A few months ago, Mr Pixel very sweetly volunteered to wash up on nights when the Skeptic works late, to save my eczema-cursed fingers. I dry and put away, we chat. Nice, huh?
Except, this is how he stacks dishes.
Early on I said, dude, if you put them upside-down, they drain better. Quicker process. Less waterlogged tea-towels.
He looked at the inverted bowl, then at me, and he shrugged. And I know, from 13 years wrangling this pesky kid, that his thinking was, “that’s your crazy way”.
I’ve mentioned it once, since, and he argued, claiming it takes too long to flip his wrist as he moves a steaming plate from the rinse water to the drainboard. So, he carries on putting things right-side-up, and I carry on turning them over. ANNOYING, MUCH?
Tonight it occurred to me that this illustrates our SAF issues rather perfectly, so I got my phone to photograph it.
Then of course I had to explain what I was doing. While listening, Mr Pixel placed three glasses and two bowls upside down. (!)
But then he processed what I was saying, and he did this. And this, and this. Yeah. He filled the bowls.
That’s not anxiety-based rigidity, people. Trust me, I see PLENTY of that. It’s not Pathological Demand Avoidance, either. He’s just playing with me.
Similarly last year, when my 83yo mum had to go to hospital after hurting her back. Once she was strapped in, I said, regretfully, “No more soccer for a while, eh Mum,” just to see the ambos’ faces when she whipped back, “I can if I want!”
She was grinning. Like my son, Mum enjoys being contrary. (Ask her. She’ll say, “No I don’t!” And then she’ll laugh, gleefully. The trait is so fundamental, it’s surviving the dementia.)
This, my friends, is congenital Stubborn As Fuck.
SAF is so prevalent in my family – affecting every single one of us, to a greater or lesser extent – that my sister and I have long joked about a Nose-Cutting gene. No matter how sensible any of us appear, sooner or later, we crack, and dig in. And my god, can we dig.
Collectively, family members have dug themselves into chronic unemployment, abusive relationships, bad jobs, a breathtaking array of self-harms, addictions, assaults, more broken and damaged relationships, and more near-death experiences than I can count. Mum was being funny, true, but she’d also spent three agonising days clinging to the walls at home before she let me call that ambulance.
Trouble is, we’re all exactly the same. So when, as parents, our kids refuse to cooperate, our strongest instinct is to reach for our shovels.
Mainstream parenting advice reinforces this tendency, right? Be Firm. Boundaries. Consequences. Tough Love. Find Their Currency. You’re The Parent!
So, in we dig. Whatever it takes to alter our progeny’s pigheaded behaviour.
Some of us, sadly, have resorted to cruelty to gain compliance. That works. Kinda.
Others use talking – So. Much. Talking. – and kindness. My generation are especially big on this. Reasoning, patience, validation, empathy, all the good stuff. That works better, obviously.
To a point.
The kids, though. It’s like they can smell our agenda. Soon as they catch a whiff of Their Best Interests, they’re off. With their excavators.
Because no matter how shiny the carrot, how gently and lovingly wielded the stick, no matter how RIGHT we, as parents, are (and we bloody well are), it’s still about getting them to do something that, for whatever reason, they’re not ready for. The gifted know it, and they resent the hell out of it.
And that’s when anxiety really bites, when they think we’re not hearing them, or only listening in order to ‘help’ them do what we want; when they know they’re disappointing us and yet cannot do any different; when they feel abandoned and alone, in their holes.
Once that happens, of course, the show’s over. Everything we do and say is heard as $@#*!! and all they can do is burrow ever deeper.
I really don’t want to teach my kids to fight like that.
It seems to me, to produce adults who are so habituated to not being heard, that we struggle to let go, admit errors, hear advice, accept help, change tack, or hold our damn tongues.
I especially struggle with that last. Keeping schtum when Mr Pixel was filling bowls nearly cost me another molar. I know he just wants to play. But I just want him to do things the easy, sensible way for once in his life, without fucking arguing, OKAY?
Multiply this by a thousand times a day over every imaginable issue (and quite a few unimaginable ones): When he says “don’ wanna” or “not gonna” to things he does wanna, enjoys, is already, for the love of god, doing.
When he says ‘no’, for no reason, to simple chores, especially ones he’s done hundreds of times before. When I know that a little thing like obstreperous dish-stacking is just the cute baby toe of an issue Godzilla-like in its size and destructiveness.
But when we dig in, we teach our kids to dig in. I have three generations’ proof of that coming to Christmas lunch.
I know that it doesn’t really matter how my kid stacks the fricking dishes. And I know that
willfully playfully stacking them the WRONG his way, needn’t necessarily lead to a lifetime’s non-compliance and all the terrible consequences that can follow.
I just have to teach him that, strong as the impulse is, we don’t have to dig.
So whatever my kids’re doing, or not doing, however unreasonable it appears, I take a huuuuuge breath and remind myself: They’re doing the best they can in this moment.
They will do better when they can.
If they’ve done better before, and they’re not now, that’s okay. Learning is uneven.
Then I work my arse off modelling the stuff that I know is hardest for us: Listening. Negotiation. Accepting ‘no’. Letting go. Giving it time. Self-compassion. Self-regulation. Shutting my big fat yap.
Because it’s not about what I think they can do, or should do, or when I think they can or should do it. It’s about showing that I trust they’ll get there, however long it takes. (Kinda the point of asynchronous development, yes?) It’s about giving them space to learn how to identify the help they need and learn how to ask for it. It’s about ensuring that they know I’ll be there when they’re ready.
It’s about showing them how to use tools other than their shovels.
SAF may be congenital, but it doesn’t have to be terminal.