It’s an interesting exercise to sit in MacDonald’s Family Restaurant (or any other common eating place for families) and observe the styles of parenting that come in and out, spending that special family time together.
There are those parents who are obviously very much in control and you wonder if this really is a treat for the children or not. They yell, they threaten, their tone is harsh. The children usually obey meekly, perhaps it is out of fear. There doesn’t appear to be much joy or fun in this relationship.
Then there are the parents who do want this to be a happy experience for the children – even if it is at the expense of their own needs. To a casual observer it does seem to be “all about the kids” – what they want to eat, where they want to sit, how they want to eat. These parents certainly want to give their children a special time, but there seem to be few boundaries and these parents look harried and even resentful.
Then there are the “uninvolved” parents. I wonder if they even realise their kids are crawling under the tables, doing fingerprint with the ice-cream or yelling so loud the other customers are having trouble hearing each other.
The fourth style of parents I have noticed are the ones I want to be like. They are involved. This treat is both for them and their kids. There is discussion and agreement. As they enter the restaurant there is a quiet reminder about keeping voices down and respecting other people. At the counter they are given the boundaries: We can have anything in this column guys, or This is your price limit. You can have anything you like under that price. As they sit together there is laughter and animated conversation.
I can recall times when I have been every kind of parent you’d wish to see at McDonald’s. I can be grumpy, harsh and selfish. I can be too soft and just give in. I can ignore them, not even realising the impact on others.
And just now and then, I have managed to actually be WITH my kids. We would talk about what the rules were before we got there. We would look forward to this treat and anticipate what fun we’d have together. I would try to stick to what I had said and stay within the limits we had agreed on.
When we do get it right our kids are aware of others’ needs and not just their own. They can enjoy a treat and because they don’t get everything they want all the time it is special and becomes a warm memory..
Yes, it probably does sound idealistic. Even though we know what we “should” be like, We naturally fall into one of the other parenting styles most of the time, especially if we are tired or not thinking and falling back into what comes naturally. Maybe that’s the way we were parented, or maybe it’s a knee-jerk reaction because of a negative past experience.
The important thing is to be aware of ourselves and what parenting style we are falling into, and keep working on being WITH our children: to have that balance of clear boundaries and structure yet also warmth and nurture. To be firm but also fun.
To be consistent and stick to what we say, but also be kind and understanding, even changing our minds if the situation requires it.
Next time you take the family out for a treat, watch over your own shoulder…. which parent are you?