By Kate Forster
I have been thinking about parenting. My children are now adults. Well, as close to as possible, with the youngest only six months away from being 18.
They’re both funny, smart. They work hard, they’re kind, they are strong and they have a strong sense of social justice. I am proud of my part in their upbringing and prouder of them managing to get over the worst parts of my parenting.
As I get older, I see what made a difference and what didn’t, where I wasted energy worrying about things that didn’t matter, and where I was right to remind them to push a little harder in their own life. This is also based on watching other kids and their families, as well as the kids who have taken refuge in our house away from their dickhead parents. I have had several children here, so I get it.
I’ve had to try and reason with mothers who don’t understand why their behaviour might be contributing to their child’s mental health crisis.
I fostered one child because the parent refused to stop drinking and kick the abusive boyfriend out. I’ve had 2am calls from desperate kids who have made bad choices and need an adult to help them without judgement. I’ve done pickups from parks at 4am for drunk teenage girls. I’ve told parents off for pushing so hard their kid was on the edge, ready to jump. I’ve sat with a kid and told him it wasn’t his fault his mum killed herself after he found her body. I have taught kids how to set boundaries with their parents. I have listened when my own kids tell me how I can do better.
Here is my list of “do”s and “don’t”s when raising kids:
Don’t be a tiger parent. Don’t demand they practise until they hate the thing they’re learning. Just because you didn’t get to learn the violin doesn’t mean they want to. They will hate it and you in equal parts in the future and hold it against you. Start saving for therapy now if you continue this.
Don’t push them at school. Get them to pass and teach work ethic. My kid just passed her final year but focussed on her passions. She is now going to graduate with a double degree and is starting her Masters in what she loved since she was small.
Don’t go away on holidays for weeks on end and leave them behind. I’m not talking about a weekend away and they get spoiled while staying with beloved grandparents or rellies. I’m talking four weeks in Europe and they’re stuck with a nanny. They remember. This will come up in therapy. It’s called abandonment and it’s going to bite you in the bum one day, hard. Real hard. Keep adding to the therapy fund if you do this too often.
Don’t lecture your kids about not drinking when you drink every night in front of them. Tell your kids not to try drugs but be there if they do. You can’t stop them, you really can’t. Educate them about safe choices instead. And remind them that they are not going to be punished or in trouble if they call an ambulance if a friend reacts badly to a drug. This one is vital when they’re teenagers.
Tell them to have sex when they’re ready when they feel really okay with it, and not before. Give them the power, and they will make the best decision for them, based on their feelings and self-knowledge.
Teach them to laugh at themselves more than they laugh at others.
Teach them self-awareness. Really. Stop with the selfies kiddo. Not as many people are looking at you as you think they are. They are worrying people are looking at them.
Don’t worry about the Year 3 teacher. Ten years later and you won’t remember their name. Help your kid find out what they’re good at and build their interests and co-curricular activity around that.
Ask them to try a food 10 times over a few years before they decide they truly hate it.
Ask them to wait six months before they give up the instrument they are learning. If they still loathe it, then it’s gone. My son said he wanted to give up guitar. We waited the six months and now he’s studying it for his final year because he loves it so much.
Tell them being a kind person will get them further socially, than just being smart.
Tell them you enjoy parenting them, often and always. Don’t make them feel like crap for being born. That was your decision, not theirs.
Don’t pay for them to go to a private school and then make them feel guilty about the fees. Again, that was your decision.
Don’t tell them you need “grown up time”. That’s a nasty and invalidating thing to say. Find grown up time. You’re a grown up.
Answer every question as honestly as you can. Children remember the lies.
Don’t live through them. Let them shine on their own terms.
Work. Have a job. Contribute and teach them a work ethic.
Spending quantity time with them is more important than ‘quality time’ – there is no such thing. They don’t remember the “special” time. They just remember the time. The gaps of you not being there create anxiety and they turn on each other. Be present.
Tell them you love them, even when you don’t like their behaviour. We all are revolting at times, even adults. Don’t expect them to be perfect when you’re not.
Saying no is good when it is going to protect them from themselves.
Don’t mess around with mental health. See a professional as soon as possible. There is no shame in medication or hospitalisation or getting therapy. In fact, your kid will grow their emotional intelligence from seeing how things work in their own head and out in the world.
Today’s gossip will be replaced by something else at school tomorrow. Lie in bed with them all night if you’re worried. Stroke their hair, tell them stories about when they were little and how loved they are, tell them about when you were pregnant with them. Remind them they are wanted and loved and they can and will survive what is happening.
Ask them about pop culture and things you don’t get. Find out about their lives and what is in it. Don’t dismiss it because you don’t get it. Learn their language, enter their world, and they will enjoy teaching you about it all.
Lie in bed with them all night if you’re worried. Stroke their hair, tell them stories about when they were little and how loved they are
Laugh at yourself, and often.
Say sorry for when you are a s— parent. It matters to them. It also teaches them how to apologise to others.
Don’t tell your kids they owe you because you feed and clothe them. You’re supposed to do that, you absolute idiot. You don’t get respect for doing the bare minimum!
If your kid hates you, then there is a reason, and most likely, you caused that. Sorry, but you did. Sort it out, now. Be honest with yourself and be accountable and try to fix your part in it.
Don’t invalidate their feelings. To not have your feelings heard and recognised is a form of child abuse. If they are upset, acknowledge it first, then respond. Don’t tell them not to cry, instead ask them to talk about it.
If you have a boy, then teach him to name his feelings. Use emotional words so he becomes fluent in them. Are you happy, sad, anxious, worried, angry, tired and so on? This helps them to be able to actually say what they feel, instead of just bottling it up inside.
All of this comes from raising my kids and other children who have passed through my doors looking for help with their life issues, and their home life. These are the things that mattered, and I hope they help some other parents who might be over-thinking it all. After all, it’s not rocket science; if I can do it, anyone can.
Kate Forster is a Melbourne young-adult author and blogger.