Off Topic: What Parents Want You to Know, but Won’t Say Out Loud

There’s an old joke that there are three jobs that everyone thinks they can do better than the people who have them: coaches, teachers, and pastors. I would add a fourth thing to that list…parents. If you don’t have a child of your own, you may not understand just how often folks feel compelled to tell parents that they are messing up somehow. Some folks consider children our most precious contribution to the world; after all, they’ll be taking care of this place when we’re gone. Perhaps because of that, everyone and their brother has a strong opinion on how children should be raised.

Here’s a life tip for you, folks. If a parent didn’t ask for your advice, they don’t want it.

I’ve been a father for ten months now. I mean, I guess scientifically speaking I’ve been a father for nineteen months, but the first nine are pretty uneventful for the male half of the parent duo. In that time a lot of people have made suggestions to me: some good, some bad, some wanted, some uncalled for. Now in all of these situations, the person providing the suggestions and advice has perfectly good intentions. But you know exactly where the road paved with good intentions goes, right?

It’s Hell, folks.

Whether you have your own kids, your kids have kids, or there are no kids in your life whatsoever, there are things parents don’t want you doing. So since I have this lovely little blog as a platform to speak out, I thought I’d take today to say some stuff that a parent near you may not be saying out loud, but is definitely thinking.

#1: DO NOT Contradict Parents in front of their Kids
It’s a classic story. A child wants some cookies but Mom or Dad says no sugar before dinner. The child shuffles away all depressed. Suddenly, Grandma comes to the rescue. She’s gotten a couple of cookies out of the jar and works her way over to the child.
“Here you go, sweetie. One or two won’t hurt.” The child is overcome with joy, Grandma is the hero, and that mean ole Mom and Dad can’t stop anybody from eating cookies.
A lot of grandparents (or uncles and aunts, or whatever) will do this kind of thing not necessarily out of malice, but out of the desire to give the child what they want. The mentality is “he’s my nephew/grandson and I’ll spoil him if I want to!”
You know what that child is before he’s your nephew, or your grandson? He’s his mother’s son. His father’s son.
Other family members or even just friends of the family will completely undermine a parent’s authority just because they feel like they have the right to give the child a little treat. It seems innocent, but over time this pattern of behavior teaches the child something: if Mom and Dad say no, I just have to find someone else who will say yes. And that takes away the power of NO. When the parents tell their child that they can’t have something, it isn’t to be mean. It’s because denying that thing will help the kid stay healthy, stay safe, and act responsibly.
The irony of this whole thing is how it looks when you add ten years to the kid’s age. Have you ever heard the family members of a spoiled teenager go on and on about how she doesn’t do anything for herself, doesn’t appreciate the value of money, and never listens to her parents? You know what makes the kid act that way? An entire childhood of people telling her that when Mom and Dad say no, it doesn’t matter, because she can have whatever she wants anyway. By contradicting the parents when they say No, grandparents (or uncles, or aunts, or godparents) are ultimately enabling behaviors that they are going to condemn a few years down the line.
So the next time you’re with a parent and their kid and the parent says that child cannot have something, respect the parent’s wishes. They aren’t trying to be a jerk to their kid; they are trying to teach healthy behaviors.

#2: DO be Patient with your Friends who are Parents
My wife and I started young when it came to kids, at least according to today’s standards. We didn’t way until we were both 30 with established careers at reputable businesses with our retirement plans already in place. I was 23 years old when my son was born. My wife and I aren’t busy workaholics who come home and crash on the couch and stay in all weekend. We have friends, and we like to spend time with those friends. We love video games, board games, card games, pen-and-paper RPGs – most of these things can be done with multiple people and often function better when there are more than just two players. So naturally, even after becoming parents we wanted to continue the friendships we had and the traditions that our friend group had formed over the years.
Adding a kid to the equation changed everything.
I don’t know if you’ve ever played D&D or a similar game, but it has a lot of things to grab (character sheets, dice, pencils, notebooks) and requires a decent amount of focus. You’re taking in information, talking with the other people at the table, and if you’re the one in charge of the game you’ve probably got way more notes and supplies that you’re trying to sift through at the same time. Now imagine this focused, cluttered environment with a baby in it. Imagine an intense fight scene where the elven archer has to leave the table for five minutes to change a dirty diaper and make a fresh bottle. Or an important dialogue shouted over a crying baby whose bedtime has long since passed. Or being in charge of the group and trying to sift through your notes to see what happens next while your son spits up onto your shoulder before grabbing a fistful of the closest character sheet he can reach.
Whether your hobby is gaming, sports, hiking, art, or one of the many many other options this world has to offer, adding a kid to the hobby makes it harder. It’s really easy as someone without a kid to be like “oh, well, having your son/daughter around makes this way harder and we don’t have as much fun, so see ya.” But I encourage you to be kind and patient with your parent-friends. They need human interaction with someone other than each other, their kid, and the aforementioned uncles and aunts and grandparents. It may be more difficult to spend time with a couple or single parent with a child, but it’s absolutely worth it to become part of that family’s life. And trust me, when you do right by the parents in your life, their level of appreciation for you will be off the charts.

#3: DO NOT use your Personal Political Agenda to make Parents feel Inadequate
Parent issues are always at the forefront of culture in one way or another. Some recent ones are concerns with vaccinations and arguments about breastfeeding in public places. Pretty much everyone has an opinion about these concerns. But unless a mother or father comes up to you and says “hey, what is your opinion on this issue,” DO NOT GIVE IT TO THEM.
The process of being a parent is full of hard decisions and second-guessing. Parents often wonder if the decisions they’ve made for their children are the right ones. So going up to this doubtful, conflicted person and saying “hey, the decision you made is wrong for X and X reasons” is just kicking someone when they are down. It’s easy to argue a political agenda when you’re talking numbers and statistics and faceless people – when you put your friend, your sibling, your son or daughter in that same situation, your agenda becomes cold. It doesn’t consider the circumstances that the person is going through.
I don’t care if you think that public breastfeeding is the most disgusting and indecent practice in the whole world. If you see a mom sitting by herself in a restaurant or mall or something and she’s breastfeeding her kid, DO NOT shame her for it. Can you imagine how vulnerable that poor lady is? Sitting out in public with part of her body potentially exposed, her innocent child there eating? She can’t argue her point, or defend herself in any way – she’s feeding her kid for goodness’ sake! You attacking her with your political stance is completely thoughtless, particularly when you have no idea what that poor woman is going through. Maybe she can’t afford formula or bottles. Maybe she is medically required to breastfeed for health reasons. You don’t understand her life, she didn’t ask your views on the subject, so keep them to yourself.
Now that example is somewhat extreme, but there are plenty of circumstances where your views on the exact right way to parent a child – whether it has to do with discipline, diet, exposure to technology, whatever – may clash with the views of a parent in your life. Unless that parent specifically sits down and asks “why don’t you tell me why you think the way you think,” don’t tell them. Parents have enough concerns without other people screaming their political views at them all the time. It’s a hurtful attack on someone who already may feel conflicted about their choices. Don’t shame them more. When you have the opportunity to choose between supporting the parents in your life or challenging them, always choose support (refer to point #1).

These are just a few things that the parents around you might be thinking. Having a child (or two, or whatever) that you are responsible for caring for is a lot of pressure. Keeping that child safe, healthy, and happy requires a lot of decision-making, sometimes requiring decisions that are very tough to make. This constant pressure (combined with the financial struggles and exhaustion that also tend to come hand-in-hand with having a child) can make parents feel very alone in their herculean task. What they need from their friends, family, and fellow parents is support, not condemnation. So the next time you see a parent in your life, instead of giving them some advice, try giving them a reassuring clap on the shoulder (if they like that sort of thing) and saying “good job.” They’ll be glad to have someone on their side for a change.

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This post is part of an ongoing segment called Off Topic where I speak on something that’s…well…off topic. Adventure Rules is a blog about video games and tabletop games, including everything from hints and tips to speculation about upcoming titles to game reviews. If that sounds like the sort of thing you’d be interested in, consider checking out the site’s home page and sifting through some other posts. If you like what you see, I’d love it if you’d consider following the blog and becoming part of the Adventure Rules community. Whether this is your first and only visit to Adventure Rules or if you’re about to join the ranks of the adventurers, I want to thank you for reading. Perhaps we’ll meet again in a future edition of Off Topic!

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