A funny thing happened along the way of becoming a parent – I instantly saw my own parents and parents-in-law in a completely different light.
It was like a lightning bolt of understanding that could only really come from first hand experience.
Ahh so this is what they went through all those years ago when faced with a screaming baby.
This is how they felt when making the whole parenting gig up on the fly.
Cause really, as much as we like to pretend otherwise with our children, the rules and reality of how they grow up are completely made up constructs designed by us, the parents.
Until they work that out, we are the gods that shape the boundaries of their little worlds. We tell them no, we tell them yes, and we tell them maybe later (read: no but I don’t want to have an argument about it right now in the supermarket).
We also teach our children manners and the difference between right and wrong. Indeed, we teach them dozens of lessons every day and they, in return, teach us just as much back about patience, expectations and love. It’s an intense but life-affirming exchange.
The bit where it can get tricky though is when you have to parent your child in front of your own parents or parents-in-law.
I guarantee you at some point you will find yourself in an awkward moment, a parental trap where your own authority is undermined by the forces that used to rule your world or that of your partner.
It may come in the form of an audible sigh, teenage-worthy eye-rolling, a comment muttered under the breath, fudging ground rules, making secret pacts, or perhaps outright questioning of your parenting style.
Perhaps like me, you will get a twinge of rage somewhere deep inside as you feel yourself turning into Cartman from South Park. How dare they not respect mah authoritaaaaaaay!
From there you might plummet unexpectedly into self-doubt or embarrassment. Oh gosh, maybe they are right. Maybe I am being too hard/soft/reactionary/new age/conservative in my parenting approach.
And then you may stand up straight, crack your neck to the left and right, and smile diplomatically before continuing on with whatever parenting you were doing before interrupted. You pray all the while that you have escaped the parental trap.
Ok, so maybe I’m speaking a little bit from experience here. I love my mother and mother-in-law but they have completely polar opposite approaches to parenting and I sit somewhere in between them.
One is the definition of a helicopter parent, hovering literally above her grandson’s head at all times and removing any potential risk/fun within a 5km radius. The other prefers an approach that is so laidback it is practically horizontal.
Grandson is licking dog fur off the floor? At least it’s good for his immune system. He is reaching for a loaded nail gun? Oh, he’ll learn.
If I engage one, I feel like a hippy. If I engage the other, I feel like a wound-up neurotic. And I don’t think I’m alone on this one. I’ve heard plenty of stories of friends falling into their own parental traps.
“You want some chocolate [at 7pm]? Just don’t tell mum, she’s a bit funny you know.”
“Ohh, I would never have allowed you to still have a dummy at that age…”
“The poor petal, you can’t let her scream herself to sleep”
“I just want to give him gifts, where’s the harm in making him happy?”
“Are you sure he should play with that?”
So what to do? Any open questioning or undermining, particularly in front of the child, is going to inject some ambiguity into the rules you and your partner have established. So if that’s happening and you want to confront, then find a time when the child is not around to explain the logic and goal behind your approach.
Otherwise, if it’s manageable, then maybe just take the high road and let it be.
The parental trap is, after all, one made from love and good intent…even if does give you a facial twitch from time to time.
Do you have any of your own experiences to share? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below.