Sunday, March 11, 2012

On not being a very good Zen Buddhist: Parenting with a capital P

Had a very enjoyable coffee this week with an Irishwoman living here. She was lovely: if, like me, bemused by the whole "what New Zealand calls tea" thing. It was very cathartic to hear her doleful stories of arriving, and making her first cup of tea several times, because her husband and she assumed they must be doing it wrong, because surely no one would call something "tea" that tasted like that. "We like tea we can dance on in Ireland," she pointed out. Yes, rather like Yorkshire where we talked about needing the spoon to stand up in the cup. (Of course in Yorkshire no cup of tea would ever do anything as wildly expressive and Celtic as dance. Our cups of tea would merely glower, slopping around their cup complaining about the miserable weather and them tea-imposters down south, and no, I don't mean the Kiwis).

Another of the cultural shocks we have agreed we both experienced was Parenting. I don't mean the way people bring up their kids, because frankly, you know, if you have a child and you feed it, make sure it sleeps and doesn't bite other children that's the kind of average outcome everyone across the Western world seems to hope for. No, what I mean by Parenting with a capital P is the idea of Parenting as something that needs to be taught, that you don't just pick up by osmosis from the way your mum and her sister and your cousins did it. Now don't get me wrong, I think Parenting has much to recommend it. In the UK my husband and I even did a Parenting Course. The thing is that when we did it, everyone we knew was shocked/horrified/surprised/bemused but supportive/concerned for us that we were going to get brainwashed. Because parenting courses are still largely seen in the UK as something that OTHER parents do, you know, the ones that can't control their kids. Here it is the opposite. I can't walk down the street, well, OK, can't step into a community centre or church without seeing little rows of leaflets offering me help with "Being a Working Mother" "Parenting Teenagers" "Parenting Toddlers" "Parenting Yourself." If we had a dog, doubtless someone would be offering parenting classes for him too.

On the one hand it's obviously good to have all this expertise around. On the other hand, well, my children have a history of not responding to parenting strategies that work with everyone else, so I won't be signing up to these generic courses anytimes soon. Anyway, these courses never deal with the minutae of daily crises. They're all about "Finding Boundaries" and "Time Out" as if your children are the only ones being ratty and unreasonable. Judging by this week I would need sessions entitled "Mornings: how not to scream back at your schoolchild even though you KNOW that you put the right books into his bag before he emptied them out on the door and lost them again." "Why you must not beat your head against the wall with frustration when your toddler won't show you that he can count, even though you know he can, unless you give him a sweetie for every number." And "Staircases: how not to join your middle son when he lies down on them, headfirst, screaming." More generally, it's an interesting cultural phenomenon. I wonder if the proliferation of these courses has something to do with the outright banning of smacking, if parents are much more ready to look for outside help with discipline and family management once they are told they can't just whack their kids. I personally feel that the management of household disorder could be improved vastly if everyone was hardwired to realise that the moment they felt like losing their temper, they were able to lock their kids for ten minutes in a soft-walled room, sit down and drink a nice cup of tea. (Possibly this is why no one has ever asked me to run a parenting course). But in the absence of that, you need patience. Before I had children, I thought patience was a really dull virtue, the kind that wispy Catholic saints showed as they were burnt uncomplainingly at the stake, thanking God with their last smoky breath for giving them this glorious opportunity for martyrdom. Now I think patience is probably the most difficult and enticing of virtues in the religious and emotional lexicon. Frankly, I can do without prudence, justice or courage. Justice and courage sound too exhausting. Well, I suppose prudence would be good if it meant I got more sleep. But restraint, temperance, fortitude, patience...oh yes, more of that please. Give me a parenting course that could teach me that and I would break down the doors to get in.

I had an illustration of how difficult patience is to keep this weekend. My husband and I had our first glorious three hours of weekend respite, courtesy of the Carers' Funding we now receive. Too beautiful to be true. We went for a bushwalk, came back and made a filter coffee, drank it whilst watching a favourite comedy together (I enjoyed the deliciously new sensation of not being too tired to keep my eyes open whilst watching) and then read our books on the sofa like the adults we used to be, prior to having children. We were, in short, relaxed to a Zen-like state of happiness and calm. Surely we would greet our children with warmth and joy, filled up with love and affection from this new state of mind, ready to be patient and tolerant all over again?

Uh, well, not quite. They came bounding back into our evening, full of exuberance and heightened silliness due to having had a nice afternoon out. They wouldn't listen to a word we said. Within half an hour we were yelling at them and confiscating toys. There were tears and tantrums. And then the children got upset too. Zen FAIL.

If anything, I was more stressed that evening because I'd just had such a nice relaxing afternoon, and the disparity between the two modes of existence was just too shocking. Parenting patience, it seems, is not heightened by having a break. If anything, you are a bit vulnerable to culture shock on a family scale, as you move from a mode where you have time to make a proper filter coffee where you don't even have time to finish your cup of instant tea. If I was going to run a Parenting Course, it would be full of handy advice like "Don't kill your children. Really. Even if you want to. Walk away and leave them to your husband for half an hour. Have a bath. Or a cup of really strong Irish tea. No, don't dance on it, just drink it and wait for the caffeine ans tannin hit to calm you down." And I'd warn them that the time one most needed that advice was likely to be when one had just had a break, been to work or had a couple of hours of much-needed peace and quiet. Otherwise you really do end up lying headfirst down the stairs, screaming.


  1. As an Irish person, I'd be devastated by the tea situation. Love the "dancing tea". Seriously though, you are not a Zen fail! You are very thoughtful about the way you interact with your kids. I think the thing about parenting courses is that a lot of people don't have mothers/family around to learn from, and are quite isolated from the extended family. I wish people would just trust themselves though and do what feels right for you and your family, rather than what some so-called expert thinks.

  2. Thank you, that is a high compliment from someone whose thoughtful approach to parenting I also admire.

    I think you are right about trusting instincts. I think when you need expert help it is itself instinctive: you know when you don't have the tools to manage a situation. But often people treat parenting gurus as "the answer" rather than a tool amongst others to try!

  3. The Naughty Step has never ever worked with any of my older 4 and will not even attempt it with Number 4. With George it was the worst because he would get himself so angry and upset as to be Rendered totally unable to Communicate. Where as 5 minutes laying Quietly on his bed and he will calm down and we can carry on.The older 2 just thought it was a Ridiculous idea. A whole cup of coffee drank whilst Hot. Ooooh i have memories of doing that. Parenting Courses are very useful a Friend has just been on One to help her better understand her almost Teenager and how his Aspergers and ADHD and Sensory Perception will change and affect him. She came back with a Greater Hope and Faith in herself.

    Patience is the Virtue i need most of.


  4. I think you should run parenting courses - your advice definitely sounds like the kind of thing I need! I'm glad it's not just me that seems to have less patience after having 'me time'. Good luck in your hunt for decent tea - doesn't sound like the tea situation has changed much since I was backpacking there 20 years ago! xx