Saturday, 13 September 2008

Parenting: the essential survival guide

Life goes through stages, doesn’t it? Obviously, one thinks of childhood, teenage, young adulthood, etc. but that’s not what I mean. For a while, I seemed to be surrounded by weddings. On one occasion, the wedding turned out to be mine. Then there were births. Later on there were funerals as parents started to die: it all felt ultimately gloomy, as though we were entering the long dark sermon of the soul. But now it’s weddings again. Not that it’s our friends getting married this time (at least, not generally); mostly it’s our friends’ kids.

Obviously the next stage is births once more. And since I’m going round that one for the second time, I’ve clearly reached the point where I can start handing out the well-meant advice instead of just ignoring it myself. But since it’s hard to imagine anything more boring than advice, I’ve decided to distil my accumulated wisdom into just a few key points.

These are important. It’s a frequently repeated piece of received wisdom that parenting is the most important job we ever do, and we get no training for it. Just because something’s a cliché doesn’t mean it isn’t true. This one certainly is, especially if by ‘important’ you understand ‘massively time-consuming, exasperating, exhausting and occasionally rewarding.’

So here’s my parenting survival guide, containing the truths I’d never have guessed at before I started out but which are vital to know once you’re on your way.

Key skill: driving

If you don’t have a licence, get one fast, and once you’ve got it, keep it clean: you can’t afford even a temporary ban. I didn’t realise that the most important aspect of parenting is providing a free taxi service, but if you have pre-school kids, start getting used to the idea right now. Once your kids get to be about five, forget about Saturdays. They’re just part of the working week. If one of your kids decides that riding is a good thing, you can be absolutely certain that another will choose judo. The riding class will start at 10:00 and the judo class at 10:15, two miles apart, with six sets of traffic lights in between. Enjoy.

Even if they both decide they like swimming, don’t think that’ll make life easier. Rachel will already be in intermediates while Colin’s still in beginners. Unfortunately, this year because a lot of the eight-year olds want to do ballet at 10:00, the intermediates will start at 8:30. Beginners are still at 9:30. You can forget taking a thermos and a book with you at 8:30 to allow you to get over the shock of the barbaric early start: you don’t seriously think that Colin’s going to let you sit there quietly reading your book and drinking your coffee while he waits for his class? Oh, no, it’s shuttle time for you. And don’t forget that you’ve only got quarter of an hour between showers and the start of ballet, and then Colin will be emerging from the pool, and then you’ve got to head back for Rachel with Colin complaining that he’d rather go straight home. Enjoy.

You’re home at lunchtime. No problem, you think. Time for your well-earned rest.

Dream on.

How do kids manage to have so many birthdays? Though they sound like fifty, there are usually only twelve or so kids at a birthday party. So how come there seems to be one practically every week? Your only relief is that you only have to put up with one per kid per year at your place. You’re providing a taxi service for all the others but at least the horde is invading someone else’s house.

And don’t think you’re likely to be free just because there isn’t a birthday. Some time soon the proficiency in swimming or horse riding is going to turn into attendance at competitions. Just be glad if they do go for a mainstream sport like swimming, because then the events may not be that far away. But the more kids you have the higher the chance that one at least of them will go for some crazy minority sport like ice hockey, which requires a second mortgage for the kit, and means that any matches are at least three hours away by car.

Of course, in Canada that isn’t a minority sport, but everywhere in Canada is at least three hours by car anyway.

Be careful what you wish for

Never read books on parenting. They set deadlines. So if a book says ‘your child will start to crawl at six months’ and your child isn’t crawling at 181 days, you’ll start to get anxious. At 190 days you’ll be panicking. This is exactly the opposite of what should be happening. You should be enjoying the little extra time you’re getting before you have to start moving anything you value up to at least three feet off the ground so that the little darling can’t get at it, push it off the coffee table and leave you with just five of the cups in that irreplaceable set you inherited from your grandmother.

It’s even worse with talking. We all spend an increasingly anxious time wondering whether he’s ever going to start talking, forgetting that we’re going to have twenty years of wondering whether he’ll ever stop. Enjoy what you’ve got while you’ve got it.

I have to confess to a shameful remote-control-for-kids fantasy. Obviously it would be completely indefensible ever to wish that you could press a button on a remote to power your kid down. You wouldn’t even want to put them on standby – after all, we’re already doing irreparable damage to the environment with all the devices we leave on standby most of the time. But a pause button. Is that really too much to ask? Just ninety seconds. So that a mother can finish asking her husband not to forget to hand in the registration forms for the swimming gala in on his way home, or a father can hear what his wife needs him to get from the supermarket. That really doesn’t seem unreasonable.

In any case, when it comes to language, you’re going to have to attune your ear. Words don’t have the same meaning in the minds of children. ‘Now’ doesn’t mean what you think. It means ‘in a little while’, ‘when I’ve finished doing this’ or more likely ‘only when you’ve asked me again twice and your voice has started to go up in pitch.’ ‘No’ means ‘please ask me again repeatedly until you get what you want.’ ‘Daddy’ is the person you take your request to when Mummy has said ‘No’ in the adult understanding of the term. ‘Clean’ means a plate of food with nothing remotely green on it.

You really want your child to talk? Remember that the moment they learn to talk is the moment they learn to talk back.

Learn to laugh

And now for the most important secret of them all. There’s no way of disciplining kids.

Now I’m not as dumb as that may make me sound. Of course I know there are the authoritarian, not to say sadist, parents out there. They beat their kids, they break them, they twist them, they get their way. But most of us can’t do that. And even if we could we wouldn’t want to: we know that the result of that kind of behaviour is a deformed personality capable only of driving taxis, heading a major corporation or becoming vice president of the United States. So you want to discipline your kids without actually beating the will to live out of them.

Well, there’s no chance.

First of all, because discipline is pretty hard to believe in. I mean, your one year old is wailing on a plane. You can feel the other passengers thinking ‘why don’t they get some control of that damn kid? Why don’t they stop that awful brat making that vile noise?’ What they really ought to be thinking is ‘we’re 10,000 metres up in a sealed metal tube that’s heavier than air. If it weren’t for my carefully crafted inhibitions I’d be screaming too.’

‘Time for bed’. Time for what? How would you feel if you were told to go to bed when you wanted to watch another episode of Weeds or The Wire? Would you want to be reduced to pleading ‘just one more episode. Please. Just one.’

So your little angel bit the little girl next to her. OK, OK, so violence is the last resort of the ignorant. But have you taken a look at the girl next to her? Sanctimonious. Supercilious. Sycophantic. You know people like that. In your heart of hearts wouldn’t you like to take a bite out of them?

Secondly, because it’s pretty hard to believe in yourself as a disciplinarian. ‘Life isn’t fair.’ Did I really say that? ‘How can you say you don’t like it? You haven’t tasted it.’ When they used to say that to me, all I wanted to reply was: ‘why on earth would I want to taste something I don’t like?’ I knew I’d hit bottom when I heard myself saying ‘don’t you have a computer game you could go and play?’

What’s the point of it all? You make yourself a mockery to your kids, you make yourself a mockery to yourself. Do I really care if they eat with their elbows on the table? Am I that bothered whether they say please and thank you? Do I even care whether they eat their greens? I have a son who at eight was a vegetarian who didn’t eat vegetables. At twelve all he wanted was McDonald’s and kebabs. Today he’s a vegetarian again and a great cook of vegetarian dishes. Did I have a hand in any of that? None whatsoever. He did it all himself.

The only sensible approach to child discipline is laughter. When they had their tantrums and screamed at me about the unfairness of it all, I’d laugh. It was effective too: pretty soon they weren’t screaming about whatever trivial cause had set them off, they were screaming at me for laughing at them. Did it do any good? Probably not. But it was a lot more fun than getting pompous over things that I didn’t really care about. And it made me feel a lot less ridiculous.

So that’s my survival kit for budding parents. A sense of moderation, a sense of patience, a sense of humour. Just three simple lessons that can make the whole experience much more supportable.

And just remember, you’re pretty certain to get the last laugh. I’ve just entered the next-generation-has-kids stage. And I can assure you that the day you catch your kids telling their kids ‘who said life was fair?’ you'll know what it means to enjoy irony. Then life is sweet.

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