When I was a kid, it was pretty standard to be told not to answer back by a grown-up. It was also standard to giggle and ignore it. It is one of those reprimands, rolled out often and listened to almost never. I don’t think I even really knew what it meant when a dinner lady said “don’t answer back” to me when I was a little dot. I was a pretty good kid so I can’t imagine I had said anything particularly awful but she was a miserable old bag and I think I was probably just being too perky and smart, so she said it to make me be quiet.
I think lots of adults tell kids not to answer back just to shut them up, not because they are being naughty or mean. For that reason, I didn’t want to use that phrase myself as a parent. It is just one of those trite lines that has lost all meaning from over-use by generations of parents. Old fashioned and empty.
Well, this week I said it. With very good reason, I must confess, as my seven-year old boy is being a right lippy little git. But I said it nonetheless. So it seems I am not so much turning into my Mother (who never used that phrase, as far as I can remember) but into the miserable old dinner lady with the too-bright lipstick on her mealy, downturned mouth.
H has been really pushing it recently. Asked how his day was, he tuts and sighs, casts his eyes up and mutters something angry under his breath. I have been doing my best to ask nicely and keep my cool, to coax him into a more receptive state of mind, but he seems to ramp up the pre-teen stroppiness even more when I am polite and gentle with him. I’m sure it is classic boundary pushing but it is getting a little testing.
The most annoying thing about the lip is that he seems to reserve it for his siblings and me. Daddy gets away scot-free. I’m not sure how as he has never been particularly authoritarian, but Daddy commands a respect from my eldest that I find somewhat baffling. If I threaten to tell Daddy about bad behaviour, it can send H into total misery, begging me not to tarnish his good name in the eyes the Great Dad.
I comfort myself with the fact that the little two couldn’t give a rat’s ass about upsetting Daddy. They would laugh in my face if I said “wait till your Father gets home”. But H is a total Daddy worshipper, with the result that his stroppiness mostly heads in my general direction.
I know it’s just a phase and, for the most part, I can gently tell H off and work on him to get him out of his funk. But it depends entirely on the day I’ve had as to my level of patience with it. Last week was a good one for my two-year old, so I was feeling less stressed and the strops from H were easier to dilute and deal with. This week, not so much.
Terrible T has been monumentally monstrous this week. OK, so he has a cold but, man, he has been awful. He has kicked and screamed his way through the week so far, throwing tantrum after tantrum. By the time H and M come home from school, the patience pot is pretty much empty.
So, when H decided to use that voice after school yesterday, to tut, kick the sofa and rant in response to a pretty basic request from me, I didn’t handle it as well as I would have liked. Not only was he told not to “answer back” and to “wait til I tell Daddy”, but it ended with both of us screaming at each other and him being banished to his bedroom. Not our finest hour.
The problem with having multiple kids is that they work in a kind of tag team, wearing you down one at a time throughout the day until you are at your wit’s end and completely out of patience. They aren’t experienced enough to realise when it would be wise to step back and give you five minutes to take some deep breaths and reset. They go on and on until you hit breaking point and end up losing it in the style of a wailing banshee.
It is all horribly unfair on the kid that carries that final back-breaking straw, of course. If you must yell, you should really be yelling at all of them, or at least the one who gave you most shit during the day. But it doesn’t work like that. The one that pushes you over the edge gets it in the neck.
And I’m afraid to say that the answering back is often the final straw for me. I find it disproportionately irritating. On paper, being a bit lippy isn’t as bad as screaming tantrums, right? But it is just so infuriating to be tutted at and spoken to as if I have just crawled out from under a rock, just for asking him to put his socks in the washing basket. That rudeness gets me to angry far quicker than any of T’s worst toddler meltdowns.
H is a good kid really. He is just having a stroppy phase. It may well be a long phase that lasts until his early 20s but I am still choosing to think about it as a phase, for sanity’s sake. He is always very apologetic after driving me into a total meltdown too. Doesn’t stop him doing it again, of course, but at least he does say sorry.
I was moaning to my husband about it the other night and he said he would have a word with our boy, to try to get him to buck up and be polite. He took H to one side and before he had even started getting to the point, H collapsed into a ball of tears, spit and snot, saying how bad he had been, how sorry he was and how he didn’t deserve any presents from Father Christmas. It was deeply melodramatic, ending with sworn oaths to be nice, stop moaning at his siblings and be polite to Mummy.
Did it last? Of course not. What do you do with the sinner who repents endlessly but carries on regardless?
Tonight I am drinking a very large glass of wine to help me wash away a day of tantrums, misery, moaning and back-chat. Half a bottle of Sauvignon tends to improve my mood and makes the bedtime routine go with a pleasantly hazy swing.
When the kids are in bed I will drink more wine, whilst I try to think of a better way of saying “don’t answer back”, one that doesn’t make me sound like a miserable, old dinner lady.
Oh, I’ve got it! How about “Shut the fuck up”? Too much?
I’ll keep working on it.