers come tumbling down.

There are obvious economic barriers, of course – many families these days couldn’t maintain their current standard of living without two incomes.  There are other, less obvious, economic barriers to an unpaid vocation such as homemaking, including the precarious financial dependence that the non-wage-earning member of any marriage places him- or herself in.  It is well-documented that many homemaking spouses, and often their children too, sink rapidly into poverty or near-poverty if their marriage ends, and often retirement savings are not sufficient to keep them out of poverty if they are widowed.  There is also the lack of status that comes with non-wage-earning work, about which I have written before.

But at least as big a barrier to pursuing homemaking as a vocation is the fact that it is viewed as boring, menial, drudgery; lacking in creativity and intellectually challenge; small, private, and leaving no meaningful mark on the world.  But I would vigorously dispute that homemaking is any of those things – or at least any more of those things than most other careers to which feminist, liberated women and men are urged.  A typical feminist critique is that homemaking is terrible work, and therefore women have traditionally been left to do it, but I would argue the opposite:  that homemaking can be wonderful work, but is disrespected precisely because women have traditionally done it.  In her wonderful essay “The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and ‘Women’s Work,’” Kathleen Norris notes that the word “menial,” which is related to the word “manor,” derives from a Latin word meaning “to remain,” or  “to dwell in a household.”  As Norris explains, “It is thus a word about connections, about family and household ties.  That it has come to convey something servile, the work of servants or even slaves, is significant.  It may help to explain one of the strangest things about our culture:  that in America we willingly pay the garbage collector much more in salary than we pay those who care for our infants in day-care centers.” (p. 5).

When I worked for a law firm – one of the biggest and most powerful firms in Philadelphia – I once spent weeks on end in a conference room reviewing documents, looking for anything possibly related to a lawsuit against our client.  This was work that my twelve-year-old daughter, who is bright and an avid reader, could easily have been trained to do.  Possibly semi-literate children in any English-speaking nation in the developing world could have been trained to do it (and no doubt will be soon enough).  It was mind-numbingly boring, and profoundly unsatisfying.  Indeed, much of what I did as an ERISA lawyer (which, according to Julie, in one of our Christmas letters at the time, stands for “Erudite, Really Intellectual Stuff, Actually,” but in truth stands for the “Employee Retirement Income Security Act”) would strike most folks as drudgery, transformed into a respectable career only by the fact that I was paid more money than God to do it – even if, at the end of the day, I had nothing calm or lovely or sweet-smelling or tasty to show for it.  Which is not to say that ERISA work is not interesting or valuable.  It makes perfect sense to me that many smart, talented women and men, including most of the terrific lawyers I worked with, feel called to that field of law, and lead satisfying careers in it (and thank goodness for them, really, because if you think your health care and your retirement plans are complicated, let me tell you, you don’t know the half of it!)  But it does strike me as interesting that if I ever complained about the drudgery of my job at the law firm, nobody ever suggested that my work was demeaning and that really, I should strive for something more meaningful and rewarding.  It seems to me that drudgery is part of just about every job – a point which has been driven home to me in the past few days by at least five plaintive Facebook updates from friends who are professors facing the end-of-semester grading frenzy.  If drudgery alone were reason for a woman to abandon her vocation, it strikes me that the unbearable drudgery of being Julie every time grades are due would have sent her packing from a career as a public school teacher long ago.

Likewise, the notion that homemaking lacks creativity and intellectual challenge has always been mystifying to me.  I hear some variation of this so often:  “I could never do what you do, I would just be bored out of my mind!  I just need to engage that grown-up part of my brain!  I just need some real intellectual stimulation!”  These comments used to bother me, but I have come to realize that they are really more about personality type and temperament, rather than about the intrinsic nature of homemaking.  Kathleen Norris makes the point that housework is repetitive, daily, and never ending, much like liturgy, and that like liturgy, “the work of cleaning draws much of its meaning and value from repetition, from the fact that it is never completed, but only set aside until the next day.”  When I was in college, one of my most dear and beloved professors was the quintessential brilliant, absent-minded professor.  He was a philosopher, a writer, a peacemaker (and, interestingly, a lawyer with a specialty in bankruptcy, an intricate and highly regulatory field of law, much like ERISA) who had a tiny bit of a cult following among us Peace and Global Studies majors.  One day in class, throughout a discussion in which Howard participated but was not leading, he methodically peeled an orange, getting up from his seat with each piece of peel, walking to the garbage can and throwing it away, then returning to his seat to sit down, before peeling another piece, getting up, walking to the garbage can, and throwing it away.  On and on.  By the time the orange was half peeled, most of us were too distracted to continue with the conversation, although Howard appeared oblivious that our discussion was waning because of his bizarre behavior.  Finally, someone blurted out, “Howard! What are you doing???”  Howard flashed his enigmatic smile and said, “I am discovering myself through repetition.”

Indeed.   For those of us with introverted personalities and contemplative minds, housework, like liturgy, is far from deadening, but in fact precisely the work that primes our creative and intellectual pump.  Norris notes that she wrote her book The Cloister Walk while serving as an artist-in-residence at a Benedictine monastery, where she practiced the daily liturgy of the hours:  “To my surprise, the monotonous, repetitive activity did not place a damper on my writing, but the opposite:  the prose and poetry began to flow, in near-constant stream.  The wonder for me was that this was not at all a matter of wild, unfettered inspiration so much as a dialogue with the liturgy of the hours.  It all depended on a steady, daily routine that by the standards of the busy world looked boring, repetitive, meaningless.”  (p. 24) For me, housework is a form of “Quathlic” worship – hours of blissful silence and a high liturgy of dishes and dusting, bed-making and bread-baking -- and if you read this blog, you see some of the fruits of that worship (for what they are worth – hardly the likes of Kathleen Norris’s books, but satisfying to me, nonetheless).  It should surprise no one that if I were not a housewife and mother, I would most certainly be a nun.

But surely homemaking really is small, right? And private?  At least admit that homemaking, while it may be good for you and your family, does not really engage the world in any meaningful way.  To which I answer, “yes,” homemaking is small (in a “think globally, act locally” sort of way).   But as for the latter two, I must answer decidedly  “NO!” and “NO!”  Easily subsumed in my job description as a homemaker are all of the following:  community organizer, conflict resolution and race relations consultant, urban community gardener, ecologist, interior designer, home renovator, writer, intellectual, unaffiliated scholar, chef, early childhood educator, global warming activist, and lactation counselor (retired).   And that’s just for starters.  Because in my family at least, we see our work in the world as an organic whole:  Julie is able to do what she does because I do what I do, and vice versa.  So by extension, I guess I can also claim urban educator and worship leader!  Add to all that the fact that I have time to read – any damn thing I want, whenever I want – and I will admit, no other career of mine (and I’ve dabbled in many) has engaged me so meaningfully in the world while at the same time satisfying all of my intellectual and creative impulses. 

When Trixie was first born, my then-step sister (our parents, who married when she and I were adults, have since divorced) used the term “attachment parenting” to describe the sort of mother she was.  I had never heard this term, but was intrigued, and having just gotten hooked up to the internet in the chambers of the judge for whom I was clerking, I did some research and found an “AP” bulletin board (remember those?)   I lurked for many weeks, intrigued by this community of stay-at-home moms.  I hesitated to dip my toes in and post, because it struck me that on the surface, at least, I did not in any way belong here:  I had not given birth, I was not nursing a child, I did not own a sling, I did not co-sleep, I had a full-time job, and my baby was in day care (ten floors down, right in the Federal Building where I worked, but still).  Yet I was so drawn to this community of moms, and to what struck me as a mostly lovely philosophy of raising their children.  

From the moment Trixie was born, I wanted nothing so much as to be home with her (Julie, on the other hand, was immensely proud that she conducted the Hallelujah Chorus on Easter a mere ten days post-partum!)  I remember in particular one mom on that AP board, “gooseberries” (hi Pammy!), who wrote about visiting a friend in a law firm.  Wearing cut-off jeans, hair wind-swept, juggling a new-born and a toddler, she couldn’t wait to escape the stuffiness and the suits and the quiet hum, escape back into the sunshine and the chaotic freedom of her life as a new mom.   I remember how so many friends in real life discouraged my aspirations to stay home by telling me that being home with a small child was so hard, and stifling -- and I know many people do experience it that way, but I was sure I would not. That sun-filled, wind-swept image of gooseberries and her babies stayed with me and sustained me through several more years of soul-deadening (albeit highly lucrative) lawyering.  Indeed, that entire AP community sustained me, for which I am profoundly grateful, all the more so because at the time, I really didn’t “fit” at all.  Fortunately for me, and unlike many other, more ideological on-line parenting communities, this one believed that “attachment parenting” was a philosophy, and not a checklist, and they welcomed me with mostly open arms.

I think homemaking, at its best, is the same: a philosophy, not a checklist.   And in that way, homemaking can be everyone’s job, whether we are called to it as a full-time vocation or not. As I am well aware, most people – women and men alike – are not called to a full-time homemaking vocation, and that’s a good thing.  There are many other things that we need both men and women to do, and I’m a staunch supporter of breaking down all the barriers of race and gender, education and economic opportunity that prevent women and men from heeding those calls.  But it seems to me that in liberating women from homemaking, we have not only unnecessarily denigrated this work, but we have virtually abandoned it, much to the detriment of our families, the social fabric of our communities, and the ecology of the world (not to mention the domestic workers whom we exploit to do some semblance of homemaking for us, be it caring for our children, laboring in the fields and sweatshops of industrial agriculture, or scrubbing our toilets – but that’s probably another essay).

I recently was brainstorming about self-care and stress-relief with a cherished friend who has a demanding and incredibly important full-time job, a husband who also works full-time, and two small children.  I suggested she hire a housekeeper from three o’clock to six o’clock to do housework, laundry, prepare supper, pick up the kids from after school care, and get them started on homework.  Even while my friend acknowledged the wisdom and attraction of such a set-up, she also confided, “But I want to do those things for my family.”  Her dilemma is the dilemma of many working parents who recognize how fundamental and satisfying, on some visceral level at least, the supposedly small and menial work of homemaking can be, and so try to do it all.  “But you can’t do it all,” I said to her.  “You just can’t.”  Sick for the third time in as many months, sleepless from caring for equally sick kids, worried about her job in this “economic downturn” (as we are so politely calling it these days), she did not offer much of an argument.   But my heart goes out to her, and to all of my friends who are called to great, and satisfying, and important work in the world, many of whom would not choose full-time homemaking even if every barrier came tumbling down tomorrow, but who still yearn to make a home for themselves and their families.   Maybe if there is any silver lining in the current economic depression (‘cause let’s be real, shall we?), it will be a turn to some semblance of sane social policy related to our work-a-day lives:  paid family leave, real part-time and flex-time work, universal health care, realistic expectations about “productivity” --  in short, work lives that do not demand every ounce of our time and energy and creativity.  Such a sane work world would leave both men and women with some interior space and some time to participate more meaningfully in making a home for themselves and their families.

So in an ideal world, homemaking would be everyone’s job, and everyone could share in the rewards of making a home.  But even in this less-than-ideal world that we actually inhabit, it seems to me all is not lost.  Just as my AP friends saved my sanity when I was toiling at the drudgery of the law firm by reminding me that “attachment parenting is a philosophy, not a checklist,” so can we all liberate our inner housewives by remembering that homemaking is the same.  You are not abandoning hearth and home when you hire someone to help you!  Really folks, if you can possibly afford to pay someone a living wage to do a few of the things on your housework checklist?  That’s good!  That, in fact, is taking homemaking seriously.  That, in fact, is honoring this work as being important enough to pay someone to help you with it.  I just read George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and I would like to point out that Mrs. Poyser, the farmer’s wife who so prides herself on her tidy, polished home and her sparkling and efficient dairy, had not one, not two, but three girls who worked for her, full time!  So, if you possibly can afford it, you actually get extra stripes on the sleeve of your housedress if you hire someone to help.

But of course, many folks simply are not in an economic position to hire help, especially not at a living wage, especially not these days.  So whose job is homemaking then?  Well, the reality, more often than not in heterosexual, dual-income families, is that it’s still the woman’s job, the woman’s “second (and, if there are small children, third) shift.”  And that’s a shame.  I mean, c’mon fellas!

Just yesterday I was walking with Micah (he was actually scootering) to our local Chinese restaurant (Julie, Trixie, and three of Trixie’s best friends were out to eat prior to meeting twenty-five of Julie’s students at a performance of Hamlet, so Micah and I were having our own special date), and Micah, out of the blue, jumped off his scooter to turn and ask, “Mom, have you ever been to a place where the water runs free?  And where the horses run free?  I think it’s Assateague!” (We recently spent a chilly spring break camping on the beach there amidst the wild ponies.)  I found this particularly charming, and began belting out that ‘70’s childhood favorite, “Free to Be You and Me!”  (Micah informed me that I don’t sound nearly as well as Mr. Darcy, his music teacher, who sings it with a guitar.)  Remember that album?  And remember that great Carol Channing piece about those nice ladies on TV who seem to like housework, but they’re really just trying to sell you something?  Well, now that all the little boys and little girls who listened to that with me as a kid are all big husbands and wives, it seems that maybe we all – and the big husbands especially – need a refresher, so here it is:  “If you want all the days of your lives
to seem sunny as summer weather,
make sure, when there's housework to do,
that you do it together!”

And all the people of God said, “Amen!”



Friday, April 24, 2009

Book Review: Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Life As We Knew It, Susan Beth Pfeffer (2006)[****].  Trixie (12 years old, 6th grade) loved this story, and while I don't often read her books, this one seemed kind of fascinating and I was looking for a quick, easy read.  As it turns out, Life As We Knew It was all three.  Through her diary, sixteen year old Miranda tells the story of her family's survival in the aftermath of catastrophic natural disasters when an asteroid hits the moon and knocks it out of its orbit.  That's basically it:  lots of bad things happen to the world, and MIranda matures as she helps her family survive (barely) over the course of a long, cold, hungry winter.  While life gets pretty bleak for awhile, the true violence and depravity that would probably accompany such a catastrophe is toned down enough to make this appropriate for kids. Probably not the sort of book that most of you will put on your must-read list, but if you have avid tween or young teen readers in your life, they might like this.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

What Eliot Spitzer and I Have in Common: A Review of George Eliot's Adam Bede

Adam Bede, George Eliot (1859)[*****].  I have been unsuccessfully mulling for several days how to review in one paragraph Adam Bede -- one of my favorite books, and my introduction to George Eliot some twenty-five years ago in Gordon's* Intro to Lit.  Today I took a break in the middle of my day -- a day of feeding my family, pleasant housework, hiking in the woods along a burbling creek, preparing an asparagus bed in the garden, commiserating with a neighbor about "young people these days"  -- to read the feature story in the most recent Newsweek entitled "The Confessions of Eliot Spitzer."  The subtitle is "How Could I?" -- and of course, everyone has a theory, none of them particularly satisfying or believable.  This particular story is supposed to be sympathetic to Spitzer, who is apparently trying to make some sort of a come-back or something, but it doesn't succeed very well.  And then it came to me:  Eliot Spitzer needs George Eliot!  Only she could make us understand "how he could;" only she could unblinkingly yet sympathetically tell us the truth about "how he could," pulling no punches while at the same time refraining from judgement and righteousness.  Her treatment of Arthur Donnithorne was the thing that struck me most deeply the first time I read Adam Bede, and was the only thing I remembered -- the rest (thanks to my sieve-like memory) was all new.  But I feel both certain (and chagrined) that my earnest, feminist, nineteen year-old self was humorless and critical of the misogynist Bartle Massey, who only delighted me this time around (and who is most certainly gay, yes? And in love with Adam, right?) And I don't recall if I adored Mrs. Poyser so much the first time I read Adam Bede -- somehow I think I was probably not nearly as taken with her, and by her tidy home and sparkling, well-run dairy.  I doubt that I appreciated then how much Eliot makes of such a small, quiet world -- how rich and full and satisfying she paints the work and the friendship of the Poysers and the Bedes.  I feel quite certain that twenty-five years ago, I entirely missed the discussion in the Poyser kitchen "on the secrets of good brewing, the folly of stinginess in 'hopping,' and the doubtful economy of a farmer's making his own malt" -- but I had to read it out loud to Julie this time (who, by the way, was in the same Intro to Lit with Gordon, though we barely new each other yet), and we both smiled knowingly.  People often don't understand my life, but reading Adam Bede was like every pleasant, contented thing about it rolled into one gorgeous story.  I will admit, I don't think Eliot does drama as well as she does quotidian -- the thunderstorm raging when Dorothea and Will finally declare their love in Middlemarch inappropriately cracked me up, and a few of the Hetty Sorel scenes in Adam Bede felt a little over-wrought as well.  And the epilogue felt awfully neat, even if it made me cry (and help me forgive Jo Rawlings). But still and all ... big happy sigh.

*Gordon was my professor at Earlham College, and continues to be a mentor and friend.  I write all my reviews first for his email book review group, which he very graciously allowed me to crash about a year and a half ago.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Shout Out: Kate Haas

Julie and I went to Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana (where we began dating twenty-two years ago tomorrow!).  It was a glorious and near-perfect experience for me, less so for Julie, but the thing about Earlham is, whether you loved it or hated it, you are forever an "Earlhamite."  Now I don't know if being an Earlhamite is similar to being a graduate of other small, progressive, Quaker liberal arts colleges, but as far as I can tell, being an Earlhamite is quite different from being, say, a graduate of Temple, or Purdue, or Harvard.  Because when you are an Earlhamite, like it or not, you are part of a sort of extended family that you can't ever really shake.  

I happen to like it, a lot.  I like that my kids have no idea that Jennie's daughter Gillie, and Cassie's kids, Ezra and Viv, are not technically their cousins.  I like that I can reconnect with old friends after decades of being out of touch, and fall right back into a comfortable friendship that includes happy gossip and common books and professors that have become touchstones in both our lives (I'm looking at you, Ellen!).   I like that over twenty years later, I can fall right into a brand new friendship with someone I barely knew at Earlham, because we have so many common experiences and reference points (I'm looking at you, Melissa, Eric, Patrick!)  And I like that my network of Earlham friends lets me keep up with folks whom I sort of knew at Earlham, but not all that well.  Kind of like distant cousins you only met a few times as a child, I love knowing what all those classmates are up to -- especially because usually it's something pretty interesting (Earlhamites being, in my coldly objective view, some of the most interesting folks in the world).  

Kate Haas falls squarely into this last category.  We knew each other a bit at Earlham.  She was an English major, so I guess she hung with that hip-nerdy crowd, which also included Julie and the afore-mentioned Melissa.  (Earlham is the sort of place where you can be both nerdy and hip ... where it was even hip to be nerdy ... which, now that I think of it, probably accounts for my exquisite happiness while there, even though I was not an English major ... but I digress....) By the time I started hanging out with English majors, I pretty much only had eyes for Julie.  In general, I don't remember Kate much from our Earlham days.

But in the years since, I feel like I have gotten to know her quite well, thanks to her marvelous zine, Miranda: motherhood and other adventures, which our mutual friend Jennie (that would be Aunt Jennie to my kids) sends me on a regular basis.  Kate recently found my blog (and left the best comment ever on my Jane Austen garden story -- did I mention that Kate is a brilliant writer, matched only by the depth and breadth of her reading?), and I'm so glad she did, because it prompted me to request the last two volumes of Miranda, # 17 and #18, which Kate promptly sent me, and which I promptly devoured.

Miranda comes out once or twice a year, is roughly 25 pages long, each 8.5 by 5.5 inches, stapled at the seam.  Inside are wonderful essays about such various topics as Kate's stint as a Peace Corp volunteer in Morocco, adventures in mothering her two sons, homemaking, politics, family life, childhood memories, and books, books, books -- reviews of books, stories about reading books, stories about reading books to her kids, even stories about hoarding books from the library!  Like many of my favorite people, Kate is a voracious and promiscuous reader, and books are a big theme in Miranda.  

Other regular features which I love include the "motel of lost companions" -- a reflection on someone Kate once knew but has lost touch with; "mama's stray thoughts" -- short, funny vignettes of family life; and always a scrumptious recipe at the end.

Best of all, though, is that Kate brings to all these quotidian and somewhat bucolic topics just enough of a dry, ironic edge to keep it all interesting, and decidedly not precious.  My only regret when reading Miranda is that Kate doesn't live right down the street.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Book Review: 4 Weeks to a Better-Behaved Child

4 Weeks to a Better-Behaved Child, Cristine Chandler, Ph.D. with Laura McGrath (2004)(*****)

For the past several months life with Micah has been extremely difficult. Winter is always hard, for him and for me -- Micah is a boy whose spirit can't be contained very well within four walls, and I suffer at least mild depression most winters. This means that life is generally harder for our family in the winter (Trixie and Julie fare better than me and Micah, but it's not their best season either). But this winter it got completely out of control. Although Micah was doing very well at school and with friends, he had become a monster at home, flying into a rage at the drop of a hat, screaming, hitting, throwing things. Anything at all could provoke a rage: if I gave him the wrong fork at breakfast, or if the shirt he wears every week suddenly felt "arm-pitty," or if I told him to turn off the TV, or do his homework, or get his shoes on. When he wasn't raging, he was whining, whimpering, bargaining -- and if that didn't work, then he would rage.

"No Micah, you can't have chocolate chips for an after school snack; you didn't even eat your lunch!"

"But listen, listen, I have good reasons, LISTEN!" he would demand, as I tried to stick to my guns. "YOU'RE TALKING OVER ME! You have to listen to my reasons!" (Thankyouverymuch, Responsive Classroom....) But when the whining and bargaining didn't change my mind, the rage was inevitable: his eyes would scan the room for something to throw -- my cookbook, a dining room chair, a shoe. I would inevitably explode, running around trying to keep things from being broken, yelling about how sick I am of this behavior, IT HAS TO STOP!

But I didn't know how to make it stop. Everything I know and believe about parenting -- about setting limits, about being cool and calm and consistent -- it all just seemed to escape me. I had successfully pulled myself out of a pretty significant depression last fall, and had established routines and disciplines at home that have made life feel much more calm and satisfying, but I was still at my wits' end with Micah. Micah has a fine-tuned social and emotional intelligence, so he can read a situation extremely well, and play it to best effect. Against my better judgment and all my best theories of parenting, I was letting him play me -- or, as we've come to describe it, I was feeding the Micah Monster. However you want to look at it, Micah was totally running the show, and our family life was becoming pretty unbearable, fraught as it was at every moment with the specter of one of his violent and destructive outbursts.

Now I know it might sound like I'm blaming Micah, but I'm not. He was doing what is perfectly reasonable for a kid with his particular sensitivities, temperament and intelligence to do to get attention and to get his way. The blame lies entirely with me (well, with me and Julie -- we are very much co-parents and a team, but I can only tell you my story, not hers). I was not only letting this happen, but I was actually feeding his behavior: I was nagging, yelling, giving multiple warnings and threats that I would not follow through on. I was getting angry and engaging in his tantrums out of anger, and then feeling remorseful and comforting Micah with affection and attention. I was coming up with systems of earning privileges and consequences for misbehavior that I could not keep track of and therefore wasn't being consistent with.

And the thing is, Micah was miserable too. Often his rages were cool and deliberate, but sometimes he seemed hysterical and even frightened by himself.  Micah didn't like his rages any better than the rest of us, but like me, he just didn't know how to get on top of them.  He was often remorseful afterward, and would apologize without being asked.

At some point I realized that if the little boy Micah is raging against me now, then the grown-up Micah is likely going to rage against other women later. I really felt that I had to help Micah get his rages under control not just for our family, now, but for his own family that he will create some day, with some other woman, when he is grown.  I needed to do something for my daughter-in-law as much as for myself.

Which brings me to 4 WEeks to a Better-Behaved Child. Let me tell you first, that I never thought I would be reading another parenting book, especially not one with such a cheesy title. On the whole, I hate parenting books -- everyone has an opinion, and they all contradict each other, just feeding the useless, stupid, idiotic mommy-wars: 

"Your child will suffer life-long sleep issues if you don't train him how to comfort himself to sleep by the time he's three months!" 

"No, no, your child will suffer life-long attachment issues if you don't co-sleep and nurse on demand until he naturally weans, even if that's five years old!" 

"Sticker charts! Time out! Carrot and stick!" 

"No, no, permissiveness isn't the problem, it's just the fear of permissiveness. If you just talk to your kids like people, they'll be fine!"

Blah blah blah. I've watched for over ten years now while all these so-called experts fan the flames of righteousness on the one hand (and there's nothing like the righteousness of a new mom, let me tell you, and yes, I do speak from experience), while paradoxically totally undermining confidence (because there's also nothing like the vulnerability of a new mom ... I sometimes think that righteousness and vulnerability are the two most potent new-mom hormones, and that they have some weird multiplying effect on each other). As a result, I'm suspect of parenting books in general, and I'm especially suspect of books with titles like 4 Weeks to a Better-Behaved Child, falling, as I do, more on the attachment parenting/gentle discipline end of the parenting philosophy spectrum.

So I never would have thought to read this book if my beloved and trusted therapist hadn't recommended it to me. Lisa has been my therapist, on and off, for over ten years. She's a lesbian, a mom, a person of faith, and for over ten years, when I'm anxious or depressed because I'm miserable in a job, or having multiple miscarriages, or if I'm perimenopausal, or my church is falling apart around me, or or or ... then I call Lisa, and even though her message says she's not taking new clients, she's always willing to seem e.  And she patiently tells me things that I pretty much already know, but still need to hear periodically from a dispassionate yet trusted person outside the circle of the rest of my life: take naps; be kind to yourself; let yourself cry; get exercise; breath; pray; be a big girl and ask for what you need. She's always right, and I almost always love her for that. Sometimes in the moment I hate her, because while she's always gentle and kind, she never pulls any punches. Last fall, when I started seeing her again, she was insisting that I need to do a better job of self-care, and was helping me brainstorm some systems to get me into better self-care habits. I was resisting, not my need for better self-care, but my ability to actually follow through: "But Lisa, I'm great at setting up these systems, but I'm just terrible at following through. I just don't know if I can do it consistently." She looked at me like a mother might look at a whining teenager (she's not old enough to be my mother, but she is enough older than I am to pull off that look) and asked, quite bluntly, and with just a tiny bit of pique in her voice, "How do you get your kids to school every morning?" I felt a bit peevish at that moment, but of course she was right.

Last time I went to see Lisa, about a month ago, I decided to talk about Micah.  While everything else in my life had fallen into a pretty nice place, Micah's behavior seemed like the one thing I just couldn't get on top of.  I described Micah at length, all the wonderful things, all the hard things.  I explained to Lisa what was going on, answered her thoughtful questions, and shared the one thing I felt I was doing right, the one thing that I thought was helping:  "I've told Micah that when he's in the middle of a rage, and he feels like throwing something, he can come and ask for a hug instead.  That seems to really help him calm down.  Sometimes it's hard for me to give him the hug, because I'm often feeling really angry or upset by his raging, but it's the one thing that seems to help cut the rage short."  

Lisa startled me with her response:  "That's exactly wrong.  Micah needs to learn how to control himself before he starts to rage.  That's something only he can do himself, you can't do that for him.  By hugging him in the middle of the rage, you're rewarding his lack of control in the first place."  This was one of those moments that I hated Lisa.  How can hugging your child be wrong?  That was the one thing I felt like I was doing right!  

"And you shouldn't give him a hug if you don't feel like hugging him.  If you are angry and upset, especially with all your own tactile sensitivity issues, you need to take care of yourself, and he needs to respect that," she continued.

"But sometimes he seems so frantic, he really needs me!"  

But Lisa would not back down.  "It's always hard to move on to the next stage of independence."  Now I really hated her.  I speculated (silently of course) that her boys were probably really easy, like Trixie, and that parents with easy kids like Trixie can afford to be smug (like I used to be, I'll admit).  Hmmph.  But after more than a decade of Lisa's kind but firm truth-telling, I suspected that she was probably telling me the truth once again.  

As we neared the end of our session, Lisa recommended Cristine Chandler's book, which I found on Amazon.  Chandler was a family therapist who practiced in Philadelphia for many years, and she and Lisa knew each other, whether as colleagues or friends or both, I'm not sure.  Lisa used Chandler's methods with her own now-grown boys (you know, the ones who would not last a moment, I'm sure, in a temperamental smack-down with my Micah!)  As Lisa described a little bit some of Chandler's techniques, I was dubious.  I shared with her, quite earnestly, that I'm not a big fan of behavioral modification methods of discipline, because it seems to me that children need to learn the intrinsic rewards of good behavior.  It is clearly a sign of Lisa's consummate professionalism that she listened to me say this with a straight face, and refrained from asking, "So, how's that working out for you?" Instead she pointed out that many things we need children to do -- getting their shoes on in the morning, for example, so that we're not late for school -- do not really have intrinsic rewards for the children, and that there is nothing wrong with children earning privileges and learning good habits at the same time.  In my middle age, I'm actually coming to believe that much of life's happiness stems from basic good habits, and that good habits really can be learned, so Lisa's explanation made good enough sense to me.  I promptly ordered and read the book.

One of the many things I like about this book is that it is short, straight-forward, easy-to-read, yet still lays a theoretical foundation for the techniques that follow (I always like a little theory, sort of like a three year old who is always asking "WHY?").  That foundation begins with a discussion of anger, which Chandler calls "one of the most common pitfalls of parenting."(p. 11)  (check!)  According the Chandler, "The most serious negative outcome of anger is that it undermines a most critical lesson that parents must teach their children: how to manage their own emotions."  (pp. 11-12)  She outlines the four effects of anger:  1) Anger begets anger; 2) Anger impairs the ability to process information and think logically; 3) Parents' anger gives attention to children for misbehaving; and 4) Anger makes parents feel bad.  (p. 17) (check! check! check! check!)  So the first order of business is establishing a system of discipline that a parent can manage without anger.  So far, this made perfect sense to me: I was doing all the angry things she described, with all the bad results she predicted.  And I hated feeling so angry all the time, and so out of control.  

The next chapter discusses consequences as the foundation for discipline:
  • "If-then thinking provides children with the rational basis for understanding the consequences of their actions...."  a parents' "first goal is to help children understand the connection between their own behavior and the consequences that result from it." (pp 24-25)
  • "Consistent, clear, contingent consequences ... provide the framework for behaving with intention." (p. 24)
  • "In disciplining children, the most powerful consequence parents can use to influence their children's behavior is the way in which the parents give or withdraw their attention." (p. 39)
All of this also made sense.  I've always believed in natural or logical consequences (as opposed to arbitrary punishment), although being clear and consistent has often been my downfall, especially when my own life is feeling out of control (as it did last fall, and for much of the previous year and a half).  I also understand that my kids seek my attention above just about anything else, and that negative attention is better than no attention at all.  I can see that so clearly in the endless cycles of anger and rage with Micah, and even in the less fraught cycles of nagging and frustration with Trixie.

The next chapter is basically Behaviorism 101.  And I'll admit that this is where I got the most nervous, because the very very little that I admittedly know about behaviorism makes me feel like it's more suited to training a dog than nurturing a child.  I'm supposed to be all hippy and crunchy, right? Unconditional parenting and all that, right?  So before I launched into this chapter, I meditated for awhile on two of my daughter's best friends, a brother and sister, whom I've known since they were born.  Their mother, one of my best friends and absolutely my mentor and role-model as a mother and homemaker, is hands down one of the most devoted and loving mothers on the planet.  She is also, hands down, the most consistently -- unrelentingly! -- strict mother I know, and her kids' lives have included, at various times, sticker charts and rewards and time-outs and other behavioral sorts of techniques.  And they are two of the most intrinsically kind, polite, thoughtful, well-behaved, helpful, healthy, happy, and mature kids I know.  Hands down.  So I meditated on them for awhile, always a pleasant thing to do, and then I launched into Behaviorism 101:

The four fundamental ways to modify a behavior are:

 1) positive reinforcement -- encouraging "the repetition of a desirable behavior by following it with a reward, either tangible or social." (p 47) 
2) negative reinforcement -- reinforcing a behavior by following it with the removal of something unpleasant (p. 49) 
3) extinction -- the opposite of reinforcement, extinction decreases the frequency of a behavior by providing no response to it at all (p. 51 and 52); and 
4) punishment -- "following a behavior with a negative consequence" (p. 55)

Chandler than suggests several discipline techniques that help to apply some of these methods of modifying behavior.   The first two methods use positive reinforcement combined with clear, consistent, contingent consequences.  One of these she calls "Praise for the Expected" (p. 61), which is basically catching your kids being good, and letting them know you noticed with praise and affection.  I know some people object that we shouldn't have to praise our kids for being good, they should just do that because it's the right thing to do.  But I know that I like it when folks notice the good things I do, even when I'm just doing my job, and my kids are no different.  It's easy to just take our kids' good behavior for granted -- I do this all too frequently -- and only give them attention (albeit negative attention) when they are bad.  In behavioral theory, though, this extinguishes the good behavior (by ignoring it) and reinforces the bad behavior (by giving it attention).  Makes sense to me, so I'm working hard at quietly but consistently praising both Micah and Trixie for their good behavior, large and small.  Micah's sheepish, shoulder shrugging grin, and Trixie's redoubled efforts to be kind and helpful, suggest, at the very least, that this is not hurting.

The second of the methods combining positive reinforcement with clear, consistent, contingent consequences is a "Learned Reward System" using a marble jar, a system "designed to help children learn new tasks or encourage them to become more consistent and independent in performing chores they already know how to do." (p. 65)  Now I'm the queen of systems, but as previously noted, I often have trouble following through with them, largely because they are too complicated.  Several months ago I created and laminated charts for earning privileges and allowance through chores and good behavior that were so complicated, we had to abandon them after just a few days!  The marble jar system is not that different from what I was trying to devise myself, except that it has the obvious advantage of being simple and easy to administer.  

In a nutshell, the kids each have four "jobs" that they are working on perfecting at any given time.  Each of the jobs, and precisely what it means, is agreed upon ahead of time.  For each job that is performed according to specifications, they earn 15 minutes of TV or computer time each day (double on the weekends, because I do looooovvvvveeee to muck simple things up and make them complicated!).  (This amount can vary family to family, depending on your own screen-time rules and habits, and she does have some suggestions for folks with no TV/computer.)  Once they have made a habit of those jobs, they must continue doing them, but we will switch to new jobs for which they can earn marbles.

So, for example, Micah's jobs:
  • sleep through the night without waking the mamas
  • get dressed (I lay out clothes), including socks and shoes, brush teeth, wash face, and get to breakfast by 7:30 with no more than two warnings about the time;
  • after school, put shoes on the shoe rack, hang coat, and put lunch box in the kitchen
  • do homework
Trixie's jobs:
  • feed cat and scoop cat box daily
  • practice piano daily
  • after school, put shoes on the shoe rack, hang coat, and put lunch box in the kitchen
  • get one hour of exercise daily (most days she gets this walking to and from school)
Why TV and computer time?  Because it's something kids like (at least mine do), but it has very little redeeming value, so there's no harm done if they fail to earn marbles.  Story time, or play time with friends, or bike/scooter/playground/legos -- that's all valuable, and should not need to be earned.  Now, I'll admit, an hour a day of TV/computer time is a lot to me, more than we've normally allowed.  On the other hand, in the past Julie and I have been really inconsistent -- unfairly so -- about how much and when we let the kids watch -- we set up strict rules and then start making exceptions left and right, mostly for our own convenience.  So in the end, I bet they are not watching all that much more TV under this system.  And truth be told, in the good weather, they often would rather be outside playing with friends, and sometimes don't even cash in all their marbles.

So, is it working?  Well, Trixie is a fanatic about accumulating marbles, even if she can't possibly use them all, and now she sets her alarm early enough to practice piano every morning, and NEVER forgets to care for her cat.  That's the kind of kid she is, a little bit of a hoarder (she does the same thing with her allowance -- squirrels it away, rarely spends it and then only on books).  But she's also dreamy and absent-minded, and often forgot to take care of chores.  So I would say, with Trixie, so far so good.  Micah has taken a little longer to get with the program (we've been doing this about two weeks now) -- he still asks for a marble for everything he does.  

"I cleared my plate, can I have a marble?"  

"I was nice to my cousin, can I have a marble?"  

"Micah, what are your four jobs?" And we go through them.  Now he stops me with a knowing "Yeah, yeah, I know."  

And mostly he's working his program (because that boy does love him some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles):  I haven't been woken at night in over a week; he is now perfectly in the habit of putting away his stuff after school; and mornings and homework are not perfect, but soooooo much less fraught, it's like night and day.  I even allow them to use marbles in the morning (they each can earn two before breakfast), as long as they are completely ready to walk out the door the minute I say it's time to go.  This morning they were ready to go and started a movie half an hour before it was time.  I sat on the couch sipping coffee, feeling calm and quiet and amazed.

Praise for the Expected and Learned Rewards are techniques "designed to increase the repetition of desirable behaviors" (p. 101).  In contrast, the second set of discipline techniques Chandler offers, No Reply and Cool Down, are "focused on eliminating unwanted behaviors."  (p. 101).  No Reply basically extinguishes undesirable behaviors such as whining, begging and bargaining by simply ignoring them.  To your whining child, you say something very simple like this: "As long as you keep whining, I will not pay any attention to you." And then you mean it.  This is a technique I use already quite a bit, and as long as I am firm and consistent, it often works well.  It only works, of course, for behaviors that can be ignored, which do not include violence, aggression, or defiance.  For these sorts of behaviors, Chandler offers a modified version of Time Out, which she calls Cool Down (we still call it Time Out, but follow her model pretty strictly).

Chandler devotes a lengthy discussion to Cool Down and how it contrasts with the way many folks use Time Out, but in a nutshell, Cool Down is pretty straight-forward.  It is important to explain all of this to the child before you begin using the technique, so the child knows precisely what to expect:

1.  You give your child a command, either to do something or to stop doing something.
2.  If the child does not respond, within thirty seconds you give the child a warning in a firm but not angry voice:  "This is your warning.  If you do not [do, or stop doing, X], you will be in Cool Down."  If the child's misbehavior involves violence or destruction (or anything else you consider that serious), you skip over this warning step.
3.  If the child does not comply within another 30 seconds, you direct the child to his Cool Down spot -- the most boring place you can find (half way down the basement stairs is ours), and set a timer for ten minutes.  During these ten minutes, you do not interact with or respond to the child in any way, except if he leaves his spot.  Then you say, again firmly but without anger, "You left your Cool Down spot, so I am going to add five minutes to the timer." And then you do, and continue to ignore the child.
4.  The child may leave the Cool Down spot when the timer goes off if he has been calm for at least 30 seconds prior to the timer going off.  If he is not calm, you add five more minutes.  (p. 111)

"Using the Cool Down technique has two goals.  The first is to change the child's initial defiant behavior for which he was reprimanded.  The second and more important goal is to end the spiraling angry interchanges that often follow reprimands."  (p. 105)  From a behavioral perspective, Cool Down uses three of the four methods of changing a behavior:  punishment (the negative consequence of ten minutes in Cool Down after bad behavior); extinction (not responding to the child's bad behavior, both prior to and while in Cool Down); and negative reinforcement (removing the negative consequence of Cool Down once the child gets himself under control for at least 30 seconds before the timer goes off).  (pp 106-107).

When we introduced Cool Down (we still call it Time Out) to Micah, I had some trepidation about whether it would work.  Would he go to the Time Out spot? Would he stay?  Would I be able to keep my cool?  Would I be able to ignore him?  Chandler addresses all of these FAQs and more in her Cool Down chapter, but still I was dubious ... but willing to give it a try.  The way I explained it to Micah was that it felt like there were two Micahs:  one, the real Micah, that his teachers and his friends always get to see.  This is the nice and kind and funny Micah, the one who is polite, and does what he is supposed to.  Then there is the Monster Micah, the one we see so often at home, who is mean, and ugly, and violent.  I told him none of us liked living with the Monster Micah, not me, not Julie, not Trixie, and not even the real Micah -- and he agreed.  I also told him that I had been trying to help him put the Monster Micah in the cave where he should live, rather than in our house, but I had finally realized that the real Micah was the only one who could put the Monster Micah in the cave.  I can't do it for him, I can only give him some space and some tools to do it himself.  This seemed to make a lot of sense to Micah, and the overwhelming sense I got from him was one of relief.

Which is not to say that suddenly Monster Micah is permanently cave-bound!  But let me tell you, life around here is so much better these days -- and we're only two weeks in.  I don't feel angry and out of control almost ever -- having a simple script that keeps me disengaged has really helped me keep my anger in check.  Micah, of course, still disobeys, he still has fits, he still even throws things occasionally -- but it's so much less frequently, and so much less ugly, and it feels very much like his best self is continuing to emerge.  We're all feeling hopeful and relieved -- and no one more so than Micah, I think.

So I give 4 Weeks to a Better-Behaved Child five stars, and would definitely recommend it if you are open to this sort of model of discipline.  I know it's not for everyone, but it definitely seems to be what we needed.  Truth be told, though, the only key that was really missing before was my ability to be consistent.  And the only reason I can do that now is because I've got my own life under control, and I'm taking good care of myself.  So moms and dads, remember to put your own oxygen mask on first, but then if you still need some help (like I did!), this book might be a useful tool in your box.