The actual title of this post should be ‘Parenting a Child with Behavioural Difficulties in Public’ but it’s kind of unwieldy and somewhat lacking in zing. It is what I mean though as ordinary parenting in the public eye is not especially challenging, in my experience.
As we are now coming to the end of week 6 of the summer holidays I have been spending more time than usual out and about with Little Bear in public. We have been to all sorts of places: shops, museums, LEGOLAND, the beach, restaurants, the zoo, parks. Sometimes it all goes swimmingly and there is nothing significant to report but at other times I end up feeling more conspicuous than I would really like.
I think it is partly because Little Bear’s behaviour is at a developmentally lower level than his chronological age. Whilst this is common amongst children who have experienced developmental trauma it can nevertheless look incongruous to the untrained eye. I’m wondering if it has become more pronounced because Little Bear has had a growth spurt and for the first time since he has been with us he is requiring clothes larger than his age. He is a tall 5 and half year old who frequently engages in behaviour more typical of a pre-schooler. Today, for example, we went to the garden centre and he spent a happy 10 minutes going from water feature to water feature putting his hands in and splashing about in them. I can remember Big Bear doing exactly the same thing but he was probably a couple of years younger.
Ditto pointing obviously at people who look different and/ or commenting loudly within their earshot: Look he’s got a bald patch!
Why’s your tooth broken? (Whilst staring at close range into an elderly lady’s mouth when sharing a hand dryer. Thank goodness for unclear speech).
Why does that lady have her belly out mummy?” (Bellowing and blatantly pointing at someone about 3 feet away).
I don’t know son, but perhaps she should ask herself that.
While these developmentally younger behaviours do draw some attention and can be mildly embarrassing, it is the more unusual or more unexpected behaviours that I usually find harder to style out.
Sometimes a waitress or passer-by might be friendly towards Little Bear. They might comment on his outfit or try to chat to him about something and, one assumes due to his attachment difficulties and mistrust of strangers, he can be downright rude. He might not answer them or he might scowl or he might say something like “go away”. I find myself being extra friendly or making some sort of excuse for him.
Little Bear can behave similarly with other children and sometimes he seems to square up to them or tries to stare them out.
Conversely he can be over friendly and will approach people and even lean on them or touch them despite not knowing them. He frequently approaches people if they have babies with them and will try to push the pram. Today he somehow got another Mum whom we didn’t know to push him on the swing (I had turned for a couple of seconds to greet our actual friend).
Little Bear is also quite hyperactive and inquisitive. This tends to lead to a lot of touching of things he shouldn’t, climbing on things he shouldn’t and general wildness. Today I have had to coax him out of a dog basket that he had pulled off the shelf and curled into in the middle of a thoroughfare and also lift him down from a wire gazebo which he had scaled and was hanging from the top of. He hangs off counters in restaurants and cafes and if there is any sort of railing he will be doing roly-polies on it (there is one inside Asda that he is particularly attracted to).
Though he tries his best to stay seated when we go out for meals it is very difficult for him and he does get up and move about. Sometimes he gets under the table. On one occasion he commando crawled under a public toilet door – Big Bear thought it was brilliant and all I could think about was how many germs he had touched en route.
During our holiday we stopped at Services that had a quiet Starbucks and he spent the first ten minutes crawling laps around a long bench seat in there while we tried to maintain a sense of decorum (and tried to pretend he wasn’t with us).
He often runs inside shops and restaurants and might try to pick something up that he shouldn’t e.g. in Sainsbury’s he might start kicking a ball around the aisles if he sees one for sale.
Sometimes Little Bear has public outbursts. Today, whilst in a busy queue at the ice cream kiosk at the park, Little Bear lost his temper because they had run out of the ice cream he wanted. He wouldn’t choose anything different and purposefully ran over his brother’s foot with his bike. When I told him to get off the bike, he kicked it, the wall and attempted to kick me. I could practically feel the anticipation and judgement of the other parents around me, tense with wonder at how I would surely punish him. I guess they were probably quite disappointed when I didn’t (you try juggling a cup of tea, an ice cream, a balance bike and a dysregulated child. Also, I could have lectured them in the pointlessness of punishing a dysregulated child but my hands were quite full).
Now, here is the crucial bit, clearly I do not think that any of this is acceptable behaviour. I was brought up to be polite and well-mannered and try to instil that in my children too. Of course I would prefer it if they would both sit still, be quiet, react politely and not draw excessive attention to us.
If I’m being really honest, when Little Bear first arrived and his behaviour was at the more extreme end of things, I frequently felt like stopping members of the public to say “don’t judge me, he’s adopted. I didn’t make him like this!” (Don’t worry, I never did and I do know it isn’t an appropriate way to handle things!).
In an ideal world my child wouldn’t pelt up and down pubs, make loads of noise or throw things. However, in an ideal world, my little boy wouldn’t have been neglected. He wouldn’t have an uphill struggle ahead of him and his development would not have been adversely affected by his start in life.
I can’t set ideal parenting standards for Little Bear (at the moment) because good parenting does not involve setting your child up to fail. I cannot ask him to sit still throughout a meal, be friendly and polite at all times, always walk and never run and never touch anything. I can’t ask that of him because I know that he is already trying his best and he can’t do it.
I have had to re-evaluate what is absolutely essential behaviour-wise and what is less so. I have had to decide which things I can turn a blind eye to and which things I will tackle. I can’t tackle everything at once because I would be telling him off every minute of the day and that is no good for anybody. For now I have a zero tolerance approach to violence and we try our best to follow instructions the majority of the time. Other issues are for later.
My parenting style with Little Bear can be summed up by “don’t sweat the small stuff” and “pick your battles”.
The only problem is that Mr and Mrs Public are not versed in this approach and actually often do want to sweat the small stuff. Last week, Little Bear got told off twice by strangers. The first time it was because he had lifted a glass lid in a café to show me which donut he wanted. The waitress walked past and sharply said “that is made of glass! It is not for you to touch!” The second time was because he was climbing on a wooden railing inside a family pub and the waiter sternly told him to get down from there.
As I was present on both of these occasions and the person in question saw fit to tell Little Bear off anyway, I can only assume that they felt my parenting was lacking. Were I to have the time or inclination to concern myself with this, I would probably be quite offended. However, thanks to Little Bear, I don’t bother sweating the small stuff either.
I can feel a bubble of something brewing though. One or two interventions from strangers I can take. A stare or glare here or there I can ignore. Maybe even a tut could be disregarded. I know that people are judging Little Bear against their standards of behaviour and finding him lacking. I know that consequently they see my parenting as lacking. I have grown a thicker skin and am mostly adept at shrugging it off. I am confident on the path I am taking and I have the benefit of understanding his behaviour, what could be causing it and also seeing the incredible progress Little Bear has made.
However, I know there is a line when it comes to strangers telling off my children and should someone see fit to cross it, I would not be able to hold back. Don’t be so bloody judgemental, I would want to say, you don’t know his background; you don’t know what he has been through. Don’t judge my parenting. Try walking a few steps in my shoes and then see how you feel.
My inner momma bear is poised, ears pricked up. Ready. Little Bear is my cub. He is my noisy, energetic, curious, infuriating mischief of a cub but he’s my cub and he’s trying his best and I will not hesitate to leap to his defence if provoked.
Consider yourselves warned Mr and Mrs Public. Consider yourselves warned.