Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The democratic republic of childhood

Last night saw Showdown at our house.

The usual story… a long day culminated in a bout of dinnertime naughtiness, then the barked order to, "Go upstairs and get ready for bed right now," then extended stubborn refusal, pushing, crying, howling, screaming, and me with my fingers in my ears and my eyes shut, willing it all to go away.

It wasn't pretty. I didn't feel good for my Show Of Authority. The children were particularly outraged and irked, because their punishment was coterminous with not having apple crumble. They insisted that they had in no way been naughty, that they had, "just been laughing", and they wanted a recount. There was a tearful, fruitless, appeal to the Father, working upstairs. Eventually they gave up, and retreated to the silence and darkness of their lairs.

I held firm. To my ears. I sat, catatonic, at my desk, pretending to sort out chores.

Half an hour passed.

My husband finished the work he was doing, gave me a look, and left for a party.

I trailed downstairs to the kitchen to look mournfully at the burnt apple crumble.

A rush of four bare feet paddled down behind me, four warm hands clutched me, two fervent apologies were breathlessly issued.

Followed closely by, "Can we have crumble now?"

We ended up, double helpings of crumble and chocolate custard later, in bed, reading Octonauts and Horrible Histories, with two hot water bottles and roughly six bears. We all fell asleep there, me fully clothed.


Today we all tried to talk about what had happened. We'd had a good afternoon out. There was nothing terribly wrong, apart from my fatigue, which is pretty permanent. Repeated table manner admonishment is the norm, not the exception, in our house — you'd think I'd be used to it.

Why did I decide that then and there was the moment absolute authority had to be established, and through a punitive order which would deprive them of something they were expecting? Because I'd had it.

I know exactly what the Expert Parenting Authorities will say to me: "But you have allowed negotiation in the past, and so the children do not understand when you suddenly decide to lay down the law. It's YOUR fault."

If I were an absolutist tyrant every night, would the children be using their table manners perfectly by now, while loathing me? Yes. Yes they would. I know that for an experiential fact.

Will the approach of patient (all right, semi-patient) grumpiness, dessert-based bribery, and eye-rolling reiteration take longer, but result in good manners by the time they leave the family home? My goodness, I hope so. 

To me, the family is a democracy not a tyranny, in which the children should get a vote on certain policies. The adults retain prime ministerial veto: we manage the budgets, and won't permit filibustering; I run the Education and Healthcare departments. Actually, I run all the departments, and there have been severe cutbacks to the Civil Service of late. But the children engage in parliamentary debate where they can. And they should, otherwise what are they learning about authority?

Of course I know the difference between being authoritative and being authoritarian. Of course I rein in the children's behaviour and manner when they become too raucous, or when they are downright rude or disrespectful. And of course sometimes I've had enough, and deploy the police force. Negotiation has its place. So does the ultimatum.

One of the reasons parenting is so exhausting is precisely because every situation is emotionally subtly different, even if there is a high degree of structural overlap (the Witching Hours/table manners fisticuffs/making them get in the bath/wash their hair/brush it/do their teeth/homework etc etc). The children found my decree absolute so unfair because we'd had a good day, and they can't read my increasing impatience and annoyance, which is based on my exhaustion. They don't know that my local frustration, while caused by their behaviour, is amplified by my own relentless feelings of frustration, pulsing round my head. When I'd finally had it, and ordered them upstairs to bed, it came from nowhere as far as they were concerned.

Having said this, I'm certainly not saying any of this to imply that I'm a bad mother, or shouldn't have done what I did. On the contrary: they did need to be sent to bed. Their behaviour was grim. And after their outrage had abated, and they had had a think about events, they decided that an apology was in order. Once they had acknowledged that they had been out of line, I apologised for shouting, and we patched things up.

No one said democracy is easy. That's why it's important to defend it.


litlove said...

Never forget the wise counsel of Winnicott. Children need 'good enough' mothers, not perfect ones who will scar them for life. They need to see you fail, and to make mistakes and to scrape life back together again. Because these are some of the most important lessons you will ever download to them: that we are flawed humans who cock up time and time again, but we love each other and find ways to make it right. You did good.

Kirkegaard said...

Thank you Litlove, I so appreciate these words. I so agree with them, but feel that the pressure is relentless on women to BE perfect, even though imperfection is actually the magic source of love, forgiveness, reflection and so on. It FEELS as if the whole world wants women to be perfect vacant shells, to be filled with the blame, hatred and rubbish the world can't deal with. But that can't be true. Can it?