Little rotters: everyone loses if you let them win

Yes, it will mean screaming fits and ugly battles, not to mention emotional blackmail, but we can’t always give in to our children – their future happiness depends on it


At the school gate I tend to migrate towards the grannies. They’re hardy, no-nonsense types who have been there, done that, raised a bunch of kids and are now back for more. One of them wears great knee-high boots, another fabulous red lipstick and jewellery.

I think what I’m drawn to, however, is their attitude towards their grandchildren. They adore them, anyone can see it, but they also manage to rise gracefully above the – now how should I put this? – control freakery/manipulation/power- hungry ways of young children. They’re all angels, of course, and the world would be hopeless without them. But just for once, can we talk about how crazy they are?

A few days ago, one of the grannies stopped me and asked: “Do you know what he’s after doing?” We were both watching a robust two-year-old heading off down the footpath like a man on a mission.

Earlier, she had been getting him out of the car, and he didn’t like the way she had opened his seat belt, and unless she strapped him back in and started again he wasn’t moving. A stand-off ensued, with her outside in the rain and him sitting in the nice warm car.

He left her there for 10 minutes before deciding to get out – and I suspect this was only because he had forgotten why he was still sitting in the car in the first place.

It would have been hard work lifting him, not to mention the screaming fit she would have had to endure. But what happened wasn’t exactly right either. As the mother of a wilful little boy, I know there is only a certain amount we parents can do about this. Some kids are born with a strong will and we walk a fine line between good old-fashioned discipline and nurturing their spirit and self-confidence. But we have to do something, don’t we? Otherwise it’s Lord of the Flies in training pants.

My five-year-old goes swimming once a week, and when I’m supposed to be watching him, I’m actually fascinated by a drama that takes place at the side of the pool.

There is a nice mother there whose little girl refuses to get into the water. She started doing this on day one, and, as a result, the mother gets to stay hunkered down at the poolside in plastic overshoes, coaxing, cajoling, begging, bribing – as the child looks off into the middle distance as if she doesn’t actually know her. The nice mother then goes and sits on the damp floor with her back to the damp wall and waits – because it’s all a bit of a game, of course.

Exactly halfway though the lesson – we’re now at lesson 11 out of 12 – the little mermaid glides in. And she’s a topping little swimmer too, but at some level there is also a queen manipulator here, and a mother who is so weary-looking that I would like to go over there and hug her.

I don’t, however, because for once it’s not my child involved in this particular craziness. Like the other mothers, I’m just so glad it’s not me that I celebrate silently and drink coffee, and let my mind drift off to imagine pushing the kid into the pool. What an awful thing to admit to. But that’s what imaginations are for, right?

The examples I could give about my own son’s dodgy behaviour are endless: from teaching his own parents how to behave (“That’s not a very nice way to speak to a child”), to the guilt trip (“You’ve hurt my feelings and made me very sad”– because I had asked him to brush his teeth), to emotional Armageddon (“You’re not my mother any more”) and, only yesterday, telling me to be quiet so he could “concentrate” on his Mickey and Minnie jigsaw.

Battle stations
All parents must deal with this. The reason it is a bit of a battle at times in our house is very simple. He’s a strong-willed little person and I’m a determined big person. There are some days when he really thinks that he’s the adult and we are two children. While trying to be selective about the battles, I’m not letting him have his way all of the time – and, like all children, he really likes to have his way all of the time.

At a recent sale of work at his school, I watched another mother pay €5 for a farm set she had just donated – because her daughter spotted it there and wanted it back. “Five euro,” she said to me and we laughed, and I was thinking about all those little plastic sheep and hens and the white fences that keep falling over, that she’d had to gather up and pack only to pay €5 to get them back.

School can be a mammoth adjustment for them too. They are used to padding around the house in a sleep suit doing whatever they like – and then they are sitting on a chair, colouring, learning Irish (mainly so they can shout “Ciúnas!” at their parents) and watching other kids throwing up in “circle time”.

My mother sent my brother to school when he was three. She knew he would be sent back to her, but she wanted to “give him a taste of it”. School can be hard because they have to go and can’t do anything about that. One of my own son’s more memorable lines when he wanted to stay at home one morning was: “It’s my decision and I agree with it.”

Fast-forward about 14 years and here’s what I think could happen. At a dinner recently, I got talking to some academics and they all had a similar story to tell about their students. These lecturers teach and grade essays, and it seems that some students have a hard time accepting the grade they have been given. Instead of looking at the D+ in a semi-depressed state and acknowledging that they need to work harder, they contact the lecturer and express dissatisfaction with their grade.

I don’t think I would have had the nerve to approach one of my lecturers when I was at university. I would have presumed, rightly, that I needed to apply myself and work harder. Is it possible that these 19-year-olds got used to having it their own way at some point? Were they over-praised and missed out on the bit about the respect that separates children from adults and students from lecturers?

Personally, I think little kids are the best thing about this planet, but I do worry about what happens if we give in too easily, dole out too much rope and tell them they are the sun, moon and stars.

A pertinent lesson
We had our last swimming lesson of the term yesterday, and the little girl sat at the side of the pool again. After 12 weeks of this, her mother was so fed up that she finally climbed over the barrier and sat down with the rest of us. She ignored the child, who then got into the water about five minutes later.

A few weeks ago we had to cry off a five- year-old’s birthday party at short notice. Later in the week, the birthday girl approached me in the playground and made it clear that she wasn’t thrilled with me – part of which involved sliding her eyes sideways at me, Graham Knuttel style. “The little rotter,” her mother said when I told her. We both saw the funny side.

But in the meantime, parents must try to manage their own little rotters, despite being besotted by them.

I hope my own son will understand that respect for others is more important than anything, that if he goes to university he will accept his grades and work harder if he needs to, that through all of this his spirit will remain intact – and that he will finally accept, any day now, that “fart” is not the funniest word in the English language.

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