When parenting gets weird (the owls are coming!)

Parenting a three-year-old and a ten-month-old is, by itself, far outside the norm – I mean, how often do non-parents have to explain over the breakfast table that a noo-noo doesn’t spontaneously turn into a willy on your fourth birthday? – but some days are weirder than others. Last Monday, for example: what started as Parenthood quickly descended into Twin Peaks territory…and not the recent disappointing reboot.

After a long day at Peppa Pig World – and if you’ve ever been to Peppa Pig World, you’ll know just how long a day that can be – I cooked some dinner and then tried to get my youngest, Rosie, down to bed. Three-and-a-half hours later, my wife, who has no religious leanings whatsoever, stormed into the nursery, informed me that our daughter is demon-possessed, and demanded I remove her from the house/exorcise her (depending on my mood) since the incessant screaming was driving her mad. This I duly did, strapping her into the car seat and heading off into the vast emptiness of the New Forest.

That’s when things got strange.

It was down a dark, narrow road in the middle of nowhere, the trees meeting overhead and obscuring the stars, that out of the corner of my eye I suddenly caught a glimpse of a round face, big black eyes, brown feathers flecked with black, and – CRACK! – an owl flew smack into my windscreen, with a report like a gunshot going off.

My heart thumping against my ribs, I drove on a quarter of a mile, found somewhere to turn around and drove back to where my headlights illuminated a large brown form lying sprawled across the road like an old burlap sack. Clearly a tawny owl, clearly not moving. The speed at which I’d hit it – 35mph or so – didn’t bode well. Crap, I thought – what are the superstitions about owls? What happens if you kill one? Have I opened a door into the underworld, or something?

I considered my options. I had neither my phone nor my wallet with me, and no torch either. At the very least, if it was dead I could move it off the road; if somehow still alive, I could take it to the local owl sanctuary, though I doubted there’d be anyone there at this time of night. In any event, I had to do something.

I climbed out onto the pitch-dark roadside, and in that moment a deer leapt out of the bushes and landed on the road beside me. I don’t know which of us was more startled, but the deer looked at me, freaked, and threw itself back into the bushes, crashing away through the undergrowth into the night. By this point, I was thoroughly unnerved, but I had to check on the fallen owl.

When I turned back to it, the dead owl was now standing in the middle of the road, staring right at me, its big black eyes shining like obsidian in my headlights. It was only a few feet away and the forest had gone unnaturally quiet. It was horribly eerie, like I’d awakened whatever demonic soul inhabited its avian body.

Nonetheless, I held out my hands and spoke to it in a soft voice. ‘It’s okay, I’m a friend, I just need to check that you’re okay.’

I took a step towards it and it took a step away. I took another step; so did it. And then it skipped, spread its wings and flew into the air. I felt a rush of relief as I watched it go, relief that turned to horror as it shot over the top of my car and then – SMACK! – it flew right into a tree.

As it crashed down through the leaves, making one hell of a ruckus, it managed to grab hold of a branch and ended up hanging upside-down, its wings held out to the sides like something you’d see crouching on a cathedral. Worse, it was now directly above a stream that ran under the road, and if it fell it would surely drown.

But still it stared at me.

It was further from the car, directly to the side so outside the arc of my headlights, but I could just about make it out in the dark. I felt incredible responsibility for this creature, this fellow traveller that I had collided with on life’s highway – literally. There was a steep bank down into the water, overgrown with nettles and thorns, and I thought if it fell I would have to leap into the stream to rescue it.

But then I thought of the baby still refusing to sleep in the back of the car. I thought of the darkness all around, and of the stream that slid silent and black through the Stygian gloom. I had no idea how deep it was, or if getting in I’d even be able to get out. If the owl, in its panic or its malice, would claw me with its talons and tear at me with its beak. If my car would be found in the morning at the roadside, empty, no trace of any of us – just the dusty outline of an owl upon the windscreen.

Such are the thoughts that come to you deep in a forest late at night.

I tried to shoo it away, clapped my hands at it, just to get it to a safer place – it simply stared at me. It let go with one foot, stretched out its leg, flexed its toes, then swapped over, but refused to move. And just. Kept. Staring.

Eventually, I decided there was nothing more I could do. I bid the owl farewell, got back in the car and drove on. But a couple of minutes down the road, I felt an irresistible urge to turn back – I had to see this through to the end.

When I got to the tree, the branch was empty and my heart dropped. I checked the stream but couldn’t see anything. The unknown swirled around me. In the less than five minutes I’d been gone, something had happened. Whether it had burst forth to new life, or fallen into death, I couldn’t know.

I was about to leave when there was a sudden rustle above my head, and looking up I found myself staring into those same black eyes. It was higher in the same tree, on top of a branch now, its wings tucked neatly away as its eyes bored into mine.

We watched each other several moments, the aggressor and the aggrieved, with something like mutual respect – for a short time, though being of different species, our fates had become entangled and we had shared a connection that transcended the limitations of our bodies. I saluted the owl, and I could swear that he nodded at me in return. Our time together was at an end.

And what was more, the baby had finally fallen asleep. I turned for home.

I spent the next ten minutes carefully making my way past ponies and cows and foxes in the forest, my nerves on edge as the darkness pressed in around me. I only had to get home. It was barely a few miles away. I was safe.

But safety is an illusion. Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement, and slamming on my brakes I caught a glimpse of a round face, big black eyes, brown feathers with black trim and – WHOOSH! – a great big tawny owl flew right across my windscreen. I must have missed it by a foot.

It couldn’t have been the same owl. Couldn’t have been. But my nerves now shot to pieces, I crawled home, hoping beyond hope I didn’t hit anything else.

Maybe it cursed me. Maybe some supernatural power in the depths of its being decided that I should suffer. For worse was yet to come.

I got home, put the baby to bed, and crept into the bedroom. There was my wife lying fast asleep in bed, a thin sheet draped over the curves of her naked form. I wanted nothing more than the peace of climbing into bed beside her and cuddling away the nightmare of the forest.

Slowly, carefully, I eased myself onto the memory foam mattress and – CRACK! – my knee snapped one of the wooden slats clean in half!

‘What the hell did you just do?’ my wife cried, jerking awake. ‘You’ve broken the bed, you’ve broken it! You’re too fat, you’ve broken the bloody bed!’

What I wouldn’t have given to be back out in the forest with that owl…

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Writers Bureau Blog

For anybody who is interested, because I came fourth in their Short Story Competition I was asked to write this week’s blog for The Writers Bureau. You can access it by clicking this link.

Enjoy!

Holidays (with children)

A holiday to North Devon in a heatwave. What could be better? I imagined it as an opportunity to reconnect with my wife to the backdrop of glorious sunsets and a soundtrack of tinkling wine glasses. Something like this, in fact:

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Heaven.

Alas, that’s not us. That’s some random childless couple we found while driving around at 21.45 trying to get the kids to fall asleep (without much success, I hasten to add).

The reality of holidaying with children couldn’t be further from the above image. I know that sounds kind of obvious, but my God, I had no idea the true horror of spending seven days in a static caravan with a nine-month old, a three-year old, and a wife. Dante’s Inferno is nothing next to this.

It’s not just the whining and the crying, the constant distraction, having to watch this one nearly drowning in the pool while wiping the other one’s nose, remembering to apply the suncream, saying no to the third ice-cream of the day and enduring the tantrum, taking this one to the toilet after that one has just pissed all over your lap – it’s the fact that the sun doesn’t set until half-nine, the van is like a furnace inside, and they don’t go to bed until midnight even if you start trying at six. Far from reconnecting with my wife, there was no time to do ANYTHING without the kids. And I mean anything.

I haven’t had a pee or poop for a week without an attentive audience.

It’s not as though we didn’t cram the days with activities to wear them out. I’ll take one day as an example, the day of the above photo. It started at the Valley of the Rocks in the morning, where we did a 3-mile round trip along the cliff path, with me pushing the double buggy while carrying a heavy backpack loaded with water, milk, biscuits, nappies, wipes, suncream, hats, spare clothing, maps, plasters, painkillers, dolls, rattles, camera…

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My daddy, the hero.

…while my wife carried herself. We then went to Lynton and rode the railway down to Lynmouth, explored and ate ice-cream, and I took some beautiful pictures of the harbour.

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Pretty.

After riding back up again, we drove to Heddon Valley, where there’s a track to Heddon’s Mouth that’s ‘suitable for all-terrain pushchairs’.

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My arse.

After struggling a mile down a rough, rocky track with a double-buggy and heavy backpack, we made it to a pebble beach where my eldest threw stones into the sea while I fed the little one…

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All right, wait for it!

…and then I struggled the mile back UP the rough, rocky track with the double pushchair and the heavy backpack, now loaded with stones my wife thought looked pretty, while she continued to carry herself. And did I mention the temperature was 30-degrees-plus? I must have lost a gallon of sweat.

After a bite to eat, we headed back to the campsite and went for a swim, and then tried to put the children to bed.

Well, you already know how that one ended. At midnight. With me exhausted, dehydrated, and just about ready to undo the brakes and watch the caravan roll down the hill into the sea, kids, wife and all.

In fact, instead of improving my relationship with my wife, this holiday gave it a bloody battering. I don’t recall ever having bickered quite so much. Where’s this, where’s that, why did you do that, why can’t you ever…? Oh for goodness sake, for crying out loud, what the hell, oh come on, and on and on. As an illustration of how innocent I was, I packed a book to read and a DVD for my wife and I to watch one evening. Ha! Read a book? Watch a DVD? Are you freaking kidding me?

But at least it wasn’t just us. One night, I put the kids in the puschair and walked down the hill, and from inside every caravan I passed I heard a similar tale of woe – crying, screaming, bickering, shouting. I wonder if anybody enjoys going on holiday with young children.

I think it would have been easier if I’d realised, going in, that it would be full-on as a daddy and zero-on as a husband or even an individual. Perhaps when they’re a little older, things will be different, but at this age, holidays are all about the kids.

But don’t ever make the mistake of thinking this will make them happy, or grateful, or even pleasant to be around. It doesn’t matter if you’ve spent seven hours with them in the swimming pool, or taken them to the amusements to blow a fortune on 2p machines, or carried them strapped to your back or chest up and down mountains, or gone to an interesting castle only to spend the whole time in a playpark, or read to them a million stories – the next time they’re hungry, or hot, or tired, or just irritable, it will be your fault and they will make you pay.

So why go on holiday? Why indeed. I mean, you’re still doing all the crap you do at home, only it’s far harder because the routine has gone out of the window and the kids are overstimulated so they’re harder to handle. But then, perhaps this sign I saw in Clovelly can explain it better than me:

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The best things in life are the people we love, the places we’ve been, and the memories we’ve made along the way.

And while changing a nappy is always changing a nappy, when you’re doing it in a place that looks like this…

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…it can’t be all bad, can it?

How to Discipline a Toddler, Part 2: The Fundamentals

Right from the get go, let me say that I’m not a professional, I’m not trained in child care, and despite living all day, every day with a toddler, I am by no means an expert. Nor am I a perfect dad – like every parent, there are days I find my little girl’s behaviour so exasperating I just want to throw her out the nearest window – without opening it (I don’t, just to be clear for all the social workers reading this!). I make mistakes, fail to follow my own advice, and can sometimes make a real mess of things – especially as most of my books are out of date.

That said, I do think I’m doing a pretty good job of raising a polite and conscientious – if spirited, wilful and independent – little girl, and it’s all down to discipline. For those who think that ‘discipline’ is synonymous with ‘punishment’ or ‘conformity’, it doesn’t mean suppressing her individuality or stifling her need to express herself – it simply means we have certain standards of behaviour we all need to follow in order to get along with one another, and teaching a child what these are from an early age makes life a lot easier. Nobody wants a child that bites, or hits other children, or thinks it’s fun to break all their toys. Discipline is how you prevent that.

So, in that spirit, let’s begin.

Boundaries

Whether you’re a strict parent or more laid back, every child needs boundaries, even simply as something to push against as they develop their personalities. It doesn’t matter if you have five house rules or fifty-five (although that does seems slightly excessive), as I mentioned in How to Discipline a Toddler, Part 1: Understanding your toddler, the basis of discipline is to be clear, calm and consistent. Your child needs to know where the boundaries are and what happens when they cross them, every time, no matter what day it is, where they are or who they’re with. And that takes thought and communication.

You need to decide what’s important and what the rules are, and you need to make sure your partner, parents and other care givers are on the same page. I’m not saying the grandparents have to follow the rules exactly – they’re meant to spoil the grandkids – but make sure everyone knows what’s expected. Otherwise, your child won’t know whether they’re coming or going, or worse they’ll play you off against each other because they know you’re inconsistent in your approach, and if you want problems in a relationship, that’s a great way of starting them.

For the most part, effective discipline is simply saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Don’t lie to a child to make things easier right now, because you’ll have to deal with the repercussions of that dishonesty later. Don’t negotiate or bargain, don’t beg or plead, and don’t get into arguments, because they’re a toddler and their stubbornness knows no bounds. And if you threaten something or promise something, you have to follow through with it. The moment you fail to be consistent, you’re sending mixed messages and starting down the slippery slope towards chaos.

If your child asks for something they know they’re not allowed to have, look them in the eye and calmly but firmly say no. And then disengage. You’ve already answered their request, so they need to know that all the subsequent shouting, whining and playing up isn’t going to get them what they want. And no matter how hard it is, stick to it.

Nobody wants to spend all day shouting at their kids and saying no, no, no all the time, but that’s something you see practically everywhere in public – supermarkets, beaches, fairgrounds, the swimming pool. Shouting parents, screaming children, locked in a battle of wills. It shouldn’t be a battle – you’re the adult and what you say goes. Sticking to consistent boundaries is how you achieve that.

Avoiding discipline

The best way of avoiding conflict is discipline, and the best discipline is avoiding having to discipline at all.

What the hell does that mean? Simple. The use of specific disciplinary techniques should be part of a wider strategy that encourages good behaviour, anticipates problems, and relies on punishment only when necessary.

I heard recently that the average toddler receives around 300 negative statements a day – don’t do that, stop, be quiet, put that down, you’re driving me insane – and only ten positive comments. I can well believe it.

Instead of constantly correcting your child and turning your lives into a misery, use the other tools in your repertoire. Toddlers are easily bored, but this also means they’re easily distracted. If your toddler is fiddling with something you don’t want her to fiddle with, pick her up and move her away from it. If she’s heading towards something you know she shouldn’t, distract her with something else. Involve her in what you’re doing. Ask her if she can help you find X, Y or Z. Tell her to shout out if she sees a red car. Make a game of everything. Channel that energy into something positive and tell her well done and very good, because that way you’re giving her attention and reinforcing good behaviour instead of focusing all your attention on the bad.

This last skill is very important. If you’re spending all your time engaging with your toddler when she’s naughty, then she has a reason to be naughty – even if she’s not getting what she wants, she’s getting you. This is especially true if you have a younger sibling in the house – the acting out is to bring your attention from the baby and onto them. So one technique is to ignore the bad behaviour if you can – don’t give it the oxygen it needs to breathe. This is really clear if your child picks up a swear word. Reacting to it only makes them say it more – ignore it and they stop using it. Knowing when to punish and when to ignore is a judgement call, but one that becomes easier with experience.

With experience you can also anticipate problems and head them off at the pass. I know my daughter is going to kick off when getting out of the bath, at bedtime and when leaving a friend’s house, so instead of dumping these things on her, I give her a five-minute warning to get her head round it, then a two-minute warning, and a one-minute warning. You’re an expert on your child so you know the flashpoints, and you have to adapt your behaviour accordingly.

Much of this is about planning. For example, most kids are at their worst when they’re hungry and when they’re tired, so make sure they’re properly fed and well rested. Don’t cram too much stimulation into one day or you’re setting yourself up for a fractious child. Also, be careful what you feed them – a sugary snack is a nice treat from time to time, so long as you’re prepared to scrape them off the ceiling afterwards as their blood sugar goes sky high, and then deal with the corresponding sugar crash when it drops again. With a little effort and a lot of creativity, you’ll find you’re winning in the behaviour wars.

 

Types of discipline

Of course, avoiding discipline only goes so far, and sometimes, whether it’s once a day or twenty, you have to go further.

According to Hoffman and Saltzstein (1967), disciplinary techniques can be divided into the following three types:

  1. Power assertion – physical punishment, removal of material possessions such as toys.
  2. Love withdrawal – paying no attention, showing no affection.
  3. Induction – letting the child know the effect their behaviour has on others.

As Feldman (1977) showed, a key difference between these types is that the first encourages good behaviour through fear of an external threat, whereas the second two encourage good behaviour through an internal sense of guilt. In the long term, children disciplined through love withdrawal and induction are far more likely to develop self control than those disciplined through power assertion, who come to depend upon the threat of external punishment to control their behaviour. Indeed, the more aggression a parent shows, the greater a child’s dependence on this external threat, whereas those disciplined in the other two ways learn to behave irrespective of any exterior influence.

In basic English, this means that shouting at your kids from time to time isn’t going to do them any harm, but if it’s your main means of controlling them, eventually the only way you’ll be able to make them behave is by shouting at them – which is going to cause everyone a great deal of aggro, especially if you’re in a restaurant. Furthermore, if you’re not looking or they think they can get away with it, they are less likely to behave because the behavioural controls haven’t been internalized – they’re only behaving because they’re afraid of being caught and punished.

On the other hand, a technique such as the naughty step (see Part 3: the Techniques), which combines both love withdrawal and induction, is a far more effective way of creating a child who will behave whether you’re watching or not. Instead of behaving because they’re afraid of punishment, the child behaves because they want to be loved and don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings – which, for my money, makes it a no-brainer which type of discipline to use.

However, studies have also suggested it is not necessarily the type or strictness of the disciplinary technique but its consistency that is the key to developing good behaviour. Furthermore, utilising a single technique tends to reduce its effectiveness over time, so the choice of what to use is up to you.

The process of punishment

When resorting to punishment, it is helpful to know how punishment works and thus what might work best for you and your family.

The process of punishment tends to go like this: the child commits an infraction, which destabilises the equilibrium; the child is punished, creating a rupture in their relationship with the parent; the child performs a restorative act that repairs the relationship; and the equilibrium is restored. An example would be that the child hits her sister; you put her on the naughty step; she says sorry; then you kiss and make up and the punishment is over.

The shorter the gap between the transgression, the punishment and the restorative act, the more strongly they are associated in the child’s mind and thus the more effective the technique. Therefore, the punishment should be performed right away – no ‘wait till your dad gets home.’

This is another reason that the naughty step technique is so effective – it requires the restorative act to complete, whereupon everyone’s happy and gets on with their day. With power assertion techniques, the punishment ends with the smack or the toy being confiscated, and it can be a long time before a restorative act is performed. This means that, rather than being a short, sharp punishment, something like smacking is a punishment that lasts far longer than the simple physical act.

I well remember being sent to my room as a child and waiting for my father to come up and administer my punishment. After being smacked, the relationship would remain tense and an uncomfortable atmosphere would linger in the house, making it a prolonged and deeply unpleasant experience all round. Effective use of the naughty step is a far more appropriate means of controlling bad behaviour without creating an unhappy household.

A special note on smacking

This leads me to my last section in this post: whether or not it is right to smack your children. While there are arguments for and against the moral issue of corporal punishment, most experts agree that it just isn’t very effective – certainly not as effective as the other techniques that are available.

Legally, smacking is very much a grey area. In England, for example, smacking is classed as common assault, but if done in the home, the parent is able to use the defence of ‘reasonable punishment’, provided it doesn’t cross the line into ABH, GBH or child cruelty. However, where common assault becomes ABH  – the injury must be more than ‘transient and trifling’ – is unclear, and there is no definition of what constitutes ‘reasonable’ punishment. Citizens Advice suggests that if the smack leaves any kind of mark – a bruise, for example – the parent is liable for prosecution and can have their kids taken away and placed into care. Whether you want to risk that is up to you.

As somebody who was smacked as a child, I can honestly say, ‘It never did me any harm.’ Yes, I remember being smacked so hard on the bottom when I was four, I literally couldn’t sit down for the rest of the day – but I had just bitten my brother, and I never bit him again. Smacking, in this instance at least, did its job.

On the other hand, I’ve never smacked my kids and I don’t intend to, for several reasons. Firstly, if you smack your children when you’re angry, then you are lashing out and taking out your annoyance on a toddler, which seems wrong on so many levels. Furthermore, if good discipline is all about consistency, how consistently can you smack when you’re angry? Anybody who has slammed a door can attest to being unable to accurately gauge force when angry, so really, if you smack a child when you’re angry, you have no idea how hard you’re hitting them.

I also have problems with smacking children after you’ve calmed down. While it’s true that the force you use can be more measured, if you’ve waited until you’re less riled up, the punishment comes way after the transgression. Furthermore, deliberately deciding to inflict pain upon your loved ones for their own good when you’re not angry with them doesn’t seem like a psychologically healthy long-term strategy.

And lastly, if you’re hitting children in order to teach them not to hit, what kind of a cock-eyed lesson is that?

‘Don’t (smack) hit (smack) people (smack).’

Hypocrisy, thy name is you.

Look out  for How to Discipline A Toddler, Part 3: The Techniques

Fear not, Aspie Daddy fans

Regular readers of this blog might have been a little concerned by my absence over the past couple of months, particularly when my last post suggested you stay tuned for Part 2.

The truth is, I have been going through an incredibly trying time in my personal life. Far from being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, it was too dark to find the bloody tunnel in the first place. I have been groping around blind, and not in the appropriate headspace to write about family life and parenting at a time when both were in question.

Now, we have finally turned a corner. I’ve found the tunnel and I can see enough to locate my surroundings. The light might be way off – might always be beyond my reach – but I once more believe it is there, and that is enough to keep going. These experiences might form the basis of another post one day, but for now I am going to embrace this fragile sense of security and move on.

So rest assured, I will be updating this blog again. And to start with, I’ll share some good news: a few weeks ago, over two nights mostly after midnight, in between nappy changes, bottle feeds and lullabies, I managed to write a short story in time to meet the deadline of the Writers’ Bureau Short Story Competition 2018. Reading it back, there were typos and grammatical errors and bits that make me cringe, but it amazingly won fourth prize and has been published on their website. So here is The Embrace of the Sea, and I will see you again soon.

How to Discipline a Toddler, Part 1: Understanding your toddler

Understanding how a toddler sees the world is the first step in effective discipline. Below are the basics you need to know before you even begin attempting to correct your child’s behaviour.

Toddlers aren’t naughty per se

As an autistic guy, I’m told my Theory of Mind skills are fairly poor. This means that I struggle to read or understand the thoughts and feelings of others, so find it difficult to see things from another’s perspective, predict their behaviour, or put myself in their shoes.

However, I have to say that, as the father of a 33-month-old, I think most of society has poor Theory of Mind skills when it comes to toddlers. If anything, I think I understand toddlers better than most.

The important aspect of ToM – well, important to me, at least – is interpreting intent. If you can’t understand where people are coming from then you can’t understand why they do things and therefore you misinterpret their motives, their capabilities, and the fact that mostly another person’s behaviour has nothing to do with you.

My wife, for example, who is also on the autism spectrum, is unable to fathom that if somebody did something that upset her, they didn’t necessarily do it in order to upset her. She gets it into her head that the person has deliberately chosen to slight her, has selected a course of action designed to offend her, and is fully cognizant of the effects of their behaviour.

This seems to be the way most adults think of toddlers – that they deliberately misbehave, that they know when they’re being naughty, and that they have some sort of inbuilt moral compass that they choose to disregard just to annoy you.

I’ve heard it so many times – you did that on purpose, stop being naughty, you knew what would happen, what’s wrong with you, just behave!

I find myself doing it sometimes – ‘Be a good girl for Granny,’ I say, as though a toddler has any idea what being a ‘good girl’ actually means. She doesn’t – of course she doesn’t. Like a person with autism, she needs to be given specific instructions – ‘When Granny tells you to do something, you have to do it,’ is a far better lesson than the horribly arbitrary injunction to be ‘good’ or to ‘behave’. Being ‘good’ is a thousand different acceptable behaviours, and until a toddler has learnt them all, how can we possibly ascribe malicious intent to them?

So when your child is doing things that are naughty, try to get it out of your head that they’re aware they’re being naughty and doing it to be naughty. It’s nothing personal, it just is. As frustrating and upsetting as their behaviours can be, they don’t ‘mean it’.  Bear that in mind when they’re pushing every one of your buttons at the same time, as only toddler can.

Toddlers aren’t little adults

There’s been a trend in recent years to treat children as little adults – as rational beings that are capable of making informed choices. You simply have to explain things to them, so the logic goes, treat them with respect, ask for consent to change their nappies, trust them, and they will behave like great little people.

None of that is actually true, but people like to think it is.

The truth is that toddlers are aliens. They are totally unlike adults. You’d be better off trying to reason with a jellyfish. That’s not to say that they can’t learn and you can’t teach them to behave, but children are not moral beings and are unable to make moral judgements about right and wrong, and anyone who thinks they are hasn’t done their research.

I have. During my Psychology A-Level I experimented on children (nothing sinister). Adapting an experiment I found in a textbook, I wrote two stories. In the first, Sam was called down to dinner. Unbeknownst to Sam, behind the door on a chair were fifteen glasses, and when Sam opened the door, the chair was knocked over and all fifteen glasses smashed. In the second story, Jo wanted a cookie but Jo’s mother said no. When Jo’s mother went out, Jo climbed up onto the sideboard to get a cookie, in the process knocking one glass off the edge, which smashed on the floor. These were sent to various middle schools, to children aged 5-6 and 10-11, along with a questionnaire to ask which child was naughtiest.

I deliberately avoided using the words ‘accidentally’ and ‘on purpose’, since even very young kids are taught through tellings-off that accidental equals good and on purpose equals bad, and the results were pretty conclusive.

95% of the children aged 5-6 thought Sam was naughtiest because Sam broke fifteen glasses and Jo only broke one; how the glasses were broken, and what the child was doing at the time, didn’t factor into their thinking about morality. Right and wrong, to these kids, is based on the extent of the damage, not the intent.

95% of the children aged 10-11, on the other hand, thought Jo was naughtiest because while Sam’s was clearly an accident, Jo was being disobedient when he broke his glass. Right and wrong, to these kids, is based on the context and intent of the behaviour.

Clearly, then, unless you spell it out to them, children don’t have the cognitive ability to work out good and bad behaviour until they’re between the ages of 7-10. Expecting toddlers to make good moral judgements is the height of ignorance. The only right and wrong they understand is that which you drum into them. They’re not naughty because they’re bad; they’re naughty because they don’t understand the concept of naughtiness.

Toddlers haven’t yet learned to control their emotions

You can control your impulses because you’re an adult and have spent your whole life learning that feelings and actions are different things. You are aware that just because you have a feeling, that doesn’t mean you have to act on it.

Toddlers haven’t learnt that yet.

For the most part, they live in the present tense, with no concept of consequence. If they have an urge or a feeling, they want it gratified there and then. What’s worse, by the time they’re toddlers they know how to fulfil their wants and needs but haven’t yet developed the notion of whether they should.

Whether or not you believe in Freudian theory, it provides a useful illustration for this stage of development. The idea is that the human mind is divided into three parts that develop over time. We start with the id, that part of ourselves that is pure desire and lust. It is the part of the mind that says, ‘I am hungry!’

Then we develop the ego, the part of the mind that enables us to fulfill our wants. If the id says ‘I am hungry!’ then the ego says, ‘I will eat a biscuit!’

And lastly there’s the superego, which delves into morals and ethics. It’s the bit that says, ‘Well, I could have a biscuit, but I’m on a diet, and actually it’s not even my biscuit, so maybe I’d better not.’

Toddlers have ids and egos, but the superego is a work in progress. Thus if you expect them to ask themselves whether they should do something, you’ll be consistently disappointed.

Alongside this lack of impulse control is a lack of reasoning ability. If they want something, they want it there and then, and if they can’t, it seems unfair, arbitrary and painful. A toddler doesn’t care if you explain to them that the reason they can’t have a choc-choc bar is because the shop is closed: in that moment, all they can see is that they’re hungry, they want a choc-choc bar, and you are preventing them from having it. Thus toddlers have as poor Theory of Mind skills as many of their parents as they similarly believe that if something upsets them, it’s your fault and you’re doing it deliberately. Overwhelmed by the unfairness of it all, it’s no wonder they throw themselves on the floor and tantrum.

But we’re adults, and we have to be above it. They’re not having a tantrum to be naughty – they simply don’t understand and can’t process their emotions when their needs cannot be immediately fulfilled.

Setting boundaries and creating consequence

Taking into account all of the above, this is how it works in practice:

You’re sitting eating dinner with your child when she suddenly picks up a handful of potato and throws it right in your face. How do you react?

If you said, ‘Scream and shout and get angry,’ you’d be completely normal, because a handful of potato flung in your face isn’t exactly a pleasant experience. But why did your child do it? To be naughty? To annoy and upset you?

No, of course not. Probably, they did it because they thought, ‘I want to throw this.’ Or, ‘I wonder if I can throw this in daddy’s face?’ Or, if they’re slightly more advanced, ‘What would happen if I throw this in daddy’s face?’ So really, despite thinking you’re the centre of the universe, a toddler’s behaviour has very little to do with you.

Of course, they are capable of following instructions, so if they still throw potato in your face after you’ve specifically asked them not to, what’s happening there? Simple. Either they’re lost in the moment and have completely forgotten there might be consequences, or they’re testing boundaries.

Authority, consequence and the limits of acceptability are all things that need to be learnt. Your child is exploring who is in charge, what they can get away with, the effects of their actions, and the flexibility, or otherwise, of all these things.

Try to remember that just because something happened once in a specific context, that doesn’t mean a toddler understands right and wrong. In this example, she has learned once what happens when she throws potato in her daddy’s face. There’s still a whole world of possibilities out there to discover: is this what will happen every time or do the consequences change? What if I throw potato in mummy’s face instead? What if, instead of potato, I throw Spaghetti Bolognese? Does this rule only apply at the table? Does it only apply to food? What if I throw a plastic block in daddy’s face? If I keep doing it, will he eventually accept it?

That is why, when disciplining or instructing toddlers, you have to adopt the three Cs – be clear, consistent, and calm.

  • Clear – because a toddler needs to know where the boundary is. ‘Don’t throw food at daddy!’ leaves them open to throw food at other people and throw other things. Far better to say, ‘Don’t throw things,’ and leave them in no doubt what is expected of them.
  • Consistent – because a toddler needs to know where the boundary is and what happens when it is crossed. It’s no good shouting when she throws food the first time, putting her on the naughty step the second time, and ignoring it the third time as this sends mixed messages and confuses your child. The same behaviour should receive the same consequence every time.
  • Calm – because that will help you achieve the other two.

Be prepared to repeat yourself again and again and again. It takes time for a toddler to understand consequence; it takes them a while to learn; and it takes a long time for them to accept that they cannot have their own way all the time. Unless you master the three Cs, you’re setting yourself up for a far longer, harder period.

Look out for How to Discipline a Toddler, Part 2: The Fundamentals

 

The Perils of Perfection

I am a high achiever. This might come as a surprise considering I’m a 38-year-old stay-at-home dad whose longest of nineteen jobs lasted a massive 365 days and whose highest take-home pay was a measly 16k, who has practically nothing in the bank, drives an old rust-bucket, and lives in a house owned by his father-in-law. But I am a high achiever nonetheless. And I’m here to tell you: it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

What makes me a high achiever despite never actually achieving anything of much note? With no false modesty, I just am. I walked early, talked early, read early, wrote early. In primary school, I jumped from the first year to the third year, skipping the second. I was in an advanced English class with older children. They told my parents that the sky was the limit. I said I was going to be a novelist, and they said I absolutely could be.

At middle school I was in an advanced English and Maths class with older children, and regularly corrected my teachers’ spelling and mathematical mistakes. They told my parents I would reach the stratosphere. I said I was going to be a novelist, and they said I absolutely would be.

At secondary school I was in the top set for every subject, and started getting Level 10s for English (the highest you can get) when everyone else was getting Level 6s. They told my parents I was the most exceptional student they’d ever had in the 54 years the school had existed. I said I was going to be a novelist, and they said to remember them when I was on This Is Your Life.

In VI Form, my English Literature work was deemed third-year university standard, and I was selected to go to a politics retreat for especially bright students. They told my parents I had a gift that needed to be shared with the world. I said I was going to be a novelist, and they had no doubt I wouldn’t just be a novelist, I’d be one of the bestselling novelists in the world.

I sleepwalked through university, spending no more than two days on any assignment, and still came out with a first class BA (Hons) with distinction and the highest mark in the year. I was voted the person most likely to succeed by my peers.

I started doing Open University courses and got a Diploma of Higher Education, another degree and a Masters, earning a distinction for every module, exam and essay, whether it was humanities, arts or social science – English, History, Classics, Archaeology, Psychology or Philosophy.

I have excelled at every job I’ve ever done, be it medical secretary, student nurse, telesalesperson, administrator, public speaker or police communications officer. I have worked with famous people and for royalty, sold art to mayors, travelled solo across the United States and around New Zealand; I have spoken with James Cameron, stood beside the Queen and once saw Michael Jackson travelling down Broadway on top of a bus.

I have sailed across the Atlantic as deckhand on a tall ship; climbed 100-foot cliffs; abseiled down a mineshaft; caught a 50lb conger eel; ascended mountains; qualified as a scuba diver and a parachute jumper; played guitar in a number of rock and metal bands; acted in amateur plays; won screenwriting and short story competitions; had a book published about being diagnosed with autism as an adult; appeared on TV, in magazines and newspapers, and on the radio. I have kayaked, surfed, water skiied, disappeared into the wilderness. Last year I won a competition medal for rifle shooting the first time I picked up a rifle. I’ve done courses in blacksmithing, map-reading, survival, forensic science, private detection, web design, tai chi, sailing, Alzheimer’s, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The only thing I’ve never done is walk on water.

So, I’m a high achiever. Which is weird considering I’m a 38-year-old stay-at-home dad whose longest of nineteen jobs lasted a massive 365 days and whose highest take-home pay was a measly 16k, who has practically nothing in the bank, drives an old rust-bucket, and lives in a house owned by his father-in-law.

The trouble with being a high achiever is when your achievements don’t actually amount to diddly squat in the real world. I haven’t reached the stratosphere, or This Is Your Life, or even London. I still haven’t had a novel published, despite having written ten over the past twenty years, sacrificing career and relationships in exchange for 350 rejection letters declining my entry into the hallowed halls of the literary world. I’m hardly setting the world on fire.

I mean, even Clark Griswold invented the Crunch Enhancer, a non-nutritive semi-permeable cereal varnish. I’m less successful than Clark Griswold. Puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

I feel that if I died at eighteen, I’d have been on the front page of the newspaper – so much potential, he would’ve been great and done so much, what a tragedy. If I die now, I’ll be lucky to get a footnote in the obituaries – so much wasted potential, he could’ve been great and done so much, but didn’t, oh well.

Living as a high achiever messes with your mental health. Ten out of ten is not something to strive for; it is something to be expected every time. If I get nine out of ten, I beat myself up because it’s not good enough, damn it, I should be better. When you throw parenting into the mix – especially of two little girls aged two and zero – that’s when perfectionism is a right royal pain in the ass.

Regular readers of this blog might have noticed I’m a little obsessive over my role as father. It’s not good enough just to be a dad – I have to be the best dad who ever lived. I model myself on Supernanny Jo Frost – calm, collected, consistent, and always in control.

So now that, after two years and nine months of putting up with the crap of parenting, I have started falling short of this ideal – when the baby is screaming and the toddler joins in just for fun and I suddenly shout, ‘Oh for God’s sake, shut up the both of you before my brain starts leaking out of my ears!’ and the toddler starts sobbing ‘don’t shout at me, daddy!’ – I have been sinking into a shame spiral, thinking I’m the worst father in the world, and punishing myself for my abject failure to live up to my unrealistically high expectations.

All of which has resulted in me taking an Anxiety Management and Coping With Depression course, where I have learned four interesting things:

  1. Eight out of ten is good enough.
  2. When you’ve lived with the Black Dog nipping at your heels all your life, just getting up in the morning is an achievement, let alone looking after two kids and a heavily dependent wife.
  3. If I’m always in control around my kids, I’ll teach them that it is bad to show their emotions and they should strive to be perfect all the time, which will set them unrealistic goals and thus perpetuate the cycle.
  4. I am a human and not a robot.

To which I respond with:

  1. For whom?
  2. They don’t put up statues of people simply for getting out of bed.
  3. Fair dues.
  4. Beep boop – does not compute.

But in all seriousness, they’re right. I have to lower my sights and lower my standards, because I’m killing myself to be perfect and there’s no such thing as a perfect parent. I have to accept that sometimes I’m allowed to be ‘crap dad’. Eight out of ten is a perfectly acceptable standard to live at. And what does it matter if I never publish a bestseller?

It matters to me.

Setting aside everyone’s expectations of me, my supposed potential, all the things I ‘should’ have done, all the things I was ‘meant’ to achieve, the only pressure on me to live at ten out of ten comes from within my own head. So it’s up to me to change the thought patterns of a lifetime if I want to access that elusive thing called ‘peace of me mind’.

Can I do it? Of course I can – I can do anything!

Let’s just call it a ‘work in progress’ and see where I end up, okay?