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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Three things I wish my parents had taught me...

Time for a little light relief, I think! 

I'm sure I'm not alone if I say that there are things I've learned the hard way in life which I would rather have been warned about in advance.  My parents valued school and environmental education, but perhaps they didn't pass on a lot of the basic life skills I needed.  Here are just a few of the things I think all parents would be wise to teach their children.

1. Romantic novels and films are full of cr*p.  So are women's magazines, testosterone-driven interactive games and superhero films.  Life is not a comic strip.

Parents really do need to be careful of what their children are reading and watching.  Seriously, when I first started dating I really did think men would behave like the heroes in my childhood reading and viewing matter- Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Anne of Green Gables, The Sound of Music- and I really had no idea that men thought and functioned so differently from women. 

Adolescence hadn't helped form my ideas, given that all my friends were reading Cosmo, Cleo and so on.  Women's magazines are full of women's ideas on how to 'catch' a man (god forbid), what men are thinking, what men like- and they're usually completely misguided, because they're written by a certain demographic of women about a certain demographic of men (with one eye on selling a shocking headline).

It was a girlfriend who ended up saying to me many years later that really, it was unrealistic to expect the same from men as I expected from my girlfriends.  Sadly, it was a bit late to save my marriage by then.  It took me 47 years to accept a man as he was, instead of trying to change him into what I thought he should be.

Here is what I've learnt the hard way about romance: Most men really are from another planet, and girls need to be taught to abandon those ridiculous romantic shopping lists when they start looking for a mate.  The majority of men need frequent contact with their male friends and a fair bit of freedom.  Amazingly good-looking or talented men are frequently vain and self-obsessed. Men don't respond well to long conversations about your, or their, feelings. Not all men do their share of the chores.  Men want to fix things, not endlessly analyse them. Men are NOT dreaming of a white wedding and babies in the near future.  Men are hard-wired to be single-minded and tend to flounder when asked to multi-task (eg 'do the washing, clean the house and look after the kids').  Men like to be providers, but the ones with a lot of money won't have a lot of time or attention to give you. And so on.

So parents, be careful of filling your daughters' heads with romantic baloney about the opposite sex, and watch what reading and viewing material you encourage. 

The same applies to what little boys are exposed to, as I'm not sure that superheroes, transformers (what the?!) and 'Need for Speed' are a great introduction to real-life values- all too soon you'll be trying to un-teach the lessons that a good biff solves the problem and driving too fast impresses people.  Sure, some smart kids will work that out for themselves.  But some will be sucked in (believe me, I teach them every day).

Believing in romantic cr*p is a fantasy that will turn around and bite young women. Girls need to learn to accept men for who they are, and stop putting storybook expectations onto them; there are a lot of angry women running around out there saying they hate men, just because their expectations were unrealistic in the first place.  Save your daughter from that fate!

Believing in superhero and gamer strategies will also turn around and bite young men.  Boys need to learn to deal with their problems without the biff and adrenaline kick- and you need to help them do that, even if it's just by talking with them about what they're watching or playing.

2.  You need to put oil in your car as well as petrol, empty the lint filter of the clothes dryer, keep the chores under control and spend less than you earn.

There are two points here.  One is that girls need to learn a few basic life skills in the boys' domain, and boys vice-versa, before your children blow up their first car and burn their first house down; be aware of unconscious sexism in what you teach your children, and involve them ALL in ALL the chores. 

The second is that your kids will learn destructive behaviours from you just by watching.  If you let the house get totally disgusting and end up in a pit of gloom before you start to clean up, that's what your children will learn to do- and it's a great recipe for depression later in life.  Even allowing your child a leave pass from their share of the chores can be problematic; I never learnt to allocate time for household stuff until I'd got myself into a right mess at home.

Similarly, if your credit card is constantly maxed out and you're eating cornflakes for dinner because you couldn't resist those new shoes, you need to teach yourself (and your kids by example) to get a grip and be more disciplined.  And managing a bank account, writing cheques, paying off a credit card... so many life skills I had to teach myself!  Give your kids a head start, because these are things they probably won't learn at school.

3. Look new people in the eye, smile and use their name.  Then ask them questions about themselves.

My parents were the closest thing to hermits that people can be without being ejected from society.  I blame my father's post-traumatic stress disorder from World War II- I suspect it was all he could do every day to get out of bed and cope with his immediate family, because we never went out and rarely had visitors. As a result, I was a weird introverted child who had never eaten foreign food, let alone been to a restaurant, and had no idea how to talk to new acquaintances.  I'm still not very good at making friends, though the days of being embarrassed by not knowing how to eat spaghetti are long gone.

Don't assume that social skills come naturally to your children- they often don't, and again, this probably won't be something they get taught at school. A shy child needs simple instructions on how to initiate and maintain interactions with other human beings, and plenty of opportunities to use these skills.  How I wish I'd had that! 

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