It’s Saturday afternoon in the toy shop and the air is pregnant with tension. Harassed parents keep glancing at watches and children are trampling all over boundaries. My son looks directly at me and speaks with a clarity which seems to carry his words into the furthest corners.
‘Daddy, why are you always so nice to other people and so mean to me?’
There’s a young mother walking past and she laughs involuntarily. Then she gives me a sympathetic smile and a glance which seems to say ‘I’ve been there, you’ll get through it.’
Why are you always so nice to other people and so mean to me? I have to admit as an insult it’s better than average for a five-year-old, certainly a level above the usual ‘I hate you!’ I can’t deny that some thought has gone into this, some consideration of how best to wound.
The context is this. My son is carrying two toys. In his right hand is a small blue robot which I bought for him less than five minutes before. In his left hand is a small red robot which he has now decided he wants as well. I’m holding the line, refusing to give in this time. We’re only in the flipping toy shop because he threw a tantrum when we told him we had grown-up shopping to do. So while mummy is off getting supplies I’m involved in a Mexican stand-off with my five-year-old son and two toy robots.
I told him he could have one small toy, but he’s decided that’s not enough. I’ve even offered to exchange one robot for the other but that has also been rebuffed. He gazes at the small wooden objects in either hands and then at me, his eyes heavy with tears. Mechanically I repeat the same line every time he looks at me.
‘We agreed you could have one toy buddy. You’re not getting two.’
I know we’re on the verge of a major incident in the most public of places. He is seething as he spits bitter words towards me.
‘You’re the worst daddy in the world!’
Usually on this blog I write about the joy of parenting. The fun and laughter, the little triumphs, the building of a precious bond, the shared understanding. How it is the greatest privilege of my life.
And that remains now and forever true.
But the truth is that sometimes it can be completely awful. And it seems pointless not to tell these stories as well. How some days I am left on the edge of tears and mentally pulled to pieces by the complexities of the challenge. How on others I have to bite my hand to stop myself from roaring in frustration. Or how I’m often left lying on the bed, an emotional husk while the pile of demands from my son grows steeper and steeper.
Because even when I’m enjoying the shared intimacy of his warm little hand holding mine I’m aware that the avalanche of shouted insults, bitter arguments and slammed doors creeps constantly at the edges of all our time together.
Some days I think parenting can be defined as the struggle to find reason in a mind where the concept has not yet fully taken hold. A mind where thoughts and experience are occurring faster than he has the ability to process or understand. I can’t make sense of it all most days, so how can he be expected to?
So we have situations like the time at the school gates last week when he screamed at me because we couldn’t go to the park that day, while I vainly tried to point out that we had gone there on the three previous days.
Or the time when he roared when I gave him Rice Krispies because we’d run out of Coco Pops. Or the day he yelled when I asked him if he needed the toilet. Or any number of tantrums when I tell him it’s time for bed, bath or school or to finish his game.
Or even the row last night. Mummy was meeting friends for dinner and I told my son that we could drive her to the restaurant. He bawled in protest. Immediately I flipped and told him we could instead stay home and get a taxi for mummy. His outburst was just as vituperative. Some battles I’m just not meant to win.
In darker times parents used cruder methods to control children who defied their wishes. Little boys and girls could be battered or yelled into submission. An immediate problem was navigated, only to store up much worse problems for later in life.
We’re in a better place now but that doesn’t mean it’s easier.
I’ve used incentive to try and control the worst excesses of my boy’s temper, threatening to take away toys or treats in return for good behaviour. It works to a certain level but I’ve often had to consider, in these situations, that my son is too upset to be bargained with. And I’m often troubled by the concept of alleviating his unhappiness by heaping further misery on top.
Which leaves nothing other than trying to appeal to reason when he doesn’t yet understand the concept. Hoping that he will take the higher ground when he is not yet tall enough to reach the verge. Keep teaching him the right things, repeat the messages again and again and then leave it to him to process them and find the answers in his own time. Keep being patient and supportive and suck up the blows when they come.
Of course, I’m repeatedly told to ignore the insults, that’s he’s just a kid and doesn’t really know what he’s saying. But that can’t work. When my child hugs me and tells me that he loves me I don’t just shrug my shoulders and write off the words as infantile and meaningless. It works both ways. Parenting is a challenge you enter with your heart open and your defences down. When the person I love, alongside my wife, more than anyone else tells me he hates me it definitely hurts. I understand it and accept it as part of the growing process. But it still hurts.
Imagine a boxer who meets his adversary in the ring with his hands by his sides. He gets battered to the canvas only to rise, smile, tells his opponent he loves him and understands what he is doing. Then he invites him to punch him on the nose again. No matter how many times he is knocked down, the pugilist keeps getting up and smiling.
The situation is veering towards dangerous. My son is holding the two robots with fierce determination, his face is flushed and his little body is trembling with emotion. I fear a major confrontation is coming and I’m not sure how to meet it.
There are many things I could say. I could try appealing to some sense of perspective, telling him he already has more toys than he’ll ever need, how these robots will quickly be forgotten and added to the pile of plastic junk currently cluttering up our house. I could explain to him how lucky he is, how he has no real concept of hardship, poverty or want. How he doesn’t understand value or worth. I could tell him he is acting like a spoilt little boy.
But I inherently sense that it’s not the time. My job is to make him feel better, not worse. Keep it at a level he can relate to.
I smile while remaining firm. I tell him again that we had agreed one toy. When he shows aggression I meet it by telling him that I love him and that I understand that he is angry.
Then he goes quiet. He stares at the toy robots in his hands for some time and I’m not sure what’s happening. I have a moment of weakness where I think ‘Just buy him the fecking robot, a couple of quid for a quiet life’, but something stops me. A sense that the situation is becoming bigger than the sum of its own parts.
Finally he turns towards a shelf full of toys. He puts the red robot on the shelf. Then he picks it up again and puts the blue robot on the shelf. Then he picks it up, hesitates, looks hard and puts the red robot back on the shelf.
He turns towards me, no words or gestures are exchanged but I know it’s over and we begin to walk away. I put an arm around his shoulder and tell him a couple of times how proud I am of him. But he’s still a bit scuffed from the encounter and remains distant and uncommunicative. I give him some room.
It’s several minutes later when we’re outside the shop and searching for mummy before he moves beside me, slipping a small warm hand inside mine. It’s a perfect fit, as always. Soon we’re playing games and jokes, as usual. After a while he asks me to hold the blue robot. His interest has transferred elsewhere.
Maybe what happened in the toy shop is progress or a connection. Maybe it’s nothing. We walk on, holding hands.