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Monday, January 24, 2011

Don't drown in your child's gene pool

New parents have so many hopes and dreams about what their child will be like, but the reality of bringing up a little human can be crushing at times. We may hope to raise a leader of men, a sports star or a brilliant student- someone with all the best features of the people we admire most- and yet one day we find ourselves staring at a child who resembles nothing so much as a small replica of the partner we divorced so bitterly, or our dissolute Uncle Bruce, or-worse still- someone who combines all our own worst features with none of our coping mechanisms.  It's a hard moment for a parent.


Let's start simply; let's say we have a child who simply won't get on with the assignment that's due tomorrow, even though it's hanging over her head and making her grumpy and unreasonable.  We encourage, we threaten, we shout, we plead...

...when we probably should be looking back at our own childhood and asking if we were exactly the same.  Maybe we regret not working harder at school, and want to spare her the same mistakes- but what were we like at her age? Did we have that perspective then? Did we listen when our mum or dad tried to tell us? 

I'm betting the answer is no. Your child doesn't have your frame of experience yet, and nagging her will probably have the same net result as your own mother or father nagging you all those years ago- increased resentment, lots of arguments and no change in the work ethic (in fact it might send her further the other way). 

Accept that your child will have to learn by experience, just as you did.  Why should you expect your child to be somehow 'better' than you were? Fair crack of the whip!  By all means tell her about your experiences and share your feelings and fears about it, but after that it's her decision.  You can't fight the gene pool, so don't waste your breath.

I came to this realisation in a blinding moment of seeing my own hypocrisy.  I was in the middle of exactly the above situation with my son, who despite his obvious talent and giftedness would neither practise his cello nor even open a book to do homework, to my extreme frustration.  If you ever have that horrible sensation of realising you sound like your own mother or father when you try to reason with your child, shut up and think for a moment. 

Get back inside your own head when you were your child's age.  Did you have the least intention of doing what your parents wanted? Why not? Oh yeah, that's right... you were far too busy thinking about what you'd say to that really nice boy next time you saw him so you wouldn't look like a moron... or working out a problem with your batting technique... or agonising about a friendship crisis... or, in my case, playing pop songs on the piano or writing a poem or a story or a letter, which (to me) seemed far more relevant to my future career and happiness than my maths homework or my classical piano practice. 

LET GO... you won't stop your child repeating your own mistakes by nagging, and who knows? Maybe for your child, they won't turn out to be mistakes at all. 

For me, the piano practice came of its own accord when it became important enough to me, and it became a satisfying and rewarding part of my career- as did the ability to play pop.  (Hey, you can't make a child into a musical prodigy by pushing- it's about self-motivation- all you can do is offer opportunities.)  And the long practice of writing down my thoughts and feelings ultimately enabled me to write this blog, as well as many other worthwhile works, without stopping me from knowing enough maths to teach it to junior high school students when that became an unexpected career option.  As for my recalcitrant son- he has become a very successful post-graduate student and teacher, now that he's found a subject that really interests him.

But what if the source of our irritation or despair is a gene they inherited from someone else- someone we really don't understand, or don't like, or have ended up hating?  What if it's the sort of thing that sends our emotions right out of control?

When we decide to make a baby with another human being, we create a partnership with that person and all his or her relations for life, or for as long as we have a functional relationship with our child (and no, I'm not a Catholic, I'm a realist).  I don't just mean a 'partnership for life' in terms of the inevitable arguments over Christmas lunch when you feel obliged to invite your partner's hideously bigoted Aunt Mary or her multi-addicted second cousin, either. 

What I mean is that your child is a lucky dip of inherited characteristics from both sides of his or her family, and unless you're a model of patience and forbearance and are emotionally prepared to deal fairly with anything your child might throw at you, it's wise to be expecting to have to cope with at least some of your relatives', partner's and in-laws' undesirable foibles all over again, so you can stay calm and respectful.

Even if you divorce your partner, once you have a baby with them you've got that partner for life in some form or another.  He or she will appear in your child's personality, possibly when you're least able to deal with it.  Forewarned is forearmed!  How are you going to deal with it when someone you loathe stares at you out of your child's eyes?  You can't divorce your dependent child!

The first step to coping with our children's perceived shortcomings is to stop blaming ourselves, and the second is to stop blaming whoever donated that 'delightful' characteristic to their gene pool instead of dealing with the problem.  That all sounds easy, but it's not intuitive.  If your child turns out to have an uncontrollable temper just like your ex-father-in-law, then beating yourself up for not somehow teaching it out of him or screaming blue murder at your father-in-law for being a surly bastard (and at your ex for passing it on) is a completely natural response- but it's NOT going to help your child, or you, so cut it out.

Another common way of letting off steam when the Devil Incarnate stares out of your child's eyes is to angrily berate the child himself for being 'just like his father', or whatever.  True, perhaps, but not helpful- and not respectful.  You drive your child away from you by saying that sort of thing to them.  Bite your tongue right off before you let that stuff pass your lips.

YOU chose to make this baby with this partner- that's as far as the personal blame game goes; accept it, because it's done, it's over.  You do love your child still, even if you sometimes don't like him or don't like this thing that he does very much (and even if you most certainly don't love your ex any more). Now you have to get over your bad feelings, separate hating the behaviour from hating the child, and play the hand you were dealt. 

Did you hear me? STOP blaming yourself!  You chose to make a baby with this person; no doubt you thought it was the right decision at the time; whether it was intentional or not, you can't go back.  So go forwards.

If you didn't love your child, you wouldn't be bothered reading this column.  Yes, okay, you hate the behaviour.  And maybe you hate the fact that it reminds you of your mistakes, and you hate the fact that you still have to deal with the rotten characteristics you thought you'd left behind when you left your partner.  Look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself you thought the relationship and the baby were good ideas at the time.  God knows enough of us have made a mistake there.  Forgive yourself.  Get some help from a professional counsellor if you really can't forgive yourself or control your anger about still having to deal with your partner's shortcomings as they appear in your child. 

Your child doesn't know what he's doing to you, so STOP taking it out on him.  He probably doesn't even know that the behaviour that presses your buttons is undesirable- all he can see is that you get irrational about it for some reason, so you're looking pretty unreasonable to him (and if he's a teenager, that's a great reason to mount a rebellion and ramp that behaviour up just to have a concrete reason to break away from you and your damned rules). So you need to either relax about it and look the other way (if it's just something irritating), or (if there's a real problem with that personality trait) start dealing with the bad behaviour in a constructive way.

If you're going to dose your child to his face with the angry  'you're just like your father' pill, you're creating an unhelpful confusion and hurt in his head- and one day that will be another thing to have to try to forgive yourself for, so don't do it. His father may indeed have (say) anger issues which are reflected in the way your child just behaved, but he's the only father your child's got- and your child probably loves his dad. 

Are you making him choose between you and dad? You're certainly pushing him into an alliance with his dad, because you just put them in the same 'naughty corner'.  Is that what you wanted? (No, I didn't think so.)  You need to deal with your own feelings about your ex and stop letting off steam in your child's face, because you're damaging your relationship with him.

So what do you do instead?

If you've read enough of my columns you can probably guess that I'm going to say talk with your child, and be honest.  Maybe you thought that's what you were doing when you told him he was 'just like his father' or whatever, but there's 'honest' and then there's 'cruel and destructive'.  You need to add be respectful and treat him the way you'd like to be treated. 

I bet when you were a child you jacked up when someone told you you had great child-bearing hips like your grandmother, or made some other stupid comment about whose bent nose or short stature you had.  It's even more hurtful when someone gets insensitive about your personality.  Your child didn't choose their own gene pool.  You did.  Now it's your job to try to help them cope with what they drew out of it.

Here's a sample chat to give you a feel for approaching problems like this. I've geared this towards a teenager's level, because that's usually when these issues become unbearable.  Let's say your ex was a shouter... and your boy has inherited that same way of coping with stress.

First, calm yourself; you need to visualise the little boy you love... not the furious spotty alien in front of you.  The lovable little boy is still in there, and that's who you're talking to.  Try not to stare at the poor fellow- teenagers hate that- and watch your body language.  Relax the tense, irritated bits of you.  Doodle on a piece of paper or fiddle with your keyring while you talk rather than folding your arms.

When you yell like that, I get worried, because angry people end up with no friends. I want you to have friends and be happy.  I don't like criticising your dad to you, but I also need to tell you some things about what went wrong with us to help you not make the same mistakes, so please listen.  Your dad used to yell at me like that too, and it made me unhappy because I didn't feel like he respected me. I was so unhappy about it that I decided not to live with him any more. Please don't do that to me, because it still makes me feel bad.  And if you keep yelling at people like that, I'm scared the same thing will happen as happened to your dad, and someone you love won't want to be with you any more.  I love you and I want you to be happy, so maybe you could try to walk away and go to your room when you feel that angry, instead of yelling at me.  Then we can talk later when you've calmed down a bit.

That's an honest, rational, respectful way of dealing with the problem.  You haven't blamed your child for anything.  You've told him what behaviour you don't like, and you've given him a clear, honest, HUMAN explanation of why- as well as suggesting a better way to deal with his feelings.  You've told him how the behaviour makes YOU feel, but you haven't asked him to take sides- there's not the least suggestion of that- and you've minimised criticism of your ex down to how repeating that same behaviour might affect your child's happiness.

If the situation is often repeated, you can spare yourself repeating this type of speech over and over by using the 'red flag'  approach.  You need to work this out in advance with your child and agree on a signal to short-circuit the bad dynamic between you- say, a red flag that you keep on the fridge.  When your child starts to repeat a non-constructive behaviour that makes you see red, you grab the red flag and hold it up without a single word- at which point the behaviour has to stop (from both of you!) and you both take time out from each other's company for a few minutes while you think of a better way of behaving.  Your child probably isn't aware that he's pressing that particular button- he's just acting the way he's hard-wired to act.  You need to break the circuit without creating conflict, and he'll start to become aware of what it is he's doing that gets a bad response from you.  That might be the first step to him feeling that something needs to change.  You have to provide an escape route, especially for adolescents, if you want to see change.  Backing down is NOT in their nature.

I repeat- it's not your child's fault if they remind you of someone you loathe, or if they repeat your own failings.  It's the luck of the draw.  Try to look at the problem through their eyes, and try to attack the behaviour (logically and constructively!) rather than attacking the child's (or the relative's!) personality. 

And please- deal with your own anger issues about your dead relationships before they become a problem for your poor unsuspecting child.  He didn't ask to be conceived, and he shouldn't have to suffer for your second thoughts.

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