There's a psychological concept known as the 'cocktail party' theory which holds that you will always pick out your own name in a jumble of otherwise indistinguishable conversational babble. Your brain cuts through the noise and tunes in to what feels important.
Sometimes parenting chatter is like that for me. Blah blah blah BINGO! Something rings so true that it gives me a little shake up. And often it happens right when I need it.
Monday, I had a tough day. Just the usual: sore back, too many errands, weekend recovery, preschooler nuttiness. I had one of those ranty monologues to Keith in bed that you hate yourself for even as they burst forth, but burst forth they must. It went along these lines...
'OH MY GOD Teddy drove me crazy today, all I'm asking him to do is pick up his toys in his room while I'm in there making the bed and putting the clothes away and it is so hard to get him to do any jobs ever unless I make it into a big game and I don't have time to make every job into a fricken game but I don't want to be so stern to get him to do anything but how can I get him to do anything? So I yelled at him and then I feel like, why? Why do I have to yell before you do anything? I feel terrible. I feel mean. I'm so TIRED. My back hurts. THE HOUSEWORK.'
Repeat, with variations, ad infinitum. It's crazy hard to get small kids to help out, no matter how small the task. At least, it is in my house. I try to enforce the rules, reward the good, ignore the bad, be consistent and firm. But I also do whatever I can to avoid the point where I must employ the voice we call The Fishwife. And yet, the kids don't take any notice until I do. Keith, either. ( Except then we call it the Fish Husband.)
Yesterday, as I washed up, I listened to a Life Matters podcast on Radio National. I was half-engaged; one earphone in, one ear tuned to the kids as they squirrelled around. The program was discussing smacking when this fabulous philosopher John Armstrong suddenly started talking, and my little ears pricked up. I put my other earpiece in. Then I got a pen, played him again, and wrote it down.
This is what spoke to me:
There's a romantic conception of childhood in which a child benefits from being unconstrained, and the task of the carer is to make the world so generous and safe that the child's spirit can expand without any kind of artifice or interference.
And that contrasts with the classical conception of childhood in which... children need order and structure and that our natural condition is one of confusion and selfishness, and the task of bringing up a child is to organise and discipline and structure life, and that is the task of loving the child. That is the way in which you get a good life for your children.
And I think that we have these kind of historical roller-coaster rides when sometimes we're at a very romantic point, and sometimes we're at a very classical point. And right now, we're at the end of a very romantic conception of childhood.
For me, it made me think about why I had been feeling upset at myself for cracking the whip. Like if I was less tired or more patient I could create a kind of domestic environment where everybody pitched in and did their share without nagging or coercion.
An environment where the moulding of disciplined and domestically capable young people could happen in an atmosphere of calm and creativity, if I just got the balance of rewards charts and positive reinforcement and constant encouragement so perfectly aligned so as to gently nudge the the kids along to some magical, glorious tipping point of internal motivation.
Thus, every threat, every raised voice, every punishment is a failure. As theories go, this one I seem to have developed for myself is something of a shit sandwich. Sort of classical expectations within a romantic framework. I really do believe in discipline, and I enforce it. I think I just need to stop feeling bad about it. And buckle up. I still, after all, have one more child to shepherd through the ages two to four.
Today, my back was hurting less, which made life 75% easier, but I also felt myself letting go of the stress about disciplining the T-Bone. I stood firm on the jobs he was required to do, and felt much less emotionally attached to his foot-stomping and wailing about it. It's not pleasant going through those phases of standing tough as kids pull every trick in their arsenal to avoid doing stuff they don't like. It's tiring. But he needs it, I've been telling myself. It's good. It will help him be the best person he can be.
Plus, this is the mother he got. Part good, part bad, part fishwife.
Work in progress.