lundi 18 décembre 2006

Who are you parenting?

Wednesday 14 December, 8.30 a.m.
Steve felt he could ill-afford the time to see a doctor, especially
over such a stupid thing as indigestion.
Lynn had persuaded him, however, that he had had these bouts
too long and that he should visit the GP. She’d even made the
In front of him in the surgery waiting room sat the usual collection
of magazines: Woman’s Own, New Look, Cosmopolitan, Golf
World and Hello!
‘So, four out of five visitors to the doctor are women,’ mused
Steve, ‘and the only man is a golfer!’
As a non-golfer, he had little interest in picking up the magazine.
And while intrigued about the sex survey on the front page of
Cosmo, he felt too embarrassed to look at that, either.
Instead, his eyes scanned the walls: advice on bowel cancer, safe
sex and parenting skills.
‘Well, if you practised safe sex, you wouldn’t need to learn parent-
ing skills,’ Steve considered, frustrated there was no audience for
his humour.
His phone sounded with a message:
Who are you parenting?
‘Ah, our mystery phone pest,’ thought Steve. He scrolled down,
but that was the end of the message.
‘Well, that’s the easiest one so far,’ he considered. ‘One child.
Aged five. Next question.’
‘Steven Clark,’ announced the receptionist. He approached the
counter and was told to see Dr Davidson in room three.
‘Morning,’ said the doctor. ‘What’s troubling you?’
‘Nothing,’ said Steve, ‘but my indigestion is troubling my wife.’
For several minutes they exchanged questions and answers on
Steve’s eating habits, drinking pattern and lifestyle. He under-
played the late-night carry-out food and after-work drinks – and
overplayed his occasional game of five-a-side football.
‘Are you under a lot of pressure at work?’ asked Dr Davidson.
‘Goes with the territory,’ was Steve’s glib reply.
Driving to his first sales call, after leaving the surgery, Steve’s mo-
bile rang.
‘Well?’ enquired a friendly voice.
‘Oh, hi, Gorgeous!’ Steve replied.
‘Well, what did the doctor say?’ asked Lynn.
‘Oh, he just gave me a prescription to counter stomach acid and
suggested I exercise a bit to lose some weight, cheeky bugger!’
replied Steve. ‘You should see his beer belly!’
‘Did you tell him you’d been stressed out of your box at work?’
persisted Lynn.
‘Yes, we discussed that,’ fudged Steve. ‘Anyway, I’ll take that
stuff and that’ll sort it.’
‘Steve, you are awful when it comes to looking after your health!’
continued Lynn.
‘Now you’re sounding like my mum, Lynn,’ replied Steve in mock
‘Well, seeing she’s not speaking to you these days, somebody
needs to look after you since you won’t do it yourself,’ teased
‘Hey, I got another of these funny messages this morning,’ Steve
said, changing the subject.
‘What this time?’ enquired Lynn.
‘Who are you parenting?’ replied Steve.
‘And what do you think the answer is?’ asked Lynn.
‘Well, Nicky of course,’ offered Steve.
‘Mmm,’ came the surprising response.
‘What?’ asked Steve, a little hurt – but apprehensive of where
this was going.
‘I’m saying nothing,’ said Lynn.
‘Actually, you’re saying everything,’ said Steve. ‘Are you saying
I’m not parenting Nicky?’
‘Well, you’re sometimes there in body, but seldom in spirit,’ sug-
gested Lynn.
‘That’s so unfair, Lynn,’ shot back Steve. ‘You know I dote on
‘I know you do,’ replied Lynn. ‘But does he know that?’
‘Well, if you mean, do I smother him like you do in a you-can-
never-do-anything-wrong kind of way, well, no I don’t,’ hit back
Steve, now sounding more than a little irritated.
‘Steve, that’s so cruel,’ protested Lynn. ‘Look, we’ll talk about this
later. I have to go.’
The phone went dead. As Steve drove on, he swallowed hard
as his stomach burned. The indigestion was back with a venge-
That evening, 8.10 p.m.
Steve walked into the kitchen that night to find Lynn alone, hav-
ing put Nicky to bed.
‘Well, that was charming,’ hissed Steve.
‘What?’ asked Lynn, confused by his opening comment.
‘You hung up on me, that’s what,’ continued Steve.
‘No, I didn’t,’ defended Lynn. ‘I had a colleague walk in and I
didn’t want to share a personal conversation with her. I told you
I had to go.’
‘Well, you sounded miffed,’ continued Steve.
‘I was just being honest,’ protested Lynn. ‘Surely you want that,
rather than some insincere palm-off about you being a wonder-
ful father.’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ began Steve, his mood softening. ‘I rather like
the sound of that.’
‘Look, Steve, I know you’re under the cosh at work just now, but
Nicky doesn’t and I just feel you could do with treating him the
way you used to,’ said Lynn, ‘… as if he was the most wonderful
child ever created.’
‘He knows I love him to bits,’ replied Steve.
‘When did you last tell him?’ asked Lynn.
‘I tell him all the time,’ offered Steve.
‘You used to,’ began Lynn. ‘But I doubt if I’ve heard you tell him
that in the last two years.’
‘Now hold on Lynn,’ came back Steve. ‘You go overboard to the
extent that you can never give Nicky a row.’
‘That’s not true,’ said Lynn.
‘But it’s so true,’ continued Steve. ‘I’ve watched you as you ask
him not to do things – he ignores you – then you fail to deal with
the consequences. No wonder he plays up with you.’
‘You just bark at him,’ she replied.
‘You just let him run wild,’ hit back Steve.
‘Well, I’d rather he knew I loved him unconditionally,’ replied
‘Well, I’d rather he knew when he’d overstepped the mark,’ came
back Steve.
‘Steve, you’ve complained for years about your critical father, but
more and more you can only point out what he’s doing wrong,’
complained Lynn.
‘Well, if that’s the case, you’ve become your mother,’ replied
Steve. ‘You’ll do anything rather than upset him, so you now
have a five-year-old running your life.’
‘Steve, what else am I meant to do? You’re never home till after
eight. You’re normally exhausted and I’m being left to bring him
up on my own,’ protested Lynn, now exasperated by the conver-
‘Well, try doing my job,’ suggested Steve, unhelpfully.
‘No, try doing my job … and raising a child on your own,’ was
Lynn’s match-winning point.
Your parenting style
Parenting is one of the few jobs in life that is acquired without any
And yet, arguably, it’s the most important job in the world.
The process through which a new personality and the identity of
another person is forged and then moulded into shape is the great
wonder of parenting.
Lynn’s well aware that effective parenting combines the skills and
art of both mothering and fathering, in equal amounts. She feels
that, when it comes to fathering Nicky, Steve is not pulling his
weight and so she reminds him of this truth.
However, to be fair, he has only his own experience of being
parented as a child to draw on. And that was far from perfect.
Steve’s mother did nearly all of his parenting, both the mothering
and the fathering.
His dad was an emotionally remote man and overcritical when-
ever he spoke. He seemed to think it was his job in life to keep
little Steven in his place, as it were, to put him down and to keep
him there.
A sort of variation on the old theme of ‘being seen but not heard’
but, from an emotional perspective, more like ‘allowed to exist but
not to thrive’.
Steve’s father needed to be ‘in charge’ or at least to feel that he was.
For him, parenting was all about power.
Fathering meant discipline, threatening punishment and dishing
out his unique acidic form of sarcastic criticism.
Encouragement was definitely not a part of his parenting reper-
toire and praise was seen as a foreign language that only occasion-
ally Steve’s mother was allowed to use.
Steve cannot recall his father ever telling him that he loved him at
any time in his life. It is therefore no surprise that he in turn now
struggles to tell Nicky he loves him.
As it was in his family of origin, so it is now in Steve’s own family.
In reality, Lynn does most of the parenting.
And this involves aspects of fathering as well as mothering. In-
creasingly, Lynn is feeling resentful at being overburdened in this
When she raises the issue with Steve, it makes him feel uncom-
fortable, anxious and even angry. He senses that he’s not getting
it quite right with Nicky but he has no idea just where he’s going
wrong or how to fix it.
Lynn, on the other hand, overcompensates for Steve’s critical
sharpness with Nicky and at times finds herself over-indulging him
as a result.
Being a people pleaser like her mother, she cannot bear witnessing
Nicky squirm when she occasionally scolds him. At a deeper level,
she fears that, if she does, he might end up disliking her.
And that would be a significant threat to her already fragile self-
worth that she cannot risk.
Healthy parenting practices
Lynn once read that there is a set of healthy principles underlying
good parenting. She knows that if she gets these right, enough of
the time, then Nicky should turn out OK.
She remembers them to be:
Loving the person your child is – unconditionally
Of course, she realizes this means that she does not need to love
or necessarily like all of Nicky’s behaviour – even if she loves all of
him as a person.
Setting clear, understandable and consistent boundaries
to behaviour
Without boundaries, Nicky will be ‘all over the place’ – both physi-
cally and emotionally.
Only when clear boundaries to behaviour are consistently upheld
will the outside world appear rational, predictable and safe to
him. Only then will it make ‘sense’ to him and bring security to his
inner world. Always eager to please Nicky, Lynn is aware that she
struggles to consistently deliver on this one.
Respecting a child’s individuality
Lynn knows that Nicky needs to be allowed to be himself – to
develop his own unique personality. But Steve has a need to see
Nicky conform to his own personal likes and dislikes, just as his
dad did with him.
Having high yet realistic expectations
Well, this is a tough one for Steve. He’s constantly niggling at Nicky
in a negative way, very similar to how his own father behaved
– always making him feel that he had somehow fallen short of the
mark and was never ‘good enough’ to win his approval.
High expectations will give Nicky confidence that his parents be-
lieve in him and therefore help him build real confidence in him-
Realistic expectations will ensure he avoids being set up to fail.
Instead, he’s primed for success.
Parenting styles
Lynn and Steve’s parenting styles are out of balance:
• Steve is too autocratic and Lynn too permissive.
• Lynn does most of the mothering and the fathering while Steve
opts out.
• Lynn is emotionally over-involved with Nicky and meets her
own emotional needs through him.
• Steve, on the other hand, is emotionally both under-involved
and remote.
Lynn and Steve need to work out their parenting issues together,
so that they are talking the same language and are consistent in the
way they relate to Nicky.
Currently, Lynn says one thing to Nicky – and a moment or two
later, Steve contradicts it.
More confusing still is the fact that Steve will often clearly express
his views on behaviour to Nicky and then do the opposite him-
As a result, congruence between what his parents say and what
they do is lost. And as a consequence, so is Nicky!
Having said that, it comes as no surprise that when Steve develops
some stomach symptoms, he’s reluctant to go to the GP. Somehow
he sees physical illness as a sign of weakness.
In addition, because he was never adequately nurtured and parent-
ed as a child himself, he finds it alien to take care of himself in a
loving way now, as an adult – in other words to ‘parent himself’.
The skill of self-parenting is one of the secrets of being able to cope
with life.
This is both the process and practice of relating to oneself in the
way that a good parent would – with love, self-respect, self-accept-
ance, boundaries to behaviour, care, support, a sense of personal
responsibility and with self-encouragement.
Although Lynn and Steve are doing the best they can at the mo-
ment, given their own experiences of being parented as children
themselves, they need to learn to parent Nicky, themselves and
each other in a more balanced and effective way.
As a consequence, the confidence-sapping cycle of unhelpful fam-
ily parenting can be broken and their family life greatly enriched.
The lamb chops were consumed with very few words spoken.
Lynn was upset at the row that had broken out and began, inter-
nally, to blame herself for escalating the discussion.
Steve was fuming, wondering how a text question had provoked
such a blazing row.
‘I’m going to the phone shop tomorrow to find out how to stop
these bloody text questions,’ he insisted.
‘It’s not the questions that cause the rows, Steve,’ offered Lynn
insightfully. ‘It’s the answers.’
‘Either way, I’m fed up with it,’ said Steve.
‘Well, surely it’s good to discuss these things,’ said Lynn. ‘As long
as we’re both reasonable about it.’
‘Agreed,’ admitted Steve, reluctantly.
‘OK then,’ ventured Lynn, ‘if the question was “Who are you
parenting?” have you asked yourself who else apart from Nicky
that could refer to?’
‘Nope,’ said Steve, still in an uninterested manner.
‘Well, there’s your sales staff,’ said Lynn.
‘They’re old enough to look after themselves,’ snapped back
‘You said you’d be reasonable,’ chastised Lynn.
‘OK, OK,’ replied Steve. ‘And your point is?’
‘My point is that you need to be a good “dad” to your staff,’
suggested Lynn.
‘And love them unconditionally?’ he queried.
‘No, just respect them unconditionally,’ answered Lynn. ‘You
already set them clear boundaries and targets. And you treat
them as individuals. If you showed them a bit more respect, Dave
couldn’t accuse you of bullying them.’
Steve stopped to consider Lynn’s point. He knew she was right.
‘And while we’re on the subject of parenting,’ she continued, ‘I
sometimes feel you and Nicky are both behaving like kids and I’m
the only parent.’
‘I feel that when I organize all your paperwork and you don’t take
responsibility for yourself,’ replied Steve. ‘And when I point it out,
you behave like a disgruntled teenager.’
‘And what did you tell me this morning?’ came back Lynn. ‘You
told me I was sounding like your mum because I wanted to know
what the doctor told you.’
‘Well, maybe we both act as each other’s parents at times,’ said
‘Perhaps we could both act as adults once in a while then,’ sug-
gested Lynn.
‘What … and start acting responsibly?’ teased Steve. ‘How un-
imaginably awful!’

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