Story of the Month – February

“I Love Evreethng”
By Emmy Laybourne

Our daughter, Elinor, was having a hard time.  She had loved school in first grade, but now, half-way through second, she dreaded going.  Our sunny, creative, outgoing 8 year-old had turned overnight into a volatile, hyper-emotional powder keg of a child.

Mornings with Ellie were particularly agonizing. There were only a few items in her stuffed closet that she would wear. To get her to try on a shirt, I’d have to use every tactic in the book – cajoling, coaxing, commanding.  When those failed, I’d get more and more upset myself.  I’d threaten and, on my worst days, yell or even cry.  At this point Ellie would be screaming and crying herself.

And then we’d have to start on the pants!

Elinor was getting herself so worked up in the morning that some days I just gave up and let her stay home from school.  Ellie was also having trouble socially. She’d always had a goofy gaggle of friends. In first grade, we’d hosted almost every other girl in Ellie’s class for joyful playdates. Even though Ellie was the tallest by far, none of the other girls had seemed to notice the difference in height.  They played beautifully together.

Now, according to Elinor, no one liked her anymore.  They teased her about her height and left her out of their games on purpose. She was so sure they were all against her and spoke about it so much, she seemed to have created a self-fulfilling prophecy. At a class event, some of the second graders wandered off to wade in a stream. Three girls started pelting Ellie with mud-balls. She came to us, red-faced, weeping and yelling, with mud on her face and arms.

The girls followed, both protesting their innocence and looking a bit guilty. It was a striking scene – Ellie, taller than all of them by at least a head, weeping and pointing a finger at the three, tiny “meanies.”

After that day, Elinor said she didn’t want to go to school anymore. She complained of stomach-aches, head-
aches, and of course, none of her clothes fit.

My husband Greg and I were really worried. She needed help.  Fortunately, we had found the work of Kim John Payne several years before, when he gave his lecture, the Soul Of Discipline, at our children’s school.  The book Simplicity Parenting was sitting on a shelf in our living room. While we had taken some of Kim’s principles to heart (we are a no media family, for example), the daily lives of my kids were largely unstructured, usually unpredictable and totally rushed.

I was working on my first novel at the time, my husband was freelancing from home and we had an aupair living with us. You’d think with an aupair, we would have found a way to set a routine, but somehow every day still felt like a circus. Who was picking up whom? Who was making dinner? Who was taking the kids to the playdate, the music class, the doctor appointment? Who was running to the store for the forgotten dinner ingredient?

Ellie needed a simplicity intervention. Truth be told, we all did.

After re-reading Simplicity Parenting, my husband and I made a 4-point plan.

1. Ellie time – Either Greg or myself would be home at 5 pm on the dot to have a half-hour with Ellie, outside, playing catch or jumping rope. This would give her the chance to unwind and to receive our undivided attention.  It also meant we would nix playdates, appointments and classes, at least for the time being.

2. Early dinner – Dinner would be at 5:30 precisely each evening, so that we could get into a rhythm.

3. Early bed – The kids would be in bed by 7 pm. My husband and I would not go on any dates or do family evening activities for at least two weeks, to get us set into this new pattern.

4. De-cluttering the house – We would start in Ellie’s room and then work out through the rest of the house.  It’s that last step there I’d like to tell you about.

On a Saturday morning, we arranged for our aupair to take the kids to the park.  Greg and I got to work on Ellie’s room.  I went through her drawers and removed every single item of clothing I knew she disliked or claimed didn’t fit.  I was surprised at how many size 6 & 7 pieces there were.  Out, out, out.  When I was done the drawers were nearly empty.  A handful of shirts.  A half a dozen pairs of pants. Three pairs of acceptable socks.

I did the same thing in the closet.  All in all, I removed three trash bags of clothes, shoes and old dress-up costumes.

Greg, meanwhile, was dismantling her bed!  Elinor had a twin bed with a low canopy over it.  The canopy didn’t do much, except for hit me and Greg on the head every time we tried to sit on the bed and read her a story.  We decided we’d take it out and put her mattress on the floor.

Can’t get much more simple than that!  After Greg removed the bed, I got to work on the toys, dolls, baubles, tchotchke, and doo-dads that 8-year olds collect in the course of their 8-year old lives.

I packed them all away.  I truly did. I didn’t let my own sentimentality get in the way.  The basket overflowing with stuffed animals went out into the playroom.  By the time I’d finished, the bureau and her desk were absolutely clear. I used a lavender counter spray to cleanall the surfaces and I vacuumed.

The last thing I did was to place a jelly jar with fresh flowers on the bureau.  On Elinor’s desk I placed a pad of paper, a few pens and a set of colored pencils.

Then we waited.  And believe me, we prepared for a meltdown.

I waffled a bit. I said that if she really hated her new room, we could always put some of the trinkets back.  We could put back up the bed, if needed…

Greg gave me a pep talk – this is going to help her.  She needs it.  Think of it as therapy.

I knew that, but I still considered putting the one backet of stuffed animals back… (The waiting was killing me.)

Finally, the kids and the aupair came home. I resisted the urge to escort Elinor into her “new” room.  Instead I loitered around straightening up the area outside her room.

Soon enough, Ellie passed me and entered her room.  “Mommy!” she shouted. “My room!”

I came to the doorway.

A smile full of wonder was beaming from Ellie’s face and she was turning around with her arms spread out.  (Yes, just like Maria on the mountaintop in the Sound of Music!)

My wise husband called to me from the kitchen.  Could I help him with something?  I went to him, knowing that what he wanted was for me to let Ellie enjoy her room alone.

As I turned, a grinning Ellie shut the door.

Twenty minutes later she came out and handed me this note.  The drawings on the back are her illustrations for the words on the front.

Here’s a picture I took with her and the note:

Needless to say, our simplicity intervention worked.

The support we gave Elinor allowed her to regain her footing. Her feelings of being persecuted faded away and she was soon again having playdates. She was able to get dressed to go to school more easily. (Man, was she excited to not have to wade through all those shirts she hated!) The early dinner and bedtime helped Ellie and also her little brother Rex. We still eat at 5:30 and aim for 7 pm bedtime, though in the summer, we shift back by an hour.

Elinor is confident and sociable once again. The mud-ball incident is long forgiven and forgotten. She’s still the tallest girl in her class, but she wears it well. Her spelling is still highly creative. Her “treasures” are still boxed up in the basement.

And she still loves her family, nature, the sun and everything in general.

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