Tuesday 31 March 2015

Learning to say 'no' without the guilt.

learning to say no, saying no to children, teaching children, parenting small children, parenting blog, motherhood, mother diaries, quality time, spending time with children, exhausted parents, avoiding children
photo: stock up, lettering: www.lisamaltby.com

Mothers always feel guilty, like it's been built into us from day one. I've now got two children to feel guilty about and, surprisingly, it's the eldest child that I feel guilty about the most. This time, though, it's not about the lack of fresh vegetables in his diet or the amount of television he watches; it's not about how I am distracted by jobs or other relationships, or even that I don't play enough games with him or read enough stories. This time it's that I'm trying to avoid him. I'm avoiding him because I don't want to play 'Top Trumps' for the fourth time today, I don't want to play hide and seek, I don't want to do any more spelling and I really don't have the energy to teach him about world flags or how to do his three times tables.

What's even worse than the fact that I am avoiding him is the fact that he is a very well behaved four year old (on the whole) and still I find myself hiding in the bathroom when I see him waving those Top Trumps at me, pretending I'm doing some top trumps of my own. He asks me politely if I'll play with him; he plays by the rules; he even let's me win sometimes, bless him, but I can't help but feel incredibly unenthusiastic. What's even worse is that he is a prize student: he loves to learn. He knows all the countries and most of their capital cities. He knows his ten times table and how to count to at least twenty in French, Spanish, Dutch and German. Literally this moment he has just asked me to find 'Guinea Bissau' on a world map. If he hadn't put it into context I would have thought it was a brand of foreign biscuits. He's every parents' dream of a child, how could I possibly want to avoid him?

The problem is, I could spend all morning tutoring him on the Pythagoras theorem and as soon as I go into the kitchen to make a cup of tea you would think he was an abandoned orphan. It's taken me a long time to accept that he will rarely get bored of one-on-one attention (if any child ever does), but what this looks like for me is that he will not watch television without me sat next to him, nor will he watch it without a running commentary or asking me ridiculous questions, like why Kung Fu Panda doesn't speak in Chinese. He will not let me go upstairs for a pair of socks without following me like a lost sheep to ask what I'm doing. He follows me to the toilet or to the shower, not only to talk about cute things, but to quiz me on biology and geography. Every single day is like a chuffing game of mastermind. He does not shut up; he does not lose energy. All this and child number two allows me a mere four hours sleep on which to exercise my brain power each day.

To make matters even worse, I am someone who needs a lot of space; I can spend hours by myself and not miss anyone. If I don't get time on my own I get twitchy, like when I'm hungry or tired – It's like I just need to be by myself. So, after being quizzed every second by my four year old I am well and truly done in. I have no capacity to chase up other friendships or social activities because I have no capacity for anything. My husband comes home and asks me a simple question, like "how are you?" And I feel like screaming "enough of the goddamn questions already!!" I just want to sit in a chair with my headphones on.

I have come to realise that most of us parent our children how we would like to be parented. I love encouragement, hugs, creativity and building stuff with Lego. For a long while I couldn't work out why these things did not have the same importance for him; I tried to parent how I would have wanted to be parented and it didn't work out. So then I went the other extreme: spending every waking hour pandering to my sons need of constant attention and I was burnt out; exhausted. I tried to parent how I though he wanted to be parented and it didn't work out. He may have been happier but I was not.

The problem is that it's hard enough to say no to our children at the best of times, but when they're asking for good things it becomes impossible. As parents we feel constantly guilty, especially when we can't give our children everything they want from us. But just as you know it's not wise to constantly give your child chocolate, the same applies with other things too. Just because my child values something good, like spending time with people, doesn't mean he can't be greedy with that too. For some reason we feel more guilt about time as though we need to invest every waking moment into our children but all this does is make us feel burnt out, lacking in energy and never really giving any quality time at all. Besides which, our children grow up not valuing time spent in their own company; they lack independence and don't respect others' personal space. We end up raising children that are spoilt with time, expecting everyone to drop everything for them at the drop of a hat, in the same way an overfed child may expect everyone to feed him chocolate. 

So, I've decided to give him structure to the day and tell him what he can expect, giving him my undivided attention for limited periods of time. He needs to understand what's important to me too or our relationship will never be a good one. In the same way, I need to make sure that when I spend time with him my phone is off and out of reach and I am not distracted by the tasks of the day. I am trying to learn to be okay with saying no to him and that's really, really hard when he is hurt by it. Letting him know about activities (or lack of) beforehand, however, is extremely helpful. I can say to him, "Okay, here's the plan for the day..." and I can schedule in maths for an hour, followed by an hour of his favourite programs that he has to watch on his own. If the day is alternated between intense one-on-one activity and time doing our own things then both of us are getting what we need out of the day. That's easier said than done, of course, but in theory it means I get a few scheduled breaks (breaks being, feeding or changing my other child!). 

So, if there are things that you find difficult about your relationship with your child, it may just be that there are things you need to adapt to open up new ways of understanding one another. When our children ask us for things, no matter how well intentioned, we need to make sure that we aren't on autopilot; always saying yes out of guilt, or always saying no out of exasperation. If we try to cultivate more of a two way relationship it will be a stronger one in the future too. So, I had best prepare my son's timetable for tomorrow. Bring on school.

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