Earlier in the week, Ted and I went to Brent Cross shopping centre to indulge in what we like to call post-recession-environmentally-responsible shopping: ie, going into the Early Learning Centre and playing with all the toys we have no intention of buying. He found a little ride-on car, sat astride it, then waved his arms flamboyantly in the air and yelled “Come on, people, I haven’t got all day!”
I’ve dined out on the story all week: I posted it as a facebook status and everyone thought it was hilarious. Nevertheless, at the time, a tiny little part of me cringed and died. You see, there can be only one person he learned that from. Tom works all week and seldom drives when we’re all together. So my precious baby is learning road rage from me. It’s very disheartening, because I’ve always thought I was quite a calm driver – very patient, very Zen about being stuck in traffic, but it seems from the little parrot/ mirror who is my constant companion, that’s not true. I suppose, when I think about it, I do hate dawdlers, stupid people who drive four-by-fours they can neither steer nor park, people who don’t know where they’re going and stop-start along the road, people who tailgate when I’m going at the speed limit, people who don’t indicate on roundabouts, the infernal plague of learner drivers who use our quiet road to practise their £$%^&ing three-point turns, not to mention… er, well. Maybe I’m not so Zen after all.
With that in mind, I felt my heart sink when Action for Happiness pointed out this fascinating article about what makes a good parent. It’s not another fluffy opinion piece in a parenting magazine, it’s a serious study by a noted psychologist, published in Scientific American. I can’t begin to understand the details of how they gathered the information, but it seems that they studied the outcomes of multiple parenting studies to work out the ten key predictors for producing happy, successful children. Number one, unsurprisingly, is love and affection. But number two and three on the list actually have little or nothing to do with the child… they are the parent’s ability to manage their own stress, and the parent’s ability to maintain a healthy relationship with their co-parent.
When I think about it, it doesn’t surprise me at all that parents’ stress management is so important, because I remember being a child myself. In hindsight I would say my parents, particularly my father, were very poor at managing stress. In traumatic situations, he tended to freak out and yell. I remember, as a small child, that awful feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach if something went wrong, even if it had nothing to do with me, like a car breakdown. Children are so egotistical, they think everything is about them, and as an extension, that everything bad that happens in their world is their fault. As I got older, I found that it was easier to hide things from my father. He would be the last person I would turn to if I was in trouble, because
I knew his response to difficulty would make things worse, not better.
When I had Ted, more than 16 years after I had my first child, many people said to me, “Well, of course it’ll be easier this time around. You’re so much more mature, so much more patient.” Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve had 16 more years of adult life, and, since Matt became more self-sufficient, lots of years of autonomy, freedom and a successful career. I’m definitely less flexible and (as is shown by my driving style), utterly without patience. Parenting is often about loss of control, especially about things like time management, standards of tidiness, and whether you get to meet that freelance deadline or not, because there are books to be read aloud, Lego towers to be built and stickers to be stuck. It seems that for Ted’s happiness (and my own blood pressure), I’ll have to learn to be better at managing my stress when things don’t move at my usual breakneck pace, or run as smoothly as I hoped.
Do read the article: it’s fascinating, not least because it debunks all sorts of stereotypes. Ethnicity and age are not significant in making good parents. Gay parents rate slightly better than straight parents (although he says that’s not statistically significant, it did make me utter a big fat “Hah!” for all the fantastic gay parents I know who have faced prejudice). And raising children to be autonomous and independent is as important, if not more, than obsessing about their safety. Right. I’m off to meditate in a dark room while Ted cooks dinner.