We all know tired old clichés like ‘Beggars can’t be choosers,’ but do we want to use them ourselves?
My two-year old daughter was strongly opposed to the bowl I had just put her sultanas in.
It was the only clean bowl available, but she wasn’t having a bar of it, because it was chipped.
She, of course, had caused the chip when she threw the bowl a few days ago.
So I hit her with a: “beggars can’t be choosers, Mae.” Which of course meant absolutely nothing to her.
It did, however, mean something to me. In fact, it made me take a long, hard look at myself.
What have I become?
What have I become? That was exactly the kind of inane platitude my parents had thrown at me and their parents had dished up to them. They annoyed me intensely when I was a kid, because they had virtually no meaning to me and yet were repeated often. They certainly didn’t encourage me to change my behaviour in any way.
So, my goal now is to avoid these antiquated banalities and replace them with something that might actually get through to the kids.
As a sports reporter, I realise full well that clichés are sometimes hard to avoid, especially when you’re thinking on your feet. But I’m going to do my best to ‘break the wheel’ and avoid saying stuff like this:
‘Finish your dinner, there are kids in Africa who would love that food.’
My response to this as a kid (in my head at least) was always, ‘Well send this disgusting broccoli to Africa, they can have ‘em.’ It certainly didn’t make me feel any worse about hiding peas in a pot plant when my parents left the room.
While I haven’t said that exact line to my own kids, yet, I’ve come pretty close to pointing out that there are children in war-torn Syria who would appreciate the lovely, healthy food they are chucking on the floor.
An alternative option, which I’m gradually having more success with, is to play the guilt card closer to home:
“Your mum made that for you because she thought you’d really like it. Now it’s making her sad that you’re not eating it.”
Or, “It’s OK if you really don’t want it, but look how we’re enjoying it – we think you will too if you try it.”
This is a slow-burn strategy but it seems to have made dinner time less about the conflict and more about reaching a consensus. By the time the kids are 18 we should all be on the same page.
‘Because I said so.’
Nope, nope, nope.
The logic behind saying this seems sound, but it’s completely the wrong way to go about tactical negotiations with terrorists small children.
I know we’d all love to see ourselves as the wise, benign rulers of our little families, who always know what’s best and if everyone just listened to our commands, the whole thing would run smoothly.
But one person’s supreme leader is another’s dictator.
Adults don’t like being told to do something ‘just because’ and neither do little kids. Explain the reasons for your mandates and they will be a lot more likely to follow them.
“Don’t climb up on that again because sooner or later you’ll fall off and break your face and you’ll have to go to the hospital and will probably end up permanently ugly.”
‘You’ll get square eyes.’
This oldy has taken on new meaning in the era of smartphones and tablets.
While some parents allow very little or no screen time, for others plonking the toddler in front of Emma Wiggle or handing over your phone can buy you a precious 10 minutes to go to the toilet or have a shower.
The problem is, it’s easy to cross the line into becoming too dependent on screens, as kids would happily spend half their day watching ‘Say the dance, do the dance’ 67 times in a row.
However, coming back from hanging the washing out and seeing the little one standing right in front of the TV, or literally holding the iPhone two centimetres from their face, will instantly trigger feelings of guilt.
Resist the temptation to fall back on the classic “square eyes” threat that has been around since your grandpappy’s day.
They will either believe it and develop anxiety about becoming a freak, or think you’ve genuinely gone insane.
Try, “That’s too close, slugger. Come back here a bit so we can both watch together” or the riskier, “You’ll hurt your eyes, I’m going to have to turn it off now.”
‘Big girls/boys don’t cry.’
I’ve found myself falling back on this one a lot since we had our second baby recently. When the toddler starts bawling, I bring out the whole “You’re a big girl now, you shouldn’t be crying.”
In reality, she’s not big by any stretch of the imagination.
I am at least five times bigger than her and completely dominate whenever we wrestle. And she’s two years old and has the emotional control of a cocker spaniel.
So, it’s quite unfair to expect her to suddenly show maturity.
Instead it’s a case of doing what the parenting books tell you and try and show them that you understand why they are upset, but that everything’s going to turn out fine.
And find whatever distraction you can to make them forget about the tragedy that was upsetting them.
‘This is the last time I’ll say this/This is your last warning.’
This is their last warning or … what? You’ll shout a bit louder?
Unless you’re prepared to kick them out on the street after their last warning (or leave them on the steps of your local convent or whatever), it’s not really a last warning is it?
And the offspring figure that one out very quickly.
This applies in general for any threats you make. You’d better have a clear idea of what you’re threatening, and it has to be realistic, or the clever little delinquents will call your bluff instantly.
“Stop kicking sand in the direction of other kids or we’re leaving the park right now,” is a realistic threat that can be very effective, especially after the first time you follow through with it.
“Go to sleep now or I’ll sell you to a band of drifting carnies,” is not.