The parent hack
Even with all the training in the world, you can still feel underprepared for parenthood. The same can be said for Scouting, and for volunteers who aren’t parents themselves, the prospect of standing up in front of young people can be nerve-racking.
To put minds at ease, we called upon award-winning illustrator and no-nonsense parent Laura Quick for expert advice. Laura is author of The Quick Guide to Parenting – a beautifully illustrated book that documents the charming, funny and unexpected hurdles of raising children.
Let’s begin with the basics. What do you wish you’d known before you became a parent that might be useful for a new Scout leader?
That children are fabulous, bizarre and fairly off-the-wall. Their perspective is so different from ours; what matters and what doesn’t. It’s important not to ignore something that matters to a young person but to understand that, as a grown-up, problems can often be easily solved.
For example, imagine you’re eight years old and off having an outdoor adventure, when someone comes along and nicks the stick you’re playing with. It may well be a fairly average-looking stick to everyone else but in your imagination you were a Jedi Knight and that stick was your lightsabre. The fact some other kid ran off with it when you weren’t looking? Torture. Watching them duelling and making their own lightsabre noises feels like the end of the world. But then your Scout leader might come along and give you a new stick. It’s a bit straighter than the old one. Bingo. That’s all it takes. Lightsabre back on.
As the adult, it’s your job to remain rational. Over the years, I’ve learned to stop taking things too seriously. When I did an art workshop with some amazing kids last year, one of the girls grabbed the PVA glue and started sticking paper to her dress. At first, I was thinking ‘Oh God, this is terrible. I should never have given her the glue.’ But then the staff took her hand, cleaned her up, and brought her back. She did it again, of course, but no one stressed. It was a good lesson!
Your book includes examples of ‘challenging behaviour’. What’s your approach to discipline?
With my own children, I generally find under-reacting works best. I try to withdraw a bit if their behaviour is attention-seeking, then I’ll give them loads of attention once they’ve calmed down. I’m also quite honest. I’ll say, ‘I think you were wanting my attention just now,’ or ‘I think you were feeling a bit left out. If that happens again, please use your words to tell me.’ I’ll always listen to words.
If it’s really challenging and I feel like I want to explode, I imagine I’m being filmed and live-streamed to the nation on a reality TV show. It helps me to stay calm and think rationally. Is that weird? The real advantage of being an adult volunteer is that you’ll always have someone with you. You can support each other.
Do you find it hard not to laugh when your children are being challenging or baffling? How do you keep a straight face?
If it’s funny and you laugh, I think that’s OK, unless someone is hurt, of course. You just need to be straightforward about why what they said or did was funny, and then outline why they still shouldn’t do it in future.
If they swear in a perfectly timed way and swearing isn’t allowed, that can be trickier. Why is well-placed swearing from a child secretly so funny? My daughter cut her middle finger once, on the fingernail, so I had fun telling her to go and show Daddy her cut…
If you had another adult with you at all times while parenting, what would you do differently?
Having someone to share ideas, questions and observations with is great. You can store up the funny stories, the challenging ones, the downright abstract conversations, and share them, advise, laugh and reflect with fellow volunteers and friends.
It’s about putting things into perspective and keeping the experience light and fun. I realised this when I found a box of eggs behind my curtains in the living room. They were six months past their expiry date and like grenades waiting to go off.
When I asked my daughter if she was responsible, she nodded and just kept stuffing crisps into her mouth with her chubby fingers. No remorse. I laughed to myself and thought: ‘I’ll share this in my book!’
Are there any advantages to being a non-parent, while ‘parenting’ other people’s children?
I think we can all learn a lot from spending time with young people. My closest friend isn’t a parent but loves spending time with my kids. She says they have this ‘off-centre perspective’ that’s enlightening and at times, very refreshing. She was feeling a bit grumpy one afternoon and one of mine asked, ‘Are you happy your dad’s alive?’ When she said ‘Yes’, they replied: ‘Well cheer up then.’
Finally, do you have any other tips for volunteers who might be worried about looking after a group of young people?
As I say to my kids when they’re presented with a plate of food they’re uncertain about: try it, and if you don’t like it, you can always stop. We rarely regret trying new things. There’s always something to take away from the experience, after all. Then again, I’m up for trying anything. Keeps life interesting, I think.
Words: Jade Slaughter | Illustrations: Laura Quick