Here, we are continuing the China Doll series by resident guest author, Tim. Need I say more?
Married in 1979 we both wanted to be a good partnership, and we both wanted children. My wife wanted a football team, I was happy with the idea of two, perhaps three. Nature served us up just one, and his arrival needed help at the creation.
I wanted to be a parent without making the mistakes, huge mistakes, my own parents made. I needed two ingredients only for that. The first was a wife who was so good at being a mother that I wonder why all mothers are not like that. The second was a determination to break the shackles I was raised in.
I thought you might like a more upbeat piece instead of dour misery, so I wanted to tell you how I, we, did it. I may even get through writing it without going off on one!
We have fought over trivia:
“This washing up needs to be done again.”
“No it doesn’t.”
“I always have to do it again when you’ve done it!”
“You’re just doing this to score points over me.”
“It’s the same as when you [inflicted some insult or other] back in 1806.”
Yup, we’re normal. I suspect you can work out that I know I wash the dishes perfectly and SWMBO is not so sure. But it’s never about the quality of the task at hand. It may even be a bizarre and paradoxical bonding ritual!
We’ve fought all the way through our son’s childhood and adulthood, too. We are so imperfect in our relationship that we’re probably normal. If I knew what ‘normal’ really is I could tell you. I think it’s different for all couples.
My own normality was one of being raised as a China Doll. I could link to all the China Doll pieces, but I suspect and hope that Bob has created a tag at the bottom of the China Doll articles that links them all together. China Doll-hood is a bugger to shake off.
What I knew for sure was that I wanted my son both to love me, somehow built in, and to like me, something I believe needs to be worked hard at. I wanted his schooling to be as much of a joy as it could be, and him to realise that he had to take charge of learning how to learn.
To explain that last, my parents made me learn. At homework time they sat in careful silence at one end of the open lounge while I was made to sit at the dining table with my back to them doing my schoolwork. They used to cut out crossword puzzles, only the cryptic ones, and do them in whispered silence behind me, something that intimidated my every homework session. “Three across, Initially, elephant lets out gas for occasions, six letters, blank V blank blank T blank.” They couldn’t get it. ‘EVENTS’! It was so obvious.
I don’t need to explain it, do I?
Ok, maybe I do. The initial letter of ‘elephant’ is ‘e’; lets out gas is ‘vents’; Put those together and get ‘events’, which are occasions. There, now you can do those cryptic crossword clues.
There was no music, no blaring TV. Ours wouldn’t have blared anyway, we were a BBC Only Household, in capital letters. Ours would have had tasteful shows and refined accents. Ours, bizarrely, since we were Upper Class, came from our slightly posher neighbours as a cast off when they bought a new set with ~gasp~ ITV!
I wanted my son to be able to work at his schoolwork, to enjoy working, with life going on all around him, and to learn for the joy of learning. I was sure I would not allow him to be hemmed in as I was.
As a kid I never had a real bedroom to call my own. I was moved from one to another depending upon which weird aunt came to stay. One liked the back, notionally mine, the other the front. The back one was larger, but just had a bed in it, a bentwood chair before they were fashionable, and a rug on a red linoleum floor. It also had no heating in the winter. Our whole house had one coke fire in the living room, and an anthracite hot water boiler in the kitchen that fed a couple of radiators, one in the dining room, and the other in the bathroom. Coupled with Crittall steel framed single glazed windows the place was freezing in the winter. There was no scope for doing anything except racing to get under the covers in the winter.
Apart, of course, from the usual solo pursuits there! I mean, of course, reading by torchlight under the covers. I did a lot of reading. I have no idea where your brain was leading you then.
I was about to say that life had moved on since the 1950s and lack of central heating back then was normal, but it was normal for everyone else I knew. Everyone at school had a warm, cosy bedroom, some of them shared with siblings, but a place of retreat and homework. This is in addition to the relentless bedtime reading of youth.
My son would have a bedroom.
We made sure it was an area of increasing privacy as he grew older, a room where he could shut the door or leave it open as he chose, equipped with a small ghetto blaster, bunk bed with a desk underneath, and the ability to do his homework in as much or as little isolation as he wanted. It was his room. While we might move around if we had guests to stay, his room was sacrosanct.
That needs a little explanation. We all have great days, good days, poor days and days that go to hell in a hand-basket. On the nastiest of those the results from doing your best might be comparatively poor to those from doing your best on a great day. He knew that all we wanted was for him to do his best with respect to the circumstance of the day he was living. Do that and he would always receive praise. But he would always receive love whatever the outcome, whether he did his best or not.
We never hounded him on homework, nor on schoolwork. He learned how to work. We guided him, of course we did, but the person who checked up on him was he himself.
Other parents offered their kids incentives to pass exams. We didn’t. Instead we gave him rewards for good, honest hard work and effort, way before the results of the exams were even available. We reasoned that results were the inevitable result of effort, so the effort was the element that needed the reward. And they were rewards for effort made, not incentives to make an effort.
He discovered he was musically gifted. We discovered he was academically gifted, genuinely so. And that led to a mistake of ours. He was advanced a year in his school, a decision we and he discussed at great length, with advantages and disadvantages weighed. His input was vital. Our mistake, though, was not understanding that he would become top of his new year beating all the the other kids hollow, and that he would be able to do this a whole year younger than them.
The bullying of jealousy started. Those knocked off their perches resented his presence.
We hadn’t realised the extent of this, and he kept it from us until he left that school. We ought to have known somehow, ought to have handled it. Today he tells us that we could not have helped, he would not have wanted to change school anyway. We don’t quite believe him. The school was wrong on many levels; the headmaster was himself a bully and a martinet, and one who both denied that bullying existed in his school and rewarded the bullies.
He moved to his next school at rising to 14 and reinvented himself completely. This was wholly his idea. He became, by choice, the person he is today. I think we gave him the strength to make that choice, as did the change of school.
My parents insisted I was better than I was. Perhaps, had they handled me differently, just perhaps, I would have reached my full potential. We let our lad graze his knees, and picked him up when he did and bandaged them, and then let him graze them again. It wasn’t a “Go and graze your knees, it builds character” thing. He was a kid. Kids need to graze their knees in safety.
When he was 12 or so we took him aside and told him “Some boys fall for girls, others fall for boys. That’s normal. If you introduce us to the girl you love or the boy you love we’ll welcome them into our home and family and love you just the same.”
He said “Dad, that’s so gay!” using the rather unpleasant vernacular of the time and potentially not even noticing the irony. Later, when he’d discovered he was heterosexual he talked to us and said that those words had meant a lot. They’d made him know he was safe, and could talk about pretty much anything to us.
We, I, made the error of smacking when he was little. I’d been smacked, and it had ‘done me no harm’, so I smacked. One day, in tears, he asked why. “Hurting me won’t stop me being naughty,” he said. He was right. So we developed a new idea.
We agreed with him that, if something was truly important we would tell him so and expect immediate compliance. If he felt our demands were inappropriate, provided he had obeyed, we would discuss his feelings about the issue quietly and explain things in detail. And, most important, when we were wrong we would apologise.
We went in to bat for him when things went wrong. A couple of examples come to mind.
A bullying teacher decided to go for verbal bullying in front of the whole class. It was a minor infraction he deserved to be told off for. Instead she pilloried him in public. She did not enjoy the subsequent experience. Her bullying headmaster then marched me into his study and was rather angry with me, which was faintly amusing.
His piano tutor made the error, unforgivable in my book, of not apologising to him for being wrong. “I do not apologise to children,” he said. He was replaced.
We told our son that we would always go in to bat for him provided we were certain that he was in the right. It was rare we had to do so. That’s why these two examples stick out.
Today he is heading for the top of his profession, and is married to a lovely girl. They have a daughter who is absolutely not being raised as a china doll. They’re making their own mistakes like all parents do, but they have never made the mistake of confusing their child with something to exhibit. We’re proud of them all, and tell them so.
This is my happy ending. A friend said to me yesterday while planning his mother’s funeral, “Life is a dash between birth and death. It’s what you do in the dash that counts.” He told me it was a poem he planned to read. I looked it up.
I’ve wasted quite a bit of my dash, and I’ve had quite a bit wasted for me when my life was controlled by my parents. I’ve spent a lot of time learning not to waste the rest, well, most of the rest. I still waste parts with irrational anger, but I am far less volcanic nowadays. I am learning to walk away. Unexpected things still get to me, though.
A couple of days ago I was walking home from my part time retirement job and saw a car trying to push into a very static and long queue for our local ferry. Being nice I offered the suggestion to the smartly dressed lady driving it that it was a rather static queue, and that she was better advised to drive round the block and join the tail of it. She turned to me smiled and said, rather viciously, I thought, “Fuck off!” with deeply felt vitriol.
Briefly, the idea of spitting in her face crossed my mind. Then I remembered that is assault, however tempting, so I replied with a smile that I would be very happy to fuck off, that she would more than likely be removed from the ferry by its crew for queue jumping, and that she was embarrassing the gentleman sitting next to her, at which point the very silly lady realised she didn’t want the ferry after all because the embarrassed gentleman told her so.
I was legitimately angry at the time, and China Doll Me would have lashed out. Post China Doll Me thought it through, was militantly polite in the face of extreme hostility and rudeness, and won the day, while not even appearing to be angry. I know I won. The bloke in the van behind her called me over. “Did she just say what I think she said?” and we had a conversation about the rudeness of idiots. We concluded that she came from ‘that London’, laughed and moved on.
And that leads me to needing to check. Please tell me. Those comments are notoriously silent, usually. Will you please risk telling me whether you think I’m doing ok? I could do with a bit of reassurance. You can probably tell that because this piece isn’t my usual rather bullish style.
Tell me what you’ve done to help your child blossom. Tell me what your parents have done to help you blossom. Or tell me a tale of woe. Use a pseudonym. But tell me. Please.