I didn’t half feel a berk last Friday, coming home from the school run pushing a three-quarters-eaten plate of beans on toast along in a wheelchair.
It all started because we ran out of milk. Because we had no milk for Freddie’s usual breakfast of cereal and toast, I asked him if he’d like to have potato waffles and beans for a change. He said he wanted potato waffles and beans on toast, so I suggested I cook one waffle, one slice of toast and some beans, and he agreed to this. But when he came downstairs he got upset that there was only one waffle, not two, and refused to eat. I told him that if he ate all the waffle, toast and beans and was still hungry after, then I would cook another waffle — they don’t take long in the toaster if you crank it up to the maximum and hit the defrost button. But no, that didn’t satisfy him, and he started swearing at me — ‘You fucking, fucking, fuck’.
I don’t know where he’s picked up this kind of language, but, to be fair, you hear it thrown around in the street these days as part of normal discourse. A single profanity can perform the function of noun, verb, or adjective, and sometimes all of the above in the same sentence. And once your child goes to school then, whatever kind of school you send them to, they will be exposed to influences outside your control.
I told him I wouldn’t sit with him if he carried on swearing.
He carried on.
So I took my toast and coffee into another room. After a while he went quiet, so I came out, but the minute he saw me he began swearing again. So I took my breakfast upstairs. Once again he went quiet after a few minutes. But as soon as he heard me set foot on the stairs, the swearing started again — ‘on the fucking stairs’. I went back into the bedroom. This time, after a few minutes he came up and started banging on the door, still swearing. I didn’t know what to do to break the impasse. The clock in the hall was ticking. It was already twenty-to-nine and he hadn’t taken a single bite of his breakfast.
I went downstairs, got my boots and coat, and told him it was time to get his splints and shoes on. Then, of course, (of course), he suddenly wanted to eat his breakfast, started screaming that he wanted to eat his breakfast (but at least he wasn’t screaming that he wanted to eat his ‘fucking’ breakfast. I told him the faster he got his shoes on, the more time we’d have to try to eat some food before we had to set off for school. He wasn’t having any of that. He kicked me off furiously, snatched the splints and then the shoes and launched them at me. Only now he wasn’t angry: he was crying, really crying. And it was nearly nine O’clock.
In the end I did something I normally absolutely will not do — I got the wheelchair out for the school run. I chucked everything — bag, coat, splints, shoes, and breakfast, into the porch. Somehow I hustled Freddie into the porch, too, no mean feat as he’s three-quarters my height, quite heavy, and very strong. It is probably this kind of thing, rather than the Pilates deficiency that my doctor diagnosed, that accounts for the state of my back.
I told him that if he sat in the chair we could take breakfast with us and he could eat it on the way. I lifted the chair outside (it won’t go over the step) and he let me put his shoes and coat on.
We only saw one person on the way down to school — an elderly chap we often see walking his dogs (luckily they weren’t hungry or Freddie may have ended up with two excited Shih-Tzus on his lap as well as his dish), and he didn’t pass any kind of comment on seeing an eleven-year-old who usually walks being pushed along the street in a chair scoffing beans on toast from a large pasta bowl.
By the time we got to school Freddie was much calmer and had eaten his fill.
It was only at this point that I realised I had given no thought to how I was going to get the bowl home again given that I needed both hands to push the chair. And what would I do in the event of an encounter with a peckish canine?
In fact the whole incident had happened because I hadn’t thought about what I was going to do, because I didn’t have a plan. I reflected on this as I walked home.
Usually, when I’m dealing with Freddie, especially in a situation where he may not want to cooperate, I have a plan. If he does that, I will do this, then if he does this, I will do that, and if he doesn’t cooperate with that, I will do the other: all designed to reduce conflict, de-escalate the situation, and change the behavioural momentum. But when he started swearing, it took me by surprise, and so I had no plan to follow. My first thought was to nip it in the bud, let him know that it is unacceptable. In most people’s eyes it is unacceptable coming from a child, and Freddie’s dad particularly hates it, seeing it as the ultimate mark of disrespect: a thing he’s have been knocked into next week for, if he’d ever dared utter such words. But in moving away from Freddie when he began to swear, I was inadvertently handing control of the situation to him, he knew he could use the swearing to manipulate my response to him. Whereas, if I had completely ignored it I would have retained control, because he would have had nothing with which to wind me up or make me change my behaviour. He would have seen that swearing did not bring him what he wanted. It did not bring him anything at all — it was pointless.
Ignoring such behaviour can be much more difficult in front of other people, whether it’s family and friends or random strangers in a public place, as you can feel the weight of other people’s expectations that you will do something to reprimand and punish your child. Having been exposed only to traditional parenting methods most people tend to view ignoring as condoning: because they are not aware of the reasoning behind it.
I need to ignore them too — or else I am handing control of the situation over to others, allowing them to manipulate how I deal with my child. But other people and their expectations are not important here. What I need to focus on, both in public and in private, is my plan for encouraging acceptable behaviour, and in this case ignoring IS the best plan, for de-escalation, conflict reduction, and for teaching Freddie that swearing gets him nothing — literally nothing at all, not even a flicker of a reaction. And sometimes that means ignoring not just his behaviour, but other people’s too.
I was almost home before I realised that I’d had a fold-up shopping bag in my pocket the whole time. I could have just put the bowl in there and hung it over the handles of the wheelchair instead of walking along with it on the seat like some sort of ultra-bizarre child substitute.
Always have milk,
Always have a plan,
Always have a shopping bag.
And, when it comes to parenting, always have the brass neck to stick to doing what you know is right for your child, rather than what other people think is right.