Thursday 14 November 2019

Tiger Mom? Try pussycat

Faced with a slacking-off teen, Ailin Quinlan decides to retract the claws, douse the fire and opt for old- fashioned nurturing

Ailin Quinlan

At first I didn't quite get the message. And it was an important one. The annual parent-teacher meeting, scheduled for that afternoon, might contain the odd bombshell. I stared.

"Like, y'know," my teenager muttered, hunched over a bowl of Weetabix, "it mightn't be all good news."

This was new, and I tried not to react visibly to the cold sweat that immediately enveloped me, leaving a sickening knot in my stomach. How could that be? There had never been any major issues before.

Well, mumble, mumble, sigh; there might be one or two teachers who mightn't, y'know, have totally brilliant things to say this time round, so y'know, this was just, like, some advance warning.

Advance warning of what? I wanted to know, shocked into stillness. Oh, nothing. Just, well, y'know, one or two little things might come up, that's all.

Struggling to conceal my dismay -- nothing like this had ever happened before -- I gathered up the cringing bits of my resolve and observed cheerily that I was sure there'd be no problem. Everything would be fine!

The stony silence from the other side of the breakfast table forced me to acknowledge, reluctantly, that she was speaking from a position of knowledge and I from one of ignorance.

I inquired whether something serious had, er, happened that I should know about. Nope. Well then, maybe things had slipped a bit in the work area?

The question was met by the sort of glum, resentful silence that speaks volumes. Somewhere along the way through Transition Year, a foot had possibly fallen off a pedal and now the day of reckoning was nigh. It was not unexpected. Experienced friends, some of whom had put more than one child through the process, had warned that Transition Year could be a dodgy time.

Of course it can. When things like yoga, work experience, mini-companies, dance, film-making and public speaking take precedence over a conventional academic curriculum, you have to expect a few ripples in the rock pool.

The painstaking routine of study and homework which harvested all those proud Junior Certificate exam grades can't be shoved to one side to make room for self-development without some fallout.

However, you're usually reassured that it's a case of what you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts -- your child is supposed to emerge from these months of exploration and personal challenge more mature, self-driven and independent-minded and, above all, better prepared for the challenges of the Leaving Certificate.

Cold consolation indeed on a bitter February morning when you feel like yelling: "Smack in the middle of the worst recession ever to hit this country, with 1,000 people a week emigrating in search of work, the economy in tatters and the Leaving Cert cycle staring you in the face, you decide to take a back seat? Are you crazy?"

That's what Amy Chua would probably have done, but then, Amy Chua wouldn't have been in this situation in the first place because her 'Tiger Mom' child-rearing methods would never have tolerated the flexibility inherent in Transition Year.

Chua's high-achieving daughters were never allowed to attend a sleepover, have a play date, be in a school play, watch TV or play computer games -- or get any grade less than an A.

They were not allowed to 'not be' the Number One student in every subject, bar gym and drama, according to Chua, whose explosive memoir about what she loosely terms 'Chinese mother' parenting methods, has rattled parents everywhere.

So no, if one of her kids had tried to engineer some wriggle room for themselves in this manner, Amy Chua would probably have raised the roof.

But I didn't.

Because, like many others before me, I'm struggling through the crazed, emotionally hazardous, psychological minefield inhabited by the parents of most adolescents and, as I have learned the hard way, blunt confrontation doesn't work.

I recently stumbled on a photograph that said it all. It showed a woman shrieking through a loud-hailer at a disaffected teenager who was gazing insouciantly in the other direction.

Relationships are not a static thing, particularly not where children are concerned. By mid-adolescence, the days when they see you as either admirable or omnipotent, when they take your advice unquestioningly and look beseechingly to you for help or solace are long gone. That's their friends' job. You're out on your ear, buddy.

Teenagers, the experts will tell you, can tend to exhibit a new-found logic. This new skill, I find, is more used to pick holes in a parent's arguments rather than to help a teenager accommodate uncomfortable home truths.

In fact, a teenager's ability to reason, think about and argue from other points of view can be disconcertingly patchy, so there's little point trying to convince a rebellious adolescent that somebody who, over the years, has put hundreds of students like herself through their hands probably has valuable things to say.

So what did I do?

I expressed dismay at the news, and said firmly that I hoped it wouldn't be so. Then I shut my mouth and, later that day, attended the meeting in a state of no small trepidation.

But, of course, it wasn't the end of the world, nor anything like it. What criticisms were voiced were mild, constructive and justified, as she acknowledged when, later at home, we went through the comments. I advised her to take it all on board.

However, I couldn't help thinking about the old proverb that says you can take your horse to the well, but you can't make it drink.

What you can do, says Dr Patrick Ryan -- director of the Clinical Psychology Doctoral Programme at the University of Limerick and author of 'You Can't Make Me: How to Get the Best Out of Your Teenager' -- is listen carefully in the event of a warning like this.

"The child is trying to protect you and herself by issuing you with a little warning card," he says. Check whether something has happened that you ought to know about, and, if there's nothing seriously wrong and your child is merely exhibiting some general anxiety, adopt an open and constructive attitude.

"Tell the child that you'll go in and find out some more and then you can sit down together and work it out. That way it becomes a problem-solving exercise -- ie, how will we address this?" Then attend the parent-teacher meeting in a flexible state of mind, but be prepared to take the hit if it comes, he counsels.

"The teacher is someone who offers a valid alternative perspective on your child. It's always good for parents to take in that perspective, even if it's uncomfortable and even if you want to disagree.

"You should remember that the teacher's perspective is borne out of knowing the child. Listen to what the teacher has to say and try to see how it fits with your experience of your child."

So, he says, distil the information and work out what you can do to resolve any problems. Sit down with the child and discuss the problem and then set up some short-term, easy-to-reach targets for success. Once you start getting a few little successes, the bigger issue often begins to be resolved.

"Explain that you will check in to see how the work is going at the beginning and, that if things are going well, you will get your nose out of it fairly quickly," he advises.

Sound advice, because though the formidable Amy Chua might bring the horse to the well and force its head underwater, would it actually swallow, or would it drown?

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