There is an important role you can play in the lives of parents and children from outside the family. There isn't an accepted name for this role: you aren't “grandfather” or “aunt” or “godparent” or “cousin.” We use the word “ally” to describe this role.
As an ally, you can lend absolutely vital backing to a parent. And you have the power to see that a young person retains a strong sense of his or her worth. You can become the person who chooses to care, and whose caring has power because of that choice. You can be an ally as a neighbor, a teacher, a bus driver, a baby-sitter, a member of a temple or church congregation. You can be an ally, as a parent, for another parent, or for a child outside your family. From any position, you can reach for significant contact with parents and children.
It takes surprisingly little time and energy to become a strong ally to a parent or a child. Almost more important than the amount of time you might spend is your awareness of the goodness of the parent and/or the child. Your appreciation helps to counter the lack of appreciation of parents and children that is taken for granted in our society.
Being an ally to a parent
If you have never been a parent, you probably don't know how badly parents feel about themselves much of the time. The work of nurturing children engulfs parents, often bewilders them, and sooner or later, stresses them to the point where they know they aren't loving their child the way they want to. If pressures and mistreatment are severe, the parent feels that he or she has failed from the start.
Parenting becomes a very real struggle for survival. If the parent is in a more privileged position, it can take weeks or months before burnout occurs. But it does occur for every parent, and every parent feels guilty and defensive about his or her moments and days of irrational parenting. This burnout happens because the nurture of young children requires far more resource than any one or two people, working by themselves, can muster.
It seems easy, from outside the parent/child relationship, to “know what the parent should do!” Parents are blithely offered lots of free advice from family, friends, and strangers in the grocery store.
As you become friends with parents and their children, you will strongly feel like you know exactly what mistakes the parent is making, and how to correct them. If parenting were as emotionally neutral a job as folding laundry, a bit of advice here and there would probably be taken easily. However, parents have poured their hearts and a mountain of effort into their child for the length of that child's life.
There is an invisible but powerful emotional charge that the parent carries–a charge that comes from loving this child intensely, and feeling so often unable to do everything with patience, love, and wisdom. (Most parents know intellectually that they can't be perfect parents, but they nevertheless carry deep upsets about their own shortcomings, the lack of help in their situation, and their children's difficulties.) What helps parents is your friendship, your practical help, and your appreciation for them and their child. This is a far greater gift than any advice you might be tempted to offer.
Here's how you can make a big difference with your caring and a small amount of your time:
- To build a relationship with a parent, ask how it's going, then listen. Parents need to talk about their lives: the joys, the stresses, and the struggles. They need someone to care how they are doing in the midst of it all. You don't have to solve anything. It's usually better if you don't try to give answers, which feel to the parent like criticism (“Why don't you try this?” feels like “What's the matter with you? Don't you realize you should have done this long ago?!”)
- Praise the good you see in the parent and in his/her child. Parents seldom hear how well they are doing, or what a great child they have. It makes a huge difference! An arm around the shoulder, an understanding smile, an appreciative comment (“You get a Purple Heart for valor today,” or, with admiration, “You are quite a Dad!”) can ease a parent's load, especially when tension is sticking out all over.
- Offer practical help once in awhile. A night away from the children, a cooked meal, an offer to repair the broken cupboard door will take you a little time, but will be remembered forever. As they work hard, often alone, parents lose the sense that anyone else cares about them and the quality of their lives. This kind of outreach helps mend their sense of worth.
- Decide never to criticize, never to give advice unless asked. If you have upsets about the job the parent is doing, talk about your feelings to someone else. Parents need help with their patience, and they often can't figure out what to do to improve a difficult situation. But listening to them and noticing how much they care will help far more than advice or criticism. When you've won a parent's confidence, he or she will ask for your thoughts. That is the time to offer your perspective.
Being an ally to a young person
Young people, too, are leaning out for love and a sense that they are special. Each child is unique, full of thoughts and ideas. His “radar” is searching constantly for human warmth, consideration, and fun. It's simple to be an ally to a child. Show warmth, treat the child as special (which he is), and welcome play. Be willing to allow the child to play openly, to experiment, to laugh, to kid around, to show feelings fully. Children build very close relationships quickly when they have permission to be themselves, without fear of criticism.
You were once a child. Do you remember the grownups you loved the most? Do you remember how eagerly you sought their attention, wanted to play, wanted to be close, wanted to hear their voice, wanted them to look at you, to see what you could do? You wanted grownups to be in love with you, to notice you, to be fair to you and to others, to get excited about things, to have fun.
The main thing in our way of being great allies to the children we know is all the training we've had in being serious, dignified, and adult. It's a great adventure to decide to shed our heavy adult burdens, get down on our knees and play horsy, or get out in the street and play catch, or climb under the beds and be in a fort or a kitty's hiding place again. These simple things make a huge difference in a child's life. Every time you decide to spend time playing or admiring a child's activities, you are saying, “You are important. I think highly of you.” The time you spend with a child helps preserve his innate confidence and intelligence, and wins you a friend for life.
- To build a relationship with a child, spend “Special Time” with him or her. Do what the child wants to do, and treat the child as special, no matter what he chooses to do during this time with you. Being treated as someone important, someone who can decide how the time will be spent helps preserve the child's sense of his integrity and intelligence.
- Allow laughter, allow play, allow new things to happen. Laughter and play are what help children feel close to others. In play, a child will use his full intelligence with you.
- Let the child know in various ways that you think highly of him or her. Probably the best way to do this is to keep coming back to give Special Time, honoring your appointments, and considering this time as an important part of your own life. You will be richly rewarded with trust and love.
When you come to know a family well, you'll see ways in which you can be ally to both parent and child. For example, in one family I know, the single mom was living month-to-month, struggling to put food on the table for her daughter. When Christmas came, the mother's feelings of inadequacy and anger would make her raw with upset. She couldn't bring herself to spend her money on a Christmas tree, which she saw as a non-necessary, non-food item. But her daughter, of course, wanted a tree and presents. One ally, who came to occasionally spend Special Time with the daughter, had listened well enough to the mother to understand the situation. For Special Time in December, after consultation with the mother, she and the little girl went out and bought a Christmas tree, brought it home, and put it up. The mother had several good cries of deep relief. This ally had helped her in the very spot where her bad feelings and her economic situation had paralyzed her. The ally's acceptance and warmth toward the mother, and the emotional release the mother got because the ally was not judgmental, made the holidays workable for their family. The ally assumed the job of Christmas tree buying for many years, making her assistance part of their family's tradition, and assuring herself a place of vital importance in their lives.
Parents and children make deeply rewarding friends. As an ally, you get to make a permanent difference in their lives with a small bit of time and your willingness to notice how good they are. Your time, your interest in being close, and your decision to care are all you need. Sometimes, being an ally to a parent or child can become difficult because when we focus approval and attention on others, we begin to feel the lack of such approval and attention in our own lives. Loneliness, resentment, discouragement, and fatigue are some of the feelings we fall prey to as we try to do for someone else what was too seldom done for us.
We recommend that allies find a Listening Partner who is interested in supporting them, and being listened to in return. The Ally then has a time when he or she can share successes and talk about issues that arise. Burnout is far less likely when you have someone to listen to you crow about your successes and think about your next step.
The givers need to be receivers, too: we each have the capacity to change the lives of others. And we each deserve backing, appreciation, and encouragement as we reach out to do this.