Friday, 11 July 2014

This Time it's Personal ~ part 10

I've never had children of my own but I've had step-kids twice - B when I was in my late twenties for four years or so, and Z and O now and for the last 10 years. In both cases I've found the experience difficult to say the least. I even rang the Samaritans up once because I was just so beside myself. (I wasn't suicidal. I just needed to vent.) In both cases things improved enormously once they hit adolescence and I'd say I have a very good relationship with Z and O now and by the time we broke up I got on better with B than I did with her mum. I can relate to teenagers. Make of that what you will. Partly I think it's just too late to change anything much by that age but also I think they just have a way of thinking that small children just don't. Plus they are more aware of how ridiculous they look. I can communicate with teenagers. Children just leave me baffled and infuriated.

The causes of this infuriation are many and varied but are mostly about waste and thoughtlessness. I find an apple with just one bite out of it in the bin (not even in the compost bucket, which is right next to it!) We buy fruit. They ask us to buy fruit but presumably the apple did not taste quite the way they expected or wanted so in the bin it went and it drives me nuts. I was too young to be brought up in post-war austerity but I seem to have inherited a loathing of waste from my parents who did live through that time. O leaves the telly on pause for hours while he goes and does something else, as if he can't bear to turn it off, as if he is scared it might never turn on again. Electrical goods pack up and they just accept that you just chuck them out and get a new one (though not with their money of course). Dinners get wasted. They claim not to like them but I strongly suspect they don't really know what 'don't like' means. I had a couple of things I really couldn't eat when I was a child, swede for example, but basically I ate almost everything. What they mean is they don't happen to fancy it at that precise moment, or it wasn't quite what they expected. I enjoy cooking and am pretty good at it by all accounts, and making a meal from scratch is one of the few ways I have of showing I care so this rejection was a regular source of unhappiness.
This, I really must say, has changed enormously since I've known them. Nowadays they'll eat a very wide range of things with my veggie curry well up among their favourites but it still happens occasionally and it still upsets me. I'm not trying to justify any of this. I'm just saying this is how it is.

When they were younger (I've known them since they were 6 and 7 respectively) there were regular tantrums and freak outs. O used relate to people mainly by winding them up (especially his sister) and then burst into tears when they got fed up with him. Z used to take any opportunity to throw a wobbler, shouting and screaming whenever things didn't go the way she wanted. They bickered constantly, O trying to wind Z up, and was always hugely offended when she lost her temper with him. Happy days. They never got really violent but they had absolutely no sense of how much they were affecting other people and just kept on and on until somebody lost it or they wore themselves out.
I don't know how much impact I've had on how O and Z have grown up. Probably they'd have turned out fine without me, but I like to think I've had some effect. I remember a conversation with Emma back at the start about her children (luckily she's never taken the position some single mums do, that the new man can have no part in how her children are brought up. Add to this the fact that her ex and his partner are thoroughly decent blokes and we all generally get on remarkably well, and, suffice it to say, things could have been much much worse.) The gist of this conversation was that basically there was 'nasty' and there was 'nice'. Being helpful and encouraging and calm with your children was 'nice' and being angry and disapproving was 'nasty' and of course she didn't want to be nasty to them. I pointed out that there is a third option which is 'firm'. She just wouldn't say it like she meant it in case it came over as 'nasty'. No doubt her and her ex would have worked this out for themselves sooner or later but at the time they were almost powerless in the maelstrom. If you've got one person in a dispute who is trying to be calm and reasonable and generous and another who is prepared to scream and shout and doesn't care what anybody thinks or says it's obvious who will win, every time. Until somebody is prepared to say "That's it. I'm not listening until you talk to me properly" and sound like they mean it the child will always escalate because basically, it occasionally works and what has it got to lose? Certainly not its dignity. I'm not against smacking because violence is wrong (I got smacked occasionally and I don't think it did me any harm especially) but because it's not necessary. A firm (not shrill, and especially not pleading) voice is enough. If worst comes to worst I threaten them with a lecture, and nobody wants that.

I'm lucky I guess - I'm fairly articulate and I'm good at reasoning. Not everyone is, I understand, but the main thing it seems to me is for the parent to talk like they should be heard and the children should listen. I think that's the thing. I think that's what's missing with so many difficult child/parent relationships. The parents don't really believe deep down that they should be listened to. 'What right have I to tell anyone what to do?' they say. We post-sixties generation have grown up with the feeling, deep down, that parents are old fashioned, stuffy, out of touch, and that the children are somehow naturally better, more in tune with how things should be, if we'd just leave them to it. They should be teaching us, not vice-versa. But they're not. At best they're just like anyone else - sometimes they're good and sometimes they're not, and at worst they are amoral, selfish, unreasonable (in the strictest sense of the word) and ignorant.

They don't know much. It's not their fault, they just haven't been around that long. They haven't had that many experiences, they haven't thought about things that much, they haven't had that many conversations. It's not authoritarianism and pedantry that makes us authoritative and pedagogical, it's necessity and responsibility. It's become fashionable to say that the kids are so far ahead of us these days - look at all the technology - they run rings around us, but not that much has changed. Fruit is still better for you than sweets. The French still speak French. Bees still buzz and bombs still go boom. Some things are still ugly and brutal and other things are beautiful and pleasant. Talking to other people still involves broadly the same techniques. Fairness and honesty and generosity haven't changed their meanings and none of this is hard-wired into the developing child. It has to be learned.

And actually we're not as different from them as our parents were from us. For those of us who grew up in the sixties and seventies, our attitude to careers and education, technology, health and sex, race and religion, arts and science are much more like theirs than our parents were to ours. We're used to things changing all the time too, though not at quite such a rate. I don't think I have a problem with technology because of the generation I grew up in. It's just not my thing. Many of the people I grew up with love technology, and a lot of kids use it but are no more interested in it than I am. After all, I'm a bit of a luddite but I use Blogger, Flickr, excel, itunes, Lulu, Paypal, Google, Yahoo, Panda... I met my wife on line and have made more friends on line than I have in real life - real friends that I correspond with, visit and swap things with (seeds mostly). I don't do Skype, Twitter or Facebook but many people my age do - can't get them off the bloody thing. I don't do gaming either, but then I never did like games even when I was a kid, but most of the music I listen to is less than 10 years old and damn fine it is too.
So we parents (because I am one, whether I like it or not) should have the courage to stand up and say 'You have a lot to learn' and be proud of that. They know some stuff we don't (something my parents wouldn't admit) and we don't know everything but overall we know a lot more than they do and we should be able to share it. Take responsibility!

What does all this have to do with the rest of these essays?
Watch this space

to be continued...

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