We can work it out

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am


Parents' biggest battles with their children are often over the smallest things: refusing to share a favourite toy with a sibling, leaving a supermarket without buying that special snack, saying goodbye at the end of a play date. For Kendra Moran and her eight-year-old daughter, Keira, the flashpoint was clothes.

'We fought endlessly over what she would wear; she wanted flip-flops and shorts when it was cold outside; I wanted her to wear a pretty dress I'd bought for church,' says Moran, a mother of three. 'She's always been eloquent beyond her years and after one of our shouting arguments, Keira said, 'Mummy, you need to let me make some of my own decisions sometimes'. I realised I needed to change my parenting strategy.'

Most of us feel the ABCs of raising children should come naturally, but parents find it's just not that simple. Like Moran, growing numbers are turning to parenting experts for help with conflict resolution, open communication and emotional support. And why not, asks the American, who used to work in ad sales. 'For many of us who have had careers, it's simply a case of looking at it like professional development or training. You have to do it with any craft you might learn, so why should parenting be any different?'

A wide number of courses are available in Hong Kong and experts are on hand to help negotiate the perilous waters of parenting. Katherine Sellery and Clarys Nan Jamieson have been teaching Dr Thomas Gordon's Parent Effectiveness Training (Pet) course in the city for the past eight years. They were Moran's first point of contact, and some of their tips have had a marked effect on her relationship with her daughter.

'When it's nine degrees outside, I'll look out the window and say 'it's freezing, do you want to take a sweater or change your clothes?' She always says she'll bring a sweater and sometimes she is cold! But instead of forcing her to do it my way and making her hate me, she's made that choice to be cold herself.'

The situations and themes are age-old, Sellery says. 'The problems, the heartaches, resentment - they are all the same. If you use a 'power over' approach to parenting, eventually you will reap the harvest of at least one of the three Rs [retaliation, rebellion, resentment]'.

Jamieson adds: 'The most important skill we teach parents is how to listen to or hear the child, or other person. We teach parents how to understand the child's experience of a situation. This changes the entire relationship between child and parent.'

As they see it, it's about meeting everyone's needs and keeping all involved satisfied. Parenting is tricky, and communicating effectively with our children requires us to be conscious of hidden messages, and how our own behaviour can deteriorate when we are 'triggered' by something our children may do or say.

Margaret Yeh, who also has three children, first signed up for parenting courses after a blow-up triggered by her eldest son, Alex.

'We had family coming in from out of town on a brief visit and I was running around, wanting the house to look just right everything to be perfect. The guests stayed too long and the children were tired. Before they left they wanted a family photo so I got the camera out, and two of the children flatly refused to take part. I started by bribing, then threatening and finally shouting; it got really unpleasant. My eldest had a huge fit, he was being blatantly rebellious and it was so embarrassing. I lost control, and in retrospect I can see I wasn't taking the kids' feelings into account. And the house was messy, so what? The parenting courses taught me to manage myself and be an advocate first for myself and my family - and not insist on something because it's publicly expected.'

As with everything, however, it's a matter of balance.

Lolita Schmalenberg, lower school guidance counsellor at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong, runs workshops and courses on parenting. She says one of the most common parenting mistakes is misunderstanding that limits are important and actually help children to feel safe - particularly young children.

'Sometimes, the best thing we can do as a parent is to say no. Our job is to recognise the moments our children need us to be the parents. When their behaviour is in conflict with family values, when their behaviour is going to put them in jeopardy, a parent needs to protect the child by saying no and teaching them a different way to behave'.

Judy Chan Yuet-wah, a consultant from the Hong Kong Family Welfare Society, who also runs parenting courses, agrees: 'One of the most common mistakes parents make is to be too child-oriented. We don't dare give our children responsibility and goals. The result is today, parents tend to be overprotective and think children are fragile and delicate.'

It's never too late to learn new techniques, says Schmalenberg. A course is relevant at all ages, from small children right through to young adults. When it comes to teenagers, she says, effective parenting is equally as important. Teens, even boys, still need to be hugged and reminded how valuable they are; to realise their parents absolutely love them and that they are valued for who they are.

Sellery and Jamieson, who encourage more parents of teenagers to attend their classes, echo these sentiments.

'I think there is an erroneous belief that teenagers are rebellious and difficult no matter what a parent does,' says Jamieson. 'This is a time where children are beginning to strive for independence, and experience more adult-like behaviour. It's also a time when parents need to influence their teens, but will not have this by using an approach based on punishments and rewards. Teenagers will turn to their peers for advice and counsel because they have learned that their parents can't handle the truth.

'We believe this is the time kids need their parents the most, as they are experiencing pitfalls and mistakes on their path to adulthood. However, parents - when they discover these 'mistakes' - usually punish, instead of using them to teach and explore adult solutions. This is why teens learn early they cannot trust their parents.'

No matter the age of the child, establishing open communication seems to be key, and something most parents are searching for.

'The advice did make a difference to my relationship with Keira,' says Moran. 'Now I hear the uncomfortable conversations; she tells me everything. It's good to know what's going on in your child's life because Hong Kong is such a pressure cooker and everyone gets caught up in it.'

With the city being such a cultural melting pot, do experts have to tailor their advice depending on who they are teaching?

Schmalenberg says our upbringing is clearly evident in how we parent our own children.

'Naturally, culture plays a primary role in parenting. Whether Asian or North American, an effective parent needs to find the balance of offering appropriate amounts of freedom to explore, learn and develop within safe limits and values. Even among mixed cultural families, the two parents need to determine what values are important to them and discuss how they hope to teach these to their children.'

Sellery and Jamieson agree. 'On the surface it may appear there are differences between cultures, but, on closer examination, I don't think they are that different,' says Sellery. 'We have read about the tiger mums and dads, but I don't think this is simply a Chinese characteristic. For example, we have taught many child concert pianists from various backgrounds and none of them will go near a piano today. They were forced to play as children, and achieved great things, but there was so much emotional pain associated with it they won't go near a piano as adults. The rebellion is very strong.'

What is different, says Schmalenberg, is that today both parents are more aware of their importance. 'In the past, many thought parenting was a one-woman job. Now both parents understand their influence in raising their child. Today's parents really try to do what they think is best for the child.'

Parenting classes are open to everyone - dads, foster parents and grandparents - and they don't have to be a one-off thing.

Parents like Yeh have sat the same course several times, while attending a host of other lectures and classes. In some cases, the student became the teacher. 'I took Pet for the first time 15 years ago' says Sellery. 'I resat the class every year for five years before I became a certified instructor, and I have been teaching since 2004.'

So what do the experts believe are the most important lessons from a parenting course?

Chan says parent-child relationships are not a matter of skill and there are no fast fixes. 'It's an art of love and it takes time.' Our kids need our compassion the most, when they seem to deserve it the least, says Sellery.

'Really seeing this requires a lot of understanding about how kids show us when they are 'drowning'; times when they are not able to meet their needs. Just this shift in perspective can engender a compassionate hand rather than a heavy one. Behaviour is a child's loudest form of communication.'

It's embarrassingly simple, agrees Moran, who says, in hindsight, a large component of the course was common sense. 'If you respect their opinions they will be comfortable sharing them with you; if you yell at your kids, they will shut down. It's all too easy to lose sight of the 'why' when your child is having a tantrum. I definitely have a temper but I'm much more aware of when I use it. I'm not perfect but I lose it rarely now - nine times out of 10, I walk away before I snap.'

Yeh says: 'Parenting is hard and I know I was looking for reassurance that everything was going to turn out OK in the end. Of course, there is no such thing! I think every parent goes though a period when they are looking for a magic bullet. But taking courses helps to show that you are not alone, that your family is not the craziest (or that every family is equally crazy), and you are not going to scar your children forever.'