We’ve all seen them. Lurking there on the bookshelves in Borders, beckoning us with titles about happy, carefree, compliant children, and then threatening us with their how-to format, as though raising the perfect kid was possible in 10 easy steps and – what, yours doesn’t like aubergine? Doesn’t do up his shoes by two and a half? Isn’t reciting Homer’s Odyssey in Ancient Greek at bedtime by the age of six? For God’s sake, woman! Didn’t you follow the instructions?
Forgive me for stating the bleedin’ obvious, but children don’t come with operating manuals. Fortunately for them, they are not microwave ovens. Imagine the problems they would face at school if they were! All their school friends would want to reheat their lunches in them. On the upside, the ensuing psychotherapy sessions would be extremely straightforward: ‘Everyone just uses me!’ ‘That’s right. Now if you wouldn’t mind, I have a chicken kiev here I need to defrost, if you wouldn’t mind just…’
Books with alluring titles such as ‘The Contented Little Baby’, ‘The No-Cry Sleep Solution’, or ‘Happy Children’ all contain wonderful pieces of sound advice. However, they also undermine the reader’s sensitivity to their child’s uniqueness, dangling a golden carrot shaped like an impossibly well-behaved sproglet, and sending the innocent reader into such a tailspin of demoralisation that they feel they are a crap parent because their kids don’t act like the book says they should.
The guilt, the self-loathing this technique engenders is highly effective; people come back for more, because they feel they didn’t get it right the first time, or with this or that technique. A search for ‘parenting’ yields 72,260 hits on amazon.co.uk alone. Who are all these authors? How can parenting be so difficult it needs that many titles? And why are we so intrigued by the Holy Grail of perfect parenthood – are we really that addicted to success that we look for it even where it doesn’t apply?
Gina Ford. The name alone is enough to strike fear into the untrained cavemother. Despotic feeding and naptime timetables baffle the spontaneous, infuriate the anarchic and reduce the freedom-loving hippie to wails of misery.
It isn’t actually Ford’s routines that make these babies attain that ludicrously-vaunted triumph of ‘sleeping through the night’; it’s the way she advises mothers to put their babies to bed. Alone, in a dark room, in their cot, with the door shut, while still awake. Kiss your life goodbye, gals! No lunches with friends, baby snoozing away on the boob. No trips out to a restaurant of an evening. And most definitely NO HOLIDAYS!
Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution and supposedly Attachment Parenting-friendly, goes a step further and declares that if your 9 month old isn’t sleeping 12 hours a night consistently, he has a sleep disorder. Ding ding, out of the ring! You’ve failed, mamacita! He’s going to be SCARRED FOR LIFE!
Jesus. We have to give them something to resent us for when they’re teenagers, don’t we? If there are any readers out there unblemished by their parents’ ineptitude, please leave a comment. I am interested to know if there is any point even hoping.
Another book, Happy Children by Rudolph Dreikurs, from the Adlerian school of psychology (from which comes Family Constellations), has many genius ideas on how to encourage your kids to follow basic social guidelines, such as brushing their teeth, eating a meal with the family, and not smashing his school chums’ faces in.
However, his advice to show your child the logical consequences of their behaviour, inventing something else when the actual consequences are unthinkable (e.g. if Jimmy wants to run into the road, keep him playing indoors instead of letting him become roadkill) only really works on calm, practical-minded parents who are not on the verge of screaming down the street with frustration at their child’s obstinacy. How many parents of two year olds can keep their cool enough to work out a clever, rational strategy for not getting so stressed out?
The answer, I rather modestly proclaim, is the Cavemother mantra: WHATEVER WORKS. Turn it all on its end. So your toddler wants to sleep from 1am to 1pm? Great! You get the morning to yourself. She’ll only brush his teeth if you make up a crazy song about the Grand Old Duke of York’s ten thousand bums? Perfect for exercising your vocal chords! He won’t sleep unless he’s had eighteen squillion kisses and a hug you think will never end? Clearly going to be a fantastic lover when he grows up!
As every older mother will tell you, everything a kid goes through is ‘just a phase.’ How many thirty year olds do you know who sleep in their parents’ bed? Er…don’t answer that.
Rather than pounding your head against the brick wall of uselessness, the trick is to chuck out the unrealistic expectations that are the root of the problem. No theory can ever encompass the wonderful chaos that is a kid, nor replace the boundless creativity a parent will muster if necessary. Who’d want a robotic little creature that did whatever it was programmed to do? If you want a companion who’ll jump through hoops, get a dolphin.