The intention was to keep it light. Peppy even. And I believed, in that moment, it had been a success. So, I said. Guys, I said, clapping my hands for attention. As you know Dad's away until next Friday. That means it's just the three of us, for a week. Now the way I see it is this can go one of two ways. Either you help me out, you do what I ask, when I ask, you behave, and we have some fun. Or you don't, and we don't. We promise, they said. We high-fived to no silly nonsense. Yeah! And I believed, in that moment, we were in this together.
Less than 24 hours later - my requests to put their breakfast dishes in the dishwasher having already gone thrice unheeded - I found myself pulling them off each other from where they lay fighting on the hall floor. They were screaming, the dog was barking, and I was screaming loudest of all. And I believed, in that moment, that they were the laziest, most horrid children ever. I dragged them to their rooms. Slammed the doors. I don't want to see you or hear you, I said. After appropriate stewing time had passed, I announced we were going for a walk. To clear the air, to clear our heads. I lectured them all the way to the park and back, and while they seemed a little too untroubled for my liking, I believed, in that moment, that we were on the same page.
Less than 12 hours later they were at it again, hysterical, scrapping over some headphones as if their very lives depended on it. And, in that moment, I knew I had been conned.
A developmental psychologist in the UK recently claimed that after reviewing all the research she had determined that the key to getting children to behave was to ignore them. That any attention, even when unpropitious, even when paid at the top of one's lungs, is still rewarding. I think my children must have read it, too. For when I lose it, when I get up close and screechy in their faces, they turn a blind eye, a deaf ear.
It's ironic really, but last week my friend rang me for parenting advice. Of all the mothers I know, she would yell the least, but that morning she had flipped her lid. She told me of trying to get out the door, of unbrushed teeth and forgotten lunch orders. It was a tale, I'm sure, repeated in households across the country. I'm not even sure why exactly, she said, but I just exploded. I feel terrible. They were so upset. Honey, I said, at least you got a reaction.
I'm under no illusions that nutting off at your children constitutes great parenting. And sometimes when I do it, I berate myself: You would never talk to a friend like that! But then none of my friends would tug repeatedly on my top while I'm on the phone to the AA. None of my friends would burst into my room at 5.57am on a Sunday just because they were awake and assumed I would be too. And none of my friends would think it was funny to fart into their cupped hand, throwing it in my face while I tried to meditate.
It's our job as adults to protect children. From bogeymen and rabid dogs. From too much junk food and not enough sleep. But not from life itself. I hold no truck with hiding truths. Bad things happen. People die. Parents get angry.
Last week I wrote on duty. Kristina said, "Sometimes something can happen to someone in your life and you realise 'you're it!' You are the one who could step in. It's your time to step up to the plate. You're suddenly tapped on the shoulder, in spite of intense feelings of despair, huge changes to your personal space, there's no pulling out." Gill said "among the many that don't" this column rang true. Her husband, too, is a dutiful man. "If he's driving and finds himself in the wrong lane, he sucks it up and drives on, thereby NOT disrupting traffic for his own convenience."