Okay, so by the time our first child was born – I had been a governess to five children under eight years on a sheep station, I had been a leader at Youth camps and when I completed my teacher training, specialising in Early Childhood Education, I managed to teach and control classrooms full of Primary School students.
None of this prepared me fully enough for what was about to come. My husband and I went on to have four children of our own, well spaced over eight years. Unfortunately most of my tricks and behaviour management strategies seemed useless with my own children. My delusion that I was great with kids and young people was growing faint by the time our eldest had reached the age of two and had disappeared entirely by the time the youngest was four.
When we began our family, my husband was a shift worker and studying for a Law degree. I spent a great deal of time on my own with the kids and I was often overtired but trying to appear as if I was in control. In reality I was only just keeping my head above water. Children have a sixth sense. They can tell when you are struggling and then they seem to be able to use it to their own advantage.
On top of this, I was trying to keep up appearances. My self-righteous environmental conscience wouldn’t allow me to use anything but cloth nappies. My pride in the fact that I never gave my children a bottle meant that I could never go out or leave my babies with anyone else. On top of this my mother frowned on the use of dummies and so I never dared to use these helpful pacifiers as well.
Please forgive the long introduction but I am just trying to put you in the picture and give you some understanding as to my inadequacies as a parent. I promise you, after watching my friends who are young mums now and my beautiful daughter-in-law, that I would do things much differently now and make life easier for myself.
One strategy I employed with my children was to ignore them and just wait until they gave up … especially if I was busy trying to look after a greater need. This only served to make them feel that their mother didn’t really care about them and that the precious new baby was far more loved than they were.
Another thing I am ashamed to say that I did, was to smack. I reasoned with myself that they were too young to be reasoned with and that a quick sharp smack would condition them to know that what they were doing was wrong. This only caused us to have a broken relationship and if they were behaving it was because they were scared of me.
As they grew older I employed the ‘I am going to count to three’ which worked until one of them put it to the test and decided that the punishment was worth doing what they wanted to do in the first place. They never liked the word, ‘no’ so I would try to distract them and put them off. Our son, at the age of three years asked me, “How long is ‘a while’?” This was because I often said, “In a while” or “In a minute” in the hope that he would forget and I would avoid the confrontation of the ‘no’ conversation.
As a typical teacher, I had a chart on the refrigerator because I had been taught that positive reinforcement was more effective than negative. The children all had expectations and chores written on this chart based on their ages and needs. A certain number of stars meant that they could go to the Bargain Centre and buy something of a certain value. That was way back when $2 shops actually sold things for $2. This worked for a couple of charts but the $2 shop just didn’t cut it. We were on a single wage at the time and I couldn’t afford more expensive bribes.
We tried ‘time out’, but my children never minded being in their rooms. Their books and toys were great companions and the rest of our house was ‘open plan’. I definitely wasn’t going to put them in the laundry or bathroom – there were far too many things to hurt themselves with there.
Then I came across a book called, Boundaries with Kids by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Using these methods was the closest I came to being in control. It was full of really helpful strategies. We sat down at the kitchen table and had a family conference before we implemented them and explained why. I must say, one of my children who enjoyed the game of calling my bluff and making me feel guilty, was not impressed at all. When I gave them a budget for their clothes, this child blew it all on a surf brand jumper which she wore with little shorts for half the winter until my mother took pity on her and took her clothes shopping.
The accusation that has been levelled at me by a couple of my adult children is that I was too strict. I accept this. I was, and it didn’t really make for effective parenting. I have apologised to my children and told them that if I had known then what I know now I would have done things differently.
Firstly, I would not have made life so unnecessarily hard for myself and them. Instead of being the one who always volunteered for everything, thus putting my family and myself under pressure, I would have said, ‘Maybe another time’.
Secondly, I would have taken time to listen to my children and see things from their point of view instead of saying, ‘This is what I want you to do and I know what is best for you’. I don’t think that I gave each of them enough ‘time alone with mum’, or my that husband gave them ‘time alone with dad’.
Thirdly, I would not have listened to the negative, conservative people around me who placed unrealistic expectations on our children and us.
The story hasn’t ended badly. We haven’t caused permanent damage as parents and all four of our children have grown up to be responsible, employable adults with creative and energetic outlets. They lead much more balanced lives than either my husband or I have ever achieved. Most importantly we have talked about how they were brought up and why, so hopefully they can learn from our mistakes. Fortunately they have always known that we love them and will be there for them as much as is possible.
Love and forgiveness help us to look back and learn as well as to look forward and make a fresh start.