A family I babysit for asked me to look after their children for a week whilst the parents were away. 3 children, 3 dogs, 8 chickens & a rabbit (who bites), vs me & my slightly terrified friend. It was nice to be looking after such a sweet family with one of my best friends, but at the time, when the whole day was spent in tense negotiations with a six year old & university work, money, jobs & problems of the adult world were nothing as compared with the messy confrontation of why we had to finish the next page in Stig of the Dump, things could get a little tense. For instance in an attempt to speed things up in the morning we suggested a race between the middle boy Arthur & his sister Mary to see who could put on their school uniforms first- this was a mistake. It was the middle of the week, everyone was a bit emotional, & in a panic at the possibility of losing this race of such vast importance, they sat on each other’s uniforms to ensure neither of them could get dressed, promptly causing a full-scale meltdown.
It was a slightly dispiriting moment when Arthur revealed just how low down in his esteem we were. He had managed to beat me to answering the phone one evening & as I caught up to him I could hear him telling whoever was on the other end “…Arthur. No, it’s Arthur.” The answering voice asked if Arthur’s mother was there, or anybody else he could speak to? In the pause that followed I could see Arthur debating who, in the absence of his mother, was the next best suited, mature person to put on the phone. He studied me, then my friend, then his 5 year old sister for a few moments before replying, “No, mummy’s not here right now, but would you like to talk to Mary?”.
Unfortunately these children were at an age where they realised they outnumbered us & therefore we had to make use of the few weapons at our disposal. We were working on a day-to-day battle basis with neither side losing ground so threats of telling the parents about bad behaviour meant nothing; by the time the enforcers returned, such crimes of who had really stolen the lego helicopter would be forgotten in preparation for the battle of the next day. We were told that this house worked with a marble system- each child had a jar & every time they did something good they got a marble. Little good deeds got little marbles, bad deeds had a marble removed, etc. Apparently the threat of losing their marbles was enough to enforce good behaviour, & naive as we were, impressed with such an efficient system, we wielded this threat left right and centre. It was, for the most part, ignored. The older boys feared it but as they were at an age where they could be left for five minutes without bringing about the end of the world, they were not our top priorities. Arthur was more of a challenge. After the second day of him refusing to eat vegetables I brandished my threat- eat some more broccoli or face losing a marble. Thoroughly unimpressed he informed me that he didn’t care because he didn’t have any marbles anyway, & strutted off, grandly twirling the offending piece of broccoli. The marbles were quickly forgotten & we were faced with our last option: The Countdown. This was a last resort. We were all slightly suspicious of The Countdown, mostly because none of us were entirely sure of what happened when you got to zero. The Countdown was the only barrier between us & chaos & it had to be used with skill- make the rookie error of starting at too low a number or counting too fast & you risked exposing it as an empty threat. The Countdown was put to the ultimate test the final day of our babysitting. Two of the boys were staying with friends so I had only Arthur & Mary to pick up from school, & I had just successfully herded the Mary from her classroom in search of her brother’s, where we found him, arms crossed, an expression of deepest disgust on his face, sitting in the naughty corner. As all the other children were unleashed from the classroom, his teacher told me how he’d been playing up that day but that she didn’t want to go into detail- her tone & the slightly hysterical expression on her face warned me not to press the subject. I called Arthur to go & as he flounced past the teacher, nose in the air, her “goodbye Arthur” went coolly ignored. From the way he marched in complete silence, mutinously dragging his bag behind him, I could tell a tantrum of extreme proportions was imminent. As we walked out of the reception the threatened explosion seemed to precede us- an ominous silence fell & parents pulled their children out of my way as if I was walking to the gallows. I frantically shooed him down the path they made, desperate to get him into the car before the storm hit. Unfortunately that day happened to be an event day; all the children & parents were having cake outside the school- in the school’s social calendar, this was clearly the place to be. We had been told if any of the children misbehaved they couldn’t go to the event that week, so I pushed the pace up to a nervous trot, desperately trying to get Arthur out of the gate before he noticed what was going on. It was too late. He saw his friends heading towards the cake table & unexpectedly veered off towards them. Completely unconcerned, Mary continued on towards the car, quite happy to leave her brother behind if it meant we could get back to reading Curious George. I had a split second to decide which child I should get first- Arthur was rapidly vanishing into the distance, little legs working furiously, & as I watched, he was absorbed into his pack of friends. Mary first then. She too had reached high speed so as I sprinted ahead of her, I just picked her up, put her down facing the other way, & off she went. However, as we approached the crowd of teachers & parents, she sensed the possibility of a tantrum & when I told her to stay put she was quite happy to wait. Arthur’s friends had closed ranks around him & I knew if they reached the cake before I reached him then my hopes of getting him into the car without a tantrum were negligible. I did my best attempt at a quiet shout & his pack of friends separated around him like raptors, trotting away, leaving him facing me with a mutinous look. I saw the challenge on his little face & as I took a step towards him, he took one away. I fixed him with my best “don’t you dare” look- giggling, he backed further off. The parents were beginning to notice. With the unspoken rule hanging in the air that you couldn’t shout at someone else’s child in front of other people, I knew I had to catch him before he took refuge among the adults. He saw me reach this conclusion & scuttled off to the playground- there was a small pause as all the parents looked around to see what the babysitter would do. Controlling the urge to sprint after him, I adopted a casual stroll, smiling at the parents as if the child loitering insolently on top of the little wooden castle in the playground wasn’t the one I was looking after. As I cleared the pack of parents I shuffled towards him, & giving him my best glare, told him to come down. “No.” Right now. “NO.” Please. “NOOOO”. His wail was beginning to carry across the playground. The time had come for drastic measures & I knew The Countdown was my only hope. If this didn’t work, nothing would. “Harry, you get down right now & come with me.” Silence. Deep breath. “Five”. He wasn’t backing down. “Four”. All talk had ceased amongst the parents as they watched in fear. “Three”. Slight panic now, this was usually when his resolve broke. “Two”. The parents drew breath as one. The world was about to end. Harry was shuffling uncertainly. If he didn’t get down now he’d realise I don’t know what happens at zero. “…One?” Nothing happening. The world stopped turning. And then, very slowly, he peeled himself off the castle, zoomed solemnly down the slide, & trotted off towards the car. There was a sigh of relief, talk resumed, & the balance of the world was righted.