Before we had kids, my wife and I talked lots about how we wanted to raise our new arrival, helping him or her to grow into a happy, healthy, sociable little person. We read books, we listened attentively at the ante-natal classes, we even bought a whole load of baby-related tat which, in hindsight, was almost universally surplus to requirements. But there are some things about being a parent that you simply can’t quite prepare yourself for.
A friend of mine commented to me the other day, “what should you do when your toddler ignores you?” It was a pertinent question, not least because I’d spent that morning trying to reason with an extremely irritable four-year-old, who’d decided to disobey every reasonable request that came his way. The slightest plea for some basic courtesy led him to declare “I’m not listening to you ANYMORE” – something which, believe me, is sure to test the patience of even the most chilled-out dad. I honestly left the house feeling relieved to be heading to work – not a particularly nice experience, to be honest, but one I think most parents will be able to relate to.
One of the hardest things about being a dad is seeing it go pear-shaped even when you’ve supposedly done the right thing. You get down on their level, you listen to them, you try to empathise (they’re only little; they’re tired; they don’t quite understand what you’re saying). And yet, they still don’t do as the books suggest they should.
On the morning in question, I hadn’t slept much (was it only our household that seemed to implode as a result of the clocks changing?), I’d been getting up for what seemed like half the night with child number two, and then child number one woke far too early with an attitude problem that could well have resulted in him being electronically tagged if he hadn’t perked up by lunchtime. The whole experience was stressful and frustrating, until I remembered something a very wise, older friend with grown-up children said to me once: quite simply, “they all get there in the end.”
As parents (especially parents who feel like we’ve done our homework) we can place a huge amount of expectation on our children. We admire others’ offspring but fret about the fact that ours seemingly don’t behave properly all the time, or don’t eat all their tea, or don’t give elderly ladies with moustaches a big, warm hug as soon as they walk through the door. We can easily forget that, sometimes, it doesn’t need to all make sense. Yes, it’s completely illogical to us that the four-year-old in front of us is getting cross and grumpy – but then, the world isn’t yet a completely logical place when you’re only four.
So, to my mate who wants to know what to do when your toddler ignores you, I say: I’m not sure, really. I’m still working it all out myself. But I reckon it’s pretty likely that the moment when he or she is ignoring you is usually not the moment to start trying to reason with them, adult-style. Sometimes, even though every fibre of our being wants to exclaim “BUT I DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW YOU CAN BE THIS INFURIATINGLY UNREASONABLE!” it’s better to walk away, let them have their meltdown, and then come back with something fun and distracting. The maddening behaviour can then be talked through a bit later, when the child in front of us at least has a chance of taking it all in.
In fact, come to think of it, it’s not a bad tactic for adult relationships, too…