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I’d Rather Eat Ice Cream: Choices, Choices


When the kids make good choices during the week at school (for him) and at home (for her), I bring a special treat to school and eat lunch with them on Friday. So far, my son has only missed one lunch celebration this school year. Woot!

Sometimes I have to rein in my Mama instinct; it rears up on seeing full trays of food dumped into trash bins. The tray above belonged to my daughter’s classmate (who finally ate some of her fruit when I prodded).

I’m glad the schools are providing healthier food, but there has to be a way to get the kids to eat it. Almost every child with ice cream ate the dessert first. Most of them ate no more than ten bites of the rest.

We’ve had our lunchtime arrangement for three years, but this is the first year it’s seemed to be truly motivating. I’ve noticed an overall shift in “care” about rewards, especially for our son.

I think the main problem was his belief he would not succeed; many times, he sabotaged himself before we (parents and teachers) could help him reach a goal.

It’s a typical response for many trauma kids: if I cause the problem by my behavior, then I am not the problem.  A distinction between “what I do” and “who I am.” For instance, for the first three years, our son was very “prickly;” he made it very difficult to get close. That way, he didn’t have to experience the pain of deciding to like someone and then finding they rejected him.

“Wait. The foster parents who kept me for 18 months don’t want me? I was just getting used to them. I thought they liked me at least a little. We’re leaving NOW? They didn’t even tell me.”  Inaccessibility = survival.

Our daughter, struggling with Reactive Attachment Disorder, is charming and overtly affectionate with strangers and other individuals with whom she has a surface connection. The problem begins when she starts to let her guard down. Once, when she was seven, she yelled, “You don’t know me! And you can’t know me, because I won’t let you!”

Although she never again verbalized the thought, she communicates it in other ways. It’s an ongoing heartbreak and frustration—for both of us.

I believe that at the heart of things, she desperately wants to have connections but is terrified of disaster if she lets her guard down. Occasional “breakthroughs” (e.g., a spontaneous snuggle while camping) are followed by days or weeks of defiance.

“I have let you in a little, by accident. I’ll make sure you forget about it soon.”

My husband and I worry about her ability to make lasting and deep relational ties. We’re on a timeline; only 7 more years to help her work through this. We’re not kicking her out at 18 or anything, but that’s when she’s of legal age to attempt tracking down biological family.

Our lives might go to Hades for a while, regardless of what she decides. If she determines she’s not ready to make contact, I’m sure there will be angst and questions of “was this the right decision?” and “what if they’re waiting for me?” If she connects with bio family, I have enough facts to know that it may not end well.

I just finished a book by Susan Crandall, Whistling Past the Graveyard. In the book, set in the 1960’s, nine-year-old Starla leaves her verbally abusive grandmother’s care to find her mother. She believes the woman loves her, based on birthday cards and other mailed gifts, and thinks she is a famous singer in Nashville.

Success is not sweet; she finds that the woman works in a less-than-reputable bar, is an abusive, narcissistic alcoholic and has remarried. She never even told the new husband that Starla exists.

Starla’s father, who works on an oil rig and visits her as often as possible, neglected to mention their divorce; he saw the delusion under which his daughter lived but didn’t want to make her unhappy. With the knowledge that his ex was not returning, he saw no reason to destroy his daughter’s image of a loving mother.

As I listened to the book, expertly narrated by Amy Rubinate, I thought of my children and wondered whether we’ll experience a similar disconnect between the image our daughter has built up and the reality she’ll confront. Our son rarely brings it up; although this may change as he ages, for now he’d rather pretend he’s always been with us.

The real question that has haunted the last four years of my existence is this: “How do I get them to make good decisions? To choose the path that will benefit them, not harm them?” Hubby and I understand that we can’t make them choose anything.

Even in the beginning, when they were 5 and 7, if either of them determined to pursue a certain course we had very limited options. It’s frustrating. It’s the opposite of empowering. It’s deflating.

The trick is to get them to want it.

Our son has had recent success in school. Prior to this year, behavior and performance vacillated on wild scale. His wide grin on “good” days tells me we may be onto something. Until a few months ago, success appeared not to matter.

Now, his eyes sparkle and he comes up with creative rewards, like earning a few boards a week. Yes, boards. He’d like to build a “watch tower” in our back yard from which he can survey the property for intruders. Hubby has skills, so this is not out of the question.

Our daughter, for now, is doing her darndest (is that a word?) to stay aloof. I found an app in which you award stars; red for inappropriate behavior, gold stars for good. (I take issue with the color—they’re actually yellow. But, I suppose if it’s really a problem I should learn to code and make my own app…)

She earns stars in four clear categories (for instance, “in bed on time”). As of Tuesday, she had red stars only. I explained the app to her, explained that earning gold stars would translate to rewards. On Tuesday evening her scouting group headed out for an activity. We want her to learn social interaction, so group attendance is the last thing we’d remove for behavior modification. However, as we arrived at the meeting, I explained to her that the girls were going for ice cream after the gathering.

“You can go with them, but you may not have any ice cream.” I saw the sly look in her eyes and added, “I’ve already informed the group leader.” Her face fell, then she fixed her nonchalant mask. “Well, I already ate dinner so I probably won’t be hungry anyway.”

When they returned, two different children and an adult asked why she didn’t have dessert in hand. I pretended not to hear.

Since Tuesday, she’s earned three gold stars. We’re getting somewhere.

The schools can provide healthy food, educate children about eating well and encourage them to make good choices, but until they see the benefits for themselves, the tykes will keep choosing ice cream.

My goal for the next few years is to help our kiddos see the benefit of making good choices. It’s frustrating, watching them fall, but I’d rather let them make mistakes here, with us. I hope that by the time they’re out in the world, they will have experienced enough disappointments and joys to know that positive choices bring positive results.

Adopted or not, tell me about the choices you or your kids have made. What’s the best way to help them succeed? Did someone in your life help you make good decisions? Tell us about it.

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