Teh stubborn

I known, I know. You’re not supposed to use that word, with all its negative connotations. Positive parents are supposed to frame it as “persistence”, a far more admirable trait.

But I’m going with stubborn. In part, this is because my kids own it; I’ve heard “because I’m a pig-headed little butthead” more times than I can count in recent weeks. And in part because it’s genetic. I know precisely where they get it from and this is one I cannot even begin to blame on the Sceptic. The Stubborn is all my family. It’s Mum and both my sisters and my brother and dear god, my niece and nephew, love ’em.

But mainly I’m going with ‘stubborn’ this week to focus on the bottom line. When they are little, conventional parenting wisdom is that you must show children who is boss. Whatever it takes – losing privileges, time-out, the occasional spanking “to get their attention”, you keep upping the ante until you get compliance. They learn through “consequences” to do what you say.

In our family, though, there is … something. Something that gets in the way of that process. My sister and I call it the “nose-cutting gene”: most of us would rather cut off our own noses than do something your way or (god forbid) ask for help.

So Mum, for example, has refused for thirty years to drink the glass of red wine a night her doctor said would help with her cholesterol. She took herself off any number of medications, continued seeing negligent doctors, ate foods that landed her repeatedly in hospital. She won’t use a walker. Recently, when she was completely crippled with back pain and I had to call an ambulance to take her to hospital, I joked, “No more soccer for you, Mum”, as she lay on the stretcher, just to see the look on the paramedics’ faces when she said, “I can if I want.”

My kids inherited that. Oh, they’re not stupid: they were never compelled to touch a hot thing, or pull free to run in traffic. When it comes to a battle of wills, however, there is no backing down. They will do it their way, not mine, even if it hurts them. If I call their bluff, they up the ante. As a gamer friend put it, if they have to suffer damage 3 to cause me damage 6, it’s worth it. The more I invest in my demand, the more they refuse.

On top of that, it didn’t take me long to learn that this likely to cause them to freak the fuck out, because if damage 3 is scary (and it is), being at war with Mummah is ten thousand times scarier. There’s nothing cold or calculated about it; if they lose the plot it is not about ‘making’ me do/give them what they wanted (ie, a tantrum), it’s because they don’t know how to back down and they are terrified of the consequences. So one of my biggest parenting challenges is to regularly model backing down.

Hold your knickers, there! I do not mean that I model “giving in”. They do not get it all their own way. But if I take the heat out of it – if I say, “Oh, you’re not ready to do that, yet? Well, could you do it later? (After food, or rest, or a tickle?) Or could you do this, instead?” then I am teaching them that their needs matter, that they can say what they need, and that we can both get our needs met. If I lower the bar, I take anxiety out of the equation and we are all free to move.

It’s hard, lemme tell ya. I’ve got the same bloody gene. I see a problem, I assess, I come up with The Best Solution, I have a plan, we’re gonna have this sucker fixed by Tuesday. That’s how I got through my whole life, pre-kids, and it worked. But post-kids, doing things that way has meant arguments, all day, every day, about everysinglebloodything, with meltdowns galore to boot. I tried it, okay? I flogged the You Will Go To School horse for five solid years, and all it did was make Mr Pixel hate school. And cause literally thousands of fights.

And I know that in a few years, backing down is going to be my kids’ biggest challenge (especially my son’s). They need to be able to tell the difference between doing what they want because it’s what they genuinely want, and doing what they want to prove me wrong, hurting themselves in the process. We need to be able to negotiate in a way that will not have an angry young person hurling him- or her-self out the door into a car, or into a bad relationship, or an addiction, or a shitty career, because all I’ve taught them over the years is to dig their heels in.

So this week, my big win was putting sums for CraftyFish on the glass door, and asking Mr Pixel to help with painting the bed. He’d watched his sister scribbling on glass with dry-wipe markers; he’d heard us work through several low levels of sum that weren’t too hard. And to my astonishment, he said he’d rather do that than paint the bed. So, okay! Quickly scrawled some sums for him. Which he took five hours to work up to doing, and then made lots of basic mistakes, which we laughed all the way through.

True, I didn’t get help with the painting. Irrelevant. No, insignificant. Mr Pixel negotiated, a crucial life skill that many adults lack. He voluntarily did something he usually pathologically avoids, and which I deliberately didn’t ask him to do, because I didn’t give him a chance to dig his refusenik heels in. He did it and not only was it not painful, he actually enjoyed himself, and building that experience around something he’s paralytically anxious about – and sharing a laugh with Mummah, to boot – that is priceless.

It won’t work twice, I know that. I know we haven’t ‘solved’ his math anxiety. I will have to find other ways around that and yes, it’s hard fucking work. But that’s okay, because we are both learning, and learning is good. I am proud of both of us.

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