Answering Back

imageWhen 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.

imageThe 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.

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We Have Words!

imageThere is no rushing our Baby T. As I may have mentioned, he is a bit of a law unto himself: he likes to decide what he is going to do and when he is going to do it. He does very little simply to please us and, as a result, trying to nudge him towards a milestone or two is both frustrating and pointless.

Up until very recently, communicating using anything other than pointing and grunting simply wasn’t on his list of priorities. Yes, he has been getting annoyed by being misunderstood, but T either hasn’t made the connection between attempting to speak and getting what you want, or he simply hasn’t felt it worth diverting his energy towards learning speech yet.

Our fruitless efforts to encourage a bit of verbal communication have been laughable.

“What’s this?” (points at picture of a cat)

“No”

“Can you say Daddy?”

“Mama”

“I’m Mama. This is Dada. Say Dada”

“Batman”

He seriously said Batman before he said Daddy. Daddy was peeved.

Learning to talk with the other two was rather a different affair. H wasn’t particularly early to speak but he was a pleaser and, once he realised he got a round of applause and lots of whooping when he copied a word from his doting parents, he took it upon himself to win as much praise as possible. Like our T, he was an extreme scribbler, but once the words started he did his best to make us happy and learn as many as he could, bless him.

M was, and still is, my communicator extraordinaire. She started talking incredibly young and, by T’s age, she was using complete and complex sentences. I’ve not been able to shut her up since, which I love, incidentally, even if it drives me crazy from time to time.

You see, I am a talker. “No!” I hear you shout. Yes, I know, it’s a shocker, but I love to talk. And I have surrounded myself with talkers in life: a net of like-minded communicators who catch and carry each other with a web of words. And I don’t mean talking just because you like the sound of your own voice. I mean the art of verbal communication: talking but also listening, responding, encouraging, sympathising. It is the stuff of life. It keeps you sane and soothes the soul. My closest friends and I barely pause when we meet up, sharing our joys and woes, wrapping each other in a verbal blanket of support and kindness.

imageMy little M is a dyed in the wool, five star talker. She is a total chip off the old block and I just know her. I know how she thinks, how she listens, how she learns. I almost can’t remember a time before she was able to express herself.

And so we come back to our little T. Part of the problem is that he came after my alpha communicator – a tough act to follow and no mistake. But mostly, it has been about the fact that he simply doesn’t give a monkey’s. I know my nearly two year old well enough to know that, until he does care, there is next to no point in pushing it. Locking horns with a toddler is never productive.

But something rather miraculous has happened in the last couple of weeks. A spark has fired in his little brain and T has caught the wordy bug. Remembering that he was starting from a pretty low base, I think he has made up some incredible ground of late. I’ll admit I was beginning to have a creeping concern about my grunting child and I even checked the dreaded expectations list of what a two year old ‘should’ be able to do (he was a clear fail a few weeks ago, as far an language went). But now I’m kicking back and relaxing, knowing that he has whizzed passed the mark in next to no time.

Talker T is now running three or four basic words into sentences. He is playing with sounds, trying everything out and is utterly delighted with himself when he nails it. OK, so lots of the words are noises that only I can interpret right now but he has gone from having just a handful of them to producing them by the bucketload.

imageI’d forgotten just how funny and engaging this early talking stage can be. The look on his little face when he manages a new word for the first time is just adorable. T was given some cake in a plastic cup at a party this weekend. The novelty factor of having “kerk in a curp” was something that clearly required a great deal of repetition, marvelling at being able to describe what he had in his hands.

So, has this wave of new language had an impact on the number of frustrated tantrums? No, not really. He may be able to explain what he wants a bit better now but he still kicks off when he doesn’t get it. What it has done is make me feel like we are really beginning to get there.

With his second birthday just around the corner, Baby T has still felt very much like a baby to us. Too much like a baby, to be honest. With the older two, I felt we were really out of the baby stage by their second birthdays, and we were good and ready for that change each time. Let’s face it, a lot of the baby stuff sucks and two years really is enough. But my wordless boy has been seriously dragging his heels. Without language, he still seemed incredibly young, still in the baby bubble. I have been really keen to be able to finally have a two way interaction with my obstinate youngest. We are now, after a long wait, on the cusp of that and I am delighted by it.

Soon there will be another little voice asking me endless questions, bickering with his siblings, interrupting me on the phone. Our house is already full of constant chatter and it is about to increase significantly. Bring it on, I say. It is a hell of a lot better than grunting.

Being the youngest, T will always be my baby, but I’m glad he is starting to shake off his babydom just a little. I think Talker T and I are going to get on just fine.

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Left Holding the Babies

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My husband is away on a work trip/skiing jaunt to the States for eight days. Lucky him. So, me and the kids have been home alone since Thursday and I find myself in sole charge of three small people.

Don’t get me wrong. I am always ‘in charge’, even though it may not always appear that way from the outside. As any parent of multiple kids knows, there must never be any doubt about who rules the roost. Like hyenas, they’d devour you in the blink of an eye if you let you slip even for a moment that you are handing over the reins to the pack. Even in chilled-out, fun, holiday Mummy mode, The Wall is always there in the background for them to hit up against, should they decide to stage a coup and challenge for leadership.

That aside, it is always good to have backup, even if it is absent for the majority of the average working week. My backup is our breadwinner and he commutes to London most days so isn’t often around much to help with the morning or bedtime routines, but the help he does give makes a big difference to me, psychologically. I still feel a sense of relief when he gets home, even if the kids are already in bed: a blessed return to joint responsibility.

Daddy’s influence is strong wherever he is and the threat of “telling Daddy” has a huge impact on my eldest, who is still the kid most likely to fly into an emotional rage and give me trouble. And it isn’t the easily quashed kind of trouble I get from the little two. For all their preschool sulks and toddler tantrums, they are both pretty textbook and manageable. Also, crucially, their tempers are like fireworks that explode dramatically, then just as quickly dissipate. H has sticking power like no other kid I’ve ever come across. He still has the ability to ruin the entire day for everyone, if trouble escalates.

I never thought I’d use the “wait til your Father gets home” approach but it is surprisingly useful with our H. I have no idea why this tactic works as it isn’t as if their father is particularly strict but, in the eyes of my six year old lad, Daddy’s disapproval is devastating. After a tantrum, H practically begs me not to tell Dad, which I find rather embarrassing if we are out in public, and I’m sure we get looks of pity for having this domineering, possibly violent old man at home. Nothing could be further from the truth, and in some ways Daddy is more of a pushover than I am, but the possible disapproval is met with such dread by H that it can be a useful weapon to add to my arsenal, when dealing with my challenging lad.

The “telling Daddy” approach actually carries more weight when he is away as H has been charged with being on his best behaviour and helping me look after the little ones this week, and he knows Daddy gets updates from afar. And, of course, badly behaved boys don’t qualify for the inevitable post trip present from America.

(As an aside, my middle one, M, couldn’t give a flying rat’s arse about Daddy’s disapproval so this tactic has no impact on her at all. Luckily, she is a bright little button and still wants the present so she tows the line anyway).

I do miss my fella when he is away and eight days can feel like a long time when you have no company in the evenings. The first few nights are great and I enjoy having no competiton for the remote control and having no-cook TV dinners, but after a few days, I really miss having someone to discuss the highlights and trials of the day with over a glass of wine. Parenting can be a lonely business without my buddy to share it with.

However, this trip has happily co-incided with a week off work for me, using up my 2014 holiday before I lose it at the end of January. This means my usual two work days are completely mine and I have lots of fun, grown up things planned. My best mate and I may even squeeze in a decadent daytime cinema trip, something we’ve not managed together for the best part of a decade. And I’ve just come back from a lovely weekend away with my family and great friends. So I’m doing pretty well on the social front this week.

So, as weeks go, this one is shaping up pretty well. Discipline isn’t exactly the issue when I’m solo parenting. Neither is the workload and this time I have more social chatting time than you could shake a stick at. So why do I have a white panic moment just as the cab arrives and I wave my husband off?

I’m a pretty capable Mum these days (although that certainly wasn’t always the case) and I can juggle it all most of the time. I think the panic sets in every time he goes because there is always a pretty high chance that something unexpected and dramatic might happen, when you have three kids in the mix. The risk of that unknown factor striking is always there. An illness, a crisis, a minor family disaster. And then I might really be in trouble.

But we muddle on, as usual. And nothing disastrous has happened yet.

Plus, most importantly, all this solo parenting earns me a weekend off when my husband gets back, so I reckon it is worth the odd moment of panic. He may have jet lag but I dare say he’ll cope with his offspring for a weekend. And hopefully he won’t feel that same moment of panic as I kiss everyone goodbye and cheerfully skip out the door without a backward glance.