How to be a better parent by mum-of-five with 84 years experience
Summer is often a rich source of parental dramas. For months, the whole family has been looking forward to the end of term/exams and a break but, when the holidays start, it is often an anticlimax.
At the moment, I am struggling to keep my cool as my children mooch about being bored when I am as busy as ever. As for the family holiday, you would think I was suggesting toenail extraction when I first floated the idea of one. With the planned departure still a few weeks off, various members of the family are still arguing that their presence depends upon bringing a friend. But where will we put them all?
As I was wrestling with that one – do we draw lots to bring a friend if there isn't room for everyone? – a colleague sidled up wanting to know what I would do about his errant 13–year–old son. Shortly after, someone else nobbled me to discuss her 14 year–old (both discussed below).
Others often consult me, partly because my eyes light up, partly because I have five children – aged 21 to 12 – and have so far accumulated 84 years' parenting experience and written two parenting books. How to Be a Better Parent, the first, was largely prompted by acquiring a puppy who would be, I soon realised, a menace unless trained. Having seen what a difference a few techniques made with the dog, I decided to go to parenting classes to learn how to be a better human pack leader; and I picked up some useful skills, chiefly descriptive praise and reflective listening. These will, I suspect, make regular appearances in my advice. The second book, Positive Not Pushy, was an attempt to focus my newly honed skills on the problem of how to help children succeed without turning into a monster.
Researching and writing those books helped me sort out my thoughts, but I'm not a qualified psychologist, or anything else. I don't have a theory to peddle. Despite having clocked up enough years to be an emeritus professor of mothering, I am still in the thick of it – as the broken nights (slamming doors, not wailing babies) and squabbles at breakfast time frequently remind me.
All my children – two boys, three girls – are still at home, presenting me with a weekly assortment of practical and moral dilemmas. I enjoy pooling experience. That's how we learn. Friends who have been unguarded in talking about the difficulties they have faced with their own children have helped me through many a blip and crisis. If I don't know what to do about a specific problem, I shall take the same approach as I do when I have a problem myself: ask others, and seek out expert advice. Perhaps you will add your thoughts to mine online (telegraph.co.uk/family).
In recent years, all of the following (in no particular order) have passed across my plate – either directly through my own children or indirectly through friends: eating disorders, overworking, under–working, smoking, school refusal, religious conversion, trouble with the police, bullying, drugs and, of course, drink.
I'm also familiar with educational problems, dropping out, failure, illness, depression, divorce, debt, loneliness and underage sex. Small children, small problems; big children, big problems, so the saying goes, but I don't have to be reminded how all–consuming it can be having tiny children because I am lucky enough to have nephews and nieces with small children living nearby.
I believe it is important to be open about what goes wrong in family life. A year ago, when I was diagnosed with lung cancer, I was forced to confront my own imminent demise. My preoccupation then was how best to prepare my children for life without a mother. I thought hard about what matters and what doesn't. Now I've had a stay of execution, I hope I can hang on to those insights.
Which leads me to the delicate bit. Children are young, inexperienced people, not insensate toys. They are, quite reasonably, sensitive about being discussed. Twenty–one years ago, when I started writing parenting pieces – from the labour ward, since I didn't qualify for maternity leave – I didn't need to spare my children's blushes. Even when my books were published in 2003 and 2005, my children were mainly too young to open them. Now they are acutely aware of anything I write which might refer to them.
That's why I said at the start that it would be tricky writing about these common dilemmas. My children will be quick to spot imagined references to themselves, even if they are way off the mark. Nevertheless, I think it can be done.
So, to the two water–cooler dilemmas of the day.
The boy hiding cigarettes
Q 'I've twice caught my 13–yearold son hiding – not very successfully – unopened packs of cigarettes under his bed. He claims that they're not his, that he's looking after them for friends; and they disappear when he goes off to a party, where he says he hands them over to those who have bought them and given them to him for safekeeping. What should I do: confiscate? Ignore? Ground him?
A I should definitely refuse to harbour them. You could say that cigarettes are not allowed in the house, lit or unlit, no matter who they belong to. His mates obviously aren't allowed them at home, and for a good reason.
Offering a bribe to a child who doesn't smoke until they are 21 seems to work. After 21, stats show almost no one starts. I wish I had tried it on my eldest, who started smoking aged 13, as most of them do, and now can't kick the habit.
The boy who looks at internet porn
Q I recently found my 14–year–old son looking at porn on the internet. Advice, please!
A I would first look to the child. Is he a happy, outward–going teenager with friends and other interests? If so, I wouldn't worry. What teenage boy has not looked at porn? But there is a lot of revolting stuff on the internet which you don't want anyone, over or under age, looking at. Installing firewalls and filters might work, but they can usually be got around, and there's always another computer that doesn't have them. Rather than leap about in disapproval, talk to your son in a calm manner about the horrible things you can stumble across if you type in even innocuous words. Put yourself on the same side as the child; normalise what is normal curiosity.
•How to Be a Better Parent (Vermillion) is available from all good bookshops