A door slams.
‘I’m not listening!’
My ten-year-old son has barricaded himself into his bedroom again, a chair jammed up against the door. There’s the familiar thumping on the wall, the growls of frustration and the crash as a box of LEGO is upended. I remember doing similar things at his age, but that doesn’t make it any better. Silence. I’m standing outside my son’s bedroom next to a hole in the wall the size of a ten-year-old foot, the collateral damage from a previous episode.
‘Are you happy now?’ he demands. I know better than to respond to this and start to walk away. There’s a sudden change of tack.
‘Okay, I’ll do the homework if it makes you happy.’
Against my better judgement, I decide to answer. ‘It’s not my homework, it’s yours. I’m just here to help.’
He sees red.
‘You’re just here to annoy me!’
The scene has played out countless times before and it’s difficult to know how to break the cycle. Engage and you fan the flames; walk away and you leave things unresolved.
My son is a healthy, energetic and imaginative child. He has designed elaborate board games, home-made fans constructed from an empty drink cans, and once a full-body superhero suit made entirely of sheets of A4 paper. Any empty cardboard box is fair game and he once memorably fashioned himself a giant pair of cardboard wings before attempting human flight from half way up the stairs. His bedroom walls are plastered with blueprints for high tech skyscraper and bases for secret agents with underground car parks for their Lamborghinis.
But there’s a fundamental problem. He just doesn’t seem to be able to listen. Despite the periods of great focus and creativity, he cannot concentrate when he needs to.
Bedtime reading has been an exercise in futility. We were once reading David Walliams’ entertaining and thoughtful novel, Grandpa’s Great Escape. He sat quietly, and attentively, giving all the signs that he was engaged, then suddenly threw his arms up in frustration.
‘Stop! Just stop. I don’t even know what you’re talking about! What’s going on?’ It seems that a word or image can trigger a thought that leads him down a completely different path. At such times, he switches off to the world around him and all words become background noise. By the time he re-emerges, of course, he has lost the thread.
My son’s outbursts have become so commonplace that his two sisters, including one who is three years younger than him, simply accept this as normal. They say nothing and wait for his fury to blow itself out. Films have to be rewound to allow him to recap on the story and his sisters are well used to the role of patient explainers.
And this isn’t just causing problems at home. Exasperated, his teachers sit him at the front of the class so that they can be sure he is paying attention. Often, after they have set work to do, they find just a line or two in his exercise book because he wasn’t listening when the instructions were given out. At parents’ evening, we are assured that he is a bright boy and that eventually things will click into place. But when?
Throughout all of this, there has been one bright moment each week. He has been going to Scouts since the age of six, first as a Beaver, then a Cub and now as a Scout. Invariably, he comes back with glowing cheeks, mud on his knees and elbow where he has been hiding in the leaves in the dark, playing manhunt. In the car on the way home, he babbles excitedly about the night’s activities.
‘We had a visit from a man with guide dog,’ he tells me. ‘He told us what it was like being blind and how his dog helps him get around. The dog was really friendly. After that we helped our team put the tent up, I was able to tell the others what to do. We did it first!’
It’s not always plain sailing; more than once the leader takes me aside to say he found my son at a loose end while the others got on with something, as he was daydreaming when the activity was explained. But it seems we’re turning a corner.
One Saturday, I take him to the country park. At his suggestion, we’ve taken a ball of string and a tennis ball. He has the idea to build a ballista, a sort of catapult, out of the willow branches we find there. Seized with enthusiasm, he is a dynamo, searching and selecting exactly the right sort of sticks before lashing them together. He scolds me for my sloppy knots, tut-tutting as he reties them, pulling them taut, just as he has learned at Scouts. He makes some final adjustments and soon the tennis ball is being hurled 20 feet into the long grass. An elderly gentleman in a flat cap, walking by with his dog stops to admire our handiwork.
‘I was in the Scouts,’ he says wistfully. ‘We used to do things like that.’ There’s a faraway look in his eye, prompted by this unexpected trip down memory lane. My son carefully explains the mechanism and answers the man’s questions about how it was constructed, before inviting him to have a go. As I listen to their conversation I suddenly realise what’s happening: the boy’s listening.
Things continue to improve. He’s calmer at mealtimes and starts to make lists of things he needs to do. We find him different books, particularly about adventure and explorers. Two especially, The Wolves of Currumpaw Chase and Shackleton’s Journey, both by William Grill, have a stupendous effect on him — he asks scores of questions about these legendary outdoorsmen and listens attentively to the answers.
Scout camp is the next big test. While at Cub camp he had put himself in the leader’s bad books by talking during the night, keeping up the other Cubs, then being distracted during the day. As I leave him for the two night camp, the Scout leader and I exchange a knowing look and cross our fingers. When I come to pick him up 48 hours later, my son looks tired, but happy. The leader, who looks twice as tired, gives me a thumbs up.
We walk home through the town centre, my son wearing his uniform and shouldering his backpack. We are greeted with smiles and approving nods from passers-by and I feel an overwhelming sense of pride — he’s come such a long way.
He tells me about the archery and cooking they did; how they survived the storm that brought flooding to much of the country that weekend. Very quietly, he even sings me the song he learnt from one of the other Scouts that they’d sung around the campfire. More listening.
At dinner he’s more attentive and asks his sisters what they were doing while he was away, listening to the answers. Afterwards he invites his younger sister to play LEGO with him and suggests they build a house with its own helicopter pad and private cinema. At bedtime, he does little more than give me a hug. ‘It was a great camp, dad,’ he says. ‘But it’s great to be home.’
One proud dad
Later I check my email and see there’s one from my son’s leader. I half fear I’m going to hear about some disruptive behaviour. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
‘Your son is a really good Scout,’ the leader writes. ‘He picks up instructions straight away and is an asset to any group he is working with.’ I’m so proud I can scarcely believe it. Through the support, encouragement and focus Scouts has given him, he has matured, developed his practical and social skills and is learning to become a great listener.
I take a moment to listen to the quiet in the house, the hum of the boiler and the cat’s footsteps in the hall. I suddenly catch a whiff of wood smoke coming from my son’s rucksack. There’s washing to be done.