Being a parent : some thoughts on learning from your children.

By Jennie Thomas

Date Posted: Tuesday, 22 May 2007


In this article Jennie Thomas who lives in Bahrain with her husband and two young boys reflects on how parents learn from their children about the best way of looking after them. She explores how she, her husband and her two sons have been influenced by each other in the way they relate to others who are in some way ‘different’ from them. She also considers whether children’s reactions to people who are different are innate or learnt. This is an article which is at once personal, edgy, humorous and insightful.

Before deciding to be a full-time mother Jennie worked in Scotland as an IT consultant to a number of large financial organisations. When her eldest son starts school she is intending to train as a primary school teacher.


Being a parent : some thoughts on learning from your children.


One of the main worries for parents as children move on from being toddlers to become more independent young children is how to allow them to discover the world and people in it without being over protective or letting them have so much freedom that they are not aware of the boundaries which will keep them safe and that society expects them to respect.   There is a wide range of information and advice available to parents regarding all aspects of child health, education and discipline and so on.   These sources range from books, to television programmes about ‘super nanny’ horror stories, to parent or professional led web forums.   Many books are marketed as providing the definitive guide to bringing up children and are often highly prescriptive and can cause more anxiety than they alleviate as parents feel inadequate if they are unable to adhere to the strict rules set out for them in the book.  Although some of the general parenting tips they offer can be useful,  television programmes which indulge  in the new prime time obsession with unruly children and how the ‘experts’ deal with them appear to be designed to allow parents to feel smug that their children are not as ‘bad’ as those shown on television.  Web forums provide a mechanism for parents and professionals to swap stories and advice but as with any web based help groups they can be fairly hit or miss and as a consequence it can be very time consuming to find answers to your latest child care crisis.  Consequently, as the mother of two boys I have found it more helpful to disregard the deluge of advice from outside the home and to focus more on the messages that my children give in their reactions to the world around them. I have  noticed that through their interaction with one another and society at large they often provide a great deal of help and guidance on how to deal with parenting problems in addition to the incredible insight they provide about how people develop a variety of attributes such as leadership, negotiation and nurturing skills.
It is apparent to me that from a very early age my children have been aware of unusual or unacceptable behaviour in the adults or children around them. Children tend to shy away from people they encounter on the street who do not conform.  For example at 2 years old one of my sons was very frightened by a man shouting and rummaging through bins and immediately said ‘I don’t like that man – tell him to go away.” He then spent hours asking questions about the man and why he had been behaving in that way. At 3 years old the same boy was very wary, though curious, when we met some severely mentally and physically disabled women on a train.  I have noticed that from when they were quite young babies there was a distinct difference in the reactions of my sons when encountering what might be termed, ‘the ordinary’ as opposed to those who because of their physical appearance or behaviour, might be termed as ‘the extraordinary’. This may partly stem from having lived in a small town with a substantially homogenous and conservative population but these reactions were evident before they had engaged in any deep sense with their local community.

My sons’ fascination with people, events and things which do not conform to their ‘norm’ is also apparent when they see other children playing or when they are watching television or reading stories.  Both my 4 year old and 2 year old are intrigued and can appear delighted with any bad behaviour in others or uncomfortable subjects such as why people do bad things or why they get ill or die. I have seen that they need information about good and bad behaviour and will not be satisfied with superficial statements of right and wrong.  It seems my children need to weigh up the arguments before deciding how they will behave and how others should behave.
I believe that young children also know when a parent has stepped over the line. For instance  when Mummy loses  her temper and  behaves irrationally,  roles are temporarily reversed and the children can put the parent in touch with reasonable behavioural rules. “Mummy you shouldn’t shout at my brother”. “Mummy you should let my brother have his toy….it’s not yours”.

Having two children with an age gap of 20 months between them has undoubtedly meant that they are treated fairly similarly in terms of discipline and this has accentuated the bond of friendship between them and has lead to a strong sense of sibling loyalty alongside the more obvious and expected rivalry. However, this was not always the case as I noticed that the older child recognised the tendency I had to protect the ‘baby’, even when the ‘baby’ no longer was one, and as a consequence learnt to limit his naughty behaviour by encouraging his younger sibling to carry out the mischief , and thus continuing to misbehave by proxy!  Paradoxically this has taught me to avoid always reprimanding the oldest   –   who tends to be the one who, at the moment, comes up with the ideas or wins the fights   –   and showed me that by falling into the trap of having too high expectations of the older child I was helping to create a monster of the younger one.  I have learned from watching their behaviour that if they are treated as a unit, that is: ‘the boys’ and any bad behaviour such as fighting over toys is dealt with as the fault of both of them they have happily fallen into a ‘them and us’ position where they become a team and defend each other against the demands of their parents.  This has its drawbacks as now instead of always running to tell tales on each other they happily get up to mischief together thus encouraging me to pay a bit more attention to what they are currently scheming.  This has allowed my husband and me to provide a more united front on strategies for dealing with them too.

Another aspect of my children’s resistance to allowing their  parents to become involved in negotiations is the way both boys have learned to negotiate and manipulate one another into submitting to the other’s will without always resorting to the kind of loudness or violence that will attract parental interest.   My older son quite often comes up with complicated reasons why he should be allowed to play with his brother’s toys such as “the thing is…that it would be better for my car and your car to play together because they are best friends…so let me have your one”. The younger will often submit but will see this as an opportunity to play with something of his brother’s that he is not usually allowed to play with.  Another tactic both children use to avoid a violent confrontation which will draw parental attention is role play.  By effectively changing the subject to a role play game they can distract the other from the toy they wanted to steal.  We have learned from this that when we are attempting to get the children to do things that they are not overly keen on, distracting them from the matter at hand is an effective way of dealing with issues such as not wanting to get dressed.  By discussing the fun things we might be doing that day the focus is removed from the unpleasant task and we can often avoid a tantrum getting out of hand.
Whilst it is clear to me that the way we have looked after our children has influenced their development, there has been a reciprocal effect as some aspects of our behaviour have been equally profoundly influenced by theirs.  I wondered whether I was shying away from unusual people and found that the more  friendly I was when out and about the more relaxed they became.  Thus their responses to the outside world have led me to question how much they pick up from how adults deal with the world but also to wonder how far innate animal fears of the unknown dictate their behaviour.  Though not attempting to excuse prejudice against those we see as different from us I have begun to feel that the acceptance of difference is learnt behaviour while the fear and curiosity displayed by children when encountering the out of the ordinary is not.  Their ability to differentiate between normal and unusual teaches us about the assumptions we make about the world and the mechanisms adults unconsciously use to excuse their own treatment of others.  The response my children have had to being treated as a team with their parents as the opposition has indicated that the identification of outsiders even in a small group such as our nuclear family is significant from a very early age.  It has also reminded me how often adults as well as children choose to ostracise one member of the group in order to strengthen the bond between those who are accepted. The children’s ability to learn to adapt to their environment in order to avoid trouble has taught me that allowing children to cooperate allows them to develop problem solving skills and diversion tactics which will no doubt prove useful as they grow up.
Of course my husband and I are responsible for protecting and rearing our children and it is essential that they learn about the world they live in through their parents. Still, reflecting as I have here on the development of my children’s behaviour has provided me with an insight into the kind of behaviour which adults as well as young children use to survive. By observing and  thinking about how my children interact with their world, unhelpful strategies which I as an ‘adult’  have unconsciously developed to engage with  my  world have  become conscious to me.    This has led me to think about my children’s behaviour in a more general sense and to consider how to encourage them to interact in positive rather than negative ways with the world and each other.  Whilst taking some leads from the children has helped me to alter my attitudes and responses to their moods I have not suddenly become a perfect parent nor are they beautifully behaved from dawn until dusk.  However, by watching them and learning from them, my relationship with the children has become  richer as I have gained even more respect for them as small but intelligent individuals who have many significant things to teach me.



16 Jun 2007,    Mary Taylor writes
Refreshing, amusing and insightful and leads me to think what differences there would be if it were two girls, or a boy and girl, or indeed a larger sibling group. I think this could be looked at more.
14 Jun 2007,    Peter Hutchinson comments
This article makes enjoyable and interesting reading. It is amazing how much is involved in what on the face of it is straightforward brotherly mischief!