How to be prepared when your presence will embarrass your child

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 March, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 March, 2015, 6:00am

It has come to my attention that I'll soon mortify my children.

Chaperoning field trips, lingering at birthday parties to chat, singing all the words to Uptown Funk, these are things I do for everyone's enjoyment. The greater good, if you will.

Not for long.

It's all about to crash to a grinding, unceremonious halt, I hear. One good friend has already been told - twice - by her third-grader, "I wish you weren't staying at [mutual friend's birthday] party. You embarrass me."

I check in with my daughter (also in grade third), after my friend reveals her daughter's admonishment.

"Do I ever embarrass you?" I ask her.

"Sometimes," she says.

"When I try to sing like Pink?"

"No," she answers. "When my friends are around."

I am surprised by this. She begs me to chaperone her class outings and was delighted when I agreed to work the snack table at her school dance.

"It's a push-pull," says Roni Cohen-Sandler, whom I call for some insight. "Expect there to be inconsistencies."

Cohen-Sandler is a clinical psychologist and author of Trust Me, Mom: A Less Stressful Approach to Mothering Teenage Daughters (Author & Company). She's wise and kind on any number of parenting topics, and I am eager to get her thoughts on the shame of having parents.

"Sometimes your daughter will be your shadow and want you around all the time," she says. "At this age, she still very much needs her mother and wants that to be a special relationship.

"But she's also getting to the age where she really values friend time, and sometimes kids want to keep that separate. Kids have different needs at different times."

I fully expect to go through the same thing with my son, now five, in a few years.

It's important not to take any of it personally, Cohen-Sandler advises.

"It's not about you," she says. "If you make it about you, you're not going to allow your child the space to figure herself out and get to know herself."

Which should be a parent's fondest hope.

"A huge thing we do for our children is teach them to know themselves and regulate their own feelings and behaviour," she says. "It's important to help them identify and understand what makes them comfortable and what makes them uncomfortable, so they can manage those feelings."

Even when our very presence is what causes the discomfort?

"When kids are able to articulate how they're feeling, they're better able to manage their feelings in effective ways, rather than acting out," she says. "The child who can say to her parents, 'You can come, just don't talk to me,' is in a better stead than the child who knows her parent will say, 'That's ridiculous. I'll do what I want.'"

Which doesn't mean your child is suddenly in charge.

"Sometimes you're going to say, 'I'm sorry. I can't do that,'" Cohen-Sandler says. "But there's a way to convey to your child that you care about her feelings - and that she should care about her feelings. You validate her right to have feelings."

This resonates strongly with me. I spent decades trying to talk myself out of feelings I didn't think I deserved to have: quit whining; people have it worse.

Which doesn't make the feelings go away, of course. It just makes you ashamed of them. And, in turn, ashamed of yourself.

I will do just about anything to raise children who do not do that.

"I would advise parents to ask their children, 'How am I embarrassing you?'" Cohen-Sandler says. "Maybe the parent is being subtly critical, maybe they're using a nickname the child hates, maybe it's nothing more than, 'Mum, I want to be independent'.

"Help your child think through what's going on and brainstorm strategies."

And it's OK to nudge them towards kindness as they do so. Ideally, you find a way to be present when you want and need to be, but in a way that gives your child space.

"Parents who are interested in their kids' lives value what's going on inside of their kids," Cohen-Sandler says. "If you value their inner life and want to teach them to respect their inner life, you're going to have to respect their inner life also."

There are few things I respect and value more.

Tribune News Service