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Bringing up a family. It's the hardest job that any of us ever take on, and you don't even get paid for it1!
For those of us who take the subject seriously, there are books and magazines galore, all full of advice about how to talk to your kids, what to feed them, how and what to teach them and how to potty train them and teach them the 'facts of life'. Aah, but.... The trouble is, the experts don't agree on the subject. While one school of thought advises you to 'let him cry for a bit', another will warn against it, urging you to dash to the cot and hug your baby until it stops crying. Don't feed him cow's milk, do feed cow's milk. Leave nappies off and they will soon be potty trained. Leave the nappies on as long as they want, they will be 'clean' all the sooner. Whatever you read and whichever era you brought/are bringing your children up in, the advice is nothing if not contradictory.
Parenting involves Parent-ERS and Parent-EES
There is a very useful, comparatively new, word which neatly combines the various aspects of bringing up children with looking after their material needs. It covers everything from choice of nappy, choice of first baby foods, to child-minders, teething, helping with homework, whether to comment on your offspring's choice of friends and deciding on how much pocket money to give them: nowadays we call all this 'parenting'.
'I'm sure all Mums are plagued by random doubt/guilt - isn't it part of the job description?'
'Yep, in big bold print at the top of the form'
Parents who have been through most of the 'bringing up' phase will forever be asking themselves if they got it right. This is quite natural. It is difficult to accept that a large part of the child's development cannot be influenced by what the parents did. It is quite healthy and certainly excusable to feel that some things should have been handled differently, to be plagued with doubts and reprimand ourselves for not spending more 'quality time' with them, for punishing them unjustly.
These worries should not mean that we did do a bad job, or that we should castigate ourselves for our faults. Time has passed, the children have grown into fully-fledged adults, and nothing we did or did not do could have prevented this. Planned strategies may have failed because we were trying them out on living, thinking people, who did not react as we expected them to. But, because they are living human beings, we can communicate with them and correct our mistakes at a later date.
Each generation is a sandwich
What are parents, or 'parenters', if not ex-'parentees'? We're sandwiched between two other generations who, in their turn, have equally evolved - or have yet to evolve - from children, to parents. We shouldn't forget that our own children will also, probably, be parents themselves one day, and we should certainly never forget that we carry with us the burden - be it pleasant or unpleasant - of our own upbringing.
Were we not all brought up by the generation that came before us? Surely we wished that they had done some things differently, perhaps, when it was our turn, we made a particular point of avoiding certain things which we hated in our own childhoods. Perhaps our own children will revert the position and treat their children like their grandparents treated us. It is a complex chain of reactions. The reasons for each generation's decisions are myriad, and many of the decisions regarding methods of parenting will have occurred subconsciously.
When starting out on the big adventure of 'parenting', most couples will discuss a few strategies. Many things will be left unsaid or it is taken for granted that the both the mother and father(-to-be) agree on all aspects of their offsprings' upbringing. It may be difficult to know exactly what to discuss; perhaps the questions below can help out.
At the other end of the time scale, when your 'upbringing' is done, it may be a good idea to sit down with a pencil and paper and review what you have actually achieved over the past twenty or so years. Your children will be approaching the child-bearing stage themselves, and may be coming to you with questions on the subject. You may now realise why your own parents did what they did. You may remember your own childhood and find parallels and divergencies with the childhood you gave your own children.
For example: Have you never been amazed by something your parents have related about yourself as a child, describing an event which you experienced completely differently? And worse still, have you ever mentioned a life-changing event, or maybe something your mother or father said to you which shook your world, only to find that your parents have forgotten it altogether?
It may be hard to put your finger on what exactly happened during those 20 or more years of bringing your own kids up. One is continually bugged with questions such as 'Did I do everything right?' ' Are they happy with their lives so far? ' Are they equipped to face the world?'
Well, why not ask them?
The Parenting Questionnaire
Below are some questions we are probably all burning to ask our children, but we would also love to answer these very questions to our own parents. Try these questions out on your children (if you have children of, say age 12, and over). Fill them in for yourself with regard to your own parents. Just sit and think about them. Try and guess what your children would answer. Don't force them to return the completed questionnaire to you. They may, however, want to keep it for reference when it's their turn to start wiping bottoms and allocating pocket money.
Or just leave the questionnaire in your bedside table for reference and dose it verbally, carefully. Particularly with teenagers with other things on their minds, it is not a good idea to bombard them with all the questions at once. Maybe you can find a way of easing them into a conversation somewhere, a topic at a time, to start scratching away at the real truth.
The questions are fairly general, but there will be plenty of examples from your own childhood and parenthood which spring to mind. There may be more than one answer to some, and some of the suggested answers may not fit2; feel free to formulate your own. The questions are addressed from the 'parent' generation to the 'child' generation.
Of course, many families will have to adapt the questions3.
There are no 'right' or 'wrong' answers. The aim is simply to channel all the parental doubts into some definite areas, to assess one's own efforts as a parent and, possibly, to create an awareness in the children that there are two sides to the coin, that it is not always easy to be a parent. Your children might be glad of the chance to point out that it hasn't been easy being your child! Be prepared for disappointments, shocks and nice surprises!
And here goes:
1. Do you have happy memories of when you were very young?
- Yes, lots
- Yes, such as when we4 ...
- Not really. I just vaguely remember being content and happy most of the time.
- Not really. I never really felt happy. We never did anything together/I hated being seen with you in public and all the outings were boring.
2. Did you feel you were always treated according to your age?
- Too much, really. In fact I often felt overburdened with the responsibilites placed on me at an early age.
- No. I always felt an idiot the way you spoke to me in front of my friends.
3. Do you think we gave you enough free time to occupy yourself?
- No. I never had a moment to myself and felt totally bullied into a tight daily schedule.
- No, but I appreciate it now because I can plan my time really well.
- Yes. I was given free time just enough not to be bored.
- Yes, too much in fact. I felt neglected.
4. Do you feel we had lots of meaningful conversations?
- Yes, I feel able to approach any subject with you and exchange opinions in an adult way; it's been like that since I was seven years old.
- Well, I feel a bit embarrassed about it sometimes, but I do appreciate your efforts.
- No, and I don't want to either.
- No. All you ever said to me was 'Will you stop that!'
5. Really, even about really big things like relationships/sex/religion/politics/money?
- Do you really want to know?
- I'm bored with this questionnaire already.
6. Do you feel we fulfilled all your wishes?
- Yes, but I'm afraid that has made me spoilt and selfish and incompetent with money.
- Yes, and I'm grateful.
- No, but you did your best, and I learnt to do without the things that were just not realistic.
- No, damn you.
7. What do you think of your grandparents?
- They're the same as you, only 30 years older.
- They're much more fun than you are.
- They scare me.
- I don't really know them.
8. Do you think you know enough about our (your parents') childhood?
- No, but I love hearing the stories. Would you write it all down for me?
- No, what were Granny and Grandad like when they were just Mum and Dad?
- No and I don't want to.
- Yes, thanks.
9. Will you bring up your children in a similar way to how we brought you up?
- Probably, it depends how they turn out.
- I'll play it entirely by ear.
- I haven't thought about it.
- I'm not having any children.
10. What would you write on our/my gravestone(s)?
11. Would you show us this questionnaire, now you've answered it?
- Yes, I'd like to know what you think of my answers.
- No, you already know what I'm most likely to have said.
- No. I'd rather not offend you.
- Yes. You should finally find out the truth about how you ruined my life.