This article was originally featured on BooksLive
If you are the parent of an only child, or a parent who has never heard the words, “But maa-aam, he said “Shuddup” to me,” delivered in a whine like an angle grinder through your skull, don’t even bother to read on – there is nothing here for you. On the other hand, if you know exactly what I’m talkin’ about, it seems only fair to disclose upfront that I ain’t got much for you either. I am blogging about my experiments on humans mostly for gags. Not as Nikki Bush. Obviously.
This is the holiday check-list I found on the floor under Russell’s bed on the first day of the holidays:
Now, I hear what you’re thinking (you’re thinking very loud): I’m obviously a failure as a parent and in the face of my inability to control Rusky’s psychopathic impulse to violence – not to mention his dependency on his electronic life support system, which is apparently the only thing standing between Cain and Abel’s demise – and his illiteracy, I ought to at least try and control my compulsive need to over-share.
All true. Fine, let’s deal with the illiteracy. It’s not Russell’s fault. It’s Mrs Tromp’s. I can’t reasonably be expected to sit and listen to him read. During term, we do the absolute minimum necessary for me to tell the Jiminy Cricket crouching on my shoulder to fuck off and sign the reading card, because while I’m sitting listening to him read about the time travel adventures of Biff and Chip and a nice, racially diverse group of children from England in possession of a magic key from the dons at Oxford, I’m thinking: Holy crap, you suck at reading. How in God’s name do you need to sound out each letter of the word Biff again? How? Didn’t one of your little pals just finish Macbeth? I am going to die. Please God, if you exist, let Biff get sucked into a vortex on his way back through the portal and die, horribly. So by tacit mutual agreement between Russell and I, Reading is Strictly Forbidden in the holidays. Let’s just hope Mrs Tromp ups her game this term.
Also, and I’m sorry to honk my own horn here, but we have gotten to the end of the holidays, and I can’t help but notice that we are all still alive. And it was not just because I warned Will. So although I was going to save them for my index of survival tricks at the back of my Bad Mommy memoirs, I have decided to hand you my Pocket Sibling Warfare Survival Guide right now because you never know when it might come in handy.
Firstly, please note that these are not survival “instincts”. You know those accountants in spandex who run the Comrades or scale Kilimanjaro, and then pull a few White Zulu impi moves on the summit while singing that old Juluka song? Pah. They know nothing, nothing next to the ruthless discipline it has taken for me to acquire my survival skills. When the temperature starts rising in my house, my natural instinct, you see, is to fire it past boiling point, which involves screaming and screaming, mostly by me. Some dragging. I conclude in the ghastly sullen aftermath that we are a disaster of a family.
“From now on,” I declare, “When you fight, be prepared to fight to the death.”
I deliver the word “death” like the grim reaper.
“Because I will no longer save you, from yourselves,” I add bitterly.
This is not helpful. Gratifying though. Anyway, my point is that it has taken years of conditioning myself to react differently to the niggling and niggling and kicking and niggling. Mostly.
Secondly, this is not about avoiding the conflict. That would be nice, sure, but this is for those who are past diplomacy, who’ve abandoned the propaganda campaign “to win over hearts and minds”, who are now butt deep in combat and in need of serious fucking artillery. So for those of you who never subscribed to the Geneva Convention anyway, here are the counter-manoeuvres that will see you through any sibling terrorism situation …
Step 1: Swear, on mute
I stumbled upon this life line years ago when I found myself stranded in the check-out aisle at Woollies with someone thrashing around on the floor at my feet wailing, “But it’s myyyy turn to push the trolley!” while someone else repeatedly rammed the trolley against my shins.
I’d gone in promising myself that this time it would be different: I’d go in for the toilet paper and two Chicken Noodle Doo’s and leave with the toilet paper and two Chicken Noodle Doo’s without tears, from any of us. Yet the trolley that was now being used as a battering ram contained a half-eaten a packet of Ghost Pops which Russell had stolen and a Kinder Surprise with which I’d bought William off. I’d left him snivelling “But whyyy can’t I have Ghost Pops? You’re so mean. You’re the meanest mom in the world,” somewhere down the tinned foods aisle whose shelves Russell was mounting, and as I’d hurried, slightly, around the next corner and checked back to make sure they hadn’t been abducted by child traffickers, I was greeted with the sight of Russell sprawled on top of William on the filthy floor who was throttling Russell with his bare hands as Russell banged his head on the tiles. I will never forget the look on the face of the mother who witnessed the scene with her two innocent little girls. It reminded me of the last line in Heart Of Darkness:
The horror. The horror.
Only the gnarled old lady who was also trapped with us in the tinned foods aisle that day could look me in the eye. It’s how we recognise one another – mothers of sons – a battle-hardened breed who won’t even flinch as others look away, their lips tweezered in disgust.
I, in a final act of weakness for which I’d indulge in an orgy of guilt and self-recrimination later, snatched a Kinder Surprise helpfully stacked at the entrance to the check-out aisle. “Hey, synthetic chocolate and a crappy plastic toy that’ll take what’s left of my sanity to assemble! Here you are pumpkin. Now you’re even.”
So when William rode over Russell’s toes in the check-out queue to foil his attempt at seizing the trolley and Russell started screaming like someone who’d just found out that their entire family had been brutally murdered, I was Tazered with the discovery that shouting, “Shut the fuck up you almighty pain in the arse!” – in my head – somehow made the moment more bearable. Go ahead, try it. It’s very liberating.
Maybe they frown on mothers who hurl abuse at their children in the Mums’ Circle-Of-Wisdom at Bella Vida (although I suspect I’d have gotten a few back slaps from the other patrons in Woollies that day), but the Mums’ Circle-Of-Wisdom can’t censor my thoughts, can they? I’ve found it helps even more if you add a self-pitying chaser along the lines of “You have got to be shitting me. This cannot be my life. Please, just shoot me now.”
The nice thing about Step 1 is that it’s always available to you. Now anywhere, any time my children turn all “pack of hyenas sharing an impala yearling carcass” on me, I swear silently at them with eye-watering vulgarity and proceed quickly to Step 2 …
Step 2: Time Out, for mom
This is without question the most challenging step for me, but following Step 1 religiously helps, as does not actually being the one polishing the Naughty Step with my arse. We don’t technically have a Naughty Step in our house because I derive tremendous satisfaction from commanding some foul little thing to “Go to the toilet now!”
You can boom, “And do not come out until I say so,” because you are the parent, and saying “Because I say so!” is your right. Feel free to add menace to your voice. Alternatively, “Get thee hence Satan,” works nicely. You can improvise.
The truth though, which I cannot afford to forget, is that it is I who needs the time out. Although I still regularly have to resort to threatening punishment from the Old Testament or an iPad ban to produce obedience, when not actually enraged, I have explained to my sons the peril they are in at such moments – how their very lives hang by a delicate thread – and the consequent imperative of their removal from their mother’s sight.
It is quite extraordinary considering the freaking circumstances, how quickly my wrath subsides, but there is no need in my opinion to yank open the toilet door the instant it does. No. I wait the allotted number of minutes in full (and my sons are now nine and eight respectively – you see the reward here if you’re patient). If I arrive at the toilet even a few seconds early, I wait outside the door and idle away those last moments thinking about my other life, the one I should’ve led stoned on the rock music festival circuit as the lead singer of Def Leppard. At least the dreadful moaning from the other side of the toilet door has usually grown fainter by then. Once time in Time Out is sadly up, I point at the door with a finger that isn’t polite, gird my loins and wrench it open …
Step 3: The volcano in your tummy blah, blah, blah recital
Regardless of what horror I meet on the other side of the toilet door, I stoutly deliver the same speech I have been delivering every goddamned day since I cobbled it together from Taming the Toddler and Siblings Without Rivalry and whatnot the better part of ten years ago.
Back when I still winced inwardly whenever I had to explain the spatter of tiny scabs across their beastly little faces, when I still thought motherhood – and my sons’ brotherhood – could yet turn out like the brochure in my head if I could just read the right manual, I enrolled on every Powerful Parenting course on offer at Bella Vida and spent many hours on the comforting sofas of various child psychologists. And despite how having the cynicism of a seasoned Israeli-Palestine peace treaty negotiator, I still stick to my weary script, convinced only that shouting, “Stop hitting your brother!” while hitting anything that moves isn’t that effective in deterring future assaults.
I’ve summarised the toddler version, which requires only marginal revision for age appropriateness:
“I know you’re feeling angry, Russ, and it’s OK to feel angry. If my brother told me I weed in my pants and should still wear a nappy, I’d also be so, so mad. I know that sometimes it feels like you’ve got a volcano in your tummy that’s just gonna blow. You just want to punch someone as hard as you can.”
You know the drill:
- Acknowledge the feeling.
- Reflect the feeling.
- Wait until Russell has yelled, “Yeah, jus’ take ‘em down!” while driving his knuckles into his palm for emphasis, and then conclude regretfully with “But it’s not OK to tell people you’re feeling angry with your fists”.
There are a few variations of course, depending on the nature of the attack. You aren’t allowed to hurt people’s bodies or their feelings because you are angry. Telling people that it smells like something died in their mouth is out, for example, as is calling someone a flower fairy princess, as an insult. Instead, you have to use words to tell people why you are angry, what you want them to do or stop doing and blah blah blah…
Now, unfortunately, while no-one ever wants to get dragged into what has led to those feelings they’re “allowed to have”, at this point you’re going to have to let them speak. And the older they get, the more words they know. It was one damn thing when I was cast into the role of Solomon in disputes over a shitty plastic replica of Thomas the Tank Engine’s trusty sidekick, Percy:
‘He snatched it!’
‘It’s mine! And he spitted at me!’
Bearing in mind that – while only one step away from a coronary – it was denied me to bellow, “Christ, it’s just a stupid train truck, let him have it/just give it back to him!” Instead, the sadists at Bella Vida had emotionally black-mailed me into acknowledging ownership rights – Yes, I know it’s your Percy, but something about possession, nothing about being a total arsehole, followed by an appeal to the owner’s famed generosity and to both the owner and thief’s extraordinarily mature dispute resolution skills, while unobtrusively brokering a deal – So can anyone think of a way to share Percy? Hmm … I know, let’s take turns letting the dispossessed hold it for just long enough to see what it is they can’t have before having it snatched away by its rightful owner – before moving on to the spitting and other unspeakable atrocities, some of which may have been directed at me during the “intervention”. Still, that was then. Now … now it is far, far worse.
Personally, I remain unconvinced of the necessity of giving them an opportunity to testify at all when what they’ll say invariably comes down to the fact that Apartheid and the Holocaust were as nothing compared to the injustices they have endured at the hands of a brother whose fathomless spite is making their life a hell. But the real hell is having to pretend to listen to stories that are riddled with holes, frankly incoherent and are punctuated by stuttering and excruciating pauses of approximately seven minutes between each syllable. This is what I rehearse silently throughout the trial:
Russell, I am forty two years old. I was thirty six when this story began. And I don’t want to crush your dreams of becoming a hammer of justice, but your case is weak. You have no evidence of your outrageous claims of provocation, you appear to be trying to pass off retaliation as self-defence, you keep interrupting yourself and then trail off mid-sentence. Apart from the fact none of this is your fault and William is to blame for all the evil in the world, I don’t even bloody understand what you’re saying. Let me make this simple for you: There are the facts and there is bullshit. Guess which one you just told us? I don’t know why St Peter’s is obsessed about you rote learning bonds when basic cognitive function is so lacking. From now on when I open the toilet door, I will be holding a buzzer and a cattle prod. If you begin your argument and it does not end within two minutes, the buzzer will go off and … zap!
I’m loath at this point to have to remind you that even after you have then extracted an admission of guilt and an apology – because you can’t just say you’re sorry, you have to say what it is you’re sorry for (in spite the obviousness of that being nothing) – you are then obliged to open the second toilet door – or at least, address the second occupant of the toilet, depending on your position on solitary confinement – and repeat. And there’s no wimping out of it, because with very, very few exceptions, it is necessary to incarcerate both offenders and to then find them both guilty – the whole hearing is a total sham really – even when you suspect excessive force in retaliation for say, mere malicious damage to property.
But hang on folks for the pay-off. “Punishment” has been re-branded “consequences” of late – better, I suppose, than “revenge” – but whatever you call it, boy, it’s a-comin’ …
Step 3: Sentencing
Finally, after putting up with this ferocious bullshit for so long without recourse to either booze or weapons, at last I get to say:
“So if you choose to show people you’re angry by inflicting grievous bodily harm on them, then [insert punishment of your choice].”
The big deal here is the choice that they’ve made. Something about (a) empowering them with a sleight of words so they don’t feel so disempowered and resentful that you have all the power and control and they have none – none, muhahaha – and (b) also making them take responsibility for their actions. As in Who’s the boss of you? You are! I didn’t make you do it. I can’t make you do anything. Whatever. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a brilliant piece of spin that simultaneously allows for a James Earl Jones style overture while dumping everything on them:
Sends a shiver down my spine and absolves me personally.
“So your iPad? You can kiss that bad boy goodbye for a week.”
Because those are the consequences of your terrible, terrible choice.
“Bye-bye Russie. I’m gonna miss ya. Mwaah!” I add gratuitously through puckered lips as I slam the door on the cupboard above the fridge.
You got to get ‘em where it hurts, man. Child psychologists’ like to candy-coat this as “understanding their values” and then negotiating on those terms, but I prefer to call it what it is: the kidney shot. Forget about the Queensbury Rules. In my house that means unplug ‘em, but you might have to send them on Hot Dog Day with no money or something.
Of course, I’m conveniently airbrushing over the fact that the punishment is often a punishment for mama too. The banning of the wicked little device that has stolen my children’s souls regrettably falls into that category. Now, sometimes such masochism can be narrowly averted, such as in a “That’s Strike Two, Mister!”-type situation, or when you can call it time served in the toilet (where you were sent because you are not fit for decent society – on account of the biting), but depending on the level of savagery involved, and especially if you’ve only reluctantly intervened after bloodshed, there will be times when you are going to have to follow through with a threat, no matter how rash. As a friend, Rob, who is a father of three boys (and swears they had the third on purpose) puts it: It’s like a hijacking situation – you have to shoot one of the hostages so that the negotiators know you mean business.
That is why I strongly recommend Step 2 – that way you have time to re-interpret the rules of engagement in order to devise a maximum pain for maximum gain consequence at minimal cost to mommy before yanking open the toilet door – after all, you are not the one who spat at anyone. But even if you have been ambushed into going through with something that requires a very strong constitution, oh how you will thank me when you find yourself confronted by the scenario sketched in Step 1. (Notice how the Steps all fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.) All you will have to do at the very first whine about Ghost Pops while you are still trundling across the basalt gulag in the car park is to lean down and hiss through gritted teeth, “Remember Jordan’s party last week? Oh wait, that’s right, you can’t – because you weren’t there.” It’s for this reason that you can’t really afford too many, “Strike Twos” – one warning shot, and that’s it.
By now you’re feeling sickened and demoralised. Don’t. As a triumph of hope over experience, I am convinced that following the Three Steps is to a degree preventative. The older my sons get, the less often I am summoned by blood-curdling screaming. Admittedly that is because they often now summon me as a weapon of war. I am the deadly “so whah” missile.
“Mom, is my bedtime still eight o’clock or am I allowed to stay up an extra half an hour reading, because I’m nine?”
“No. It’s now.” Five o’clock is not too early. “Take down that cereal box wall you have built to shield yourself from the disgusting sight of your brother masticating and go to bed.”
Still, when I look back down the long dreary course of my career as a parent, I do see progress. From that fateful battle over the hose one summer’s day seven years ago that cost Russell some of his blood and me my innocence, we have come a long way. Yes, there have been times when as a card-carrying atheist I have cried out “Why God? Why me? What have I ever done to you?” and torn at my flesh. But still – and I don’t want to sound like Pollyanna here – teeth are sunk less often into backs nowadays. And so I urge you to consider the final bonus step, because more than all the others combined, it offers hope while your children still live, for peace…
Bonus Step: Brothers in arms
One day about two years ago, I opened the toilet door, and lo, it was empty! The sash window was open and the lid of the toilet was smeared with small grubby footprints. Suspicious, I followed to trail to the front gate where I found a scrap of paper stuffed between the bars. This is what it said:
Signed “William” and a shaky “R” on the back.
It was almost too good to be true. They had run away. Together! But my friends, you too can follow the Bonus Step to this Shangri-La.
Okay, look, I dont want to exaggerate the power of the Bonus Step. There are of course, many roads headed the same direction, mostly outside the war zone, and I don’t want to patronize you – there are a lot of under-currents in families that could sabbotage you. Let’s say one of your kids has a “special” relationship with Daddy. The Bonus Step isn’t going to help you – it’s not Daddy’s guts the “other” one’s gonna hate. But ingnoring these minefields for the moment, let’s just get on with it:
In the wake of the sentencing, you will be expected to release the prisoners, but make sure they know that they are still on parole, so when you return to the kitchen table to resume supper or homework, you can work on rehabilitation.
United by the common enemy – me – they are fertile ground. I ease in to my sermon with something hackneyed like, “You two had better think long and hard about how you treat each other.”
Then I dive in to the action:
Because when your luck runs out, kiddo, who do you reckon is going to be there for you, huh? Huh? Remember when William fought off that pack of six year-olds at Aquatots for you Russell? Or when Russell saved you from drowning in the reservoir at Oupa’s farm, William?
Now, I know you’re thinking, Damn! I got nothin’. Well, neither do I. In reality, a desperate Russell had run behind William’s back in the driveway and started shoving him towards the gang of six year-olds slouched against the garage door, yelping, “Hit them William! Hit them! They called me a dork.” Even though he was wearing his Batman speedo, William, I’m sorry to say, did nothing. Nothing.
But I don’t even suffer a twinge of guilt for massaging the truth – memory is anyway an unreliable, self-serving historian. We all go through life indelibly tattooed with memories of events that did not happen the way we remember them. So what if this serves my interests? It’s always better in my extensive experience to take an actual incident from the reasonably distant past of which there is dim recall and pimp it up. You have got to make out that they already are what you want them to be.
That one little nugget from Ilze van der Merwe at Bella Vida is a debt I can never repay. Whatever great human quality you are trying to instil in your wretched excuse for one – courage, compassion, whatever – you’ve got to make them believe that they already possess it. Ilze doesn’t put it quite so crudely, but kids fuck up 99% of the time – you have to remember the other 1%. Wrack your brains for something, big it up and then use it as a spring board.
If your kid’s a little slow, you can underscore the point with a punch-line like: “And William, I’m not sure if Russell would save you again from that reservoir now that you’ve ripped up his Renaldo from his soccer card album.”
But I think it’s best to leave that implied and just move forward:
“And down the road, guys, who do you think you’re going to be able to count on when things get real bad, hmm? When you’ve been arrested Russell, and you’ve got one phone call before they lock you up in the holding cells with a dude called Bubba. Who are you going to call? Not me. ‘Cos I’ll be dead. You know it’s your brother’s number you’re going to punch in to that pay phone. No-one else is going to come down and put up the bail money to save you from Bubba, who by the way, still has his flick knife which he hid in his butt crack during the body search. If I was you, I’d keep William sweet.”
Now you are probably thinking that it’s because I’m a writer that I can just concoct these elaborate fantasies. Not so. We all cast ourselves as the flawed but noble heroes of our own life stories, edit out the boring bits and sell ourselves the thumping good fiction. Story-telling is in our DNA. So go on, tell ‘em they’re heroes, now fighting baddies, not to save the world, but their brother. Let them own it – you won’t believe how pumped up my two get with something like this:
“And William, when it’s three a.m. and you’ve just lost a poker game in a hotel in Hilbrow owned by a Nigerian slumlord and now you can’t pay, just try calling [insert particularly flaky friend’s name]. Let’s see if he’ll pawn his Citigolf at an all-night pawn dealer and then come down with a fist full of cash to save your ass. But you know who will? Yeah, you already know the answer.”
“My brother, that’s who.”
— Peace be with you. Amen —