Alyson Schafer: On Mealtimes, Mishaps and Life as a Parent Educator

Filed under: Just For Moms, Amazing Parents, Books for Kids

Alyson Schafer is a Toronto-based psychotherapist, parenting expert and mother of two teens, Zoe (15) and Lucy (14). She's the author of Breaking The Good Mom Myth and Honey I Wrecked The Kids, and the host of call-in TV program The Parenting Show. Plus she runs weekend "Parenting Bootcamps" for moms and dads looking to understand their children's behaviour and improve their parenting skills. Alyson spoke to ParentDish about mealtime madness, a tooth fairy mishap, and the dangers of "pampering" your children.

Q: What advice would you give to a new parent?

Get support, because loneliness was not something I was prepared for. I actually thought I was joining a club, I thought there was going to be this welcome wagon of moms who would put this banner across my shoulders and say "You're one of us". And that was just the biggest disappointment. I was unable to get out, it was winter, I didn't have a car. I had been in the workplace where I saw people every day at the water cooler, and suddenly I'm alone and I can't get out. It was very lonely and isolating. I would suggest that parents look into where the drop-ins are, where the other mothers are hanging out, because you will find that you need a new group of friends. Your social life changes, there's no doubt about it.

Q: What do you find most challenging about being a parent?

You have to be willing to let go of some control and patience. If you're going to go on a car trip, it would be really nice if you didn't have to pull over because a two-year-old is potty training and only gives you 13 seconds notice. Or vomits all over your outfit right before you go to a meeting. And if you're someone who can't stand being late and already had it pre-planned in your head and think, "It's supposed to go this way", parenting is gonna flatten you. And I'm appreciative for this shift, to be able to say to myself, wow, I'm really being challenged to be zen in the moment and handle what life throws my way, and to be better about not getting my way. I live in a group now, I can't always get my way.

Q: How do you combine work and parenting?

Because I'm a parent educator, I always think of Dr. Spock's kids who hated him because he spent his entire life raising other people's children. He never had a relationship with his own kids. So I'm very careful to walk the talk. And with that in mind, sometimes I just have to let opportunities go, even if it means not advancing my career. I am always shaped by the fact that I lost my mother and my three grandparents all in the year that I became a mother. And my mother died quite young. So starting life and ending life forever became joined in my head, and I try to keep the power of every single day top of mind. And I think I actually do pretty well. But it's taken me years to figure out how to do it in a way that works. For example, right now we're doing this interview at 8:30 at night. To some people I might look like a workaholic. But I've just spent four hours with my daughter. We had car lessons together, we went out for dinner, we went to the gym together. It's odd hours. The thing that I give up is I don't really watch television. And I don't mean that in a superior way because I love my television. I think most people work all day, have dinner together, tuck the kids in and watch TV at night. I just don't live in that lifestyle, my day is more broken into different chunks. And it's empowering to know that you get to decide.

Q: What's your favourite family activity?

We go on an annual camping trip that an absolute highlight of the year. We go several portages deep into Algonquin Park and it's like, no cell phones, no iPods, and I wondered if my kids would start to bemoan it as they got older. But they actually say they like being off the grid. They're excited to turn off their phones and leave them in the car, maybe it's refreshing for them.

Q: What's your least favourite activity?

The thing that is the most problematic is to plan meals for everybody. My husband commutes so he doesn't get home until 7. But by then, sometimes the kids have gotten so famished they've snacked, so they're not hungry. Or if my husband's running late he'll pick up something on the way home. And my one daughter is a vegetarian, and it will turn out that the one day she's the only one home, I've made a meat dish. Coordinating the logistics of supper is still an ongoing challenge for me.

Q: Was there a mistake you made as a parent?

I really blew it with the tooth fairy. My daughter was getting suspect, but I didn't want to lose the mystery. So I thought I could hold on to it a bit longer by leaving a note from the tooth fairy saying, "Once you've hit the age where you're wise enough to challenge that I exist, you're old enough to look after your own teeth. So here's all the teeth that I've been holding on to for you". But she read it as, "You don't believe in me? Fine, here's all your teeth back!" So she started to bawl, and that freaked me out, so I said, "No no no, I wrote the note!" So then she cried twice as hard. And she's never let me forget that. And my other daughter will still remind me of how I pushed her head under water in the mother-daughter swimming class, and I wish I hadn't. She was maybe 2 and asked me not to do it. But the instructor said "Do it!", and I went against my instinct. And whenever I coach parents, I say, "Listen, you have to live with yourself and no one knows that little voice inside yourself better than you". You can't go against your own code. Some people are so affected by other people's judgment that they let it cloud their own. "What will the school think if he goes to school in a dirty pair of pants? They'll think I'm a bad mother". No, they'll think he loves his favourite Batman trackpants and you can't get them in the wash.

Q: There seems to be a backlash right now against "soft" parenting. What's your take on the debate?

I can't tell you how important this issue is. The term from my psychological school is pampering, the pampered child. And it can be as damaging as abuse or neglect. By creating an outlook of entitlement, and with it, a concurrent low self-esteem, pampering creates psychological problems. I think it's an epidemic and I think it's a mental health issue that needs to be addressed. It was a misconception about some of the research around attachment parenting, and what trickled down to parents was a twisted understanding. People have said to me, "I can't discipline my child until he's three, he's still creating his secure bond". Discipline doesn't break a bond. A firm boundary enforced in a friendly manner is not damaging, and we've lost sight of that. So if there's a woe in our society right now, it is this pampering situation. I think we will see the pendulum swinging back because we are talking about it more openly now.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.