Mother of four teenagers and author of eleven parenting books, Sarah Ockwell-Smith knows a fair bit about raising kids. Here she shares some wise advice on how to best support and raise a tween.
Could you tell us a little about yourself?
I live in England, very close to Cambridge. It’s a very pretty part of the world, with a lot of very old buildings (my home was built in 1675), a lot of history and pretty countryside.
How were you parented?
My parents were really respectful of me. I was given a lot of responsibility and they raised me with a lot of trust. Because of this, I never felt the need to break any rules, lie to them or sneak around behind their backs. I was always very sensible as a teen.
My parents were the cool parents that all my friends wanted to hang out with. Friends of mine would often appear at my house late at night after they had fallen out with their parents. My mum had a bit of a fierce temper, which I’ve inherited, but we were incredibly close and I felt very loved.
What was it like becoming a mother?
I was a youngish mother. My first was born two months after my twenty-sixth birthday. At the time, I had a fantastic job in the pharmaceutical industry, where I was in charge of market research. I was working at boardroom level and travelling internationally. I was very in control. Then my baby arrived and I lost all control—I found it a hard transition going from career woman in charge of every moment of the day to a mum who struggled to get through the day.
I also really struggled with the loss of sense of self. People stopped seeing me as a person, or an individual, and I just became “mum”. I felt I lost a bit of ‘Sarah’, and that took me a long time to adjust to.
My birthing experience was also pretty horrible birth. I had planned a homebirth, but my labour was incredibly long, with slow progress, so I had to transfer to hospital in an ambulance. My baby was born fine and healthy, but I started motherhood mourning for a birth experience that didn’t happen.
How do you parent?
I try to copy how my parents raised me, really, with respect and empathy. Honest and open communication is encouraged, and I try hard to keep a lid on my temper!
How did you get interested in writing about parenting?
I started working with new parents in 2005, when I trained as an antenatal teacher. Later, I worked as a doula and infant massage instructor. I started to write a parenting blog in 2008. Then, in 2009, I decided I really wanted to write a book for new parents, because I didn’t feel comfortable recommending any of the books that were on the market already. I wrote my first book, BabyCalm, in 2010. I basically write the books I wish I’d read as a parent, books that didn’t exist at the time.
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt about yourself from writing these books?
I think I use writing as a form of therapy, like a lot of non-fiction authors, particularly in the self-help genre. Writing allows me to release any big feelings that I’ve held onto in a safe and therapeutic way. I’ve definitely become a lot less angry the more books I write. My first couple of books are positively brimming with anger and frustration, whereas my later ones are much more mellow!
Let’s talk about your new book, Between. What has your experience been of tweenagers?
Well, I’ve been through the stage four times personally, as a parent, and I always have a house full of other people’s kids. I work with hundreds of parents of tweens every year and run regular tween and teen parenting talks and seminars. I also spoke with tweens when writing the book, to make sure I really understood what was important to them—and what they wish their parents knew or did differently. Lastly, I think it’s also important to remember that we have all been a tween ourselves. We all inherently know what it feels like to be that age, as we’ve lived it!
What’s the most important thing to realise about this age group?
That they are more like toddlers than adults when it comes to brain development. When children are the same size as us and start to sprout body hair, we tend to think that they are more mature than they are, because they look like us. Actually, their brain development is nothing like ours as an adult, and we shouldn’t expect them to behave like we do. So many tweens are punished just for being tweens.
Understanding tween brain development is freeing to us as parents too. It makes you realise that, actually, you haven’t been a bad parent and it’s not your fault your tween is rude, is sullen, sulks, disobeys you and acts irrationally.
On a related note, we must stop blaming difficult tween behaviour on their hormones—hormones have very little impact on behaviour compared to brain development. Everywhere you look people say, “Oh, they’re flooded with hormones at that age!” And it’s just not true. We do tweens a disservice if we blame their behaviour on hormones.
How can we as parents connect with this age group?
I think we need to connect on their level and when they want to. For instance, if your tween loves gaming, it’s much better to join them and show an interest in their game and ask if you can play with them, rather than insisting you go for a day at the zoo together.
Also, don’t be worried if your tween doesn’t want to spend as much time with you. Part of the tween phase is the gradual separation from parents and the discovery of their own place in the world. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you, or that you won’t be close as they grow, it just means they need to know who they are away from you.
What is our place as a parent with this age group?
Following on from the above point, the tween years are an odd mix of excitement, as you watch your child grow and flourish and spread their wings away from you, with independence looming on the horizon. Yet we’ve spent the last eight years or so desperately clinging onto them and keeping them safe. As much as we wanted them to be independent when they were little (the baby who wouldn’t sleep out of your arms, or the toddler who would follow you wherever you went, even to the toilet), it’s actually really hard, emotionally, to let go as they grow.
In some ways you feel a strange sense of grief. Gone are the days of what I call ‘little parenting’ (raising little children). There’s no more Santa, no more tooth fairy, no more fairytales. You don’t get to buy dolls and small world toys for gifts, or the cute clothes you once bought them.
The transition towards adulthood means losing a part of your life that has been so overwhelming and all-consuming for almost a decade. It can be hard to leave that behind and find a new place for yourself in the world—reclaiming that person you were before children. I actually found it a harder transition than becoming a mother for the first time!
What stuff do we need to sort out about ourselves to effectively parent this age group?
All parents need to realise that we carry a lot of baggage with us when we become parents. The way our parents raised us absolutely affects how we raise our children. Sometimes we consciously choose to do things in a certain way because of them, but often we unconsciously do and say things to our children that were said and done to us. The things we are most triggered by—for instance, tweens ‘backchatting’ and being rude or sassy—are very often the things that we were most chastised and punished for as tweens ourselves.
If you find yourself feeling irrationally angry because of something your tween or teen did, the chances are that’s an old, usually unconscious, memory being dug up from your past. So, what we all need to do is learn to parent more consciously and more mindfully. To be aware that we aren’t our parents and our children aren’t us. We can do things differently. It’s okay to not scold your child for doing something you would have been scolded for.
We need to learn to take a breath and listen to the voices in our heads and the feelings in our gut and focus on our children and this moment. We need to break the generational cycles, because historically we’ve always treated tweens pretty badly. It’s both a terrifying and exciting thought, because you can influence who your children will become, but also your grandchildren and those who follow!
When do you think it’s healthy to talk to children about sex and relationships?
As early as possible! The earlier the better, really. If you’re open and honest right from the start, as soon as they have questions, there is no need for a big sit-down ‘talk’. We are oddly guarded about sex, relationships, nudity and bodies in the Western world, with the exception of Scandinavian countries, who do the sex-talk stuff really well! Basically, if you put this sort of discussion off until your child is approaching their teens, there's more chance they'll hear it from friends in the playground, or via the internet. It’s much better to control what your children hear by getting in there early.
What other topics are important to bring up to this age group?
Gosh, so many! Two big ones I bring up in the book are the topics of racism and sexual and gender identity and how to raise children to be an ally. I’ve also devoted a whole chapter to financial literacy and how to raise tweens to really understand money. It’s not something that’s taught at schools (or if it is, then it’s usually completely inadequate) and it’s possibly the most important education we can give children for their future. So many adults don’t fully understand debt, borrowing, interest rates and the like.
Screen-time is such a big issue for this age group. What’s your advice around this?
I’m quite open-minded. Obviously, there is a lot of research showing how detrimental it can be to development. We know it also negatively impacts sleep and we also know that a lot of children are very unsafe online. But we can’t deny that we live in a world that relies more and more heavily on screens. I think it’s naive to completely demonise screen-time. Really, the key is a healthy balance!
How should we as parents advise on friendships?
I think it’s actually more important to listen than advise. Too often parents rush into giving advice, when actually what our tweens need is somebody to confide in. Sometimes they need you to be a sounding board they can bounce ideas around with. We must be careful about making judgements about our tween’s friends, or trying to steer them away from certain friendships. This often results in our tweens becoming secretive about friendship issues with those friends in the future. You absolutely cannot choose or control your tween’s friendships.
It’s a great idea to help your tween to consider the other child’s view. Tweens aren’t hugely great at empathy. It helps them to think of a few ways to cope with certain scenarios. I also talk a lot about raising your tween’s self-esteem. They have to start with liking themselves before they can truly like anybody else.
What’s a misunderstanding parents and carers commonly have about this age group?
That clipping their wings keeps them safe. We have a tendency these days to overly restrict our tween’s freedom, for fear of murderers, kidnappers, rapists and the like, and traffic accidents. So, we keep them home and keep them safe, and they’re growing up risk-averse and negatively impacted by our desire to ‘hover’. As hard as it is to let go a little as parents, it’s so important for our tweens to have some freedom.
How important is independence to this age group and how, as parents, do we weigh up freedom and risks?
Try to look at the actual data and evidence, rather than base parenting decisions on things you see on the TV and read online. The world seems a much scarier place when you constantly see and hear scary stories. This tends to make us much more risk-averse than we need to be. Most parents were afforded much more freedom as a tween than they give their tweens now, but the world is no more dangerous.
What advice would you give to your younger mother self?
Pay less attention to what everybody else is doing! It doesn’t matter what their children are doing—they are all different. Never compare them to yours.
What’s the best piece of parenting advice you’ve ever been given?
Not advice, but somebody who told me I was a great mother. She gave me faith in myself and my abilities. Nobody had said that to me before then. Isn’t it sad? We so rarely compliment parents on their parenting skills, but it can mean the world if we do!
What’s the best piece of parenting advice you give?
Gosh, I have no idea! I’m often contacted by parents who thank me for making them realise their child is normal and that they aren’t a bad parent. I would hope that I help parents have realistic expectations of their children—it makes everything else easier if they do.
Illustrated by Sakuya Higuchi.