parenting

Don’t be that parent

After three years of this parenting gig I’ve realised how lucky I am to have made so many lovely parent friends (entirely separate from my pre-existing lovely friends, who also happen to be parents). I knew that the odds were good that having children would increase my social circle, and the twin mum solidarity thing was also a good bonding element, but having children the same age as somebody else obviously isn’t enough to form the basis of a proper friendship. But I have been extremely fortunate: Hattie and Joe arrived at roughly the same time as many other sets of twins in our part of Auckland, and several of their mothers were the kind of awesome people that I would have loved to have as friends pre-kids as well. So now the kids have all become mates, and the mums and I organise a lot of play dates so we can have excuses to catch up with each other (and also some child-free catch-ups when we can manage it, because you sometimes need to drink more wine than is socially acceptable on a weekday afternoon). The kids’ third birthday party extravaganza involved ten sets of twin friends, plus two older siblings.

So yes, I’ve been very lucky. But having this circle of supportive, witty, kind, thoughtful friends has made me aware of the people who aren’t always as helpful. I’ve broken them down into three categories.

1. People with strong opinions about children’s behaviour and how parents should manage it, despite not being parents themselves.

The people in this group aren’t parents, which makes a bit of a mockery of the title of this essay, but that’s just the kind of rule-breaker I am.

I’m quite sure that every single person in the developed world has made at least one disparaging comment about parents and children before being parents themselves, usually after witnessing a public tantrum or seeing a kid running amok in a restaurant. I know that I was a bloody awesome and highly knowledgeable would-be parent. Of course, those of us who go on to have our own kids rapidly realise that occasionally seeing how our nieces, nephews, or friends’ kids behave is absolutely no substitute for being a parent ourselves. Those of us with any self-awareness blush inwardly at the thought of the stupid things we used to think (and say, although hopefully not to actual parents, who must have really laughed at us in private). Long story short: you can obviously have all of the opinions you like about how children should be parented, but regardless of your experience as a nanny, teacher, aunt, or anything else, if you haven’t actually raised a child yourself you only know around 1% of what’s involved.

2. Parents of older children who endlessly tell you “you think that’s bad – wait until your kid hits the [whatever horrors await] stage!”.

This is a common affliction amongst some parents: the urge to supposedly reassure a parent who is struggling with their child’s current stage by telling them that said current stage is actually no big deal compared with the much more awful stages that lie ahead. I definitely had a few people who pulled this trick on me, particularly in the early days. It’s a response that I will never understand. If, for example, I’m finding the newborn stage really scary, challenging, and exhausting, how is it helpful to tell me that future stages will be even worse? It does nothing to minimise my current struggles, or make me feel understood or supported. It just makes a struggling parent feel like there’s nothing but bad times, now and later, and that’s not good for a person’s mental health.

I’m sure that all parents have a wry smile at some of the things that people who are less far down the parenting track than them say (or post about). I’ll certainly own up to having a wee chuckle recently, when a new twin mum posted on our multiple birth club’s page about how her two day old babies were so good and well behaved. But in my opinion telling somebody who is being driven crazy by their four month old’s sleep regression that the toddler stage is even worse is just unkind. See also: telling parents of tantrum-throwing two year olds that they don’t know bad behaviour until they’ve dealt with three year olds; and telling parents of three year olds that the cheekiness and deliberate naughtiness is nothing on the high jinks of four year olds; and telling parents of smart-mouthed four year olds that they’ve never seen an attitude like they can expect to see when their kids start school; and telling parents of contrary primary school-aged kids that their hair will curl at the antics of teenagers.

The moral of this particular story: parenting is hard, at every stage – not all the time, obviously, but each stage presents unique challenges. A parent who has the courage to actually admit to finding things difficult should not get undermined by a barrage of comments that minimise their current struggles. If you’re a parent with a wee bit of empathy and you remember what it was like when your kids were at that stage, try just saying something like “Oh yes, I remember those days and they were hard. You’re doing a great job – hang in there” – or similarly trite but comforting remarks. It’s all that parents want to hear. You may be well aware that the next stage will make the current stage seem like a day at the races but please, keep this privileged information to yourself. And if you have good, sensible, concrete suggestions to make a parent’s life easier as they grapple with tantrums, cheekiness, big bed partying, or whatever, share them.

(And a subset of this group is the parents of twins or triplets who like to disparage people with ‘only’ one child, whenever said parents of singletons find things difficult. I know that all parents of multiples do this occasionally – I certainly have – but it’s a dickhead move. Everybody is entitled to find life as a parent difficult. Yes, having two or three kids at once is obviously more challenging than dealing with just one child at a time, but the parents of singletons are still allowed to find things challenging. We don’t have the monopoly on tough parenting times. And I’d argue that some singleton kids that I’ve met appear to be infinitely more formidable than my two healthy, happy, bright children combined.)

3. Parents of younger children who think that they know where you’re going wrong with your (older) kids.

This final group is the flip side of the previous group. It’s also, probably, made up of people who were very strong members of the first group, and who haven’t yet developed sufficient humility after becoming parents to recognise that you’re a fool to think that you know much about parental stuff that you haven’t yet experienced.

I know that all parents are guilty of this kind of thing occasionally, but it’s the repeat offenders who really annoy me. Forgive me for being blunt: If you have a young baby, you know NOTHING about what it’s like to have a toddler. If you have a young toddler, you know NOTHING about what it’s like to deal with a preschooler. If you have a preschooler, you know NOTHING about what it’s like to deal with an older kid. I’m sure that you get the idea. When the parent of, say, a sweet little 17 month old who has the occasional stroppy five minutes tells me that they just sternly tell the child “No!” and that this stops the ‘tantrum’, all it does is make me fervently pray that their child turns around one day in a public place and has an absolute meltdown. And then does it again. And again.

The difference between the kind of tantrum that a young toddler has and the kind of apparent psychotic break that an older toddler or a preschooler can go through is the difference between night and day. Younger toddlers who throw tantrums are ruled by frustration and emotion, and a lot can be cured with a cuddle (I learned this the hard way, with Hattie as my fiery daughter). Older toddlers and preschoolers who throw tantrums fuel their breakdowns with frustration, emotion, manipulation, naked bids for attention, and a whole host of other elements that serve as kindling to a bushfire (as I continue to learn the hard way, with both Hattie and Joe). Dealing with this kind of tantrum is utterly exhausting, and getting judgemental ‘helpful’ comments from people who haven’t yet dealt with it themselves is not appreciated. Children don’t throw tantrums because their parents are crap. Children throw tantrums because they’re children. If your child is only a baby, you just don’t know what it’s like.

So those of us with children older than your children will do you a deal: we won’t try to terrify you about the bad behaviour that you might have in store for you, if you stop telling us how to deal with something that you don’t know anything about. OK?

(A subset of this group, which I’ve thankfully only encountered very occasionally, is the parents of singletons who really don’t believe that dealing with multiples is more difficult than what they’ve handled – and I’m talking about parents of perfectly healthy children here. Basically, I think these people lack imagination and empathy.)

Let’s break up this negativity with a cute photo.

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So that’s it: my diatribe about people who annoy me. Can you tell that I’ve been bottling this up for a while? I could have included a fourth group: older people who have totally forgotten about what it’s like to deal with small children, and who like to tut, shake their heads, or (if you have the misfortune to be related to them) tell you where you’re going wrong. But there’s no need to go into that, as I think we can all agree that they’re halfwits.

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2 thoughts on “Don’t be that parent

  1. Great insight, you must be an actual parent with real children!

    And can I just say that even at my ripe old age the phrase “but it’s a dickhead move.” still makes me giggle out loud like a school girl… :o)

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