Phrase of the day: making a rod for your own back

I had dinner round at a neighbour’s place the other week. Our kids go to the same school, which is how we know each other, and while we were eating and drinking wine, the kids played happily upstairs. Well, actually, it’s more accurate to say that they started off playing happily and then all hell broke loose. Some kind of minor disagreement got blown out of all proportion and became a really big thing, causing my neighbour’s son to have a massive strop. He started screaming and shouting and throwing things around; he ordered everyone out of his room and then slammed the door behind him.

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My kids seemed quite shocked by all of this, but soon recovered and sat and drew pictures downstairs instead. The stomping around continued upstairs and my neighbour looked slightly sheepish as he explained that this kind of thing happened quite a lot and that he didn’t really know how to deal with it. “Don’t you punish him in some way for this kind of behaviour?” I enquired. “Well, that’s the thing, you see,” he responded, “I’m just not very good with discipline.” I didn’t mention it at the time, as no-one likes to be lectured about how to bring up kids, but I did think that he was bringing it on himself and making matters worse by not doing anything. In short, he was making a rod for his own back.

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If you say someone is making a rod for their own back, it means you think they’re acting in a way that will result in more problems for them in the future. To give another recent example, I was recently helping a friend of mine plan a lesson. She wanted to get her students to practise used to and would for talking about past habits and to also look at some connected vocabulary. She’d decided to write all the material for the lesson herself and was finding it more time-consuming and complicated than she’d anticipated. The day of the lesson was drawing ever closer and she still hadn’t finalised her plan.  “Why are you insisting on reinventing the wheel?” I asked. “Why don’t you just use some published material that does the same thing? You’re making a rod for your own back!” In the end, she ignored me and, of course, developing your own ability to write material can be good for teachers, so who am I to complain?

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  • Can you think of a time when someone you know was making a rod for their own back?
  • Does anyone you know ever have big strops?
  • How would you deal with things if your child was stomping around and screaming and shouting?
  • Can you think of a time when something minor got blown up out of all proportion?
  • Can you think of any other examples of people basically reinventing the wheel?

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