Sunday, February 26, 2012

Smashed Glass

A calm afternoon. My youngest toddled into the lounge in that delightful round-bottomed, waddly manner of the very young on Very Important Business. My husband had left a glass on the floor. He picked it up. "Give that to me, darling," I said in my best nice-calm-parent voice. He shook his head, and toddled amiably towards the door. I followed him. Then he threw it, smash, onto the balcony. Glass bounced everywhere. I shouted, raged, announced that he was sitting on the naughty spot. He refused to make eyecontact, sat on the naughty spot exactly as I asked, signed sorry when requested, and then sauntered off as if absolutely nothing had happened. It was all highly disconcerting. He seemed totally, utterly detached. Eerie, like watching telly with the sound turned off. Yes, he complied, but he showed absolutely no emotion at all, other than a few sobs when I shouted at him (but only because he doesn't like shouting). And the glass-throwing, He couldn't have been calmer, more self-possessed, as he did it. Odd. Reminded me of Margaret Thatcher "Oh look, I destroyed the industrial economy of the English North. Yes, I DID mean to. Now what are you going to do about it?"

Now don't get me wrong, I am not shocked by the behaviour. Most two-year-olds exist in a permanent state of defiance and wrath and senseless self-defeating destruction, the toddler equivalent of nuclear warfare. If I had any delusions on that score, I would have been enlightened by the repair bill for rendering our Yorkshire house lettable again. But usually when kids throw stuff there is an element of frustration, rage, annoyance even. They want a reaction, or to express their fury at something, the relative epistemological chaos of existence in the climate change era, or the fact that you just switched TV channel. This wasn't like that, it was just for the hell of it. And he didn't care, he didn't care that he'd done it and he didn't care that I was telling him off. It was like dealing with a diminutative teenager, "yeah whatever mum so smoking's harmful SORRY can I have my fags back now?" Only I didn't have the comfort of thinking soon he'd leave home and be his girlfriend's problem instead.

All a bit scary, as it underlines how helpless and ignorant I feel. I am supposed, now that I have THREE children, to have some idea about raising them. I guess I have the basics covered. Feed them regularly, give them baths and warm them up by adding extra layers of clothing rather than chilli sauce and thirty seconds in the microwave. So far, so good. But I realise that when it comes to my autistic third child, I am out of ideas. My rant-and-yell routine really doesn't seem to be working. I am going to have to find a parenting course somewhere. Again. Hopefully a specialist one that deals with special needs. And hope that the ratio of helpful advice to banal generalities is decently high, or at least exists, and that the Lord sends me the patience not to scream obscenities at the facilitator when they inevitably ask us to read that irritating little homily about raising special needs kids being like travelling to Holland when all your friends are in Italy. Never mind the beauties of Rembrandt, gimme some pasta. Or at the very least provide good tea.

It's all a bit like learning Maori. (Really, it is: bear with me). Only about 3 per cent of Kiwis can hold a conversation in Maori. Yet as I have said before in this blog, New Zealand seems to suffer from a national delusion that Maori is incredibly easy and you could pick it up in an afternoon, in between other quintessentially traditional Kiwi activities like enjoying a good BBQ and watching the Blackcaps lose at cricket. This is the direct opposite of South Africa, where Bantu languages used to be dismissed as far too hard for white people to learn, "they're good at learning our language, you know." When I was a young woman living there, I tried to buck the trend and learn some Xhosa but stumbled at the first hurdle, finding a decent textbook or class. I did go to classes for a while, but it was all a bit of a waste of time, because the other (white) participants were not really interested in learning Xhosa, they wanted to know a few commands like "Make the bed!" and to swap anecdotes about the terrible behaviour of their servants. Here, I am not eligible for free Maori lessons because I am not a permanent resident, that will have to wait a year. But I have finally found a decent grammar book - I do hope no one else in our city is trying to learn Maori, because I currently have the entire library stock on longterm loan - which won my heart immediately by debunking the great MAORI-IS-EASY national myth. Maori, it told me straight, is not easy. In fact Maori grammar is so difficult that it was used by New Zealand forces in the Second World War as a code, secure in the knowledge that the Germans might beat us to the splitting of the atom but they'd never ever manage THIS. I feel immensely reassured, just by reading that sentence over and over again. It doesn't, obviously, make Maori any easier. I still can't speak a word. But it makes me feel better about what I can't do, and vaguely hopeful that sometime, somewhere, someone will be able to help me, and at least be grateful that I have tried. Like the lovely lady at the last kohanga reo I visited, whose whole face lit up when I said "Wa te ma" instead of the more standard "Ka kite" as we left. And dull as the pronoun tables and lists of particles and locations nouns are, in the long term they are likely to be a jolly sight more useful than the cheery illustrated introductions that take twenty chapters to teach you how to say Good Morning.

This is the kind of parenting course I need, I realise. I don't need to despair and give up, the parenting equivalent of white South Africans not bothering to learn Xhosa or Zulu because they have decided already that they will never manage it. But equally, it is absolutely no use pretending it's easy, putting me in a group of parents to neurotypical kids, waffling on about time and energy and sending us off to play with our children more often. That kind of course is great for many families but if you have a child with additional needs it's like eating candy-floss, it feels OK at the time but longterm it doesn't provide anything sustaining. Like pretending Maori is easy. I need a course that provides plenty of gin, sorry, I mean good solid practical advice, seasoned with sympathetic acknowledgement that actually this is jolly hard work and I'm right to struggle at points. And that parenting can feel like those grimly dull grammatical exercises, boring and repetitive and seemingly pointless, until you get a day when you notice - actually, things HAVE improved and the hard work HAS been worthwhile, and look my toddler isn't biting any more or I managed to speak a whole sentence.

That's my goal, a future where I can maybe say "Hi, I don't speak any more Maori than this sentence" in Maori, or feel relieved that my children's quirks are finally under control. In the interim, I'll get by with tea and gin. Drunk out of plastic cups, of course.


  1. When my son did that to me, at around 2 and a half, I was totally flummoxed. His punishment at the time was the loss of a favourite toy he couldn't live without for a set period of time. He wanted to do something he knew he shouldn't. He handed over the toy, pointed to the place where it should be put, then did what he had planned. He knew what the price was and decided that it was worth paying. And I had in fact taught him this, rather than right and wrong. I never did figure out the answer, and I didn't have autism to throw into the mix. None of the books covered it at all, and I've been on parenting courses since then, none of which have an answer (or even acknowledge that this might happen).

    Having a 'neurotypical child' so to speak, we just moved on. Issue unresolved, but not a problem in the long term. Or so I think. Is this something that might just be waiting to bite me on the behind one day?

  2. I wrote you this long reply and it disappeared! But basically - yes. That is the problem with the whole parenting industry I think - a friend has just written about this on my FB link, it is really interesting.