Nakedness Dens and Food

My life with four little boys

Dancing and Mood Music and Words: An Introduction To Parenting Advice That Isn’t

on June 19, 2015

I was having one of “those” bed time conversations with son #2 recently. You know the ones, where they suddenly, just before saying goodnight, need to know the exact moment you knew you were going to marry daddy, or how you know that the pet fish absolutely definitely won’t have any babies or why poo is brown, wee is yellow and blood is red. Well, on this occasion it was seemingly imperative prior to going to sleep that he knew all about the different jobs I have done in the past. Straightforward you might think. Only it wasn’t long before my job titles became not very straightforward at all – much to my frustration given I was actually aiming to run off a quick list and be downstairs with cuppa for the start of Eastenders. Shop assistant was relatively easy to clarify. As was youth worker. But by the time we got to Participation and Children’s Rights Officer I knew I’d be lucky to make even the end of Eastenders never mind the opening titles..! And then we got to my most recent paid position as a Family Support Worker. So, internally thanking the Lord that my career had spanned a relatively few number of different job roles, I duly set about trying to explain to my son what that meant. I started by saying that some people need a bit of extra help to be the best mummies and daddies that they can be. He looked confused. Trying to give a useful but not too heavy frame of reference for him, I landed on the fact that some parents might not know how to play with their children, for example. He looked horrified. It wasn’t going well. I was concerned he might get the impression that people who needed help with parenting were some how inadequate or intrinsically bad. I desperately wanted to convey something that not only made sense but that also didn’t leave him with the impression that I was somehow better because I knew what to do whilst others didn’t. It turns out that I needn’t have worried. Because when I hastily added that parenting is difficult for all of us sometimes, (trying to avoid conveying a judgemental tone) without dropping a single beat he came back with, “I can tell!”

Gee son, I’ll try not to carry my burden and inadequacies so obviously in future…!!

And my son is not the only one who is all too aware of my failings as a parent. Partly, I am guessing, because I have done the baby thing four times and partly because of my professional life, I have, at times, found myself in conversations which feel worryingly like I am dishing out advice. And at these times I couldn’t hope to express more how many inadequacies I have (just ask boy #2!), how much I am still making it up as I go along and how consistently scared I am of getting it wrong ALL. THE. TIME. And crucially that any “advice” I might offer is done so on the basis that I am harbouring deep down the same fear as everyone else – that I don’t really know what I’m doing either.

When one of the midwives last time around referred to me as a well seasoned mother (making it sound rather like I was a dog in show at Crufts) and followed it up with a comment that was meant to be affirming, I’m sure, about me knowing what I was doing by now, I wanted to shout “no! I really, actually, don’t. Not for sure. You see the thing is that this new small person here is different. Unique. And it’s precisely because I have done it 3 times before that I am all too aware that often parenting isn’t about neat formulas but is more like dancing, with new steps each day and different mood music depending what is going on the lives of me, the small person in question and the world around us. It takes time to learn the steps, and just when you get the hang of one routine there’s a whole new one to learn and the music goes from waltz to salsa in the blink of an eye. As each new little person bursts onto centre stage, the work of parenting needs to adapt, move and develop according to the demands of the music being played at that time. And there’s no guarantee I know how this one goes.” As I looked down at my very new baby #4 I didn’t think, “here we go again, more of the same. ” I thought “yikes, a whole new dance to learn, I wonder what it’s gonna be like this time!”


Having said all that, of course I realise there are general pieces of wisdom that we all benefit from knowing as parents. When it comes to children it’s not a complete free for all. Generally speaking, for example, too much sugar is bad, enough sleep is very important and consistency is paramount in discipline. But having done the rounds with Gina Ford, Penelope Leach, Alicia Eaton, the NCT, my mother in law and channel 4’s Super Nanny I have concluded that parenting advice can, at times, become like failed New Year’s Resolutions. I don’t tend to make those any more because I know I am setting myself up to fail. In the same way, trying to raise children by the advice of others can, if it doesn’t work out, have the same effect. Exhaustion, guilt, shame and a desire for the ground to swallow you up next time the conversation turns to whatever it is that you have tried but “failed” to conquer.

Now, don’t hear me wrong. There is nothing wrong with getting advice, be it sharing tips between friends, reading a book, asking your mum, checking a website or phoning your health visitor.  As long as the advice others offer you doesn’t become something to make you feel as if you are somehow not good enough, that you’re doing it all wrong, that your child won’t ever thrive, others are clearly better at all of this than you because it works for them and when it comes to your parenting skills it’s evidently a lost cause.
moodmusicThere is this thing I do at New Year now which takes the place of all those failed and guilt inducing resolutions. Instead of vowing to make some sort of change in my life, to start or stop doing something, at the start of each new year, I purposefully reflect on a word that I want to try to characterise and focus my energy on for the 12 months ahead. A couple of years ago my word was “thankfulness”. Another one recently has been “connecting” – to others, my husband, my children, my faith, myself…. Etc. So, rather than a set of rules of do less of this, don’t do so much of that, the word chosen becomes instead like mood music, setting the tone and overarching direction of what I hope to be played out in my life for the year to come.

In the same way, I have come to believe that a lot of parenting advice should take the form of words to be mindful of rather than restrictive regimes. Fewer dos and don’ts and many more musical accompaniments to which the specifics of mummying and daddying can be set, dependent upon who we are, who they are, our life circumstances, our family make up, an unexpected event, a particular season in our lives, an additional need or quirk in theirs

So, over the next few blog posts, I have decided to share with you just four of the most prominent words that now feature in my – obviously flawed – attempts at parenting. In doing so I seek not so much to offer specific advice, as to encourage you to lift your gaze from the parenting books, to free yourself from the paralysis of experienced yet conflicting voices and to instead tune in to some mood music – music which has helped me to dance at least some successful steps with my little ones, and accompaniments to parenting that perhaps might help you to do likewise. And hey, if they don’t, maybe come up with your own. Or don’t come up with any at all. That’s the thing about advice… and even encouragement… Some of it will speak to you and some of it won’t. So sure, stick to that well-thumbed book or parenting guru if those things work for you. I guess what I’m trying to do is offer an alternative in case they don’t. But whatever you do, whether you find this impending series of blog posts helpful or not, I will commit to offering you this: if you are a parent please, please know, there is a little one dancing on centre stage right now, longing for you to notice, to tune in to the music, learn the steps and join in. However you do it, just don’t stop the dance.

Helen -x-

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