As soon as you have children old enough to do things by themselves, you need rules. The intention of course, is always to keep rules to a minimum, but in practice, because children are not born with common sense, you have to add a whole bunch of more complex rules on top of the basic rules because of the way children and adults interpret things differently.
I had hoped that as the children got older, the rules would become less, but as I’ve asked them to help me out more, I’ve discovered that there is more than a dozen ways of misinterpreting basic instructions. There is a method in their madness. The more complex you can make an exercise, the less likely it is that you will be asked to repeat the exercise. And when there is an able-bodied adult in the house who is willing to repeat herself infinitely, and actually seems to care about the stuff you are supposed to be doing but don’t really care about, the slim chance that she will give up on her goal of getting you to do the stuff is enough to make you keep trying the “Oh, I’m sorry, I had no idea that’s what you meant” method until one day she may give in (it hasn’t happened yet, but there is still hope).
So the rules have become more and more complex, and if I were to actually write them out, the "Behave well at the table" rule, for example, would now look something like this:
“When you are sitting at the table, you must:
- Keep your chin over your plate/bowl so that the food that misses your mouth doesn’t fall onto your shirt but instead back into the plate/bowl (and oh goodness if you use the wrong word in your haste to say this one, they stare at you as if you’re talking about something that’s not even in the house and you’ve lost your mind, never mind a slightly different shaped piece of tableware in front of them).
- Not touch anyone else. No poking, no cuddling, no arm wrestling, no leaning, no kicking: just a blanket ban on touching of any kind.
- Not speak with food in your mouth (unless you’re a parent, because you have no control over when your kid is going to do something spectacularly dangerous involving the water jug or a sharp implement and sometimes you’ve just got to yell through the mouthful you’ve just taken in order to avert disaster).
- Keep your mouth closed when you chew, or no one will want to marry you ever.
- Not make weird random noises. There’s a lot of us sat round the table and sometimes my head feels like it’s going to explode. I can cope with the conversation, because my maternal instinct is strong enough to want to listen to what you have to say, even if I would secretly rather be sat upstairs reading a book with my meal, but I can’t do all the extra noises too. It’s too much.
- Talk about real stuff. I get that in order for us to connect I have to show an interest in the stuff you like, but I want to hear about your friends, your feelings and the highlights of your day, not about the most recent level you got to on Skylanders, or to hear the same three lines from SpongeBob repeated over and over again because you all think it’s funny. I’ll do you a deal. While you’re doing your jobs afterwards, I’ll listen to you rambling on about all that stuff, so long as you’re actually working while doing it. Only then is it worth it.
- Not ask if you can go and get yoghurts/fruit/ice pops as dessert, until everyone else has finished, so you don’t distract people who haven’t finished their meal yet. Everyone needs to be finished. Everyone. Please don’t make me repeat this to you every meal time.
- Keep your plate flat. You know this because whenever I see you tip your plate at the end of the meal, I ask you the same question: “What is your plate for?” and you tell me that it’s for keeping food on so the food doesn’t go on the table, then I ask you, “So what happens when you tip your plate up when there’s crumbs or bits of food on it (even if you can’t see the crumbs or bits of food because they’re really small)?” And you tell me they fall off the plate, onto the table, meaning you’ve just destroyed the purpose of having the plate in the first place, and you roll your eyes as if I’m really unreasonable for making you repeat this every time you do it.
That’s just mealtimes. On top of that, they have daily chores to do, one of which is to sort out the modern day blessing that is the dishwasher. The idea was simple. Show them what a neatly stacked dishwasher should look like. Tell them where all the stuff goes away in the cupboard. Now do it the way I do it. Voila.
Welcome to the additional rules of dishwasher duty:
- You cannot put food in the dishwasher. A smear of gravy or the remnant of sweet and sour sauce, yes, but peas, rice, spaghetti, beans, porridge, breakfast cereal, and milk that has been left in your bedroom so long that it now feels like rubber and is stuck to the bottom of the cup – all these things need to be scraped into the bin. Not one time. Every time. Even if I’m not watching.
- If the person before you has ignored this rule and I was so bleary-eyed that I didn’t do a quality check before I switched the dishwasher on last night, and the filters have all gummed up with the above food items, and the plates and cups now all have heat-fixed smears of food baked onto them, do not put them away in the cupboards. Stop. Look at them. Are they clean? No. Then they need to be washed again, either by hand, or put back into the dishwasher so I can take apart the filter and clean it, and get all the food from the bottom of the dishwasher scraped out and into the bin, and we will try it again. I know you’re anxious to get your pocket money by fulfilling the job on your list today, but that actually is not the goal of emptying the dishwasher. The real goal is so that we have clean, usable crockery in the cupboard when we need them.
- You cannot use the same towel to mop up a spill of juice and to dry the clean dishes. I have even made a stack of old towels for you to use for spillages, and new ones for drying clean things. Please please use the clever system.
- If something came from a drawer and now won’t fit back into that drawer, here is the secret: you may have to spend a few seconds moving things in the drawer so the thing will fit. I know it seems like an absolute pain when you’d rather just open the drawer and throw the thing in, but it’s a bigger pain when Mum gets you back out of bed an hour later to rearrange the drawer for the thing, I promise.
- Glass things can break.
- Porcelain things can break.
-You are not a ninja. The knives go straight back into the knife block, via no other room, every time.
- You cannot read and stack the dishwasher effectively at the same time. You’re speaking to an expert. If there was a way, I would’ve found it. Put the book down and save it for later.
- Being in the same room as the dishwasher, hovering around the dishwasher, thinking about the stuff in the dishwasher while practicing karate moves or re-enacting movie scenes, or looking at the dirty plates on the side while sighing and wishing you were doing something else, is not actually doing the dishwasher. There is a reason your job is taking you so long and is wasting so much of your time. It’s because you’re not actually doing anything. You need to touch the stuff for it to move. It is at the mercy of your hands.
If those two tasks alone make you feel overwhelmed by the task of parenting, there is good news. I recently hit upon a new method of communication (as the ‘use good table manners’ and ‘empty and reload the dishwasher’ type lists we used to have on our wall have long since been considered redundant). I warned them that I would not keep repeating myself while they looked at me curiously as if they had never heard the instruction before in their life. If something needed repeating, from now on, it was they who would need to repeat it.
I introduced them to good old fashioned lines. I made them sit at the table and write out the same phrase ten, twenty or thirty times (depending on the severity of the misconduct). And they hated it. They protested deeply. They moaned and complained and finally got an insight into what it feels like to be a parent.
And since then, things have got decidedly better. Not perfect by any means (the occasional bedtime hauling still needs to happen and I’ve managed to get early requests for dessert quashed by a glare now instead of the line of questioning), but much better.
And two days ago I caught a child washing up pans in the sink without having been asked to do it. Just because they saw there was a need and they decided to do it.
Ladies and gentlemen, there is hope.