Monday, June 22, 2009

The Beginning Of The End For 'Scary Dad'?

There's a personal trade-off in raising kids that I find enormously difficult. I'm not the only one; it's apparent that Natalie finds it even more confronting, which isn't surprising given the nature of her work and her personality. I've been carrying this one for nine years now, and it's never for an instant grown easier.

The problem is that small children don't think ahead very well. For example, one is likely to come around the corner to the bathroom and discover that the Mau-Mau (age 2) is trying to shave her legs like mum, with a little two-blade disposable razor. Okay, that one's not life-threatening, but it did result in a stinging cut to her leg, to match the one she gave herself on the hand on a previous occasion.

A more crucial example: heading down to the chook-pen with Younger Son, then aged just barely four. He spotted the tiger snake before I did -- it slithered onto the path between us, basically. He did the right thing and alerted me, and I told him in the scariest voice I own to "Freeze!"

And he did. Solid. Didn't move a muscle. The snake wasn't interested in either of us at all, and without any motion to attract its attention, it went on its way harmlessly. But it passed no more than a metre in front of the little guy... and he stayed perfectly still.

With small children, sometimes you absolutely have to have immediate, unquestioning obedience.

Now I'd be absolutely delighted if anybody offered me a reasonable alternative, but the best I've been able to come up with for nine years is simply being scary when necessary. Big, angry, fierce, and scary - the kind of thing that immediately shuts down small children's desire to inquire and rebel and play games.

It's been important on many occasions. Smaller Son messing with electrical outlets. The Mau-Mau trying to climb the protective grating around the wood fire. Elder Son reaching up to grasp at the top of the stove -- every time, I've played Scary Dad at them and potential disaster has been warded off.

There are lesser occasions aplenty, too. Natalie is having a lot of trouble with the Mau-Mau lately - which one expects from a three-year-old. The little one is refusing her time-outs under the stairs in the laundry, and refusing orders to curb her more egregious tantrum behaviours -- but only when those orders come from Natalie.

The reason is simple: when the Mau-Mau took her little wooden chair and started pounding it against the inside of her bedroom door in a fit of rage, I yanked the door open, took the chair away from her, swatted her backside and roared at her.

Scary Dad is emphatic when small children really misbehave. He acts immediately, first by ending the offending behaviour, and then by ensuring the child in question understands the behaviour is absolutely unacceptable and not to be repeated. Grrr! No more! Grrr!

The Mau-Mau hasn't tried the chair thing since. And if I send her to her room, or under the stairs -- off she goes. But that doesn't make me feel any better about the tears and the sobs and the looks of horror.

I'd like to believe in an alternative. But Natalie is a natural-born listener and negotiator. It's the thing that makes her a top-notch GP. And she can't bring herself to be sharp-edged and emphatic -- so the Mau-Mau knows that after the first request to stop, there will be another, and perhaps another. And even once the order to go under the stairs is given, there will probably be a second order, and certainly there will be time for a cranky small girl to stamp her foot and shout rudely and declare I'm not going!

Scary Dad doesn't allow those options. You do it the first time, or the consequences get worse.
I do not like having to be Scary Dad. I believe rewarding good behaviours works better than punishing unwanted behaviours. I believe in talking things through. I believe that the best means of extinguishing undesired behaviours is simply to give them no reward at all, understanding that even angry attention can be a 'reward' to a child seeking notice.

But sometimes, you get a three-year-old smashing furniture against the walls and doors. And I worked too fucking hard stripping that door, sanding and varnishing it, and plastering that goddam room. And more: sometimes it's not a chair and a door. Sometimes it's a tiger snake on the path.

I still don't like being Scary Dad.

Today is Elder Son's ninth birthday. Yesterday I had to bawl him out for his behaviour in the morning, and I found myself putting on my Scary Dad face, and it bothered hell out of me. Today I sat him down and we had a long talk. I told him I didn't want to be Scary Dad any more. I told him why I still have to do it sometimes with his brother, and a little more often with his sister -- but I told him that I really, really don't want to do it any more with him.

He's nine. I find it hard to believe that, to be honest -- save that the bone-weary tiredness I feel can only come from nine years of childrearing, I think. He's nine, and he's smart. He's still careless, and he can still act thoughtlessly, but he can be reasoned with, and negotiated with, and for at least a year, probably more, it simply hasn't been necessary to play the scary bully.

Elder Son listened carefully. I think he understood. I don't think he either wants or needs the apparently scary dad any more, and hopefully, in sitting down and acknowledging that and in discussing what I need from him in terms of responsibility and co-operation, he'll recognize that he's being treated with respect -- and maybe he can return some of that. At least, to the limits of nine-year-old capacity, and that's as much as I can ask.

I really want to stop being the scary guy. It's not fun. It never was.