Parenting like your parents

By Dianne Rinehart on May 05, 2008
The soap treatment was a throwback. Stallknecht’s father, a former RCMP constable, had washed out her mouth with soap once, when she’d been caught swearing. Such is the tightrope that moms and dads walk; between doing what their parents once did to them, and striking out on routes that, while touted by experts, are less proven.

Judith Law, 40, decided to use the ‘time out’ method of discipline rather than her own parents’ strict disciplinarian style. So were her parents impressed? Law remembers the first time she gave her three-year-old daughter, a ‘time out’. Her mother’s eyes filled with tears because she couldn’t bear hearing Acacia screaming. “It was obvious that both my parents thought we were mean. But that’s a far cry from my own experience with them as a kid. They were very strict with me, but they can’t say no to their grandchildren!” says Law, who works for the B.C. Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver. “Whenever we got out of control, there was the evil eye and the unbuttoning of the belt from my dad. My mother’s strategy was to either distract us or ignore us until we tired of asking.”

As immigrants (of Chinese origin from Brunei), her parents’ focus was on how to feed the family. They didn’t have time to
think about the subtleties in raising their children. Law admits that she’s not completely successful in blocking her inner parents. She says, “Both my parents yelled, and I do raise my voice. I try to stop it, but it’s hard. And pointing! My mother used to point all the time, and when I’m scolding, I find myself wagging my finger!” That said, she would never force her child to eat everything on the dinner plate because experts say it causes anxiety disorders. “With my parents you ate what was on your plate before you were allowed to leave the table,” she says. There’s another huge difference between the two generations. Age is almost certainly a factor. She says, “I had my son, Bryce, when I was 39. My mother had her first child at 19!”

The psychology factor

Law and Stallknecht’s angst about what is the right parenting style is relatively new in the historical scheme of parenting.
They’re resisting what for generations of parents was unquestioned, says Deanna Behnke-Cook, who teaches sociology at
McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, specializing in children, youth and society. Often the fight to change is in vain. “In
short, we are absolutely likely to parent as we were parented – up to a point,” she says. That doesn’t mean we are ‘doomed’ to become our parents – especially if they were abusive. “We’re more educated than previous generations, and tend to be more academic in our parenting than our parents – and sometimes that’s a good thing, but sometimes not so much.”
The ‘not so much’ is a sentiment with which Law identifies. While today’s parents are told to use ‘time outs’ to discipline,
and ask kids, respectfully, three times to stop scribbling on the wall, she says that strategy’s now being questioned. It doesn’t always work. “Acacia will be given a time out and sent to her room where she dances and sings and enjoys herself. It doesn’t help!” So Law finds herself harkening back to her parents’ style on some issues, and that may not be such a bad thing.

Who’s the boss?
“We suffer from ‘expert-itis’,” sociologist Behnke-Cook says. “We head off to the family physician, read books and magazines, get on the Internet. While those things can be extremely helpful, a lot of people don’t trust their own instincts. As a result, we have this double-mindedness about parenting. It’s important to have your own sense of what it is you want to do and what you know in your heart is the proper thing to do.” Parents often question themselves about whether they’ll damage their child’s self-esteem if they challenge them when they believe their kids are lying, or go through their kid’s room if they have suspicions about their activities. “It’s common sense. If my child is in peril, would I stand around thinking about it, or would I jump in, knowing that something has to be done and I’m going to be the one who takes charge?” Stallknecht questions herself. She had loving parents. “Dad was very strict, but very understanding, and gave us a lot of chances. We never wanted for anything. It was an excellent nucleus for us.” When she was a child, her family moved 35 times before she was 18 because of her father’s transfers. She’s determined Erik won’t go through that. “It was difficult,” says Stallknecht who
has lived in the same house with Erik since 1994. When she was growing up, however, her home was always party central for her friends and she repeats this behaviour. She tries to give Erik big borders – a huge bandwidth – that he can experiment in without her freaking out. It seems to be working.

And then there’s step-parenting
When you have two kicks at the can, the experience of parenting can be even more complicated. John Wright, a Toronto-based senior vice-president with Ipsos-Reid, has approached parenting from two experiences – with his first wife and their two children, Jamie, 17, and Katie, 18, and with his second wife and their two children, Olivia, six, and Joshua, five. His own parenting style, in both instances, was to make sure he wasn’t a disciplinarian like his father, who believed in corporal punishment. “I have a reaction to how my parents used it. It took many years for me to make peace with my dad. I think
that’s the case with many people. “Then there’s the change in the attitudes of the schools that should be acknowledged. I came from a time when my Grade 12 teacher smacked us across the back of the head. It was a temper of the times, but not now.”

Wright has been given an opportunity to parent twice, and likens the change in his parenting style between how parents treat their first child – when they boil the baby bottles – and their second, when they simply run them under the tap. And there’s something else. Because he’s more established in his career, he has more free time to spend with his second set of kids, time he’s now focusing on his older son, too (his daughter is at university in Montreal). “We’re finding things we can do together,” he says, recalling their recent trip to England. Wright, 50, says that in his second marriage he has found that moral suasion works. When Jamie was having problems in school, Wright’s reaction was to clamp down and withdraw privileges, as his parents would have. “We got into some tough arguments and it didn’t work.” Wright tried both encouragement and tutors. “It didn’t work. It almost got worse.” Then he found his happy medium. “I said, ‘Listen, this is your life. If you make decisions like you’re making right now, you may not have as many options as you go forward.’” Wright says, “I made my peace with it and let go. I didn’t want the conflict. I didn’t want my life consumed with frustration, banging my head against the wall and giving myself heart palpitations. Some will say that’s being a bad parent, that I was giving up. I’m not. I provide the basics and I encourage.” Part of Wright’s decision is in reaction to his own parents. He says, “I’m conflicted in that I’m trying to be an influence, but not the ruler. I liken my style to a big ranch with wide borders. If you get a big enough farm, they can’t see the fence. They think they’re free range.” The one thing he can’t change is the impact of the divorce on his first set of kids. “I think it was really horrific on all of us. But I have to realize my two oldest kids are independent. To some degree you disengage, and that’s very different from my parents. There comes a time when the training wheels are off. You see how the next little ones deal with stuff – and then we’ll see if either or both of these experiments worked.”

An absence of grandparents

What do you do if your parents aren’t around to consult by the time you do have children? It may be that there is a tendency to remember what was good and repeat those memories. Comedian and actress Robin Duke’s parents both died before she had her son, Augie, now 12, at the age of 40. She found herself relying on experts, like her doctor, for the ‘silliest’ things that parents normally ask of their own parents. “I would call my paediatrician in the middle of the night – the point when I normally would have called my mother. It was just for reassurance that it was going to be okay,” says the former Saturday Night Live troupe member, who is now on a cross- Canada trip with her five-women comedy production, Women Fully Clothed. Interestingly, the show deals humourously with noveau parenting styles. Still, she worries she may pass on qualities about herself to her son that she may have picked up from her mother.

By Dianne Rinehart| May 05, 2008

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