Verse of the Day

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

16 Month Update

This month has been difficult. Yet, I suppose difficult is in reality "good," as most difficult situations yield an opportunity for tremendous growth. At least that's what I keep reminding myself....

Since the kids have been home, they have each had issues with lying, stealing, or cheating. Obviously, ALL kids do this, so we really weren't at all alarmed when problems arose. Generally, the more relationship we built with the kids and the more secure they felt, the less negative behavior we saw. Two of the kids follow this pattern; they responded to encouragement and to correction, and indeed felt badly when they did something wrong. But one just didn't seem to be responding.

This particular child is sweet, sensitive, and brimming over with joy and enthusiasm. Yet, this one struggles with lingering fear of punishment and fear of disapproval (at least that's my guess). This is the child who feels so much--- the one who cries most frequently for a missed friend or family member; the one who lives life on full-tilt. How is it possible that the one who is so affectionate and genuinely loving be the one who will lie to your face about anything, who will steal from his or her own siblings, who will cheat anyone in school, in a game, or in a family setting? It doesn't logically makes sense, but it is oh so common in adoptive children striving to attach to family.

When my husband and I finally realized that this behavior was simply not dissipating, we emailed our ever-brilliant social worker, Lisa Peterson of Building Arizona Families. To my surprise and delight, she called me back and we chatted for a good long time. Indeed, she had dealt with this issue before and shared some great ideas that I'd like to pass on to anyone in the same situation.

First, we talked about discipline and how we generally correct the children. The glaring issue for me and how I parent is that I feel that I have not been positive enough--- failing to look for and point out the good and appropriate behaviors of the kids. Kids thrive on positive reinforcement, and my kids needed more positive reinforcement as opposed to negative reinforcement (i.e. verbal correction). What worked with my biological kids simply does not work for my new kids. Think about it: internationally adopted kids naturally have so many disappointments, rejections, and apparent failures. For instance, learning to read in a different language is overwhelmingly difficult--- it's horrible for a child to feel stupid and inadequate. Another example: adapting to faster-paced lifestyle and rhythm of life is disconcerting and tiring. But perhaps of most importance, figuring out how to please those you love is confusing and different. So now that I understand in a whole new way that my children are sometimes afraid of "falling short" and not pleasing us, I can see why lying and cheating is often times an "easy out." Therefore, I'm trying a lot harder to look for and verbally acknowledge the good things, the good tries, the positive attitudes, the sweet strivings. For my biological kids, this type of praise would probably have created spoiled monsters, but with these newbies, it is like a soothing balm to the spirit.

The second area of concern, the lying and stealing, was a bit more complex. Some of the stealing, Lisa and I felt, was due to a lack of impulse control and no true understanding of cause and effect. Regardless of the chronological age of the child, the children still act much more emotionally immature than their stated ages. Our expectations have been too high. We see a 7, 8, and 9 year old, but truly they act more like 5 or 6! So what to do?

We recognize that lying and stealing is absolutely unacceptable and needs a strong response, but how does a parent have a strong response without intimidating or frightening a child? My social worker gave me some new tools. The first? Candy. Yes, candy. Now doing tune me out just yet! My social worker said "candy" to me and I had to bite my tongue until I found out she dislikes candy even more than I do! What we have done is to purchase a gum ball machine and dust off a previously purchased "treasure box" from a first grade rewards system I used with my older kids. Every time a child does a positive thing (e.g. admits he or she is wrong, does a chore, is sweet to a sibling, etc.), that child receives a nickel. Nickels are kept in the kitchen, in individually labeled jars for each child. The kids are permitted to have a gum ball anytime they ask, providing they have a nickel. Yes, they can have gum even if it's right before dinner--- anytime is anytime. The only exception to gum ball mania is that they must always have one nickel in the jar at all times (explanation to follow), and that nickels are the only coin to be used in the machine. And yes, I did need to pain-stakingly remove all other nickels from the house, so the kids could not use other unearned nickels.

On the flip side of the candy scheme, Mom or Dad can take nickels from the child. A mean-spirited jab results in losing a nickel. Not following through on a chore means losing one or more nickels. Hitting the dog results in losing a nickel, and so on. The only additional rule was simple: lying, cheating, and stealing of any sort resulting in immediately losing ALL coins, regardless of how many nickels accumulated.

Days one through five of this experiment were startlingly wonderful! The kids were asking for chores, and going out of their way to help me and to help each other. I felt kinda guilty, as my house was wonderfully clean! But alas, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is! The first time I went to empty the nickels from the bottom of the gum ball machine, I found a handful of other coins; someone was trying to cheat the system. The positive? I did get two confessions. Two kids lost about 30 nickels each. (What I now have done is to mark with permanent ink, every nickel "in the system" and check the coin holder often.) Hard lesson. Great outcome. I had very rarely gotten a confession out of any one, and two in one day was fantastic! I was encouraged.

The kids seem to be learning lots of lessons from the candy experiment. First, they are capable of delaying gratification. Second, they are capable of telling the truth and of confessing sin. Third, hard work pays off! Fourth, there is such a thing as cause and effect. Thus far, I'm liking the system and am interesting in seeing if this promotes long-term behavioral change in the kids.

A few other new bonding/attachment activities were are trying are:

  • Reading to one child in a rocking chair, complete with baby bottle and soft blanket--- different child every night 
  • "VIP Day" every Friday (child gets one treasure box treat, gets to choose the lunch or dinner menu, and gets some other small recognition)
  • More consistent and planned "dates" with Mom or Dad--- different child every week
  • Fun Fridays: change Friday to a more light-hearted school day (do all the favorites, such as memory games, geography, science, puzzles, art, etc.)
  • Front-yard picnics on Sundays

The other family rule we have established is that if a person purposefully destroys an item or steals any property from another, the guilty person must make restitution to the tune of at least double what was taken. So, as an example, if one child steals a dollar from another, he or she must pay two dollars to the victim and apologize fully. We have only had to do this once since the candy experiment.

As a side note to this update, I also have been praying specifically for the Lord to reveal any falsehoods in my household. I made sure that I told the kids what I was praying, too. And you know what? The Lord has answered that prayer quickly and frequently--- to the point that my kids have developed a bit more fear of the Lord. Now, I'm getting unprompted confessions. Pretty amazing stuff from a pretty amazing God!

Additional updates with the kids would be in the school realm. The kids are doing wonderfully well with their reading and with math. The constant frustration is going away, and my more positive teaching demeanor encourages a lot more joy in the classroom.

The only other notable change this month would be that I can finally allow the kids to play in the front yard without me physically watching their every move. I still have the garage door open, listening and watching from a distance; but, I am attempting to give them more freedom of movement when they act in a trustworthy manner. I did set up definite physical parameters for their play (e.g. "Don't go past this sign or that mailbox.").Yet, they thoroughly enjoy knowing that Mom trusts them enough to make good decisions. This is a very positive change for everyone.


  1. LOVE the gumball system. May have to try that one. But I need to find organic gumball's first. Do they make those? Otherwise Noah can't play :-( Course he doesn't really like gum. Hmmm.

  2. Another excellent post chock full of excellent advice.

    Wish I hated candy. ;)

  3. oh me. . so much to take in with this post. . thanks SOOOO much for sharing. . taking the time to write it all out. . .wow. . what a resource for me. I so appreciate these update posts. Thank you for investing in me and our next child thru these posts.

  4. love your updates!
    we do something similar to your gumball idea -it's "hero points"..the kids earn marbles...and they can have them taken away too....once they reach a set #, they get to pick out a prize. Like you said, it's a great way to do positive re-enforcement, teach cause/effect, and delayed gratficiation.

    this post reminds me that I need to be more diligent in taking time for each individual child -like you're doing -reading, dates, etc.

  5. Good, practical advice is not as easy to come by as one might think. Thanks, this helps a lot.