Part 3; is it good to talk? Mmm…

Communication and the application of ‘Dad magic’

Is it good to talk? Well definitively yes and then again, most certainly no. The real trick is to get your darling little stepchildren to actually listen once in a while. Because that is the really hard part. Although sometimes you just want the talking, the nagging, the cajoling and incessant whining, dear God, please make it STOP!

On the other hand, if you want your stepchildren to talk to you, as opposed to being mere shadowy presences that sulk in and then sulk out, the trick is to get them to come to you, never vice versa. If they have a reason to talk, they will. If they don’t, there’s no power on earth that will drag a solitary cogent word from them. My own experience was that you can stand over them with a hectoring, wagging finger and raised voice and all you will get is a reproachful look and petulant response. My own experience indicates such tactics are often counter-productive, no matter how tempting it seems to play the chest beating Alpha male. You are not a Silverback Gorilla.

Of course the ideal situation is to become ‘Dad’, where if you finish work and come home to find a house full of screaming kids, barking dogs and all sorts of chaos, all you have to do is apply the secret of ‘Dad magic’ to restore order. Afterwards retiring to luxuriate in the glory of one of life’s little victories and the outright admiration of your devoted spouse, and all the good things that flow therefrom. Well, that is the objective.

All right. But what do I mean by ‘Dad magic’? Well, it’s surprisingly easy and anyone (Mums too) can do it. But in a more traditional nuclear family, it’s usually Dad who ‘performs’ the magic. Especially when you have two or more feisty pre and early teenage stepdaughters indulging in a bout of noisy sibling rivalry.

Let me paint you a picture;

It’s been a crap day at work. The boss has been on your case big time. The car is playing up. It’s that tough time of the month, bills are piling up and there’s going to be a shortfall and your credit cards are all maxed out. Your other half has been continuously on your back for weeks about your lack of extra income and right this minute you just want to quit and run away to paint naked women on some tropical island. Now you get to the front door to find a house full of screaming kids, the dog is going crazy, the Hamster wheel has spun so hard it’s jumped out of it’s bearings and the little tinker is already half way down the street, there’s broken stuff all over the kitchen and at least one of your expensive double glazed windows is cracked and the TV remote control is missing. There may be a louche, scruffy looking boy lounging around and sneering at you, making your sofa look grubbier than usual.

You will be tempted to raise your voice. You may even be tempted to shout orders. Now having come home to this sort of brouhaha myself, I’ve found that the best thing to do is stop. Greet the dog / family pet and calm it first. You are his / her pack leader, and it is now time for you to do your thing. Man up and earn those stripes, soldier.

Now this is easy for me to write fifteen years on, but even if you’ve got a stinking headache, been successfully trolled and just received a parking ticket, you will now have to be the calmest, most resolute person in the street. The eye of the hurricane, Superman’s fortress of solitude, the Rock of Gibraltar. Unassailable and imperturbable. Pitched headlong into the vortex of utter shrieking chaos. Yes, it’s a bitch, but this is a critical part of the parenting job. Do not shirk or shrink. All you will need on your part is a bit of brass and bullshit. To translate for those not immersed in an English working mans idiom; nerve, and a little acting talent.

I’ve made the mistake of trying to come the heavy handed stepfather at these junctures, and here’s a newsflash; it doesn’t work. At best you’re just storing trouble up for the future, at worst they just switch off or even worse, run off. Fortunately I could see fairly quickly that my attitude wasn’t working, and rapidly backed off with an apology to my wife. Well, after a couple of tries actually. Although upon reflection I feel that allowing my inner beast to flash its scales occasionally, just to show the monster within existed, was no bad thing. Children do not respect weakness, and constantly deferring to them, or going into long winded lectures just makes you look powerless, which they will detest with more venom than if you whipped them awake every morning with twenty licks of the cat and fed them cold gruel laced with added spiders. Not that I’m suggesting that as a strategy, although there will be days… Believe me.

A flash of the dragons scales may be required at this point. Not much, and I’ll leave the timing up to you, but if after the dog or family pet has been rescued and calmed down the shenanigans continue, try this. Just stand there. Get some eye contact if you can and plant a “What the hell’s going on.” expression on your face. You are now the all seeing symbol of authority, the umpire, the ultimate referee, and this is the core of how ‘Dad magic’ works. If you have to speak at all, keep it short. Something like “Enough!” delivered at conversational level. Then count to three. No more. While counting, look pointedly around at the damage in a manner suggesting you are tallying up the bill.

If you haven’t got their attention by now, don’t be tempted into a shouting match that you will not win. Why? Because you would be talking to their immature limbic brains. The bits that are all amoral fizz and hormones. The bits that don’t listen. The bits that don’t recognise those archaic, fuddy duddy old concepts of right and wrong. Reason will not work at this point. Now walk right through the middle of the row without a word. Ignore any objections or protestations. Take the dog / cat / goldfish for a walk, don’t look back, don’t listen to anything more they have to say. You have said all that you are going to say, but it will help if your body language will imply that if the world isn’t set to rights by the time you return, there will be trouble. Sanctions will be imposed. No negotiations, no appeals, no mercy. Well, that’s what you want them to think.

The objective is to get them voluntarily to engage in fixing the problems they have created, and by doing so, understand why they were wrong. This is, as a by-blow, good for their self awareness without you having to deliver long winded and tedious lectures on ‘social responsibility’. Which they won’t listen to. Did you? No. You might have a vague recollection of Dad or Mum going blah-blah-blah in your face for some mistake or infraction, but the best kind of understanding is the one they create for themselves. You are trying to teach them to be better human beings, and showing is always better than just telling.

At this point, and only if need be, your only parting shot should be a sharply delivered, “Sort it!” Briefly indicating the source of your obvious irritation. Do not engage further to any shouted entreaties. Do not react to anything else. Simply focus on the family pet and get the hell out of Dodge for ten minutes. Which also has the side benefit of helping to lower your blood pressure and clear your head a bit. When you return, if they haven’t started clearing up their mess, or have simply buggered off; unplug the TV, cut off their Internet and tell everyone very calmly but firmly that until matters are set to rights and peace restored, these privileges will stay off, and the whole place is in lockdown. Doesn’t always (or even often) work, but it doesn’t have to. Once or twice will be enough. Set the example, stand firm, and don’t play favourites. Now go off and hide.

A tartly delivered “Who are you?” Directed at lounging (boy)friend is sometimes also useful, even if you are fully aware of exactly who they are. Expelling friends is one of the parental levers of power which I will discuss later. To be used sparingly but firmly. Expect objections. But if your charges try to shout at you as they first tried with me, simply tell them; “If want to you shout at me, I won’t listen.” Apply the TNS (Take No Shit) principle and you might just survive with your sanity intact.

At this point I’d generally insert an amusing anecdote, detailing how I either screwed up massively or more by luck than judgement got it right, but I have no notes, and memory is a tricksy beast. Of course I could have made something up, but the discerning reader will spot that a mile off and cry “Bullshit!” very loudly indeed. However, the ‘Dad magic’ worked for me on enough occasions for the message sunk to in. Did I say it was easy? No. Because sometimes just keeping your cool under pressure is the hardest job in the world. Remembering stuff from emotionally charged situations is always difficult, as Mr Brain is a bit slipshod with it’s recording when blood is running high.

So how else do you deal with meltdowns and bad behaviour? I found that my best weapon was a particularly clipped and formal voice. That voice was either a low pitched growl, or lower pitched and more careful and distinct than I usually speak. Using their full name, including middle or other given names. Just to let them know that the line has been crossed and that some form of sanction is imminent. Even if it is just taking the batteries out of the TV remote control.

When annoyed, addressing your charges by their full given name enunciating middle names and surname always seemed to work for me, especially when I normally talked to them cheerfully as ‘short stuff’ or ‘pinky’. Getting extra formal seemed to work better than all the shouting in the world, but like with all these tricks, it’s best to use such tactics sparingly.

Shortened first names are okay, so long as your stepchildren are generally comfortable with you using that form of address. There is no harm in pet names. Such domestic irreverence is good because all the other adults they will deal with are often po-faced ‘professionals’ whose only interest is ticking their work related boxes. It also shows you actually give a damn about them. Just so long as your step children get to see you in serious mode every once in a while. There is nothing worse than a permanently embarrassing in-your-face parent, step or not. Children aren’t stupid and take their cues from how you react with them. Be warned. Here be hidden Dragons.

If asked, I’d say bringing up children, either your own or some you have ‘inherited’, is not a tick box process. It’s organic, messy, and (very) occasionally fun. In fact the more fun you have as a family, the better. Water fights in the back yard which you should let them win (or at least score the most points in) without temper flares. Word and board games, walking the dog / cat / goldfish. Anything that you can share. Even a favourite TV programme or watching footie or whatever. The thing is to establish some sort of common ground, and then share it.

Stepkids, or your natural children for that matter, are not a hands off process. There are too many variables to do the ‘aims and objectives’ tick box game. These are organic beings, not items on a spreadsheet. Treat them as people and you’ll survive the process. Even so, be aware any brownie points you earn can be lost in a heartbeat by a missed cue, an ill-timed gesture. Been there, done that. Spent a week in the dog house because of it, too.

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Or the next unexciting episode; Is it good to talk two.

Expatriate expostulations from Canada; a.k.a. A Sarcastic man abroad trying to stay in the middle of the road without getting run over.

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