Sometimes I forget what works, what's important, in raising kids. This week, on a small scale, I am trying to remember a bit.
Several months ago, when assigning Stick Chores (search Sticks in the right hand search box for more information on the Sticks Program... or book me to speak!) it was Elizabeth's turn to feed the dogs for the week. Each morning, she was taught to get up and give both dogs food and water... and to be sure that it was done before she ate breakfast. Our hope was that she would remember more easily if feeding them was tied to feeding herself.
At 6 years old, my spunky and spirited little girl is really pretty responsible. She knows what needs to get done in a day and this easy chore should have been no problem. Except... it was. Day after day, as we sat down to dinner, we would find the dogs had not been fed. Elizabeth would leave the dinner table (not good for a slow eater) and go off to feed them, under the steely glare of her three brothers who do not want our family pets slighted.
At the end of the week, I told Elizabeth she would keep the job another week. We explained that taking care of our sweet dogs is an important task that helps the dogs to understand how much she loves them. It is love in action, not in word. Unfortunately, the second week did not go better than the first. So the job was given to her again. And again. And again.
Truth be told though, it was our fault. We said, "Feed the dogs, then eat breakfast." and yet, if she didn't do that, there was no consequence to help her remember. The boys were growing increasingly frustrated and I was, too. But, our crazy schedule kept me so distracted that our little princess was getting away with a pretty bad habit. With soccer and school and gymnastics and track and the musical and the play and baseball and... I was working so hard to keep my head above water and these details were just falling by the wayside. Some days are like that... I wish it wasn't true but it is.
Noah, who is very close to our golden doodle, Lexie, was especially frustrated. He complained again and again that they always had to feed the dog and never forgot (this is true...) and we didn't let them slack off like this. The older boys started pet chores at ages 2 and 3 so I could see that this felt unfair to them. I finally told him that summer was coming and that I would be able to really focus on this issue at that time. My answer didn't help his frustration and actually increased mine.
Last week, my kids got out of school and we have spent the past few days regrouping. We are sleeping in a bit and relaxing and playing and taking care of things that had been set aside for too long. Including this chore... this dog-feeding chore... that needed my attention badly. Because sometimes I forget what is important about parenting... sometimes I need to remember.
Yesterday, my kids had toast or cereal for breakfast while I cut up a beautiful watermelon to put out on the island. I was looking for natural consequences to help with correcting this pet chore. Elizabeth ate breakfast and then asked for a slice of watermelon.
"Did you feed the dogs?" I asked.
"Um, no." she replied.
I just looked at her and she turned to do her chore. Once both dogs had eaten and the chore was done, she asked again.
"Can I have a slice of watermelon now?"
"Elizabeth," I responded calmly, "this chore is important. It is HOW the dogs know you love them. You are paying attention to their needs and their wants and it matters. You made them wait. You will need to wait for watermelon."
Her head dropped. Her shoulders drooped and she walked out of the kitchen sans fruit.
This morning, Elizabeth got up and got dressed. She played with her brothers while I made french toast and sausage for breakfast. When we gathered to pray, I had put out some juice and started to get the plates. I put the princess plate aside and waited.
"Can we start?" she asked excitedly.
I looked at her and said waited.
"Where is my princess plate?" she continued.
I looked at her.
The boys grabbed a plate and started to serve themselves and without another word, Elizabeth went to feed the dogs. I know she knows what to do. I know she struggles with clear expectations. I know. But, the truth is I am her momma. The truth is that I do her no favors by feeding those dogs myself. The truth is she needs me to hold her to a higher standard and expect from her what I know is hidden underneath. It is my job... and I have to do it even when it is a tiny matter. Because learning to be responsible and caring with pets will be a lesson that transfers over to many other places. And, because knowing there is a limit you must obey is important for anyone, child or adult.
I am remembering things about parenting that have fallen by the wayside. It isn't that I didn't know that... it's just that life gets away from me sometimes. And when it does, because it will, it doesn't mean all is lost. It doesn't mean my daughter is naughty or irresponsible or anything like that at all. It means I am needed. It means that my job is still going. And even when I take my eye off the ball for a while, it is never too late to start again, not for me and not for you. We might get discouraged. We might feel overwhelmed. But it is good for us to remember that being consistent in what we expect goes a very long way in the life of a child.
We aren't there yet. Elizabeth is learning... and truly not done. We may visit this again tomorrow. It is a small thing in a very big life but a lesson that needs to be learned. And after all this teaching, as I sit here writing this blog, a six year old girl is playing downstairs with her brothers... and she is smiling. She knows she did the right thing and that choice always feels right. We will see where that takes us tomorrow but I know this: I am not giving up. Helping my sweetie find her way is an awfully big job that, honestly, makes me smile, too.
Blessings on your day.