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.
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.
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.