Tuesday, June 5, 2012

How people without kids can help parents

As someone who dispenses parenting advice on a daily basis, it’s pretty difficult to avoid the question “do you have children?”  Or, perhaps more importantly, the message behind that question: ‘how can you understand/help if you don’t have children?” Over the years I’ve come up with a range of ways to respond to this. Sometimes I just avoid it or deflect attention to the other person in the conversation.  Sometimes it bugs me and I feel like yelling at them: "why does it matter?! I'm good at my job dammit!" But really, it’s a very good question.

A little while ago a client asked me a series of somewhat personal questions throughout a conversation about his parenting dilemma.  He wanted to know if I had children (no), was I married (no again), what was my religion (a fair question, given I work for a church-based organisation… my response was that I wouldn’t be doing my job if I allowed religion to colour my advice to him) and where did I live (Sydney). 

Traditional counselling approaches suggest I perhaps shouldn’t answer those questions. However it’s never occurred to me to fib about how many children I have.  I try to answer questions directly and honestly, whenever I think it’s appropriate, and let my conversation, empathy and ideas speak for themselves.

Some people will stop listening to me as soon as I say “no, I don’t have any children”.  Sometimes that’s frustrating for me, but who am I to demand that someone should listen to me, if I don’t fit with their idea of a suitable source of advice?

I had a light-bulb moment with this particular parent as I realised he was asking for my credentials.  In my world credentials are provided by having a degree, doing lots of training, talking to other counsellors, seeing lots of clients, and having positive ‘outcomes’ to my work with families.  For this gentleman, that didn’t matter.  The kind of life someone lives can give more credence to their words than anything else. I think he was trying to compare my perspective to my ‘position’ in the world.

He was a little surprised that a young, city-dwelling woman with no children or partner could give him useful, balanced advice on how to respond to his family and his unique situation.  Perhaps it’s arrogant of me, but I suspect that my lack of “real-world” credentials actually made my input more potent. It highlights that direct experience is not the only way to gain insights of value.

Having children of my own will probably give me license to groan in sympathy as other parents talk about the frustrations and lowlights of raising children.  It will give me opportunities to say “well, with my kids this worked…”  One day.

But the experience I do have tells me that parents can often find sympathy more easily than sound advice or a balanced view.  There are peer support groups, huddles in school walkways, online forums and bustling in-laws for that. There are plenty of over-helpful bus drivers or cranky shop assistants with ideas on how to best take care of your kids.  If that’s what you’re after.

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