Helen O’Callaghan speaks to parenting experts about being less than perfect with their own children and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
PARENTING lies somewhere between a brave, happy adventure and life’s toughest task.
As we all know, children don’t come with a manual, so we’re quick to search out the latest ‘how to’ parenting book, the expert advice.
And sometimes, while trying to take on board the many parenting commandments — remain calm no matter what; be conscious of your child’s feelings; guard the routines — you’re left wondering: is this possible all the time? Am I not human? Do the gurus always get it right?
We ask four ‘experts’, who work/write in the area of parenting — and are parents — what aspect of parenting they find a struggle. And if they’ve raised their kids, what do they wish in hindsight they’d done better?
Stella O’Malley, psychotherapist and author of Cotton Wool Kids, and husband Henry Thompson have two children — Róisín, seven, and Muiris, six.
“I’ve done a lot of study on childhood and the impact of parenting. I haven’t got parenting sorted,” says Stella.
“Some people are naturally calm — I can be impatient, moody and cranky. I know that’s not good parenting but it’s my personality.
“I have a very low threshold for ordinary whining. Other parents can turn the deaf ear — I have no ability to do that. I’m very aware that my children are aware of my flaws.
"My quick temper has transferred to my daughter and now I see it in my son.
“Children who have parents like Supernanny are lucky to have that consistency — staying calm is not what I bring to the table. But my children get somebody who’s fun, exciting and who’s very quick to sympathise.
“When I get cranky or impatient, I try not to apologise because I think that’s all about me. I’m very suspicious of parents who take their children by the shoulders, look into their eyes and say ‘I’m sorry’.
"Me, begging their forgiveness, isn’t fair on them — if I’ve lost my temper, I shouldn’t inflict making them forgive me on them.
“Instead I say: ‘you know Mammy loses the head. It’s not right. It’s not good behaviour. It’s one of my flaws’.
"I try to teach them to take it with a pinch of salt. Sometimes if I’m in the middle of losing it, I realise it and I wink at them, make a funny face, so at least I’ve lightened it.”
Golden rule: “Give them the gift of sleep. I’ve always taken sleep very seriously — naps, darkness in the room, the vibe going into sleep. If one of my kids is waking up and coming into Mammy, I don’t say ‘It’s just a phase’.
I try everything to find a solution. I recently moved my son into another room — the one he was in was a bit chilly and bright. It worked.”
Colman Noctor, child psychotherapist in St Patrick’s Mental Health Service and author of Cop On, is married to Karen and has three children — Ódhran, five, Layla, three and nine-month-old Harry.
“I could be watching a movie with my kids or they might be playing — the phone goes ‘bing’ and I feel compelled to check it,” says Colman. “I catch myself doing it a bit, though I’m better than I was.
“I’ll check to see if that email came in, though it’s taking away from the time I’m supposed to be spending with them. Then I see one of them dangling off the couch while I’ve been on the phone. I think ‘Colman, stop that, put that down, really be in the room with them, not just physically’.
“We’re all sold on the idea of multi-tasking, that it’s what we should be striving for. But it dilutes the intensity with which we should be doing an activity. It’s quite dismissive of people.”
Golden rule: “Keep parenting real. It’s human-to-human interaction. When you find your child writing with crayons on the wall, [standard parenting advice is] stay calm but a normal reaction is ‘what the hell is this?’ Don’t go away for two hours feeling bad about it.
"You can react and then manage your reaction afterwards and your kids will be okay. You can’t get parenting perfect — it’s about learning to fail better.”
Orla McHugh, psychotherapist and author of Celtic Cubs, Inside the Mind of an Irish Teenager, has two grown-up children, Carl, 25, and Chloe, 22.
“My one regret is that I didn’t push them academically as much as I should,” says Orla.
“I didn’t insist on them studying in the evenings if they were on their computer. I focused on their sociability and their social skills.
“I felt, as a single parent, my children were disadvantaged not having a father around. It drove me to be more lenient around not pushing them, even in areas they were good at.
"My daughter’s a really fast runner, a good sportswoman. She’d go to trials and win without training — she had no interest in training really hard five days a week after school.
“When they were teenagers, I was writing my book and advocating authoritative parenting, part of which involves sitting down and discussing things with them so the child doesn’t always lose — letting them win some battles.
“They’re both very bright and competent. Neither went to college but they’re doing well — Carl is managing a restaurant in Sydney and Chloe is about to start a course in beauty therapy and retail sales.”
Golden rule: “Listen to children. Allow them express their feelings. Mine were allowed to get angry, to say and do what they wanted and then we’d resolve it. Within that, you can teach them negotiation skills.”
Clinical psychologist and mental health campaigner Dr Eddie Murphy and his wife Carol have two boys — Oisín, seven and Darragh, five.
“Some of the knowledge I have as a psychologist is advantageous regarding child behaviour and development, but I can still be blind-sided by parenthood — a good thing, I suppose, because it shows I’m a human being first,” says Eddie.
“One of my guys is a fussy eater. We try to get what we can into him, to get him to have a good balanced diet. But it’s really frustrating and I get quite stressed by it. He isn’t great on vegetables and protein.
"He’s big into fruit — he compensates a lot with that. He mightn’t eat a regular dinner. Looking at his diet in the course of a week, either he’s not eating enough or he’s not getting a varied diet.
“We try not to put pressure on him and we provide repeated opportunities to try different foods. But I’m thinking: Is he getting enough nutrition, enough protein? Is he going to get sick?
Can he do sports? I feel upset, distressed, irritated and frustrated trying to deal with it. I have to try to work that out.”
Golden rule: “I believe in the importance of rules, roles and routines. Rules — that ‘no’ means ‘no’. Roles — ‘I’m the parent, you’re the child’. Routines — providing structure, which gives the child predictability and a sense of security.”
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