When my husband and I started adjusting to the fact that we were the parents of three small children, we laughed as we listened to the older two chatter away at us, and fight to be heard at the dinner table. We said – looking at our burbling third born – imagine what it’ll be like when they’re ALL talking at us like this?. That time has come. (These days we say imagine what it’ll be like when they’re all teenagers? and if I’m still blogging then, I’ll get back to you on that one).
Anyway, as I was just saying, that time has most definitely come. They all talk. A lot. At us. With us. And over each other. All the live long day. They compete for our conversational attention a lot. If they have something to say, they just go for it, in the hope that they’ll be the one to be listened to this time. It’s the verbal equivalent of those nests of baby birds chirping at their mothers, or a litter of puppies climbing over each other and treading on each other’s faces to get to the teat. But there’s no teat involved here. But there is attention, and they all want it, and they’re going to do their darndest to make sure that they’re the one to get it. So they all talk at once. At volume. Insistently and relentlessly, at whichever grown ups are at the table. And if it’s just you on your own, then it’s a lot to absorb.
I have no real strategy for managing this issue as yet. If they’d ever shut up for a couple of minutes, I might go delving into a parenting book and find out what the ‘correct’ response is to manage conversational chaos in larger families, but as yet, I have nothing. I do try and focus on the kid who started first, which seems to be an averagely fair way of doing things – but then you get distracted by the two other conversations going on at you – and if you try and press pause to stop the interrupting kids in their tracks, then you’ve lost your focus on the one who was talking in the first place. And holy cow, if I’m trying to think a thought of my own at the same time as well, then my brain receives input from four separate sources at once, and I start feeling a little bit like an overloaded plug board that’s about to burst into flames. There was a brief stint when I tried to implement a ‘talking stick’ but that didn’t work, and, as I recall, got used as a weapon by one frustrated brother towards another.
This is one of those issues that in my more wobbly moments I stop and consider what it looks like from the outside (or in moments when we sit down to eat with guests or family members, and I realise they’ve just been given a glimpse into our own family brand of crazy). And as I am starting to learn, this thought process is the path to ruin. Because the minute I consider how my parenting looks from the ‘outside’, I’m onto a loser. I either start shrinking into a tiny ball of inadequacy, or puffing up into some kind of defensive peacock to manage the crappy, uncomfortable feelings that swamp me. Neither’s good.
The hardest thing for me is to sit somewhere in the middle of the peacock and the tiny ball. To just be the family that we are. Terribly loud and chaotic as that sometimes is. And to let go of the fear associated with that shame inducing question what if they knew that this is what it looks like when we eat dinner, or similarly bad, now they’ve seen what it looks like when we eat dinner what are they thinking?. Neither question leads me anywhere hekpful. And both questions lead me to feelings of isolation, and unworthiness. And I know – I write about this A LOT, because I am starting to believe that it’ll be the work of my lifetime to believe this to be true in the same way that I know it to be true.
What I’m starting to get is that the less time I spend worrying about those questions, the more time I’ll have to start trying on some solutions for size. Maybe I’ll get bring the talking stick out of retirement. Maybe I’ll channel my inner Super Nanny, and draw up some kind of behaviour charter for the dinner table. In fact, one thing that’s currently cutting through the crazy during meals is sharing the YouTube wisdom of Kid President with the kids. And something he says (about barbecue sauce) feels important and relevant here. He reminds us all: Before you say something about the barbecue sauce on someone’s shirt, take a look at the barbecue sauce on your own shirt. I love this, because this issue is my barbecue sauce (I also have ketchup, mustard and gravy on my shirt – but more about them another time). In my most inadequate moments, this sweet Kid President analogy (and boy do I love an analogy) reminds me, we all have barbecue sauce on our shirts. Your crazy may not look anything like my crazy, but we all have it. We’re all muddling along. Trying, failing, giving up and trying all over again.
And if I’m busy using my powers to worry about how my barbecue sauce might be perceived, then I’m surely not going to have the energy to try and listen to three children talk at me at once, and I’m definitely not going to come up with a constructive way of cleaning it up and making them stop.