Over here at Family Affairs headquarters, this little blog has been inadvertently giving out inexpert parenting advice for over ten years now. I say “inexpert” because what parent can give “expert” parenting advice? Even if fully trained in the art of parenting. Even if you’ve read all the books and done all the courses, you cannot possibly be an expert because when we produce a baby, we produce the parent at the same time. Clueless and terrified. No manual. No rules. From experience, you are dealing with an entirely different individual each time you have a child. Different birthing experience, different gender’s potentially and definitely different people. With wildly separate needs, emotions, reactions, demands, behavioural patterns, outlooks and IT CAN FUCK WITH YOUR HEAD unless you accept that there are no easy answers to bringing up a child and keeping them alive, let alone getting them through the teenage years and hoping that they will be happy and complete beings. I am constantly amazed how different each of my children are. You imagine that coming from the same loins would make them similar. But no. Even with twins they can be entirely different characters, who choose to interact with the world in very separate ways. They are not like little bits of clay that need moulding into shape, nor are they blank slates – they come with their own set of views about the world, thoughts, fears, talents and humour. All you can do is keep the boundaries loosely wrapped around them along with the invisible umbilical cord, guiding them along their wobbly way, trying not to inflict too much of our own shit on them and fighting their corner when required (generally less than you think). They have to learn to do things their own way if they are going to be strong enough to survive in this brave new world that even we don’t understand anymore thanks to the all the technological changes afoot.
Whilst my three children have had to put up with living just with me – a single mother, they have had a good relationship with their father and they have my full admiration for managing to surf the waves of all the divorce drama – it certainly wasn’t easy for them. It is a massive credit to them all that they didn’t sink during the early stages of our separation and divorce (despite a few near misses). So one would assume that this would mean that there has been some level of consistency in my parenting techniques used to bring them up right?
Remember how we all thought (unless you’re an only child), that our own parents treated our siblings differently – often seemingly more favourably as we were growing up? Well, it’s not because by the time you have the second, third or fourth child the parents are over it and can’t be bothered to apply the same levels of discipline, it’s because the child is different and requires a different set of rules in which to flourish. You also have to factor in where they come in the rankings – third child gets it much easier on many levels but is always the one who has to sit in the middle in the car or get the hand-me-down clothes.
You simply can’t apply the same techniques to each child. It does not work. A friend of mine’s children were given a small inheritance lump sum recently. One is spending it on travelling the world, the other bought an ISA. Back in the day the general consensus was that children needed to be fearful of their parents in order to tow the line. Well generally speaking we all know that being scared of how your parents will react merely serves to make a child both sneaky and a liar.
So being adaptable as a parent is the name of the game. Attempting to remain relaxed(ish) in the face of what seems like an awful drama at the time and talking to close friends who can help you find some level of humour in the situation. Never fall out with your friends over your children – they will get over the issue in 24 hours and move on. Adults won’t. Additionally, from an early age, children need to be listened to. Some more than others – so that they can feel that they are being given a voice in which to be heard. This is hardest when they don’t really understand what it is they want and can’t find the words to explain it. Then you have to become a bit of a mind reader.
So hard and fast rules are hopeless in general. It just makes them resentful. What you need to create is an environment in which there is mutual respect, so that they understand that they shouldn’t be too late home because it will worry you. That is not to say they won’t push the boundaries and fuck up from time to time because they most probably will. All mine did anyway. But each time there is a learning curve and a discussion to be had that hopefully moves you forward in the right direction. There are many forks in the parenting world that can go either way. You can massively fall out with your children, taking their phones, stopping their pocket money, keeping them in, punishing them for what they have done, but the reality is that they generally speaking don’t think they’ve done anything wrong. So the key is communication and trying to get them to see things from your side of the fence without falling out with them. Angry teenagers are not going to learn any lessons. They’re just going to hate you and keep being angry and trust me – those moments have been the worst in my experience.
When you find yourself in a tricky situation, what has worked for me best (although things might still change) is to take a few deep breaths, call a family meeting, go out somewhere neutral where you all have to keep your voices at a reasonable level and talk it all through. Let them speak first and don’t interrupt. Make mental notes to pick up on and when they’ve explained their reasoning, try and understand where they are coming from and don’t blame their friends. Then, go through their points calmly. Write things down if necessary – draw pictures if they’re visual. Try to get them to see things from your perspective, but at the same time, try very hard to see where they are coming from. Try and negotiate a compromise that works for both of you. If that fails try bribery. But don’t ever offer them money to pass exams. That is not real life.
As they get older, this process of communication becomes ingrained to a degree and these days we all love nothing more than a family meal out and a good frank debate. Of course now that they are virtually grown-ups my feeling of being outnumbered has increased, because they enjoy taking the piss out of me now (I must work harder on that mutual respect issue) but the reality is that they have learnt over the years to talk. To be open and honest and to share their stuff. Not that you will want to know it all, but it’s good to keep the lines of communication open at all times (so try not to look too shocked). From my experience the girls talk more than the boys, but that is not always the case of course. It’s important to let them see your faults too, so that they don’t emerge blinking into adult life thinking that we know everything and being sorely disappointed to find that it’s a messy old world out there.
Keep your sense of humour at all times (impossible I know) and only laugh at their jokes if they’re funny. Nothing worse than those adults who think they’re funny when they’re not – teach them a firm handshake and how to dance. Kitchen dancing, I forgot, is an important part of the process. So is spending time with grandparents and other members of the older generation. Teach them to look people in the eye when they’re talking to them and that’s it! So it’s easier to go with the flow wherever possible because otherwise it’s more than exhausting.
Oh and of course the most important thing of all is to love them no matter how badly they have behaved. To keep the door open at all times and tell them that you love them. Basically unconditional love is the best thing a parent can offer a child.
Good luck, you’re going to need it!