Sunday 16 December 2018

Are you guilty of peer-pressure parenting?

Alanis Morrisette and family
Carol Hunt

Carol Hunt

As far as my Californian friend is concerned, I am not just a neglectful parent, but sometimes a downright cruel one.

Why? Because if my son loses a football match, I don't tell him not to worry, that there are no winners and losers, and that all that matters is that he feels good about participating. Instead, I usually give him a hug and say something like: "Hard luck sunshine, you're going to feel bad about it now but you'll get over it. That match is now in the past, take a break then start thinking about the next one".

If he tells me that the referee was blatantly biased against his team, I don't tell him that I'll step in and call an investigation, I say "That's really tough and not at all fair, but you know what? A lot of life ain't fair. We have to learn to deal with it."

My Californian friend is devoted to the 'No Contest' style of parenting, which teaches that competition leads children to envy winners and dismiss losers.

Her child does not "compete" in games but merely "participates". She thinks that there will be enough opportunities in life for children to experience disappointment without having to deal with losing while young.

So, who is right?

Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Martin and kids
Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Martin and kids

Obviously, I believe that I am doing the very best for my child and she feels similarly about her own parenting skills. We're not going to agree on this one. And we're not alone.

Parenting styles have changed immeasurably over the past few decades, probably more than at any time since the invention of the teenager. While most of my own generation were reared in the old authoritarian way ('Why? Because I said so!') today's parents have a plethora of styles from which to choose; some rational, some distinctly odd and a few which seem - to this parent at least - downright barmy.

There's Gwyneth (Paltrow) for instance, who will only allow her children watch cartoons in French or Spanish while she feeds them "treats" of kale and brown rice.

Alanis Morissette received criticism for her devotion to "attachment parenting", breastfeeding her son well past the acceptable cut-off point and allowing him to share her bed.

Penelope Cruz practises RIE (resources for infant educators). This style of parenting believes that infants and children should be treated equally in their relationships with adults, that toys and playthings just encourage "baby" behaviour and that children will be more competent and self-aware if they are encouraged to act like adults.

Alicia Silverstone takes the biscuit, however, when it comes to odd parenting habits - she chews her child's food before feeding it back to her son, from her own mouth.

Americans were also the original proponents of what we know as "helicopter-parenting" or "hover-parenting". This has now evolved to become "lawnmower parenting", which means parents effectively clear the way ahead for their children. Personally, I detest this style of parenting - it makes for exhausted, stressed-out adults, and children who have no idea how to negotiate the world for themselves because they've been reared to think they're centre of the universe.

Perhaps I'm just a selfish adult, but when we had our children, we made a conscious decision that they would fit in around our lives - and not the other way around. I like to think this has made them more independent and also conscious that other people's lives matter too.


One way in which my parenting style would differ greatly with that of my parents' generation is when we come to talking and thinking about emotions and feelings.

Do you remember talking about your feelings with your parents when you were a kid? No, I didn't think so. All that new-age touchy-feely psychobabble stuff we left to our American cousins.

I think I would probably have preferred to boil my eyeballs in lighter fluid than have a conversation with my parents about "my emotions". And yet, today, I often catch myself sitting down and asking my kids, "How do you feel?"

I believe that emotional health is very important - in a way that would have had my parents generation wince with self-conscious embarrassment.

Since they were small, I have encouraged my children to practise self-hypnosis and mindfulness. And I'm not out on a limb here. In my son's school (Educate Together), the children are taught yoga, visualisation and mindfulness. He loves it. And I firmly believe that it helps him to negotiate emotional challenges. Then again, I know other parents who think this is new-age nonsense.

Sometimes, no matter how well intentioned a parent is, they may need help from a professional. And so I asked family clinical psychotherapist Joanna Fortune, what her advice would be regarding all the differing parenting styles on offer today.

She told me: "Parenting has become something of a competitive sport… and people are quick to identify with a particular 'school' of parenting... be that 'helicopter parenting' or 'tiger parenting' or 'attachment parenting' or 'gentle parenting', or 'conscious parenting' or even… 'cave parenting' (yes, it's at thing too!).

"In general, I feel all of these parenting styles have one fundamental thing in common: they confuse parents when it comes to what's important, emphasise the wrong things and give parents a reason to judge each other. When it comes to parenting, your 'style' for want of a better word, is heavily influenced and pre-determined by how you were parented yourself…"

"Attunement", says Fortune, "is a word that is often overlooked when it comes to parenting. Attunement requires that parents pick up on, follow and respond to the often very subtle clues from their child and, in doing so, reflect back the meaning of what the child has experienced for them.

"Parents do this very naturally with infants - for example, when babies cry, a parent will respond from a position of attuned knowing that this is, in fact, a hungry cry, tired cry, happy cry etc…"

Fortune says she would "encourage parents to abandon the internet and the manuals and spend time attuning to and getting to know your own child, inside out and trust your gut instinct.

"Nobody and no book will ever know your child in the way you do. Sometimes parents do seek out support to help them fine-tune this instinct and block out the white noise of all the 'you should do/should try' well-meaning advice out there…

"I frequently work with parents in this way in helping them get back to basics because small changes can and do make big changes."

Joanna Fortune is a clinical psychotherapist working with children and families. She is the founder and director of Solamh Parent Child Relationship Clinic in Dublin. For more details, call 01 6976568 or follow on Twitter: @solamh


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