If you pigeonhole your children don’t be surprised if they start making low cooing noises. I learnt this the hard way, and I am not particularly proud of how badly I handled this issue. Hopefully this makes it a more useful experience to share.
Two years ago we went through an absolute nightmare with our middle daughter behaving badly. At points I really felt that I had lost control of her behaviour and she was oscillating between reckless, angry to verging on dangerous behaviour. She would write/paint all over the walls, and furniture, throw the entire contents of upstairs downstairs, hit her siblings, cut-off all her hair, that I was painstakingly growing, and took to running across roads on her own. Basically she did everything I told her not to.
Although I initially tried reasoning with her I got increasingly frustrated and tended to either shout or punish. We were all unhappy and the situation just seemed to escalate.
At its worst, and I cringe, I remember threatening boarding school where she would not see any of her family and maybe learn some manners. I didn’t mean it, but she didn’t know that.
I did sporadically try to have a calm, gentle chat with her about behaving better and this sometimes worked for 30 minutes or so. Then she would inevitably revert back to bad.
In sharp contrast to this, in fact if I had been looking more keenly or logically in perhaps exact inverse proportion to this, the conduct of the eldest child was saintly. She literally never had to be told off, at home or school, always did as she was told and was keen to help in every way possible. When I asked her what she wanted for her sixth birthday, she actually did say ‘a really good spring-clean of my bedroom.’ I remember the snort of derision from middle child who was more likely hoping for a lesson in rolling reefers for her fifth birthday.
And so it continued with me not just putting but actively jamming them into their pigeonholes of character. I turned it into a sort of family joke. The gist being that while one was likely to later marry, live in a rose-covered cottage, have two pink-cheeked children and a labrador the other was going to end up in a modernist Miami mansion, with ten different phone-lines, running a barely legal business.
When chatting to friends, neighbours, strangers in soft play I would unthinkingly refer to the saintly one and the sinner. All the while the little ears of my gorgeous girls were absorbing this information.
I really do feel ashamed of how oblivious I was to how my off-the-cuff crowd-pleasing jokes must have hurt the feelings of this little person by my side. She who was trying desperately to work out how the world works and her place in it. I was damning her with no praise.
As things continued to spiral downhill we had a playdate with a very lovely and wise friend. As the behaviour kicked-off again and I started my normal narrative of how the eldest was probably going to spend her teenage years rescuing the other one from a drainpipe in the middle of the night, this wise friend pulled-me-up short.
“Well where else has she got to go?” she asked. “If her sister is a saint, with praise constantly heaped upon her, how can she compete with that for your attention?”
This friend went on to explain how her childhood had followed a similar pattern, in this instance she was the middle child with an angel of an older sister. She told me that while she longed for praise from her parents there was simply no way she could keep up with the godliness of the older golden child. “It sort of felt like my parents had delineated our roles and I just slotted in with what they were saying and thinking,’ she said.
What a lightbulb moment.
I felt like a total idiot. I quickly sought to turn things around and it happened remarkably quickly and easily. I stopped all stereotyping of my children and, certainly initially, went out of my way to tell my middle girl how good she was, how helpful and how happy she was making me. I lavished praise upon her at any opportunity.
Not to sound like a total prat- it was like watching sunshine on a flower. She bloomed, she glowed and she was and is glorious. This absolutely lovely, eccentric, grin of a girl was allowed to emerge and we haven’t looked back. (Well not in any major way!!)
I also took time to have a fairly grown-up chat with her about things. Adopting a method my Mum used on me, basically introducing difficult topics of conversation in a locked, moving car, I asked her if during this time she had felt that I loved her sister more than her, because she was so good and well-behaved. A small voice from the back confirmed that this was the case.
Heartbroken, and feeling like the worst mum in the world, I told her that this would never be the case. I would always love her, and always love her and her brother and sister infinitely and equally, no matter how they behaved or what they did.
When, later, I asked her the same question she said that she did now understand that I would always love her. She also quietly accepted my apology for being so mean and rude to her.
When I think back what I should have noticed sooner is how her teachers were always telling me how beautifully behaved and helpful she was at school. I made a joke out of it, asking if they were talking about the same child. They were.
The other interesting result of this turnaround came in the form of a slightly disgruntled angel who, particularly initially, was extremely unhappy about the U-turn in middle child’s attitude. I remember her asking her sister “When are you going to go back to normal and being bad?” This only spurred her sister into better behaviour and for a while being good became a competitive sport in our house. Interestingly when senior saint felt that her halo was beginning to dim in comparison to her sister she also decided to act-up, shout and get cross.
I had learnt my lesson and this time took a more neutral attitude. I decided I wanted my eldest child to feel able to be unreasonable and naughty sometimes. It’s too much pressure, and not enough fun, for her to be good all the time.
As to the youngest I have yet to work out what pigeonhole I am going to be careful not to put him in. Maybe I will just give him a bit of time to develop his own personality. Chances are he’ll be a bit of everything. A bit like all of us.