Now that The Brat has morphed from angel-child to infuriating changeling who is, at assorted times, rude, infuriating and distracted, it has become a task to not turn into the harridan mom exemplified by Shin Chan's mom, Mitsi, in the eponymous cartoon series. I must confess though, that I have aired my vocal cords at decibels that would put a foghorn to shame more times than I prefer to remember. Sometimes, raising one's decibels seems to be the only way to penetrate the lost-in-his-own-world fog that the tween often drifts into. This does not always end well and often, the tween will snap out of his trance-like state and raise decibel level right back at me, at which point I yelp in terror and leap back; or take myself into the bathroom and bawl my eyes out, wondering whether I've messed up on this parenting gig and perhaps it would have been better if there had been some qualifying exam for parents before we were allowed to procreate on this planet...
The other day, at the poolside, I was sitting next to the mother of another 10-year-old who trains with my son, and she had the most anguished expression on her face. "Whatever happened?" I asked, ready to fish out a box of tissues and look the other way if she needed to blow her nose after a good bout of sobbing. "This child," she said, her face wan and harassed, "Doesn't listen." "It's like," she added, "My voice doesn't even reach his ears." I nodded in commiseration. We could form a support group, us moms of tweens who seem to have tuned out their mothers' voices like background noise.
What then, does a hapless mom, with limited decibel power and a thimbleful of patience do? Does one give up all communication with the child and eventually have every conversation with the spawn of one's womb via email and SMS or Whatsapp, or perhaps even the humble note under the door? Or does one battle fears of inflamed larynx and ruptured voice box and OD on throat lozenges and continue communication in a manner that is normally employed by those out on the hunt calling the dogs in?
I set about figuring what my strategy should change to, something that did not actually involve writing my messages on a body-board and standing between him and the TV set. I've figured out a few solutions, and they seem to be working. So, without further ado and much glee, I've put them down here, so that other hapless parents in similar situations could try a few and see if they work for them as well.
I've learnt that yelling out a request, order or command from another room will not get a reply or a response. It is only too easy for the child to look up at me, blinking and dazed, when I stomp into the room, steam bellowing from my nostrils, and say piteously, "But I didn't hear you!" I now go to his room, stand in direct line of his sight and ask him to look at me before stating what I needed to communicate with him. A clear step-by-step list of instructions. For instance, "I need you to change into your night clothes, tidy up your room, brush your teeth and go to bed within the next 15 minutes." Not more than three-step instructions, or he's blanked out, dazed and blinking.
I then ask him if he's understood what I've told him to do. He nods and goes back to whatever it is he was doing before I read the riot act to him. The first time I did this, I wondered if I would have to march in post the 15-minute deadline and shout loud enough to have plaster fall from the ceiling. But he surprised me. 5 minutes before the 15-minute deadline was due to expire, he sprang up from the supine position he had assumed on the bed watching endless Bollywood songs on loop, and in Clark-Kent-in-phone-booth-turning-into-Superman fashion, changed into his nightclothes, brushed his teeth, put his things away in his room and presented himself, minty-fresh breath, for his good night kiss. Within a few days, even that instruction had cut itself down, from my earlier detailed version to just "15 minutes." He knew that he had 15 minutes to wind up his Very Important Television viewing, and go to bed.
I've learnt that when I call him by his name, I get his attention faster. And when I call him by his full name, he stands to attention, limbs aquiver. Ergo, I use the full name rarely. I use 'Please' when I ask him to do a task not connected to his books, bags, room, clothes, etc. I use shorter sentences, I say them once and make sure he has heard me, because I am directly in his line of sight. I also don't encourage debate or negotiations because they inevitably degenerate into endless rounds of bargaining and cross pleas, at the end of which I'm left feeling drained and with the sneaky suspicion that I've been conned out of what I originally wanted him to do and given him more privileges than I would have in an entire week. Sometimes, I cave in and give him an option, but I've realised he's the camel of the Camel And The Tent story, and I've learnt more about the art of bargaining from him than a lifetime of haggling with roadside vendors. He's old enough now, but not focused enough, so I occasionally ask him to repeat the instructions back to me. I give him a reason to do what I want him to do, to sweeten the deal a little, like: "Finish your dinner quickly, so you can watch a bit of television before sleeping." I try not to make my statement an order, nor a request, but just a matter of fact directive. I watch my tone, I watch my volume. Sometimes, I lower the pitch of my voice really low so he has to strain to hear me. It gets him to listen. I bring my business voice home. It works most times. I don't give him a choice. Giving him a choice between two options means he dawdles because he's "trying to decide". So in true Cruella De Ville manner, I merely state what needs to be done, specifically regarding the non-negotiables like homework, eating, going to bed on time,etc. For the rest, I am open to discussion, if not actual negotiating. Sometimes, I write down reminders for tasks that need to be done and pin them to his desk.
Is he listening to me? He is. More than he used to. At times, he's still in a zone of his own and I end up bursting a blood vessel or two while trying to get him to respond; but more often than not, he's heard me, he's acknowledged my statement and he follows through. I'm not yet the mom who sits with her feet up on a small footstool while her kids scurry about like leprechauns getting all their tasks done to perfection, without a single reminder and zero supervision. But I'm getting there. I hope.
And yes, I've finally stopped yelling out to him. My throat is thanking me with little hallmarked cards of gratitude.