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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How do you handle PARENTS?

I started writing this blog because my friends kept emailing me and asking for advice about their kids.  I'd spend a lot of time compiling the best answer I could, and then wish I could share my thoughts with other parents who might be asking the same question.

The last request, posted at the end of my entry on my pregnancy by Nisaba, was a difficult one, and it touches on something that affects us all at one time or another unless we're living in complete isolation from the rest of the world. We've all felt the helplessness of seeing other people's children suffer due to some behaviour by the parent which could (or, in your opinion SHOULD) have been avoided.

The answer I wanted to give was complex enough to warrant a separate column; Nisaba was asking me what to do when you see poor parenting happening in front of your eyes and that parent is a friend of yours- what to do when you want to help that friend to do better, but without offending them.

Here's an abridged version of Nisaba's question, to save you flicking back and forth between pages.

"Just recently I was visited by a distant friend of mine, who has sole custody of his two children, a seven year old girl and a five year old boy, both Aboriginal (he isn't)."

At this point I feel obliged to interject and point out that her reference to race isn't irrelevant. The cultural differences involved can create additional issues before we start.  Anyway, I don't really know enough about this particular family to use that information, so on we go.

"They're lovely kids... and he obviously adores them. They're in the process of moving interstate... The kids are dislocated from everything and everyone they ever knew and have no home base, so they're understandably a bit fretful... On the first night, one of his kids ended up in a crying jag, the kind where the kid is eventually crying convulsively, unable to stop, and probably unable to quite remember why they started... He ...  stood over the child and kept ordering her to stop crying, with increasing amounts of threat in his voice. He was trying to calm her by force of will and by command. I was appalled.

"The following day, we went down to the nearby seaside town so that the kids could have a bit of fun. I told him there were carousels, jumping castles and things there, so he said he'd let them have one ride each, because he didn't have a lot of money... AS SOON AS we got down there, he plonked them on a ride... of his choice. After that two minutes of fun, the kids were trailing around after us, bored and ... getting increasingly miserable...I would have saved the ride till last...
After a long time I took pity on them, and bought them each an ice cream... instead of just letting them eat the ice creams .... he was hectoring them and standing over them telling them how to eat their ice creams and hurrying along the eating process, and took all of the joy out of the ice creams...

"Afterwards, when the kids were asleep, I gently raised the subject, and pointed out that the kids were ungrounded at the moment without a home-base, anxious about their future and quite naturally fretful, and he should cut them a bit of slack. I also mentioned the ice creams, not mentioning his behaviour but mentioning how stressed the kids seemed whilst eating them. His answer? "Yes, that's why I let them eat it any way they liked, and didn't say anything." What the -

"I'm not asking your opinion on how to handle the kids - I think I have a fair idea - but on how to handle the father. How do you talk to someone like that so that they are NOT offended and are likely to hear your concerns and maybe consider changing their behaviour...? ... I ... don't want to drive the point home so that I lose the friendship.

What a very good question.  What a very difficult question.

First let me delineate the difference between judging another parent and wanting to help another parent do a better job for the sake of the children. I have to commend Nisaba for not turning her evening chat with dad into the Spanish Inquisition. I can guarantee that no-one on this earth has ever changed their base-line attitude to anything, let alone something as emotive as their parenting, on the basis of someone attacking them about it.

If we boil this issue down to its absolute essence, the problem as I see it is that dad is not seeing his children's point of view.  He may think he is, but really, he hasn't 'walked a mile in their moccasins'; he's forgotten what it was like to be a child, to be completely in the power of bigger humans, to be carried along by events instead of having input into what happens to you.

Dad needs help to be taken back into that space. He needs to revisit his own childhood.

If I was Nisaba, I would start talking about my own childhood as I watched those children play, and I'd ask dad about his childhood. Something like this... naturally I have to use my own childhood experiences for this exercise!

"When I was little and I lost the plot, I used to bang my head on the floor till I bruised my forehead or hold my breath till I went purple. I was completely beyond reason. My mother used to just sit near me to make sure I didn't hurt myself badly or collapse from lack of air until I got over it.  There was no point talking to me.  I was out of my mind.  I reckon (name of little girl) was totally in that space today, she really wasn't hearing you at all.  What did you do when you chucked it as a toddler- did your mum ever talk to you about it?"

It's sort of like a triangle conversation, with you at Point A, Miss 4 at Point B and dad at Point C.

You can connect a line A-B between yourself and Miss 4.  You did crazy things when you had tantrums.  You saw the same in her today.

You can connect a line A-C between yourself and dad.  Friend, what were you like when you lost the plot? Will you share?

But the line between points C and B, the parent-child relationship, you can't touch- it's out of your reach. Dad has to make the connection himself. DO NOT give advice unless asked, and even then be damned careful.

You can do the same with the other points of concern.  Let's try talking about giving the kids a choice of what ride they wanted.

"That carnival this morning reminded me of going to the Easter Show with my girlfriend when I was about your son's age. She made me go on the Wild Mouse and it scared the crap out of me. I was convinced I was going to die. What rides did you like when you were a kid?" (listen to answer, have a laugh)

Moving on from there...

"If you'd made me go on the Wild Mouse today I would have bitten you. (Miss 4) looked like she enjoyed that carousel ride they had today, but (Mr 7) looked a bit bored. I wonder if he would have liked something a bit wilder? Is he a Wild Mouse kind of kid, do you reckon?"

Talking about what you saw in the kids, relating it to yourself.  Nothing more.  Then talking to your friend, asking what he knows about his kids- what he sees.  Just put him in the space.

And the ice creams? Same trick.

"When I was a kid I always bit a hole in the bottom of the ice cream cone and sucked the ice cream out.  I swear it tasted better that way.  I used to get in a crazy mess, it'd be off-centre and my head was half upside-down and it'd drip everywhere.  And I was always a biter, not a licker.  I still can't lick an ice cream to save myself, I've got to bite into it.  And then my mother would go crook on me because I'd throw the last bit of cone away- I wanted the taste of the ice cream to be the last thing I got in my mouth.  Sometimes I think I'm totally obsessive compulsive.  Did you have a weird system, or were you one of those neat polite lickers?"

This time you're just creating that atmosphere of childhood and inviting him to go there.  Don't judge, don't meddle, just take him there as evocatively as you can.  Take him back in time, and go there with him.

Who knows- talking about your own childhoods might lead him into a place where he can initiate some honest talk about his children.  At the very least, it'll nurture your friendship.  And who knows- even if he doesn't say anything to you, it might just start him thinking about what it's like to be his children.


  1. Thank you. In the discussion we had I *was* a bit judgemental, but I tried to keep it under control because I had no intention of losing the friendship. I also kept well away from saying "I don't approve of the way you parent those kids", instead saying "They're living under abnormal stress at the moment, perhaps they need more slack". That way, I felt, I was keeping away from criticising his parenting style as a whole, just providing a suggestion on what might work for his kids right now.

    He loves them to pieces, and it's really, really hard to give parenting suggestions of any kind to someone who obviously dotes on tehir kids.

  2. Damn right it is. Sounds like you did your best... I wonder constantly why it is that I remember so clearly what it's like to be a child, yet so many parents seem to have forgotten. YOU obviously remember too. Empathy is a gift, but it can also be a source of huge frustration!


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