Illustration: Naomi Wilkinson


My son needs the carrot, not just the stick

Spending time with mothers and babies reminds Robyn Wilder to offer her older son more encouragement

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By Robyn Wilder on

There used to be a kids’ show called Stoppit And Tidyup and I always think of it when I’m yelling at my three-year-old. I yell at him a lot, these days. I’m yelling at him now, specifically: “Get down from there!”

It is morning and I’m rushing to get everyone ready for childcare. There is a dishwasher to empty, the baby’s nappy to change, keys to find. My three-year-old is, for some reason, balancing on one leg on top of a side table.

“But, Mummy,” he explains, arms spread wide in supplication. “I need to be up, up, so high in the sky, because of my job.”  

“What’s your job?” I ask, like a fool.

“Hedgehog astronaut,” he replies without hesitation.

There follows a brief shouting match, which includes the phrases “absolutely not” (me) and “Three, two, one, blast off!” (him), but eventually I manage to bundle all of us out of the house. The five-minute walk to nursery is so full of stressy whisper-shouts (“Hold my hand when we cross the road!”; “Stop poking your brother!”; “Those aren’t blackberries!”) that afterwards I take the baby to soft play so I can decompress.

Actually, it’s not so much “a soft play” as “four animal-shaped cushions by the entrance to Debenhams”, but the kids love it. Normally, it’s overrun with slightly-too-big children doing slightly-too-dangerous backflips, so I’m expecting a cacophony and to have to protect the baby with my life. But, somehow, it is as though I have wandered on to some heavenly cloud.

Today, there is no screeching in soft play. No screaming. No tired-looking women, all of whom could be me, absently honking, “Play nicely,” at giant kamikaze children who won’t listen.

Instead, for some reason, the place is blanketed in babies – soft, toddling, crawling babies; laughing and cooing and falling on their plump little bums. In attendance are their mothers, who are not honking, but instead smiling and clapping hands, and quietly encouraging their babies in sotto voce. Everyone is in cardigans and looks beatific. Even the lights from Debenhams seem to be in soft focus.

When I’m trying to do five million things and my son is running around, unravelled loo roll in hand, sometimes yelling is my last retreat

When I blast in, ragged and boisterous from parenting an older child, I am by default several decibels too loud and have to modulate myself. Whereas, normally, I’d pat the baby (he’s 14 months old, but still “the baby” to me) on the bum and send him off to practise his little John Wayne waddle with a gruff, “Go on then,” so I can check what trouble his older brother has got into, I consciously make encouraging little noises like all the other mothers are doing.

One mum comes over with her stompy little tights-clad daughter and it surprises me how easily I fall back into the rhythm of mum-of-baby conversations: how old is she, isn’t she active, how are you sleeping, oh, no, me neither. All the while, I’m not yelling or on high alert for aerial child attack. I’m just holding my baby’s hands as he walks, giggling with him and calling him a pickle, just like all the other women are doing with their babies.

I’m not saying that mothering babies is easier than mothering tiny wilful children who are just discovering their independence. By God, it can be quieter, though. And it strikes me, as I look around me, it is much more positive. None of the mothers I see are yell-shaming their babies into walking, or shouting, “Absolutely not!” when their kid shoves a hand into their cleavage.

I realise that I may have not been handling my older son in the best possible way. I am not, how you say, cool with the yelling. I grew up in a yelly family and I resented it and rebelled. But when I’m trying to do five million things and my son is running around, unravelled loo roll in hand, being a police giraffe, penguin paramedic or whichever blend of wild animals in municipal service professions has sparked his imagination, yelling is my last retreat.

On the one hand, I don’t want him to have, or cause, a head injury. On the other hand, I feel bad for constantly being the killjoy. Honk, honk, honk, I go. Stoppit And Tidyup.

But maybe I should rethink this. Yes, the boy likes to stand on tables and push buttons, but he is three. He is not “basically an adult”, even though he towers over his younger brother, and I don’t want him to grow up thinking yelling is normal. They are both babies, really. They both need the carrot, not just the stick, no matter how much I am chasing my own tail.

When he comes home from nursery, instead of nagging him to put his shoes by the door, I (gently) suggest that we do it together, while asking him about his day. I do not correct his word usage and spend the afternoon being as engaged and happy and congratulatory as I was when he was a baby. And he genuinely seems to blossom when I do.

But at dinner-time, he throws a tantrum at the prospect of abandoning his toys and becomes mysteriously deaf to requests to come to the table. And so the yelling begins again.

“I’m sorry I shouted,” I say later (much later; he is a slow eater). “Mummy was angry because I felt you were being naughty.”

“It’s OK, Mummy,” my son says, stroking my head. “We just need to take you to the elephant doctor.”

Well, OK, then. One step at a time.


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Illustration: Naomi Wilkinson
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