PARENTING

Parents need to agree about how to raise children. Here's a book that helps

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 June, 2015, 6:48am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 June, 2015, 6:48am

My husband and I never argued until our children came along. At first, we blamed the kids. Then we blamed the stress of parenting, both external and self-imposed. And finally, we began to see that our differences stemmed from the way we were brought up.

It hadn't occurred to us we had any cultural differences because we are both ethnic Chinese. However, he was raised in Hong Kong and I grew up in Canada. The big picture is the same for all parents: to raise their children to become happy, loving and responsible adults. Where many of us differ from our co-parent is the means to that end.

I was enlightened by Drs Henry Cloud and John Townsend's Boundaries with Kids, and immediately shared my heavily highlighted copy with my husband.

An important lesson that is best taught early on is self-discipline. Rather than labelling children as naughty or nice, we need only consider whether they have self-discipline or not. Today's children are not provided with the opportunities to learn self-discipline because parents have a fear of seeing their children suffering, displeased or unhappy.

In the 19th century, the notion that parents existed for the sake of their children was unheard of. Our child-centric family culture has taken form only in recent decades. Children and their feelings were neglected, or at least considered to be not worthy of concern, well into the 1960s. Although she might be deemed an incompetent mother by today's standards, Betty Francis (the former Mrs Draper) in the television series Mad Men was probably typical of her era.

I'm not suggesting that we regress to Victorian child-rearing practices; a child's mental and psychological well-being should be held in the same regard as his physical well-being. Cloud and Townsend state parents do need to empathise with their children's feelings. However, they are unable to delay their children's gratification because they "over-identify" with their children's pain, fear and loneliness.

The authors suggest: "Some parents confuse their own painful feelings with their child's, thinking that the child is in more trouble than he actually is. What might be discomfort for the toddler is seen as trauma by the mother; what may be anxiety for the teen is experienced as panic by the father."

As parents, we need to distinguish between hurt and harm. When a child cries because his parents are leaving him at home to go out to dinner, he is unhappy about being left behind. Some parents may cancel dinner and stay home, believing that doing so will help the child to feel safe and happy.

Before making the decision to stay or go, parents need to ask themselves whether leaving their well-loved child in a safe environment under these circumstances is harming the child, or merely hurting the child. Hurt doesn't have long-term implications and is necessary for a child to grow and develop.

On the other hand, parents should try their best to not only protect their child from harm, but also ensure they are not the ones inflicting that harm on their child. There is no harm in having a child experience separation from his parents while they spend a few hours dining at a restaurant. And parents need to willingly allow their child to be occasionally hurt.

Cloud and Townsend explain when a well-loved child cries in protest about his parents going out without him, "his tears are not the wounds of an unloved person, but the normal grief of a [child] who needs to learn to handle mum's absences".

After reading and discussing Boundaries with Kids, my husband and I were able to agree on a plan for developing a consistent style for raising our children together. This book helped us understand each other's parenting styles and enabled us to see how the way we were raised greatly informed the kind of parent we've become.

Annie Ho is board chairwoman of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong bringmeabook.org.hk a non-profit organisation advocating for family literacy