The other day as one of my four children held another in a head lock under the kitchen table and screamed: 'I wish you were dead' at such a decibel I feared the neighbours would come running, I took a moment's breather outside the back door (well, the alternative would have involved social services) and I thought to myself: 'I can no longer deal with this alone.'
I decided then, and there, that whatever it was I was doing, or not doing, was clearly not working on the discipline front and that whilst locking them all in cupboard (husband's suggestion) was tempting, it flew somewhat in the face of a 21st century approach to parenting.
It's hard to seek advice when it comes to our own children's behaviour. Deep down we can admit to ourselves that there are areas that need work but woe betide anybody else brave enough to draw attention to the fact that one of our offspring is 'energetic' (hyperactive) or 'knows their own mind' (bossy).
There are many occasions where I've bitten my lip so hard it's almost drawn blood because a grandparent has ploughed in and made a comment about the children's unruliness – usually based on a completely out of date approach to child rearing, and I always venture very carefully when seeking friends' advice. What we're prepared to tolerate and what we're not, as parents, is such a personal thing it's hard not to feel defensive when other people – who don't always have the full background or picture – put their oar in.
Which is why the thought of having a 'parenting' guru move into my home for three days should have had me running for the hills. But calling in an expert to help troubleshoot specific problems is a growing trend in the U.K. Even Helen Bonham Carter has had one.
Step in Kathryn Mewes, a Norland trained nanny with 16 years experience living and working in family homes. Calling herself 'The Bespoke Nanny', Kathryn 37, offers a new approach. She believes you only need 72 hours to break an ingrained habit or bad behaviour and her unique ethos is to swoop into a home for three days and, working closely with the parents, resolve specific 'challenges' before departing – and hopefully leaving behind an efficiently functioning, harmonious family unit.
I'm not great at taking criticism at the best of times and wasn't entirely sure how I would feel about some total stranger making notes while my children try to kill each other in the corner. All I can say is that I was desperate. I've tried Super Nanny's naughty step approach and frankly it hasn't worked. I just don't have the time or endurance to return my children to it 3,400 times or whatever it takes telling them, all the while, that their behaviour is 'unasseptible.'
But Kathryn's passion is for helping parents – rather than dishing out childcare technique.
'Nobody knows your child better than you,' she tells me supportively, on arrival. 'Except, perhaps themselves!' It's clear from the start that she is here to work with me as team – not to judge or criticise my own methods.
We have already had a 90 minute consultation on the phone and Kathryn has drawn up the beginnings of a plan of action which will hopefully help me to deal better with the endless sibling battles that blight my daily existence.
'Sometimes it just really helps to have someone objective bringing in new ideas,' she tells me comfortingly. 'There's no right or wrong way to parent. You just need to have the confidence to know you're doing the best for your family.'
From the off I'm surprised how easy it is to have Kathryn around. She spends the first day with us observing the children in their natural habitat. It probably hasn't helped that I've told them all to be on their best behaviour – it's a bit like tidying the house before the cleaner arrives. But it isn't long before a fight breaks out over dinner – our usual hotspot for tension – and the children are soon in full battle mode.
'You're an idiot,' says Monty.
'Shut up.' Annie retorts.
Kathryn interjects – her voice exuding a calm, but don't mess with me, quality I've never quite managed to achieve: 'Would you both like to think of a more polite way of rephrasing that, please?'
The children stare at her in shock. Even the baby stops eating. I leave the room, chuckling. I thought I would feel irritated to have somebody else telling my children off. But, actually, I feel liberated. Kathryn has years of experience living and working in family homes and clearly nothing is going to rattle her.
I don't, at any point, get the impression she feels I am falling short in my role as a mother. She isn't judging me. Quite the opposite. She tells me constantly what a wonderful job I'm doing (well she does charge £100 for 90 minute consultation and £300 for each 24 hours thereafter to a max of 72 hours) and her presence by my side offers a real source of comfort I've never quite experienced before.
Obviously Kathryn is offering a top notch service with a price to match. It works out at around £1,500 to have her undivided, round the clock attention for three days – along with a detailed plan of action and follow up report. (She typically moves in with a family for that time). But she is passionate about getting results and helping families to succeed with a childcare issue that has previously left them tearing their hair out.
For us, Kathryn introduced a marble jar – a kind of reward scheme where the children can place a marble in the jar for being kind to each other or ignoring something they would previously have risen too. When the jar is full they are allowed to choose a treat each. Marbles are also allowed to be removed for less desirable behaviour. Simple but brilliantly effective. Okay, it might not be rocket science and I might – eventually - have thought of such an idea myself. But that's the problem with parenting. We sometimes lose our way and our sense of perspective. It's called lack of sleep.
I practically wept on the third day when Kathryn left. I was tempted to chain her to the banister and keep her forever but it would have been a crying shame for other families.
Are my children still fighting? Of course they are. But that marble jar is nearly full, I've got Kathryn on speed dial and, thanks to her efforts, a whole new approach to help me handle future uprisings.
(Now I just have to work out how to get her back again. Come to think of it, Dolly's not quite sleeping through the night yet, and Flo is still a bit faddish about food)...
So what did Kathryn think of her stay with Shona's family?
'Such a fun loving family where there is always a discussion taking place and a child trying to negotiate a little more than their parent is willing to give!
'Conflicts did arise but this is natural. They are a family of 6, not everyone can always be in agreement.
'When I enter a home I am always struck by how the parents desperately want things to change. So much so, that they are willing to do anything!
'This means that working alongside such eager parents, like Shona, is such a pleasure.
'Over the three days Shona started to take more control over decisions and she was working in such a positive way with her children. They began to respond so well to her praise that Shona took ownership of her role as a mother and began enjoying her time with her children.
'The key is to keep positive, even after having to discipline your child. Shona exuded her positive energy and the children followed in her steps.
'After three days it was clear to see that my work was done. Shona felt more organised and was enthusiastic to continue with the ways forward which I had implemented in the home.
'A thoroughly enjoyable placement for me. My passion to help families just grows and grows.'
Kathryn's top 10 tips
Avoid bribing: reward on result.
Show by example: share the meal you expect the child to eat.
Present the challenge as a series of choices.
Visual aids remind the children what they have achieved.
Star charts give the notion of a goal.
Accept that your ideals aren't going to necessarily work.
Have realistic expectations.
Be consistent: stick with a new rule.
If you're about to lose your temper, leave the room.
Be prepared to accept a fresh view on your family situation.
For more information, visit www.bespokenanny.com.