An article headed “Five hallmarks of bad parenting that are actually good for kids” caught my eye today. I never considered myself a particularly good parent but hey, maybe the boys had turned out ok because of the dodgy parenting!
I had Good Parent role models shining brilliantly all around me at the infants school gate. Mothers boasted about the way they religiously sat and did homework alongside their kids. Dads took their kids out to practice soccer skills and bought them incredibly pricey kit. These people were all so volubly proud of their kids. Their kids could do no wrong. These parents were so very involved and encouraging and frankly, verging on the neurotic.
So I was pretty sure that I wasn’t a particularly good parent and Capt Sensible, to be honest, was hardly a parent at all.
Sure he turned up at parents’ evenings but he wasn’t a “Wait until your father gets home!” figure. He was a benign presence. He blew raspberries on baby tummies and made faces and ‘boo’ noises to make them crease into helpless giggles. He never did a feed and the one time he changed a nappy he taped the disposable to son #2’s actual skin. Doh.
When they were a bit older he’d pretend to steal their noses, swung them around violently and thrillingly so I thought they might be sick but they never were. He’d push the playground roundabout way too fast in that way blokes have of going a little too far – far enough for me to worry that my little treasures would lose their grip, fly off and crack their skulls on something. He told them amazing off-the-cuff Oscar The Pig stories at bedtime which included appropriate use of the dimmer switch for the sun setting.
He carried them on his shoulders when they got tired on over-ambitious walks up incredibly steep hillsides (inclines that the map-reader always claimed actually hadn’t looked that steep on the OS map, ahem) in Wales, the Lake District and Scotland. He was quietly and calmly encouraging. Sickening, really, so enough about him. His totally laid-back invisible parenting meant that I was Bad Mum, the one who broke up the fights, of which there were many and sent people to their rooms. There were bound to be altercations, given the Clash of The Personalities.
As I may have explained before, son #1 was the creative, constructive, concentrated, solemn, quiet type; a geek waiting to happen. His little brother (who very kindly gave him the gift of an excellent Farm Set at only three days old) was a bitter sibling disappointment from the day he deconstructed the first of many Lego models. To his older brother he was a destroyer; to the rest of the world #2 son was a mischievous, gregarious, sunny-natured, fun-loving, imaginative little lad.
So, reading the article, it turned out that I could tick most of the boxes of Bad Parenting. Turns out that arguing with your kids is good for them! There was plenty of that. It’s so lame to just trump any discussion with “Because I said so” It’s meaningless and should be reserved for when you’re extremely tired. You need to make your case properly. Son #2 used to launch whole campaigns for stuff he wanted. The Basset Hound campaign lasted for two years and included a wonderfully persuasive project with photographs, drawings and research. I was on the point of capitulation when I discovered that Basset Hounds don’t do steps, and we have some, so that was that.
The “Breville Pie Magic for My Bedroom!” campaign lasted a year alongside the “Breville Donut Maker” campaign. There would be more room for the rest of us at the dining table, he argued, if he prepared and ate exclusively pies and donuts in the privacy of his own room. Yes, I told him, that was fine until he became such a lardball that he needed to be winched out of his bedroom window by the fire brigade every time he needed the loo.
The Kelloggs Pop Tarts Campaign probably lasted the longest, at three years. All these were vigorously proposed by him and vigorously contested by me.
“You want to eat jam between hot cardboard? Fine. I’ll put some under the grill for you now but I’m NOT BUYING POP TARTS.”
Son #1 had most of the stuff he desired. He just occasionally wondered if we couldn’t get #2 son adopted.
Regularly giving kids sweets is something I didn’t do. It was hard to top the bags of crap that the adoring grannies and grandads gave them every week anyway, in spite of me asking them not to. I’ve never completely understood the way some people always want to demonstrate their love through the medium of Haribo. Surely they don’t believe you can buy kids’ affection with cheap sweeties? Oh wait….
Letting them play in the dirt is supposed to be a bad parenting thing, goodness knows why. Exposure to germs builds their immune system, although son #1 would have been appalled if I’d suggested he play with mud. Good grief, he threw a wobbly when they wanted him to do hand painting at playgroup. Anyway, he was far too busy achieving the record time for completing every jigsaw in the box. But the boys both enjoyed a good paddle and a poke about in a clear water stream. We spent whole summer days doing that, picnicking and playing bat and ball. They caught fish with their hands and discovered freshwater shrimps and swung on a rope to the opposite bank of the brook.
Which brings us to “Allowing Risky Play” which I can tick, with reservations. We didn’t let them play hide and seek on cliff edges, but they did climb trees (with me squeaking in panicky voice “Now mind you don’t go up too high!!”) and if there was altitude to be had, they wanted some. I thought that was more to prove what a wuss mum was, being afraid of heights. They’d be out playing and I’d find them sitting on the garage roof, dangling their legs gleefully and mocking me. I’d say something like “I’ll give you five minutes to get off that roof…” but they were hollow words. The boys knew I’d be physically unable to get them down. I found five of them up there one day and dreaded one of the other mums finding out lest I get hard stares and a reputation for being a Terrible Mother.
One holiday we walked up Goat Fell on the Isle of Arran, which was fine by me because it was cloudy and there was no view so you could have been anywhere Not Very High. But the wind blew a hole in the clouds and suddenly there was Holy Island, many millions of miles below and I was forced to cling to the trig pillar like a limpet enduring much pointed laughter from my treasured family.
My fear of heights seems to have given the boys a positive thirst for altitude. Son#1 is a climber and abseiler and they are both black-run skiers who have shown me knee-trembling pictures taken from exceptionally high places. Makes me wonder if they have any of my DNA at all.
I was particularly dodgy parent when it came to cycling. First time out on the embryonic Family Cycling Trail in the Forest of Dean, son #2, aged about 8, pedalled off at speed on his Raleigh Burner, not to be seen again until he was found back at the car an hour later, after extensive, frantic searching, looking pleased with himself and wondering where we’d got to.
I didn’t mind them messing about on bikes, building ramps, practising jumps and bomb hole negotiations in the field near home. With hindsight though, I probably shouldn’t have left the two of them and a load of friends doing risky things for a day with a movie camera in a disused Forest of Dean quarry. The videos ranged from hilarious (#2 son pulling funny faces while doing horizontal “wall of death” style ride around the disused spoil heaps) to terrifying; #1 son on a bike leaping over two apparently willing volunteers lying on the ground beneath him.
I didn’t think I fitted the category “Obsessively forcing extracurricular activities” apart from the obvious thing that every parent should do – teach their kid to swim. But I didn’t have to force anything because you don’t have much choice when you’re five years old and mum is helping you into your teeny little trunks. It’s a basic skill for life that’s ultra-easy to learn and might help you one day to avoid drowning. Besides, #2 son had been hurling himself bodily into swimming pools and water courses since he was old enough to run, so I’d already learned that kids who plunge into pools do tend to pop up again.
As far as homework was concerned, I was a very very poor mum indeed. I only rarely helped at all. I’d had to do all my homework when I was a kid – so they could damn well get on with theirs, although we did do spellings (couldn’t countenance the thought of illiterate sprogs) and I did recite times tables with them on random occasions, usually on a long car journey when they started to get restless and complain about boredom.
“You’re really bored? Excellent… let’s do some times tables….eight eights?” That usually guaranteed silence for a bit.
Disappointingly, they were pretty lukewarm about Capitals of the World, which I loved when I was a nipper and Ouagadoudou sounds brilliant when you say it out loud.
The only homework task I can remember having to take on was the making of a pair of shorts. I took pity on Son #2 when he told me he’d already given a detailed presentation to the class telling how he had not only machine-sewn but actually appliqued a pair of shorts.
Had his teacher been paying proper attention, she would have realised that this was impossible as my boy and his friend Roy had faked sewing for an entire term, never having cottoned on (geddit?) to threading up the bobbin…..
And so it was that on a Saturday morning, I made #2 son remain in the room with me while, with my bare hands and a sewing machine, I fashioned shorts – from a pattern, I hasten to add. I obviously wouldn’t have a clue without a pattern. A pattern, as ane fule no, is vital to success.
They were made of dark blue denim. I took them off the machine, turned the fabric the right way around held it up and proclaimed “There you are!”
What I held up was actually a tube. Mysteriously, I had followed a shorts pattern and made a tube, a one-legged short. A short for a unidexter. We had to have a little re-think.
We got it right in the end and he embarrassed the life out of me by wearing those terrible drawstring-waisted shorts that came down beyond his knees for at least two years afterwards.
Lesson: Never, ever, get a mum to do your homework, especially a bad mum.