Other People’s Children
Published in The Guardian
Sometimes I wish there were clearly defined rules about other people’s children, and whether I have any rights in my relationship with them. It can, after all, be very difficult to maintain the smiling aunt persona when little Lucy is shredding your new Elle, or Barnaby is punching you as you attempt to hold a conversation with his mother.
As more of us delay child-rearing till the mid-thirties or later, we increasingly find ourselves establishing relationships with children of friends or relatives. This can be very pleasurable and satisfying, but it can also be frustrating. It is hard to accept that the relationships I have with children must be mediated by their parents and their views of correct child-rearing; alternative opinions are nearly always unwelcome and sometimes threatening. Suggesting that a three year old might be weaned of his dummy is seen as a direct criticism of their parenting.
As citizens of a civilized society we do have obligations to other people’s children-if children are abused by their parents, for example, we are expected to feel and possibly take responsibility. I think we also have the responsibility – and the right – to socialise other people’s children, and should be able to comment on the way they are raised. I don’t believe that just by giving birth parents acquire any special wisdom about child-rearing; sure, they may know their own child but we may know more about child psychology or education. Why should we sit on the sidelines with gritted teeth and watch children being fed unsuitable food, emotionally manipulated or told fanciful lies about where babies come from. For that matter can I ever be excused feeding chocolate bars to sugar-free babies?
Must I always treat children according to their parents’ rules, or can I ad lib according to my own untried principles…I admit it must be pretty irritating for parents to listen to me rabbiting on about children’s rights, while they are insisting that their seven year old goes to bed at 8pm, and shouldn’t be allowed to stay up till she falls asleep.
Visiting friends in the country recently I volunteered to make a fire. Their five year old son wanted to help and rushed eagerly to grab the matches when it was ready. He somehow convinced me that lighting the fire was a perfectly normal activity for him, and although I wasn’t sure I decided as long as I was there he could strike the matches.
I think I Iet him light the fire based on some half-baked American Indian idea that it’s better for children to know what will hurt them. They allow their children to touch the fire so they understand that it’s hot, rather than always warning them away from it. I know, I know! …just the kind of theory that someone without children preaches to beleaguered parents.
Tom lit the fire safely and everything was fine, but later he was hiding his hand from his mother and she discovered he had blistered his fingers. I was mortified; she was very tactful and said, “I’m glad it was you and not me!” I suppose I got it wrong and he was too young to understand he would get hurt if the match burnt him- on the other hand now he does know what can happen, he may treat fires and matches with proper respect. Should I have first enquired about family policy on matches?
It is hard to get it right. Sometimes I know I’m too lenient especially if the parents are absent, when I find myself stooping to all sorts of sleazy babysitter deals to make the kids behave. “If you’ll just stay in bed till Mummy gets home, you can eat the entire bag of crisps.” I whisper savagely. At other times I am appalled by how much license children are given, although that’s usually when their behaviour is disruptive to my peace and quiet; when the child who is allowed to stay up till she falls asleep is still throwing food across the dinner table at 11pm.
Last summer visiting American friends at the beach, I settled down to read in a comfortable chair facing the ocean. Then the three year old toddler appeared and demanded to sit in my chair and drink my beer. I was so astonished I just ignored her, but she started to have a tantrum, and her mother appealed to me to give up my chair to keep her quiet. In the end I compromised by giving her a sip of beer and distracting her from my coveted chair. There was no way I was going to give up my chair for a three year old – but nor could I say to my hostess that I thought this was not the way to bring up children.
Someone else warns their small daughter about monsters in the bushes in the park; I think she is wrong to give bushes and monsters a bad name and should simply warn the child that there are bad men she should avoid. But I forbear comment.
Is it ever acceptable to tell your friends what you think of their children or their parenting? Such interference seems guaranteed to destroy a relationship, but then the relationship is eroded anyway by not being able to discuss such central issues. I suppose it is inevitable that the children’s interest, as perceived by the parent, always takes precedence over the importance of friendship. But would it not be better for children to have to confront different attitudes and opinions- as they will when they grow older?
Do I have any right to discipline other people’s children? Staying in France with a family with older children I gave them all a lift to the local village disco one evening. They all piled out of the car without a backward glance and no thanks at all – exactly the way they treated their parents. I took exception to this, and the next night piously refused to drive them because they had all been so rude. They (and their parents) were taken aback, but then one or two of the children sheepishly apologised and we made it up. In the end their parents seemed to think that the sheer novelty value of me ticking them off instead of them had been quite effective. Or were they secretly cursing my pompous interference?
Do parents have any rights to restrict my behaviour with their children – what do I tell their children if they ask me about religion, politics or sex? Even language can be an issue – I was once criticised by a mother for using the word ‘toilet’ instead of ‘lavatory’ in front of her son.
A few months ago, at a roof-top barbecue dinner in Manhattan, the children were running riot and screaming like banshees. The hostess suggested they ought to be a bit quieter,”The guy downstairs is dying of AIDS,” she explained briskly. One mother said quite seriously that she didn’t think she could ask her child to be quiet since she had never ever remonstrated with her or stopped her doing anything before. That finally left me speechless. Which is how most parents think I should remain.