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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Parenting without slavery: how not to be your child's servant

I have to admit that I can be a bit of a perfectionist at times.  My friends have been known to crack jokes about my OCD- which wouldn't be funny at all if I had full-blown OCD, of course, but which are probably inevitable given that I compulsively over-categorise things, to the point of hanging out my washing and organising my home bookshelves in rainbow colour order.

Stop laughing. NOW.

Truly, I'm one of those people who likes all the Duplo to be in the Duplo box when we pack up, not mixed through the Mobilo with the odd coloured pencil thrown in.  An astrologer would say I'm a 'typical Libran'.  I hate housework, but if I HAVE to do it, then things are going to look BEAUTIFUL once I've finished.

And that makes me a perfect candidate to become a slave to little children.   

I've had to learn how to let go.  I know I don't really have OCD, because I don't constantly try to control every aspect of my surroundings (no, you can NOT eat off my floor- bleaugh!)- and I've been able to teach myself to STOP doing it when it's not a priority.  But sometimes it's still a struggle. 

And I can see now how my need for a certain type of order led to grief for my child, who really never had a chance to learn to do this stuff for himself in a way that didn't become a drama.  His resistance to my attempts to get him to do things my way just exaggerated his natural obstinacy, and encouraged his determination to turn it around and be the one in control of the situation.

These days I absolutely understand how a parent can wake up one morning and realise that their child is the one cracking the whip. You want things done properly, you're vaguely uncomfortable if they're NOT done properly or within your time frame, so you've done them yourself while your baby was little... and now they're not little any more, and nor are they in the habit of doing things they don't want to do- and you're the one jumping through hoops.

HOW did THAT happen?

I had no idea I was doing it at the time, when my own child was young.  Instead of letting go of the reins and allowing him to put any toy in any box or shelf (as long as it was off the floor so nobody broke their neck trying to get into his room), I'd want the wooden train set in its special bin, the books in the bookshelves, the Lego in the Lego cube. Frustrated with his unwillingness to do more than push things to one side to make a path while he went on playing (he was an extremely focused child once he got interested in something), I'd do it myself.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

My first mistake, of course, was to ignore his own internal schedule and impose my own. I didn't WAIT till he'd finished what he was doing, and I didn't warn him well in advance of what would be required. By acting like the boss, I ended up becoming the slave.

BAD idea.

If I put myself in his shoes and think about how I feel when I'm in the middle of writing a blog post or a uni assignment and my partner comes in and asks if I'm going to come and feed the livestock with him, and what else do I want to get done today, and chat chat chat....???... <bangs head on desk>

It totally disrupts my concentration and I lose my train of thought.  It immediately makes me resentful, even though I love him dearly. It does NOT make me want to contribute anything sensible to the conversation.  Sometimes I feel like having a tantrum when he does that, and I'm all grown up.  <makes mental note to suggest a better strategy to partner>

You've got to respect your child's play.  To them, it's important.  (Developmentally, it's extremely important, but I won't start writing a textbook about that here.) Don't just barge in as though they're doing the children's equivalent of snoozing on the lounge when the house is on fire.

My second mistake was not breaking down the task into manageable bites. NOBODY likes tidying up. (Correct me if I'm wrong.) I've got to the point where I know that if I'm going to get the dishes done, I have to fill the sink, put the first round of dishes in and walk away to do something less soulless while they soak, or I'll never even START. 

But I didn't do that with my son- I just looked at the bedroom floor and freaked.  DO IT ALL, NOW!!

So, what's a better way?  How do you break down a chaotic bedroom floor and a resistant child?

Lower your expectations.  This is NOT a test, and Country Life is NOT coming to photograph the room this afternoon (unless you're my girlfriend, who's a mother of three kids under 8 and a professional stylist; they really were coming to photograph her house).  For most of us, this is just a practicality (and possibly, if it's as bad as my son's room used to be, an OH&S issue).

And give some warning! Does your child have a clock in the bedroom? Why not? 'Excuse me, darling, I can see you're busy right now, but I wanted to let you know that at half past two (or 'when the big hand's down here on the 6'), it'll be time to pick up some of these toys.'

Pop in a few minutes later. 'Five more minutes, and then we'll pick up some toys.' 

In preschool I give 5-, 2- and 1-minute warnings; it depends on the age of your child.  Let them absorb the idea. Transitions are so important. (My baby-rearing guides never mentioned that tiny fact.)

Okay, it's 2.30; it's time to bite the bullet (very gently so neither of you breaks a tooth).  Point out the time to Junior, and away you go.

First, you hand an older child a rubbish bag and suggest they pick up all the rubbish they never want to see again and you'll dispose of it.  (Yes, that ice cream wrapper and scribbled-on paper is rubbish. No, the Maths textbook is not. Get a giggle out of it where you can.) 

Or maybe you'll make a fake megaphone with your hand and announce in your best CityRail voice 'All dirty plates and glasses to the dishwasher. All filthy crockery, report to the dishwasher IMMEDIATELY'.  For me, 'foul' is first cab off the rank (pardon the pun), so overt grossness is the first thing to delete.

Or if they're a younger child, be much more specific and make the task tiny and palatable. (You KNOW how hard it is to start a yucky job.)  If  Junior is a train enthusiast, "Please can you find all the trains and put them in the train bin? I'd hate to step on one and break the wheels off. While you do that, I'm going to..." and now you select the task you KNOW he or she won't do because it's too big or he hates it- e.g. putting away the jigsaws that are all mixed up on the floor.

And no, that's not a cue to get all compulsive and think you have to finish them. Remember, you have a life.  Put them in a bag together, and bring them out one wet day when Junior needs a diversion and you've got time to sit down with him and sort them out together. 

If Junior's finished rescuing his trains (yes, you can use the word 'rescue'!!), he might even be persuaded to pick up that piece over there that you can't quite reach... thanks, darling...  but RESIST the temptation to pick up lots of trains if that's his job!! Point them out if he's missed some, but let him do it.

Now it's time for a cool drink (no, I DON'T mean a stiff one- not yet!) or afternoon tea together, in another room.  Walk away for a moment!!!! Thank your child for helping.  Tell him you hate tidying too.  Praise and reward the behaviour you want to see. Be authentic. 

Then return to the fray (have a moan about it together beforehand, if you like) and select two more tasks- the ones that will make the most difference to how the room looks, this time. If most of the stuff on the floor is books and train track (yes, I can still SEE my son's room when he was about 7, and he's 26 now) then you give Junior his pick of those two tasks, and don't tell him how to do it- as long as it's off the floor (and not on the bed so he has to do it all again at bedtime), it's good enough. Keep your parameters simple and reasonable.  You do the chore he doesn't pick, and make it snappy.

Done? Wonderful. Praise, commiserate.  Agree it's a horrible job and the sooner it's finished the better.  Go outside, breathe some fresh air, pick a flower, whatever, but acknowledge you're not done yet.

Last lap! Now everything else gets put randomly into toyboxes or shelves or whatever, and it's a race.  He'd better hurry if there's anything fragile he wants to rescue.... ten, nine, eight, seven...

Can you see the floor? Marvellous. Reward yourselves, team!

And if it's not done to your liking, hello, you may be the one with the problem. If you go in and re-do it all so you're happy, you're undoing all the good work you did with your child. Small steps! You wouldn't expect him to paint like Van Gogh, so don't expect him to tidy like Sadie the Cleaning Lady. It's HIS space.  Don't impose your finicky personal preferences.  The first person to say "This is my house and you'll do it the way I want it" is the first person to deserve the response "I didn't ask to be born".

If only I'd tried this approach back then.  Sadly, there wasn't a guidebook for parenting without slavery back then, nor was there an internet full of sensible advice from people who'd been there and got it wrong.

There were so many things I refused to be a slave about when my son was little, because in many ways I'm not natural servant material.  Because I'm a creative person I cherish my free time, so I ensured that he had time to learn to entertain himself and that he wasn't totally dependent on my company.  When he tried to impinge on my personality (like ordering 'DON'T SING!' when I started caroling away in the car), he got short shrift. (Hey, it's not like my singing is painful- I'm a musician, I sing like a bird.  He was just testing his control.)  I had some boundaries that I wasn't letting anyone cross, even my child.  (If you don't have any, you'd do well to cultivate some- because when your kids leave home, you're going to wonder where your life went.)

But when it came to teaching him to keep a handle on his personal space, I messed up badly.  I ended up doing it all, because I had no clue how to help him to learn to do it himself. 

Can you do better, now that you've read about my mistakes?


  1. In a leadership seminar years ago, the leader told us, "If you delegate a task to someone, you have to accept how it's done. You must relinquish control of how it's done." I think that's a good rule to remember with kids, too. If we expect them to do the task, we have to accept how they do it. Great post.

  2. Well, that explains why I've never been much good at delegating! :D Yes, that's SO true. Thanks for reading!

  3. Keep on working, great job!
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