Handbook Covers Parent's Worst Case Scenarios
"See Dick Bite Jane" is like no parenting advice book we've seen before. The issues author Elise Mac Adam covers are the stuff of everyday nightmares when it comes to raising kids: Strangers probing your medical history with a brashness that would make your OB-GYN blush; kids behaving so maliciously that you truly wonder if they're bad seeds; getting the news that the unthinkable has happened to a friend's child.
Organized in a Q&A format, the book could almost be read as an exaggerated cautionary tale about parenting. But the scenarios are so dead-on familiar and the answers so pitch-perfect, we think you'll want to jot them down in your PDA for later use. Case in point:
"To unwelcome questions, you can always say, 'Why are you asking?' or 'I'd rather not say.' Another useful response is 'What a curious question.' This gives you the perfect opportunity to acknowledge that a question has been asked without answering it. Then you can change the subject. This is a technique favored by politicians to parry much less ridiculous queries."
Mac Adam, a mother of two sons, has been in the advice business for about six years. What sets her apart from her peers is a fearlessness in tackling the Dark Side, but also a light touch in fending off parenting demons. Fascinated by this no-nonsense guru, ParentDish recently picked Mac Adam's brain. An edited version of the conversation follows.
ParentDish: We were shocked to read that pregnancy announcements are sometimes met by statements like, "There are already too many people in the world," and, "You're ruining your life, you know." Are there really that many insensitive nuts out there?
Elise Mac Adam: Well, there certainly are a lot of people who don't understand the implications of what they're saying or asking. Maybe this comes from the fact that the United States has a tell-all culture -- people, unprovoked, confess a lot about themselves that really should be private. So, in some ways, it makes sense that people might be confused and ask inappropriate or unwelcome questions. But that is giving people the benefit of the doubt.
People have always felt entitled to speak their minds and ask intimate questions when it comes to children. This may be because having a child is something that happens publicly. Pregnancies tend to be obvious to the world; children make noise and do things that can be widely observed. The people who are inclined to pass judgment out loud will do so. Bad behavior on the part of outsiders isn't new. But I think it can be very shocking because until one has children, one enjoys -- without realizing it -- a little more privacy.
PD: Are the worst offenders usually loved ones or strangers?
EM: Hard to say. Family and friends have a greater capacity to hurt feelings. If you respect them and want their love and approval, their unpleasant comments and strange advice can be confusing and saddening. A lot of nastiness from strangers in one day can invoke real rage -- but you can always tell the story about how ridiculous the person was a few hours later with a cooler head and maybe a cocktail in hand. It is much harder to dismiss recurring unpleasant comments when they're coming from your mother or sister, uncle or best friend.
PD: You offer a wealth of polite shut-downs -- and some pointed retorts -- to god-awful questions. How did you get so good at this?
EM: I have thought a lot about ways to navigate thorny social waters. I enjoy my privacy, but I also don't like to alienate people, so I struggle with these issues all the time. Just because I wrote this book doesn't mean I'm not faced with uncomfortable situations triggered by my children.
PD: Has hostility toward parents and children increased over the years? Where does it come from?
EM: We're in a cultural moment when people feel entitled to comment instead of keeping their mouths shut and rolling their eyes or whispering. Parents are more likely to hear complaints and criticism from strangers. They may also hear nice things, as well. So I don't know if people have changed so much as that people feel more comfortable airing their thoughts than they once did.
Some of this irritation is legitimate. The media tends to fetishize pregnancy and babies and all things family, and it can be cloying and annoying to people who either don't have children or have no interest in them. And there's a tendency for some people who have kids to take them everywhere. Who hasn't been at a late-night horror movie and been taken aback to see someone roll a stroller with a toddler into the theater? There are times when people, even if they love and adore children, don't want to have to deal with them.
PD: You also answer questions from some misguided parents, in one case informing a mother that she's sucking all the fun out of life. Think these people will take your message to heart?
EM: I understand that it is hard to change our patterns of thinking and living. But if you're reading the book, you want something different, and some of these solutions are really easy to put into motion. People don't have to just feel put upon and mistreated.
PD: What else should parents keep in mind when dealing with what you call the "quotidian annoyances" and "squirmy social situations" of raising kids?
EM: Having a family is terrific, but something that is easy to forget is that you are also participating in a community, and this requires a fair amount of patience and forgiveness. If you lose it, there's nothing wrong with apologizing and starting the conversation over again.
We are exposed to a lot of shrillness in the media and in the news, and that can make us feel as if mistakes can't be forgiven or that an angry outburst is the end of everything, but if you try to approach even unpleasant situations as part of an ongoing conversation where redemption is possible, you'll feel less defensive, less angry and more willing to let go of the unwelcome silly stuff.
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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.