Expert parenting advice–for free!

As a mother, a teacher, and a general expert on everything, I have some pretty firm ideas about child rearing.  There are oodles of books, blogs, friends, mothers-in-law, even tigers it seems, positively filled to the brim, nay, overflowing, with advice on just about every aspect of human husbandry you can imagine.  It wouldn’t be so bad if the advice were at least consistent, but it’s subject to change without notice.  Feed him on a schedule.  Feed him when he wants.  Teach her sign language at six months.  Don’t interfere with the natural development of her cognitive abilities. The received wisdom in my time was to put babies to sleep on their tummy, so they wouldn’t aspirate their own puke.  Now it seems that I practically condemned my darlings to death, and only a miracle prevented the three of them from transforming a light nap to the big sleep.

So, intrepid as ever, I’m wading into some pretty treacherous waters.  But, as my friends and fans know, I’m never one to flinch at an opportunity to hand out gratuitous advice. So here it is, my one and only rule for you, new parents (and, you know, it’s not too late for some of you not-so-new parents).

The sun does not shine out of your child’s ass.

This might seem blindingly obvious, but I’m positively gob-smacked by the number of otherwise well-adjusted adults who have allowed their infant to become a be-diapered household tyrant.  Yes, yes, yes—I know that they need attention, love, and all that other stuff.  That is NOT what I’m talking about.  What I’m talking about is when the kid is allowed to call the shots.  When the kid is the one to set the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable behaviour, and not the adult.  One of my duties in my current job is to meet new pupils before they start Year 7 and lay down the law to them. I can always tell which ones will be trouble:  they’re the ones whose body language and verbal clues display contempt for their parents.  When I get to know them better, a clear pattern emerges: the kid decides when to do homework, what to eat, and in what way he will make his parents’ lives miserable on the weekend.  The parents have abdicated their role, and the child, naturally, has filled the vacuum.   I’ve talked to many of these parents, and another clear pattern has emerged:  they didn’t want to interfere with the child’s freedom by putting unnatural constraints that could inhibit the development of his obvious (if perplexingly latent) genius.  In sum, they thought the sun shone out of the kid’s ass.  This worldview has nothing to do with the parents’ class, status, or education.  And the ill effects of holding this opinion can begin at a disturbingly early age.  I know—I learned the hard way.

Child number one was a blissfully perfect baby until the age of six months.  That’s when Junior decided that he was a nocturnal animal after all, and that 2:00 AM was when we should all par-tay.  Like clockwork, he would wake, scream, get changed, nurse, cuddle, be put back to bed, wake, scream, nurse, cuddle, be put back to bed, wake, scream—well, you get the picture.  Now, we all know that I’m a highly intelligent person, but even I was taken in by this idiocy for four months.  The worst four months of my life, I might add (and I hope you’re reading this, Junior).

Dragging my sorry ass into the office was not a pleasant affair for anyone concerned.  Only the ingestion of several gallons of coffee made me anything approaching coherent.  As I was bemoaning my fate to my patient secretary, she visibly gulped before asking in a falsely nonchalant tone, ‘Did you ever think of letting him scream?’

I looked at her in amazement.  What, not cater to the little dictator?  What an extraordinary idea! What a revelation!

Not being totally heartless, I, of course, did the responsible thing and had the paediatrician check him over for any obvious physical defects that might result in insomnia (although, as I bitterly recounted to my lovely doctor, he didn’t seem to have any difficulty sleeping during the day).  And that night we implemented Operation Earplug.  Instead of pandering to him, we would go in every twenty minutes and say (in a loving way), ‘Yeah.  We’re here.  Now get your butt back to sleep.’  And then we left the room.  It took four nights—he roared for four


hours one night, two the next, a half-hour the third, a nanosecond the fourth—but it worked.

A baby’s butt. See the difference?

In fact, now in his late twenties, he could probably still sleep through a nuclear detonation in the next building.

That experience was an epiphany.  The baby, young as he was, was still an intelligent human who had realised that there was a weakness, and exploited it.  Who wouldn’t?  Once the breach was fixed, he reverted to being the delightful baby he had once been.  We, his parents, now thoroughly refreshed, were able to engage with each other fully as adults, with the birth of child number two as a consequence.  But that’s another story.  The point is, we learned our lesson.  Parents need to be the adults and set the boundaries.

Because that’s what makes it possible for us to get along:  boundaries.  Without them, we learn to love only ourselves and ignore the rights and needs of others.  Always one to relish a paradox, I cannot help but point out that, without these boundaries—these limitations on our autonomy—we actually lose our autonomy.  And wouldn’t that just suck?  By setting up boundaries (not too many, only a few are really needed) and by sticking to them, you give your child the gift of freedom.

So, the next time you’re changing Tarquin’s or Sophie’s juicy diaper, take a good, long look at what’s going on down there.  Something is streaming out—but it ain’t sunshine, honey.




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