Tag Archives: parenting

Raising the puppy-kitten

Most creatures, humans included are more influenced by environment than by genetics when it comes to behaviour. I have a kitten, and he’s got me wondering about how we raise kittens compared to how we raise puppies, and how much of this is about human assumptions. There are going to be no ‘natural’ ways for a kitten to exist as part of a human household.

When I was a child, my grandmother had a rabbit who thought he was much the same as the household cats – he used the catflaps, flopped out in front of the fire and sat on people’s laps because that was clearly what you did. He seemed happy with this and I suspect it was a lot more fun than mostly living in a hutch.

Mr Anderson (the kitten) does not know that he is a kitten. He has no idea about the things people assume are true of kittens. He’s making this up as he goes along, and responding to his environment. About the only thing that seems to be hard wired cat behaviour, is the pouncing. He is perfectly happy to go outside on a lead. No one has told him that being free range is for cats and that supervised walks are for dogs. As a cat on a lead he is less of a danger to the wildlife and in less danger from cars.

Why is it that we recognise the threats dogs might pose to other beings, and the danger they are in from cars and thus do not let them out to play unsupervised in the road? Why do we take such different approaches to these two domestic animals that we as humans keep for our own amusement?

Mr Anderson plays fetch – throw a toy for him and he will often opt to bring it back so that it can be thrown again. He has no idea this is what people do with dogs, usually, not kittens.

As with the puppy-kitten issues, we raise human children based on certain assumptions. It’s normal to raise girls and boys in different ways – so normal that it may not even be a conscious decision. Simply choosing to put a girl in a dress or skirt that limits mobility while letting boys wear trousers has a huge impact on what a child gets to do. Consider the toys we give them, and our expectations. We tend to be more tolerant of aggression in boys, more accepting of tears from girls. Children aren’t so very different from puppy-kittens, and who we tell them they are has a lot of influence.

Mr Anderson gets excited when the lead comes out and someone says ‘walkies!’


Cat Parent

The last three cats I took in were seniors who needed re-homing. Back in the summer, the third of these wonderful cats died at the mighty age of 19. We decided as a household that we would get a kitten. It felt like a rather indulgent thing to do, rather than finding another older cat in need of rescue. He arrived in early November.

We take kittens and puppies alike from their mothers far younger than they would leave in the wild. We do it so that they will bond with us as parent substitutes. It’s not a decision that is particularly in the interests of the creature, and I’ve been very aware of this. He has, however, not shown much sign of distress – just that first night when he didn’t know where to sleep and was clearly missing the kitten puddle he had been part of.

It’s been a long time since there was last a kitten in my life – back in my own childhood, so I’m not entirely confident about what it takes to be a good cat parent. But, I’ve tried to be a decent stand in for the kittens he would have rampaged about with, and the mother cat who might have rolled him over when he get too boisterous. I get chewed a lot, because I let him play with my hands like I’m another kitten. My legs are covered in claw marks. But when he’s not in crazy-kitten mode, he’s sweet and snugly.

I don’t want to punish him for being a kitten, and part of being a kitten is the play fighting and rampaging. I do reward him with extra fuss and attention when he does things that I like. We shall see. At the moment it looks like he’s willing to figure things out and be more co-operative – often an issue in the mornings when he wants to be where I am, which for him means on my keyboard and the diary and notes I work from. As I type this, he’s under the table, loudly killing a toilet roll. I think overall he’s more cooperative with me than he was on arrival.

At this point I have no idea if I’m being a good cat parent or not. I will find out over time, as the habits we build settle into something and I find out more about who he is. I expect kittens are a lot like people in that environment will have a big impact on development and behaviour. So, I try to make sure he is entertained and gets enough attention, and that he is happy. I’ve always thought the parenting of creatures and children alike should have more room in it for happiness than is often the case. I don’t mind if he isn’t obedient, that’s not what I seek in raising a young creature, but I do really want him to be happy.0060 (final comment there from the kitten himself as he joined in with the typing.)


Parenting reflections

Parenting is mostly guesswork. You may have theories, based on your experiences and observations. You might try and read a lot of books and articles. You may just unconsciously perpetuate whatever is normal in your family… and how that works in practice you likely won’t know for a lot of years.

This year has been tough for young humans in the UK. My son had his final school year disrupted, his A levels were a confusing, stressful time and he’s gone to university only to face isolation. He’s home now, to my great relief. I have been struck, repeatedly, by his maturity and resilience as he’s dealt with everything this year has thrown his way. I’m going to chalk this up as a great deal of parenting win, although much of it must be ascribed to his own nature, efforts and good thinking.

There are theories I had which, in hindsight, I think were a very good idea. I never did arbitrary authority – he was always entitled to question me and I was clear that he was always owed an explanation at the very least. His opinion always mattered – even if I couldn’t do anything with it, he was always heard and had a chance to comment on things. If I wanted to pull an ‘I know best’ I took the time to lay out my evidence and thinking. I never said ‘because I said so.’

I started on this as soon as he was talking. I answered any and all questions to the best of my ability with the most age-appropriate language I could find. I never lied to him. This wasn’t always easy. I’ve been open about having mental health problems and how best to navigate that. I’ve shared difficult emotions. He is one of the most emotionally resilient and open hearted people I know – so I feel that my emotional honesty has done him no harm at all. Likely the opposite.

Here we are, as he steps into his adult life. He trusts my judgement, and he knows he can query me on anything. He knows he can talk to me about anything and expect me to be honest with him. He knows he is heard and respected and that his opinion matters. He is going to be living with me as an adult for the foreseeable future, and that’s going to be fine, and there will be no great challenges because of the underpinnings we already have in place.

I’ve done a lot of things along the way that other people – including professionals around child wellbeing – have considered inappropriate. It is normal to lie to children and to tell them what to do, and I’ve been in some very odd situations over my refusal to do that. During the family court period, I dealt with a lot of disbelief around the idea that my son could have his own opinions that I respected, and that his opinions were not simply what I’d told him to think. What I’ve learned parenting is that if you treat children like they are people in their own right, this actually works well.


The Tigerboy grows up

Those of you who have followed my adventures for some time, will be aware of the Tigerboy – the young human in my life. Today, he is 18, and legally an adult. He hasn’t been the Tigerboy for some time now, and instead has been growing into the somewhat more adult persona of James Weaselgrease – this is his steampunk identity and the name under which he performs and MCs.

I’ve tended to be careful with him online – there’s nothing on this blog that would show up under his legal name, should anyone go looking. I’ve also always consulted with him about anything going on here relating to him – blogs specifically about him, and about my experiences of parenting. He does read these posts (sometimes) and seems comfortable enough with how I’ve talked about him along the way. No doubt it helps that I have a high opinion of him and respect him greatly. He’s grown up to be a fabulous young man and I’m very proud of him.

So many things are so uncertain right now. Probably this autumn he will be off to university, and I will miss him. I’ve never been the sort of person to feel sad about children getting bigger and not being small and dependent. I’ve raised him to be an adult, not to be a child forever, and alongside that he’s retained his playfulness. He’s a very entertaining chap and his comic timing gets better all the time.

I feel very fortunate to have been part of his life for the last 18 years. I look forward to wherever the future takes us. I have nothing of my sense of self pinned to any ideas about success for him; I just want him to be happy, and if he is able to live his life on terms that work for him, I shall be delighted. He is very clever indeed, and I have no doubt he will have all kinds of adventures and do many interesting things.


Notes on parenting

I had a suspicion that how I parented my child as a toddler would have a lot of impact on how things went in his teens. There are similarities – the sudden increase in options and personal power, the need to test boundaries, the hormones undermining common sense… I thought how we handled that when he was small might be key in what came later. He’ll be eighteen this year.

I thought back to my own teens and to the things that made my friends miserable. It was all about the need to be heard and taken seriously, to have your feelings respected. How much we wanted not to be told that we did not know our own minds. How we wanted our emotional attachments taken seriously, our ambitions, distress and frustration as well.

So I started along those lines when he was small. I asked about preferences. I asked him what worked for him and what didn’t. I heard him out, and if he couldn’t have things his way, I explained why. I told him he was always entitled to ask questions, and always entitled to an explanation. I promised him that if I claimed I knew best I would produce some evidence for this. I made sure that what he felt was factored in, and that he knew he was being heard and taken seriously. I promised that I would only order him to do something if it was an emergency and he had to do what I said right then with no time for explanations. Which meant that if I gave on order, I expected it to be followed unquestioningly.  There have been a few instances of physical peril, and I have never abused that deal.

We’ve always negotiated. I’ve always been in charge because that’s what it means to parent a young human. He’s always had the definitive say on how he feels about things, what he wants and doesn’t want. Of course along the way we’ve had the odd strop over things that didn’t seem fair, and I’ve stopped and talked through why they might be fair after all, or why they might be shit but that’s how it goes sometimes. That being an adult means taking responsibility for the dull things, the crappy things, the things you don’t want to have to bother with and that your freedom and your responsibility are closely interlinked.

He’s never rebelled against me, because there was never much authority to rebel against. I’ve never claimed to know what was best for him, I just advise based on what I do know. We’ve got this far with no blazing rows, no angry outbursts from either of us. Neither of us has said anything we have any reason to regret. I’m really proud of that, and of the kind of relationship we have at this point in his life.

With university on the horizon we’re negotiating the next set of changes, working what he needs to know, clarifying what he’s responsible for and what backup will be available.

It would be easy to run roughshod over the ideas, feelings and preferences of a child. It is often more convenient to ignore that sort of thing. It may be satisfying to the parental ego to take total authority, demand obedience and assert control, but these are, I feel certain, the things that pave the way to an angry, fight-laden teenage. Respect is something we learn, and being respected is a really good way of learning how to respect others.


The Enemy of Art?

“There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall” – Cyril Connolly.

“Ash is sitting on the potty doing a pencil drawing while reciting loudly and accurately from Fortunately the Milk. I have to go away and hide and write for two weeks. I am going to miss this little wood-elf more than I can say.” Neil Gaiman, twitter, this week.

As a writer who had a baby (I’m female-ish, non-binary) I had to figure out how the writing was going to fit around the child. As a relatively poor person I had to take care of the child, the needs of the child. I could not have ever afforded to take a couple of weeks off for writing while someone else took care of my small child. I regret nothing. I would not have done differently if I’d had the money.

What I hate, passionately, is this idea that to be a good creator you have to be cut off from life in this way. I hate it just as much as I hate it when Tory politicians speak with pride about having never changed a nappy. I hate the way we devalue parenthood, and I really hate the way we devalue fatherhood.

I hate the way in which Neil Gaiman has presented this like the only way he can possibly write is by going away for two weeks. It perpetuates the idea that serious work has to happen outside the domestic sphere and that for people (usually men) who are important, going away to do the important things is just what you have to do. This is bullshit.

It isn’t easy being a parent and anything else at the same time. Most of us who have children do that, though. We have jobs, and other responsibilities, and we figure it out as best we can and do what we can, and take pride in the work and the parenting. It isn’t easy finding the focus and energy to work on creative projects when raising a small child. Many of us manage, all the same. Many of us do not experience that managing as some kind of heroic sacrifice.

I have every sympathy with anyone whose economic situation impacts on their scope for parenting – that’s a very different thing. I have every sympathy for parents whose work involves travel, and for the challenges and juggling involved. I’m frankly tired of the affluent men who think that raising their small children is someone else’s job.


Car child, or calm child

We walked to playgroup and back, every day, in all weathers. Then we walked to the first primary school and back, every day, in all weathers. Then we had to cycle to the second primary school. Every day. In all weathers. Now, he cycles alone, every day, in all weathers.

During many of those trips I saw parents taking children the same way, only with cars. So, I can tell you with confidence that by the time you have got a child into and out of a car, and dealt with the parking, it may have been quicker to walk. The idea that driving is quicker and less trouble may not be true. It is always worth questioning it.

We had a good time with those walks. We saw wild things, and dogs and cats, which he always enjoyed. He had time to wake up in the morning on the way in to school, arriving brighter, fresher and more alert as a consequence of the journey in. On the way home, he had time to decompress, to share his day with me and to let off steam. I have no doubt that this has improved my son’s mental health at every stage of his life.

Our young people are suffering. Exam pressure, overcrowded classrooms, lack of opportunity to move around, and fear for the future puts a massive strain on them. Bundling them in to cars doesn’t help with this. When I walked home from school as a teenager it was a social activity and that time with friends was a good spot in my day. Kids in cars are denied those social opportunities. Bodily movement is good for all of us. Children need to move, and the journey to and from school used to give people that.

Of course the roads aren’t as safe as they used to be, and a major contributor to how unsafe the roads are is all the people driving their kids to and from school. Each car journey contributes to the air pollution that is killing people on a shocking scale. Not driving your kid to school will do more to keep them well. Most of them do not melt in the rain.

I’ve watched schools try to encourage confidence, physical health and feelings of independence in young humans. And then you drive them home. The young person who has to be resilient enough to get to and from school in any weather, develops self-confidence, self-reliance and a sense of capability and resilience. The young person who knows that their body can get them places, and who learns to take responsibility for that is learning good life lessons. Even at the age when they need accompanying, it is still teaching them good stuff.

Most adults could do with more fresh air and chilled time as well. Walking to school and back creates little pockets of good family time if you use it that way. Stressing your way through heavy traffic doesn’t do that.

What we grow up with is what we find most normal. For the kid in a car, walking and cycling may always seem a bit alien. The kid who walks or cycles is advantaged for the future. We cannot carry on with car use at the same level. One way or another, it’s going to be unfeasible. Might as well be ready for that!

Being green does not mean being miserable. I have no doubt that walking and cycling to school has improved my quality of life, and improved my son’s quality of life. It’s saved us a lot of money and given us a lot of good experiences.


The Tigerboy grows up

The young man of the household is seventeen now. I’ve never been a terribly conventional parent – I don’t order him about, I don’t shout at him unless there’s a genuine emergency and I’ve always taken his opinion seriously. We’ve had a fairly gentle time of it through his teens – despite him doing that while I’ve been sauntering towards the menopause. He doesn’t need to fight me because he knows he’s respected, and that, I think, has made a lot of odds.

This year particularly has raised a lot of questions for me about when one stops parenting (if ever) and what it means to parent someone who is an adult. I’ve looked around with interest at the parents of friends, especially. The parenting of adults in my own family is not something I can usefully refer to – on one side, a lot of silence, on the other, a lot of arguing, and neither giving me models I can work with. I’m asking a lot of questions about where to stand, when to step in, how much advice to give and when to step back and let him get on with it.

I can look at my own history as a teen and twenty something and see a number of times when I wish, with hindsight, that someone had stepped in. Inevitably there was a lot I didn’t know. I could have done with a wise elder to teach me about boundaries and self respect. I could have done with some solid relationship advice. So I’m doing the sorts of things I think I would have found useful and we will at least get to make new and different mistakes.

I’m also at a point of feeling like thus far, I’ve parented pretty damn well. I say this because the young man – formerly Tigerboy but now evidently evolving into something else, is a pretty awesome human. He’s kind and considerate, he looks out for people, he gets in and helps when help is needed and he does so cheerfully. If things are tricky, he negotiates. If he’s upset, he doesn’t slam around or yell at anyone and we work things through. I could wish he had a better sense of how unusual and splendid he really is, but in terms of shortcomings, this is one we can live with. He could be tidier, but I honestly can’t find it in me to care about that most of the time.

Parenting has been an often terrifying adventure, but we both seem to have come through it reasonably unscathed. That’s something I am proud of.


Self esteem and childhood

Most people develop their self esteem in childhood. A child who is loved, praised, supported and encouraged will have a sense of their own entitlement to exist. Many children however get their self esteem crushed early, or never get to develop much sense of self worth. Obviously, abusive families will damage their children, but there are other sources for this, too.

Many families don’t set out to harm the next generation, but pass on family truths, stories and patterns. They may think they are protecting a child by stopping them from getting unrealistic ideas, above their station. They may have a child who doesn’t fit the family narrative about what’s ok – a queer child, a left handed child, a neuro-divergent child, a child who is too quick, or too slow, or thinks too much or moves too much… Landing in a family that cannot understand your very nature does not make for a good start in life. There’s no malice here, but incomprehension can be pretty damaging.

I’ve met adults who were told at school they were stupid, or lazy, and didn’t get a dyslexia diagnoses until much later in life. I’ve met kids who were set back because no one realised they needed glasses. I’ve also met a lot of kids who had clearly learned some really unhelpful things at home – violent kids, and kids so spoiled they didn’t know how to deal well with anyone else. I’ve never met an ugly, useless or evil child, but I have met plenty of kids who were either treated that way, and thus growing into those roles, or learning problematic ways of being.

We’re learning from the moment we’re born, if not sooner. Every sound and movement from the beginning shapes our sense of the world and our ideas about who we are. Well meaning families can still produce children with no self confidence. Families who take against a child can do massive damage.

As an adult, there’s nothing you can do to go back and change your beginnings. Trying to talk about it with those who were there isn’t always helpful. But I think trying to understand the mechanics can be good. If your family didn’t allow you to grow up happily as yourself, trying to understand why they did that can be productive. It’s easy to end up with a short answer of ‘I wasn’t good enough’ but I invite you to consider whether you can imagine another human being who was not born good enough. If your shortcomings feel vague and hard to pin down, if you just, for some reason, didn’t seem to deserve love, or attention, support or praise then it probably wasn’t about you. It should have been about you, of course.

If you take out the assumption that there was something intrinsic in you to explain why you didn’t have a good experience of growing up, it becomes easier to see what was going on. It can be much easier to let go, when you can find a different perspective on this. It can be easier to forgive, where that’s appropriate, to recognise abuse, where that’s the size of it. The emotional neglect of a child is a form of abuse. It may be that your parents in turn were emotionally neglected and don’t even know where to start. Sometimes these things have their roots deep in our ancestry.

Tell yourself a new story, about how you were as inherently acceptable as any other child ever born, but your environment didn’t really work for you. Imagine what the right environment for you would have looked like. Consider how you can make that for yourself, now. Do some of the things that were missing. Find people who can play the roles you need people to play. Know that growing up feeling like a failure doesn’t make you a failure, and is not a truth about the sort of person you are.


Not so nuclear families

Children start learning from the moment they arrive in the world – if not before then. What they see and hear, feel, touch and get to do starts, from the first moment, to shape their sense of the world. What is normal, and what isn’t. What’s ok, and what isn’t. These are often not things their parents have set out to deliberately teach them but things that are absorbed from their impression of the environment. To offer a more dramatic example, there’s evidence that the children of holocaust survivors experience something akin to inherited trauma.

We all have our oddities, neuroses, weaknesses, flaws, bad habits and so forth. The child growing up in a nuclear family spends those first few years in the world created by the parents. Those oddities become normal. Anything dysfunctional about the parent can become how the world works for the child. The parent who cannot show affection or give praise creates a child with low self esteem all too easily. The parent obsessed with washing, or weight management, or anything else you can think of, creates a world in which those things matter, and it is normal for them to matter. The parent who thinks boys are more valuable than girls, or who normalises domestic violence, or fat shames their child – there are so many possible examples of how a child can be set up for disaster here.

Having regular access to a number of adults has to be the way to go. The child who sees many adults will not be so persuaded that their own parent, or parents are exactly how the world works. They will see diversity, they will hear it, they will know more than one opinion is available. If they see their parents with other adults, they will be less persuaded that their parents have godlike powers, or natural authority, or are infallible or anything of that ilk. They may find people they can better identify with than their own parents. Given an array of models to emulate or reject, the child has a far better chance of finding their own identity.

Of course there are issues of power and control here. Show a child that your way is not the only way, and they might not want to do it your way. Show them that you can make mistakes, and they won’t think you’re right when you make mistakes. Let them see other parents in action and they might question how you parent. But if parenting is more about protecting the fragile ego of the adult than it is about raising a healthy child, it is pretty much a certainty that there will be problems.