Yesterday I was walking home from an errand, and I passed through this little park at the corner. There was a bunch of kids playing, and one of them was bananas. He was running a little too fast, playing a little too rough, laughing a little too hard… every experienced parent can take one look at that scene and think "Well. That’s a game that ends in tears" and two seconds later that’s just about what happened. He went to playfully push at another littler kid, but he was too wound up, and without meaning to hurt anyone, he knocked the kid over and then, just to add insult to injury, accidentally stepped on his arm.
The other kid started to cry, and the first boy tried to say something about how he didn’t mean to, and then he was off running again, and the parent in charge stood up off the bench and shouted "BILLY!" (Name changed to protect the innocent) "GET A HOLD OF YOURSELF."
I cringed, the kid froze, then started running again, and shouted something unintelligible and then started trying to figure out how to be next on the slide, and distract everyone from what he’d done, and was just even more crazed. The kid knew from the tone that he was in trouble, I mean, the kid’s not an idiot and the mum was yelling – and he did knock someone down and then step on them, which is frowned upon in all polite societies – but he clearly had no idea what came next and he was just all over the place. He was in the process of removing a four year old from his path when his mum stood up again and yelled "WHAT DID I TELL YOU!" She watched him for a few minutes, and then he shoved another kid out of his way, and she charged over, scooped him up and sat him down on the bench for a time out. He pouted, and she said "I TOLD YOU TO STOP PUSHING" and with that, I lost it. I lost it on the inside, naturally, because I’m not about to get in some poor mum’s face about her parenting, I mean, unless she’s doing him a terrible injury, like beating him or trying to chain him to a park bench or something, but in that moment my heart went out to the two of them. I remember those afternoons, and I suddenly wished we had the kind of society where more than one person was charged with raising kids, so that on a scorching afternoon when no mum could possibly be at her best, somebody who’s lived the dream could come up and say this: "You know what might help? Better instructions, because I know you’re tired and you’ve probably told him a thousand times before today (or maybe even today) but technically, you told him to get a hold of himself, and that instruction is nothing like "stop pushing". Now why don’t you have a cuppa tea and a lie down and I’ll read this lunatic a story before one of you has to go into protective custody in Belize."
I used to say stuff like "Get a hold of yourself" all the time. Megan was the kid who cured me, because she was so literal. I’d say "Cut it out!" and she’d say "Cut what? With scissors?" If I said "get a hold of yourself" she might have crossed her arms in a hug – "Simmer down" would have brought me a blank stare. She knew I didn’t like something about her behaviour, but what element exactly – and really, how was cutting something out going to be better? Meg was the kid who taught me to be clear. "Settle down" became "please don’t run right now" or "No pushing! It is not your turn. Your turn is after Susan. You’re next." I didn’t learn it with Amanda, because she was my first, and just the fiercest, fastest kid ever, and her whole childhood was spent with me trying to keep her from killing herself or others, but I think it would have helped her – and me to have known to say "you may not try to put something in the cat’s nose" instead of "Be nice."
I was thinking about this today, not because I was still worried about it (that mum is a good mum and she and that wild animal will be just fine) but because I’ve been wandering around the house for two days trying to put all my ducks in a row, and failing miserably. The kitchen is still trashed, there’s a mountain of stuff on the dining room table, I have no idea why my half unpacked suitcase is still in the living room – I’ve been trying to find 30 minutes to block a shawl for two days and it’s still sitting crumpled on the shelf outside the bathroom, and I’m dinner tonight is going to be pretty weird if I don’t get to the grocery store, and really, I can’t tell you how close I am to finishing the white North Ronaldsay on the wheel – which is in the middle of the living room, next to the vacuum I’m clearly not using… and I stood there in the middle of the whole thing and couldn’t get any of it done, and I caught myself thinking "What is this scene? GET A HOLD OF YOURSELF."
Then I remembered. I need better instructions than that. I’m going to make a list.