Everything about parenting is hard. I know this. I knew it before becoming a parent. Nothing is harder, or more important, than discipline.
Get discipline right, and you have a well-behaved, polite, organised, hard-working child.
Get it wrong, and your child will become extremely well-known. And your parenting will get talked about in slightly hushed tones by everyone you will ever meet from now on.
Trouble is, how to discipline? Victorian-style discipline is now seen as violently and emotionally abusive. Even the occasional smack is frowned upon. Fluffy, liberal, do-what-you-like (lack of) discipline never ends well either – you end up with absolute wankers for children: Spare the rod, and create the entitled little shit.
All along the parenting road we are told that our children need boundaries, that their behaviour is often a case of testing those boundaries, and we must be firm, fair, consistent, and understanding. Well, it all looks so easy when you write it down.
In actual fact, we learn how to, or how not to, discipline from our parents. In my case, it’s probably fairly standard, but with complications.
My Dad was a lovely guy, no doubt. He was kind, supportive, intelligent, interesting, occasionally silly, full of endless advice, was always on hand with some advice, and liked nothing more than to give me advice all the time. Advice was his thing. He loved advice.
He also hit. But in between the hitting was advice. Man, that guy loved his advice. He also lost his temper easily. But other than that, he was great. He loved me, and I genuinely loved him and still do 15 years after he passed away. There was lots about him to love. I didn’t love the hitting much, or the temper explosions, and I wouldn’t be surprised if deep down, he didn’t enjoy it much either. And sometimes I could’ve done without quite all that much advice, but still, top bloke.
The result of all this is I don’t hit. Ever. I do lose my temper though. That much I have picked up from Ol’ Pater. I mean, he could burst like a water balloon with very little provocation. Quite suddenly, and for the smallest of reasons, he’d be off, yelling away as if it was his natural resting-state. And sometimes, being a kid or even a teenager, I’d have a bit of a strop. If that got on Dad’s nerves, there would be the remarkable spectacle of him having a tantrum about me having a tantrum. Fun times.
Anger and me are complicated bedfellows. I can really do anger when the mood takes me. People have often accused me of being angry when I’m really not. I have a natural scowl. After a while, they annoy me with their anger accusations and find out what I’m actually like when I’m angry, which is to say, a bit explosive. Needless to say, I have to keep a lid on my anger.
It’s not something I’m proud of. And Sarah keeps a weather eye on this, and warns me if I’m being unreasonable or inconsistent – because if anger is anything, it’s not exactly predictable. She and I do everything we can to make punishments work without me losing control. My natural inclination when being having my patience tested is to blow up without warning, so between us, we’ve developed strategies. I’ve learned to give Alice calm declarations of caution before I get properly riled.
This is difficult when you are a parent, and your foe is a seven-year-old with an attitude. I don’t have much time for lots of well-meaning-but-totally-unrealistic articles about discipline on the internet and in the fluffier sections of the press, about how punishment is wrong for kids, and how parents need to learn less destructive methods of expressing rage. Yeah right, smart-arses, you’re all zen fuckers; but I bet you completely flip your shit when your kid draws all over your sofa with a marker pen. I bet you a bajillion dollars.
For all my mistrust of smug-twat articles on parenting websites, I do see their point. And so did Philip Larkin. We really do fuck up our kids in many ways, and not just through draconian punishment. I’m all for positive reinforcement, but I’m also a bit lazy sometimes, and so we allow Alice a treat if she’s good. This means, we’re rewarding good behaviour with something that will contribute to her inevitable teenage obesity. Good show, Phnut!
So we reward with treats after school. So what? If Alice has been good at school and behaves on the walk home, she gets a treat, and everyone’s happy. I started this with the very best of intentions, and insisted that four out of every five days she gets fruit, and only has chocolate or a bag of nommy sweeties once a week.
Well, that lasted about a month, and that was nearly three years ago, although recently Alice has surprised me by going back to natural produce for her treat, although she has once again proved to be the Queen of Kook, and currently her idea of a non-sweetie, fresh fruit option is to have a whole cucumber all to herself.
I’ve seen shit parenting enough to know it when I see it, and also, to try and avoid it myself. Two of the shittest parentings I’ve seen were about 45 minutes apart from each other on the same day. Alice and I had gone out one afternoon when she was about three. We went to a local country park, complete with playsets, swings, trampolines, and various farm animals. Alice went on the trampoline and did her usual thing on trampolines, which isn’t so much to jump as to sort-of enthusiastically fall over. Another child of a similar age joined her on the trampoline, and he was clearly instantly upset, and wanted to get off. He didn’t like the wobbly floor, or that there was another person on already, and he clutched at the wire netting for support. His parents responded by whipping out their mobile phones, and filmed his distressed wailing and offered support by saying “Get off your arse, you fucking wimp! Hur-hur, look at him! Little twat! Hur-hur!”.
Of course I didn’t say anything. I am a coward.
Later on, we were looking at the chickens (“Look at the big one, Daddy!”. It’s a cockerel, Alice. “What a big cock, Daddy!” Ewfff…. yeah…) when I heard a scream. It was an outraged scream, not an ‘in-pain’ scream, but a ferocious child’s bellow of incandescent rage. I instinctively looked around. There was a mother with two kids, the younger being a furiously angry little boy, and he was raging, completely lost in his fury. He was doing something only young boys do; that weird mix of bellowing, screaming, and growling. The other kid, an older girl, was pretending nothing was happening, and following in his wake. The boy was really hitting the high notes. The mother was storming ahead in that ‘This-screeching-is-really-getting-to-me-but-I’ll-keep-a-lid-on-it-in-furious-silence’ mode. We’ve all done that. I was sympathetic at that point. Then, without warning, she whirled around, yanked him close to her, slapped him around the face (not hard, but it made the point, and me wince) and yelled “I’VE FUCKING HAD IT WITH YOU!!”. She then dragged the child back to her car (a Range Rover) pinned him to his seat and roared off.
Again, no intervention from me, and I’m still ashamed of it.
So those are my absolute rules. Don’t Hit, Don’t Humiliate, and Don’t Swear At My Kid. I will shout, though. I will shout, I’m happy to do so (except I’m not really happy when I’m shouting, but I’m happy and willing to shout, even though I don’t actually like losing my temper… accchhh, it’s complicated). And if you were to quote all those nicey-nicey articles, and forcibly demand that I stop getting angry, then frankly, you can prise my shouting from my cold dead hands.
Issues with discipline appear to come in waves. Alice can go for weeks and weeks without bothering the cobwebs in the naughty corner, and then suddenly she’ll have a spate of being possessed by demons. She’ll be in the corner a couple of times, and then she’s back to being sweet and hilarious. Apparently, this is called ‘being seven years old’.
This last week was a case in point. I can’t remember when she was previously in trouble much, but last week, she became a citizen of the naughty corner on three occasions.
Here’s an example:
Alice has an annoying habit. She doesn’t like tidying. I can sort of sympathise with that. I don’t like tidying much either. Sarah likes tidying only slightly more than I do, so she’s inevitably the cheerleader for tidying in our family, but in general we’d rather not. We find people whose houses are spotlessly, flawlessly clean are suspicious and weird. However, the division of labour in our house means that, for now, I am in charge of keeping the house clean and tidy. Haha, as many of my long-term friends and former housemates would say.
I’m of the opinion that Alice is now old enough to take some bloody responsibility, and not be waited on hand and foot. She has her own bedroom, and she’s now capable of picking up her crap. However, Alice feels she shouldn’t have to do this. Alice genuinely feels that asking her to tidy is a direct violation of the Geneva Convention on Human Rights. It’s unfair, apparently. She will do anything to avoid it. And arguments with her bounce back. I use my father’s old ‘do-you-want-to-live-in-a-pigsty?’ routine, and I get back “But I want to live like this!!”. Touché, kid.
However, there is a limit. Her bedroom floor has become but a distant memory, covered in Alice’s seemingly vast wardrobe, her ‘art gallery’, and a variety of stuffed chums. And she was refusing to pick up one sock of it. And last weekend, I wasn’t having any of it from her. I asked her repeatedly to tidy her room, and she refused. When I actually dragged her upstairs to do it, she started procrastinating for the nation, and then demanding a rest because she was tired. This really was the limit. I gave her the quiet caution, the direct warning, the threats to withold treats. Nope. Still obstinate.
The broadcast from this year’s Glastonbury Festival was on the television. Every year, when Glastonbury is on, we put all our cushions on the living room floor, erect the Ikea playtent, make lots of ‘street food’ recipes, and watch the festival from the comfort of our sitting room. Sigur Rós were on.
I gave her a countdown from 5. At 2, I told her she was going in the naughty corner. She went in the naughty corner. After the allotted time in the corner, I told her to get back upstairs to tidy the bedroom again. Still, she refused. So back in the corner she went. Enraged and howling unfairness (at least it’s training for when she’s 14 and EVERY BLOODY THING will be unfair) gave way to pretending to be asleep and refusing to acknowledge anything I said. Sigur Rós played their own version of the Dies Irae in the background. What’s more, she made loud snoring noises and smirked to herself. I gave her one final warning, one Achtung! of impending danger, I was close to losing my temper. I could feel it. That irrational, unstoppable wall of white-hot rage that I despise in myself, bubbling up and up. I calmly told her she had five seconds. Sigur Rós burst into one of their cacophonic moments. She responded – still pretending to be asleep – with a snorting snore, and a muffled giggle.
I’m sure they heard me next door. Fuck, I’m 100% positive they could hear me across the street. From indoors. Even Sigur Rós paused for a moment, or one of their interminable soundscapes of loveliness had come to an end, it was hard to tell.
The look on Alice’s face was of pure horror. She knew she’d gone too far. I don’t like that expression. Everything in my instinct tells me to hold her, and protect her from this terrifying monster. It’s heartbreaking. And yet, I gave her all the guns. Maximum phasers. I was the Death Star.
So I bellowed. I bellowed with Sigur Rós soundtracking my bellowing. I normally like Sigur Rós, with their volcano-in-the-distance-across-an-ice-field-while-in-the-sky-Jupiter-collides-with-Saturn-as-the-Northern-Lights-dance-across-the-heavens-while-dawn-breaks-over-a-crystal-world-aaaah-aaaaaaaah-open-mouthed dronescape, but at the back of my mind, with herself being an intransigent little madam, and those crazy Icelanders wailing away, all I could think of was “Shut up, Sigur Rós. Write some proper bloody songs, FFS.”
When she comes out of the naughty corner, we usually sit down and discuss how and why she ended up in there, she apologises calmly, we hug and it’s all forgiven and forgotten. On this occasion, we struck one of our ‘deals’. She had 30 minutes to do as much tidying in her room. If she cleared the room, she’d get a treat. And so, she blasted her room. Every corner, every fluffy toy, every book, and yea, even the socks. She emerged triumphant: “That was easy!”, she yelped. I smiled and concealed the ‘For fuck’s sake, kid…’ in my beard and happy laughter. And thus, she happily chomped on a cucumber.
Because she says it’s ‘so easy’ and (slightly teeth-grinding but actually quite rewarding) that tidying is ‘so much fun!!’, we’ve now made a subsequent deal. Every Sunday, we’ll blitz the house for one hour. Hoovering, tidying, clearing, even dusting. It’s June now; let’s see if it’ll still be working this way in October, or if this agreement lies in tatters.
In Sarah’s case, it’s to have a presentable, ordered house that looks and feels nice to be in. For me, it’s not so much for a tidy house, in case visitors come over (because fuck ’em, especially the weird tidy ones who, I bet, judge us), but because I want Alice to get into the habit of having an ordered space. I can live in my own pigsty quite happily (yeah, Dad), but I’m embuggered if Alice is going to.
So this is discipline. It’s the making of Alice. When Alice gets up in the morning, she gets herself out of bed at 7:30am with only the slightest of urgings from us. She gets dressed. She eats her breakfast. She finds her shoes herself. We’ve had all the arguments over the years so that now, she does these things without making a fuss. It has taken a lot of yelling and stomping around angrily from me in the past, but now, the pre-school ritual is pretty smooth and rarely causes a ruckus. I know people for whom it is a daily battle. Parenting is fucking hard.
As I’m writing this, I’m realising that discipline is not necessarily about getting your kid to behave well, and do stuff; discipline is a bit like sculpture. You start with a block, and through chipping away, sometimes in adversity, the person within emerges. Get discipline wrong, and the sculpture will be disproportionate, rough, with spikes and jagged edges, and the limbs will be spindly and eventually drop off.
Get discipline right, and the sculpture looks agreeably human. Go too far, and you have a polished specimen, but it is frozen and immobile. In my case, the sculpture of Alice is looking pretty good. I’ve been chipping away with the spirit of my dear old father over my shoulder.
As usual, he’s giving me advice. Lots of it.