Children are complicated things. You expect them to be pretty basic. They aren’t as world weary as adults, haven’t absorbed as much stuff as we have over the course of their young lives, and yet they are a bundle of weirdness.
Take my stepson Monkey for example. His parent’s split up shortly before he was two years old. He has no memories of his Daddy living at home with him and often laughs if we remind him that Daddy used to live in the same house as him and that he had done most of the home improvements such as laying the living room flooring. Monkey has grown up knowing that he lives with his Real Mum and that his Daddy lives round the corner with Margot (we’ve only just started to mention the stepmum word and explained it to him a couple of times but it’s not been brought up again.) From an early age he already knew he could try the whole ‘Well Mummy lets me do it at home’ trick, but what I found odd is how different he would be with us from when he was at home.
Ever since Monkey was a baby his Real Mum has not been comfortable with letting him do stuff for himself. Ben’s sister Katie was once at their house with her baby – who was a year younger than Monkey, and just had him lying on a play mat, playing by himself while she and Real Mum chatted. Real Mum was horrified that Katie wasn’t playing with him constantly. “Why aren’t you down there with him playing too?” Katie was a bit puzzled by this and had said “I can’t play with him ALL the time, he has to figure some things out by himself, it’s a good way for him to explore things, plus it means I can do other things, like talk to you…” Real Mum was very disapproving. “Oh no, I couldn’t do that. I have to do everything with Monkey.” As a consequence Monkey started to grow up being very needy. If Real Mum was going somewhere Monkey had to be with her at all times, if she was going out for an evening he would be clinging onto her and bawling his eyes out. She didn’t like saying no to him, so there were times he would hurt himself and be inconsolable after falling off things she let him play on in the play park that were clearly labelled as only for children aged 12 and over when he was only 4.
When playing with Duplo he wouldn’t make anything by himself, he always wanted Daddy to do everything for him. He would follow Ben around and not give him a moment’s peace. It’s not good when someone feels so wound up after hearing the words “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy” over and over again all day long. And having a child standing outside of the toilet door, waiting for their Dad to come out because they cannot function until they come back to play with them, is a bit much really.
After a while I decided enough was enough. I suggested we bring in some time slots which we could increase as we went on, of periods where Monkey had to play by himself, while Daddy had a cup of tea. The first few times were awful. He said he wouldn’t do anything – so we said, fine, you can sit there and do nothing while we have a cup of tea, but your five minutes wont start until you start playing. After a while he started to do it, although there were a few tantrums and some tears, eventually he did it.
The split personality thing started when he was potty training, it didn’t take him too long to get it, but when he got back home to Real Mum, he would make out that he still couldn’t do it. Then it was things like getting up in the night for a wee, no problems at our house, but at home – nope – he always woke up Real Mum to come and help him. Wiping his own bum? After a few lessons at Daddy’s house – fine, back home – “Mummy – come and wipe my bum!” for several months until Daddy asked him in front of her why he was still making her do it when he did it by himself at Daddy’s house? Real Mum was a bit narked that he’d been stringing her along for a while.
At home he is scared of the dark and scared of wolves, at Daddy’s not so much.
However, since he has grown up and started to get into other stuff, Real Mum isn’t so keen on getting so involved with things. If she isn’t interested in something then it’s a case of ‘Oh well, you’re on your own with that one Monkey, Mummy doesn’t like Scalextric.’
However, she will still run around after him for other stuff. At home Monkey is very bossy, he tells Real Mum’s parents what to do all the time. They don’t discipline him much at all. At ours if he decides half way through dinner that actually it is yucky and he doesn’t like it, then he isn’t offered an alternative. If half of it was fine, then the other half is too. But Real Mum will often go and make him a whole other meal instead. One of Ben’s friends at one point expressed concern at how Real Mum wasn’t enforcing any kind of rules and how bossy Monkey was with her. They had been over to visit him and his family and they had been out on a walk together with their youngest son in his buggy. Monkey started to shake the buggy and the Mum was asking him nicely to stop, looking to Real Mum in the hope she would step in and enforce this. Nope, nothing. Monkey was rude and demanding of her and it really shocked Ben’s friend and his wife, especially as Real Mum allowed it.
A while ago Monkey fell badly at the park and hurt his arm, nothing major (after a trip to A&E and an x-ray confirmed no breaks or fractures) and he was given a sling to wear for a few days and some exercises to do. For the first couple of days it was fine for Real Mum to be helping him out and feeding him and all that, but after that he was encouraged to move it around and use it. But he kept wearing the sling and Real Mum ran around after him. The weekend after this had happened we were going to a family wedding and so picked him up from school to head off to the hotel. The sling was around his neck but not being used. On the day of the wedding he left the sling in the hotel room and played around with his cousin and seemed to not have any issues with his arm at all, apart from when he was reminded about it, when suddenly he would remember, hold it slightly differently for a few minutes before running off to pull his cousin on his back by the arms across the grass. On the Sunday as we were preparing to head back home and to drop him back with Real Mum, the sling was produced again. But Ben made sure that he let Real Mum know just how much better his arm was and how he’d been using it a lot over the weekend. Monkey’s plans had been foiled – no more silver service from Mummy.
I get that we have different rules in our homes, and maybe actually Monkey is better for having a bit more structure and some boundaries. The fact that when he was younger she allowed him to tear up books, or throw things around, and the like had kind of spoiled him. During the week he was the King of the Castle, allowed to do whatever he wanted, but at the weekends there were rules. He couldn’t smack you in the face, throw a matchbox car across the room or make you wipe his bum.
The thing with Real Mum (according to Ben who was with her for 14 years) is that she isn’t good at taking advice. She has no patience to keep up with something, if she tries it twice and it still doesn’t work she gives up, which isn’t ideal with parenting. She got one of those Gro-Clocks, the ones that when the child goes to bed the clock shows the moon and stars and during the night the stars go out one by one until the morning time you have set on the clock when the sun comes out. So they know it is time to get up. Monkey has always been an early riser, when he was small he would often get up at 4am or 5am wanting to play. These days he is usually awake at 5:30am – gets up for a wee, goes back to bed for a bit but wants to be doing things by 6:30am – but his ‘morning time’ is 7am. When they started to use the clock – she tried it a couple of times and gave up. We used it every time he stayed with us and eventually he got it. After a few false starts with him pressing the buttons on it over and over again until it set itself to the sun picture and telling us it was morning time… But he got it. He still uses it now, but I want him to learn to tell the time properly on both a digital and an analogue clock. I think he can, but he pretends he cant – like during our wedding weekend away recently – we set the digital clock for him in his room – but he came in at some silly time saying ‘I thought it would be seven after it had been twenty…’ No idea. So back to my point, she doesn’t like taking advice, but if you say something to her enough times, she will then think it was her own idea and then do it. So we just take that route now, eventually she tries it and then tells Ben how she did something and how well it worked and what a good idea it was of hers.
I’m not saying that we do everything better than she does, of course we don’t. But there are just some things that perhaps she doesn’t always see because she sees him all the time, whereas we have these short blasts of it and sometimes stuff can seem very obvious.