Even with the most perfect children in the world, there comes a time when they need to be told off. When you’re at home, this is pretty straightforward. You tell them not to do something and they either (a) stop doing it and life carries on as normal or (b) continue to do it whereupon you lose your mind/take away privileges/send them to their room before your head explodes.
When they start to misbehave in public, however, it’s a whole other ballgame. Because now you have multiple agendas. You need to discipline your child, restore acceptable behaviour as quickly as possible, and ensure that everyone in the near vicinity sees that you are a GOOD PARENT.
This is made even more important if you happen to be with a ‘friend’ who likes to spend most of the time your child is running around the table like a gnome on acid telling you how well behaved their own child is. Whilst the much-quoted child does indeed sit still and eat like she’s having tea with Queen Elizabeth.
On a good day, when your children have not decided that your public humiliation is the order of the day, you can get away with half-hearted requests like “Come on now”, “That’s enough”, “Stop it please.” And they, after a last shout/run/wrestle, will comply for a while, leaving you free to carry on with whatever you were doing. However, for reasons best known to themselves, there are days when they will not play ball. Thus the process begins.
Step 1: Cajoling
In the beginning, you are still living in hope that this is not going to be one of those days. Your tone is light, even jokey, and you are able to smile as you work through all the parenting strategies at your disposal. You might attempt some redirection “Why don’t you come and do some colouring?” or bribery “If you sit still for another ten minutes you can have some plastic crap from the machine on the way out.” When they seem as interested in this as a plate of broccoli, you have no choice but to move to Step Two.
Step 2: Firm
You are still in control, using the positive language you learned from that episode of Supernanny and still demonstrating to everyone in the vicinity that you are a GOOD PARENT. Strangely, you begin to refer to yourself in the third person: “Mummy is getting very cross with you now” as if you have become the narrator of this scene rather than one of the main players.
The longer they are unresponsive to your attempts at gentle discipline, the more abrupt your commands become. Thus the end of this stage is usually marked by one-word sentences. “Will. You. Stop. Doing. That. Now.”
Step 3: Threat (low level)
Now it starts to get serious. You make your voice a little lower. Because, after all, your parenting skills are being judged by complete strangers and your Perfect Parent ‘friend’. Low level threats vary from the immediate (“You won’t get ice cream”) to the longer term (“No Cbeebies for a week.”)
At certain times of the year, you can call in reinforcements. One of my friends stored her husband’s mobile on her phone with the name Father Christmas and would show her son that she was actually calling him. Genius.
Step 4: Threat (major)
This is the final stage and is usually hissed through gritted teeth. The threats become all-encompassing and impossible to carry through. “If you don’t sit down right now and eat your dinner I will give away every toy you own and every toy you will ever be bought in the future.” Or even more wildly unbelievable: “I won’t let you stay at Nana’s house at the weekend.”
By this stage you have given up all pretence of control and, similarly to the later stages of childbirth, you no longer care who is watching. You have one aim only. To leave as quickly as possible.
Step 5: Home
After Step 4, you have nowhere to go. Except home. Whilst this may feel like defeat, there is a certain amount of relief as you are welcomed back to the prospect of a bedroom you can send them to and a fridge whose comforting contents you can consume.
As you shut the kitchen door and cry into a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, it is important to remember this:
You may have lost the battle. But you are the one with the ice-cream.