VOTE ‘TIL THE COWS COME HOME
Gloria Kay Vanderhorst, Ph.D.
8701 Georgia Avenue
Silver Spring, Maryland 20910
In the 1960’s family meetings were the latest technique for including the children in the process of family decision making. I remember the experience in my own family with some fondness. Four children, two parents and the occasional “live in” school friend would participate in planning weekend activities and the family vacation with some parameters determined by the family budget. At times we were even privy to some budget discussions in an effort to get all of us to care about turning off the lights as we left the room. The promised savings were to be used for the ice cream truck when it came through the neighborhood. During one of our family meetings, the discussion was getting lively and we decided that this democratic process should be used to determine what we would have for dinner. As steak and veal were being bandied about, my mother rose from her chair with, “You can vote ‘til the cows come home, we are having meatloaf for dinner!”
Mother was a farm girl. Most contemporary families have not seen a cow except for the Turkey Hill ads and have no idea of the work involved in milking them. Mother knew when to take charge and assert her authority as the parent doing the work. Today’s families face social pressure to not just share authority but to often times abdicate to their children. Modern social pressures can be disorienting. When the sexual experimentation comes home at 10 years of age and the marijuana experiment begins at 12, the family meeting to empower the children is way out of its league. The modern family may require very different tools to stop the onslaught of contemporary life from undermining the family completely. The psychologist working with today’s family is also working with a very different configuration. The two parent household can easily be two moms or two dads. Many families are headed by single adults or singles with non-parenting live-ins.
The first part of treatment with families today requires gaining a sense of the goals and priorities of these families. To accomplish this task, I like to borrow a process from the collaborative law model whereby the parents develop a mission statement. The mission statement enables the parents and the therapist to clarify what this family is all about. Some simple questions (1) to answer are listed below:
What is the purpose of our family?
What are we all about in life?
What kind of family do we want?
What is our identity as a family?
What are the things that are truly important to us as a family?
What are our unique talents, gifts, and abilities?
What are our responsibilities in caring for one another?
How do we want to make a difference to our community?
As the adults are addressing these questions, the children may be working on their responses to the following questions:
What kind of home do you want to invite friends to?
What is embarrassing to you?
What makes you feel comfortable at home?
What makes you want to come home?
What qualities in your parent(s) are important to you? And cause you to be open to my/our influence?
How can your parent(s) improve?
The mission statement developed by the parents serves to anchor the family and leads to the development of an active and positive parenting plan. As situations arise in the family, the mission statement becomes a practical tool for decision making. With the mission statement clearly in hand, the children can see that their parent’s are thoughtful and not capricious. The mission statement also serves as an anchor that enables the parents to provide guidance and make decisions with confidence and without guilt.
In the course of designing a mission statement, the parents examine their social, moral, ethical and religious positions in order to develop succinct, measurable criteria for tracking their parenting. While this process would be valuable for any family, the ADHD family benefits in particular ways. The mission statement gives the parent who tends to be impulsive a place to check their impulse and the ADHD child benefits from the consistency and care that follows as Mom or Dad go back to the mission statement for clarity and support. The following case will illustrate the process of forming a mission statement and the value of it in the ADHD family.
Carol and Dennis came to therapy when their son Derrick was in second grade. Derrick had been diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of first grade and was currently being treated with time release Ritalin. The parents had become comfortable with the medication regimen but also tended to give weekend and summer medication holidays. They had one other child, a girl, who was in kindergarten and did not have any of the signs of ADHD. The mother reported that she saw herself as having ADHD as well but had never been formally diagnosed or treated. As the family went through the process of assessing Derrick, the mother’s history and current behavior emerged as very similar to Derrick’s. The father did not seem to have any of these characteristics though he reported that his mother would probably fit the diagnosis. He remembered growing up in a pretty disorganized household and was hoping to spare Derrick some of his early experiences.
Derrick had a love/hate relationship with his sister. They could play together for brief periods of time before the play deteriorated into shouting matches or tears. Derrick’s school performance was generally above average though he tended to lose materials and misplace completed assignments. Derrick seemed to be in constant need of stimulation even with the medication. He moved quickly from one activity to the next without finishing anything. In the classroom, he tended to get into the space of others, often called out in class, and had designated himself as the playground monitor for directing all forms of play and settling disputes between players. Of course, much of this self proclaimed oversight was not welcomed by his peers.
The parents were overwhelmed and sought therapy to try to gain some control over the household and hoped to provide better guidance for Derrick in school.
Carol and Dennis spent about 6 therapy hours developing their mission statement. In the course of those sessions, Carol decided to educate herself on her own ADHD and began to read Understanding Women with ADHD by Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D. and Patricia Quinn, M.D. (2) Dennis identified his negative judgmental attitude as harmful to the family. Since he lived with two people with ADHD, he decided to reframe his experience and learn more positive language for relating to his wife and son. He found The Gift of ADHD by Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D. (3) to be a valuable resource as he practiced more reframing. Dennis’s negativity is a fairly common problem. Most of us have trouble using positive language and doing the work of looking for the positive aspect of a difficult situation.
As Carol and Dennis began to come together with a vision for their family, they were struck by the power that they had ceded to current social pressures and dynamics. Video games, television, reality shows, rap music, even clothing had more sway over their children than they did. This realization led to one of the most powerful parts of their mission statement. They wanted to be the primary influences in the lives of their children before any contemporary social or cultural entities including the school. Their commitment to that vision led them to think more clearly about how to order their home life.
Their mission statement is as follows:
Recognizing the power of modern culture to undermine family connections and the tendency of ADHD to welcome this rapid paced stimulation, we purpose to strengthen our individual and joint connection to each of our children such that they will experience us as their primary relationship and seek out our counsel frequently and consistently. We desire to encourage thoughtful, compassionate characteristics in our children and to nurture the creative, inspirational aspects of our son’s ADHD. To accomplish these goals we commit to the following:
Daily individual time with each child of at least 30 minutes face to face.
Daily meal time with no TV, Radio or media devices of any kind and we purpose to use table time to share positive character qualities in our children and learn more about how they think and view the world.
Weekly family time of at least 2 hours of face to face activity in a noncompetitive format that enhances the quality of life for one of us or others that we may choose.
A monthly focus on a creative project generated by Derrick or his sister.
Once the mission statement was clarified, Carol and Dennis saw how afraid they had been to lead their family. This realization energized them to implement their mission and actually enjoy their role as parents. They were excited about their focus on relationship but knew that they had to confront old habits and routines that had been undermining their family. They decided to try some family meetings. Carol and Dennis needed to take back their position of influence in their family and not be afraid to confront the pull of the media culture that had taken their place. They had to stop being afraid of the cultural influences that were more lively, more exciting and more rapid paced than they could ever be. Their decision to not compete was critical to regaining parental authority and being able to nurture healthy relationships with their children.
Step 1. Carol and Dennis set aside 10 minutes each morning to read their mission statement out loud to each other. This focus on their positive goal strengthened their bond with each other and energized them for the parenting challenges of the day. They used this time to plan their daily “face time” with each child.
Step 2. Carol and Dennis used break time at work to write down the positive character qualities of each child with specifics that were relevant to the past few days and imaginings that could be applied to the next few days ahead. This prepared them for meal time. They brought their notes to the table to show their children that they were seriously working on rebuilding relationship and authority through respect.
Step 3. After dinner they required Derrick and his sister to spend 10 minutes together to read the family mission statement and to plan their monthly creative project. Carol and Dennis accepted that for the first few weeks their children would probably just argue with each other. However, they trusted Derrick’s creative side and their daughter’s emerging compassion to eventually help them to design a project.
Step 4. At the beginning of each week Carol and Dennis called a family meeting to discuss possible activities for the 2 hour non-competitive family time. They were pleasantly surprised by how their children responded and they allowed wild and zany ideas to morph into more practical possibilities. Derrick’s initial trial balloon of “let’s save an endangered species” evolved into exploring the neighborhood creek and bringing home some weird water creatures to identify.
Carol and Dennis have redefined the family meeting. Instead of the 1960’s notion of empowering the children, their family meetings have become a means of restoring their authority and influence as parents. They are no longer afraid of coming home to chaos. The old tool has become a new resource to help families reorder their lives. My mother would be proud of them even though they don’t own any cows.
Tamara Rounds, L.C.S.W. Creating the Mission Statement, Collaborative Divorce Team Trainings, 2008.
Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D. & Patricia Quinn, M.D., Understanding Women with AD/HD. Advantage Books, 2002.
Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D. The Gift of ADHD. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 2005.