Ever thought of yourself as a Public Relations specialist? Well as a parent, it’s practical to think of it as part of the job. It may not seem like an occupation to combine with parenting, but once our children are conceived, they are immediately a part of society, and as social beings they will be publicly relating before they are even aware of it. Which is why it is our business to guide them through their early social navigations, teach them about how to move fluidly through a variety of human interactions, and help smooth over the occasional procedural faux pas.
You might accuse me of taking parental responsibility too far this time, but let me tell you what I am seeking to dispel by drawing on this perspective. Too often, I see and hear parents verbally yanking their kids through various social interactions, either prodding them to perform, or making fun of them in some manner for an unsatisfactory performance. This is ostensibly done to appease the social needs of the person(s) with whom the child is, at least theoretically, interacting, and/or to “teach” the children how to “behave appropriately”.
In this all too common version, the parent takes on the miserable role of placater, the other person is stuck feeling embarrassed, and/or pitying both child and parent, and most importantly, the child is saddled with the roles of buffoon, target, and outcast. Not really the ideal environment for “teaching” the kid anything. With all the stress hormones buzzing around the child’s brain, she isn’t in a position to absorb any information about being polite, or as able to perform the nuances of such. This version also winds up short circuiting the child’s sense of security with the parent and with the act of being social. So by pressing the child to interact in ways that even we adults struggle with – and daily – we wind up creating a disconnect in the child’s natural process of adapting to our local cultural customs, and worse, we may even create lifelong issues where there were none to begin with. This is, obviously, a losing proposition for the kids, the parents, and the innocent bystanders being dragged along through this social circus act.
So you can see why I might argue that we choose to go as far in the opposite direction from that as we are able. Specifically, I think it better serves our larger purposes to act as the proverbial grease in the social wheels when our children are learning or having trouble with the fineries. I call us the PR Agents, because it strikes me as helpful to think of ourselves as the ones whose job it is to help our children relate with the public, and as their agents, we are working for them.
To be sure, there is a continuum here, such that as the child learns and adapts, and reflects both a knowledge and adoption of the appropriate procedures, our occupation with guiding them is purposefully both retracted and marginalized. We begin pulling back our assistance, and simultaneously, our children begin to no longer need it. In the beginning, however, we’re doing everything — talking for them, receiving gifts and comments on their behalf, and basically being a ventriloquist. When they get a little older we can begin modeling by letting them see us have interactions (mainly by having them “on” us as we move throughout the day); by letting them receive politeness, kindness, and gratitude from us regularly; and by letting them experience and understand our own preferences for how we are treated (e.g. asking your son if he would please ask you for the sippy cup rather than simply demanding it). And no, that last one is not a justification for us to badger our kids into “say[ing] the magic woorrrd…”. We can simply ask, “Do you want to ask me for that?”. It’s a clear, concise, non-judgemental and less “prompty” version of reminding them of the way asking feels better to people (including us parents) than for us to keep pressing the “behave button” again and again (to little or no avail other than a flat performance of the act). Besides, we sound stupid doing the “say the magic word” bit — especially when they say “Please” and we say “Please what?” and they say “Give me the sippy cup” and we loop around again with “Put it all together…”.
So as their PR Agents, we become actively involved with the process of showing, teaching, and exposing our children to opportunities for passively absorbing preferred social behaviors through their experience with us. We combine this with a thorough education on emotion and empathy as concepts independent from casual socializing with others. In this manner, as I’ve mentioned before, our children learn the reasons, feelings, and connections to the actual society that such procedural practices (like saying “hello” or “thank you”) are meant to address. With this combination of experiential, mechanical, and theoretical information offered over the course of years and various levels of cognitive development, our children evolve into the confident and competent social beings they were meant to be.
During the whole process (and it is a process), and until they are out of the socialization nest, so to speak, I think we can do all parties involved a tremendous favor if, instead of embarrassing performance-prompting, and instead of making fun of “grumpy pants”, and instead of prostrating ourselves every time our kids forget to say “please” to the stranger on the street, we could just step in and do a little PR work for our tender social amateurs. Think of how it might benefit the relationships we share with our children (and the others with whom we are socially involved); and think of the education our children will get from watching us; and think of how much better everyone will feel in the moment; if we just step in (while our children are still learning) and offer our assistance, explanation, or performance instead of pressing the “behave button” again and (embarrassing everyone) again.
Natalie just did a great post on how doing this PR work can actually work to educate and assist the people with whom our children are interacting, as well. You can check it out here, if you haven’t already, it’s got a great example of Parental PR-ing in the field. And for a hilarious look at what to avoid, try this.