I’ve been a pretty laid-back parent on the whole. I’ve operated on the principle, if my kid wants something, he can have it, or do it, if I can see no reason why not. I’ve regulated screen-time, but not much else. He could choose about almost everything; I saw decision-making as a learning process. I thought freedom would teach him responsibility.
Maybe it did. Up till now, he’s done pretty much everything required of him and then some. He’s made me proud, far more often than embarrassed. Oh, he’s not the quickest off the mark with his pleases, thank yous and sorrys. If a toy, anything, attracts him, he’d head for it first, ask “May I?” later, if at all. He assumes his right to assert his preferences all the time, about what to eat, where to go, what to buy, where to sit in the bus. I’ve frequently imagined, accurately I am sure, observers’ disapproval of such self-importance in such a small person; and when I read the above, he sounds like a right little pain in the arse, even to me.
But he’s not, at all. He’s gentle, alert, considerate, popular across a range of social backgrounds. His behaviour at school has been close to exemplary since reception. I’ve been told he has a fine sense of justice and the best kind of manners; “thoughtful and diplomatic” were the words our head-teacher used. So I’ve assumed that basically I must have been doing something right.
But then we hit Year 3. Homework has tripled, other expectations similarly magnified. Suddenly, his weekly schedule is such that fairly strict home routines are inevitable. It’s still all do-able, with plenty of time left over, but only if my little free-spirit is prepared, for the first time, to get down to it when and how I say. No ifs, buts and other prevarications. No two-hour long, quite cute displacement of 10 minutes’ work. In fact, the displacement activity is not cute any more. Homework, music practice, getting ready, has got to happen, like we agreed, now.
Trouble is my strong-willed boy isn’t used to it. Neither am I, though my soft-touch exterior conceals a determination to match his own. The result is, battles that last all weekend, tantrums that last all night. A house that looks like a bombsite ten minutes after he walks in from school; two parents perpetually cowering as books, pencils and other missiles are hurled about the room in fury.
I didn’t do Supernanny, Gina Ford or Controlled Crying when he was little; I concluded smugly that on the whole I could manage without their advice. As parents, his dad and I inhabited mainly separate spheres, with me taking virtually full responsibility for childcare, feeding, organising and entertainment. Oh, I grumbled, could have done with a lot more time off. My partner grumbled, accusing me of monopolising our son. But basically, we accepted the situation because it more or less worked; we managed, the kid seemed fine.
But I need Supernanny now. I also need his dad, every single evening and throughout the weekend. I need Dad to be up-to-date with his screen and junk food allowance, and with what school work remains. I need him to accept without querying my new imposed conditions. And I need his sheer muscle-power, to back up my tactical skills. We need to be a closer-knit team than we ever have before.
Last night my child, aged 7, cried himself to sleep for the first time in his life. Somewhat shell-shocked, without raising our voices, we shut him in his room, because he wouldn’t stop attacking us (because we took away the i-phone, because we said it’s time for bed). He started attacking his room then, until I removed every toy and book he was using as a hammer and put them in the recycling bag. At half past 11, he lay, finally, on his elevated bed, whimpering, defeated.
I unlocked the door, waded through the debris, climbed up onto the bed to hug him, cover him, and turn off the light.