Saturday, September 12, 2009

Today I laid down the law with my Little Sister and got great results. She was giving me attitude before my car had even left the church parking lot where I picked her up, turning up the volume to earsplitting levels on the radio--KMEL which I let her listen to, rather than NPR or KCSM the jazz stations, which I prefer--and defying my attempts to turn it down. She had that hostile, distant, closed look on her face which I've come to know and dread over the past year, the look which makes me feel like I'm dealing with a 20-year-old thug rather than a child.

I stopped the car, took a deep breath and said, "Look, I am a volunteer, do you know what that means?"

She nodded in an adults-always-lecture-you way.

I said, "Tell me what that means."

Eye-roll. "It means you want to help."

"Right, I do want to help. But I don't want to be treated badly. And I don't have to do this if I don't want to. If you can't be nice to me then you're going to have to find a new big sister."

She was quiet for about five minutes after that as we drove and I thought Uh-oh I blew it. But then she started talking like a normal 8-year-old, rattling on some stories about making a volcano out of play-doh and putting vinegar and baking soda together to make a bubbling froth to come out of it. Normal kid stuff. Amazing.

And she stayed like that for the next three and a half hours, during which we bought food coloring, made play doh, did science experiments, cleaned up science experiments, and made a batch of chocolate chip cookies. She even let me read a few pages of a kid's book to her. And we wrapped up the cookies and tied them with a ribbon for her granny and she wrote out a gift card, totally on her own initiative.

She's starting to grow up. We were talking about being the baby of the family, which she is, versus being the eldest, which I am, and she said, "When you're the baby you're spoiled, like I am." She didn't have any shame about saying that about
herself; she thought it was a good thing to be spoiled. She wouldn't want to trade her position.

When I was a kid my mother used to say that my father spoiled me and I'd feel terribly ashamed and try to prove that I wasn't spoiled. Now, I'm not even sure I know what spoiled means exactly. Is it getting what you want? What you need?

I do know that it works much better with this little girl when I set firm limits and back them up. This has not historically been my strong suit, but when pushed to the wall I can do it. (I guess the trick is to learn how to do it even when not pushed to the wall.) Some people just need to see that strong reaction from you to know that you're not kidding. Or maybe to know that you're really there.

She had taken her medication too. That may have had something to do with it.

I had been feeling lately like I wanted out of this volunteer commitment. Had even talked to the social worker at Big Brothers Big Sisters about it. It's been over a year and I couldn't feel that she was really bonded with me--not when she'd act so distant and defiant. There were many times when I felt just like a chauffeur and a meal ticket. I know this is a common experience for parents of teenagers, but it's not what I signed up for.

I couldn't figure out how to "make" her treat me with respect, but when the moment was right, those words came. And more important than the words were the eye contact I gave her, and the body language that said I really meant it.

I am no saint. And I am not always as skilled, with her or in other situations, as I would like to be. What I do give myself credit for is sheer stubbornness. She can be a tough little girl--there are a lot of good reasons why she has had to be--but I can be a tough woman too. And I like it that I don't quit. I'm glad I'm hanging in with her, despite the ADHD, despite our differences and all the other issues. She's not the only one learning and growing.


David Shearer said...

You rock, Allison! The effort you make with your little sister WILL make a difference in her life. Maybe not right now, but in time... It's not important to always be right or to always be loved and appreciated. What is important is to be there, to be consistent, and to let her know that you care. Thank you for caring enough about another human being to make this sacrifice.

Anonymous said...

i concur with the above. more power to 'ya!

Anonymous said...

Like you, Alison, I was intrigued by the NYTimes article. I have raised one child, now all growed. I confidently assert that I offered her only unconditional love. I also set boundaries, taught her what my values were, set standards of behavior for our shared life. By setting standards for how I wished to be treated, and for how I expected her to behave in various social settings (be quiet during a concert, put the fork on the left, close your mouth when you chew) I was doing my best to teach her.

The NYTimes article was too short to, imo, meaningfully address the subject it attempted to discuss. I don't think a parent is conditionally loving their child when they seek to impose social values and the parents' standards on the child's behavior. I think you can unconditionally love a child AND set all kinds of conditions for the child. You don't want to unconditionally love your kid while she touches a hot burner on the stove by being passive and loving her while she causes herself harm.

When your little sister engages in behavior that causes you discomfort or pain, it would be like watching her burn herself on a hot stove if you did not stop her. She is a child. She cannot see the consequences of her negative, even abusive demeanor with others. It is up to you, or the other adults in her life, to give her feedback about her behavior, to let her know how her behavior affects others. This is, imo, the essence of unconditional love. I don't think you signal to your little sister that you don't love her when you tell her which of her behaviors towards you are unacceptable. On the contrary. I think you are explicitly signaling unconditional love. You are saying "I love you and because I love you, I want to co-create a relationship that works for both of us. I have some limits. Here are my limits. I will still love you if you keep doing things I don't like but I might not feel like spending time with you. I hope you like and love me back, I hope you care enough about me to behave in a way that allows us to love and enjoy one another."

Putting up with her unacceptable behavior is not unconditional love. It is, imo, a failure to love her fully. Children need feedback.