A CONVERSATION WITH ROB PARSONS
Rob Parsons is a busy boy. He runs seminars on family life, takes courses for couples, counsels one-on-one, and heads up a large UK-based organisation called ‘Care for the Family’. Somehow, amongst all this, he finds time to write. And we first heard of Rob years ago when we stumbled across his first book: ‘The Sixty Minute Father’.
We liked the ‘sixty minute’ tag. We liked Rob’s ideas, which were simple but effective. And when we heard that he’d published a new book, ‘The Sixty Minute Family’, we just had to talk some more.
Okay. He’s not stupid – and nor are we. You can’t change the world in an hour, everybody know that. But sixty minutes IS all you need to start changing your life – and to start changing your family.
So go on. Take sixty minutes to read this interview and get your head around these ideas, and you’ll see what we mean …
GRAPEVINE: Presumably it takes about 60 minutes to read your books – right?
ROB PARSONS: Right. I was at a booksellers’ convention some years ago, and this guy was talking about what makes people read books. And he asked: “Why doesn’t somebody write short books?” I’m a lawyer, and I well remember reading a book called ‘The One Minute Manager’. That grabbed me – it was manageable. So I decided to write ‘The Sixty Minute Father’ … and that’s how it all started.
Since then, I’ve often had people tell me, “Rob, you aren’t actually saying anything we don’t know already, but you remind us of stuff we’ve forgotten.” Which is fine by me. I feel my job is to just turn on a light for people. It’s not rocket science, but it seems to work.
GRAPEVINE: What’s the biggest risk-factor that’s facing families today – families in the Western world?
ROB: I think it’s the idea that love is a ‘feeling’ that we always have the right to feel. This couple came to see me some time ago. They were about to divorce, and I asked the guy why. He answered, “Well, I don’t feel in love anymore.”
I asked, “Didn’t anybody tell you that this initial feeling would wear off? That the emotional high of feeling ‘in love’ would fade? That you’d have to fight to keep your love alive?”
He said, “No – nobody.”
This idea that we have the ‘right’ to always feel happy – always be with someone who makes us feel this way – is a huge mistake. Yes, of course we want to be with someone who makes us happy, someone we’re ‘in love’ with. But if we’re going to build relationships that last, we’re simply going to have to fight those times when everything screams out at us to ‘let go’.
GRAPEVINE: People often say it’s not right to stay together “just for the sake of the children”. What’s your view?
ROB: Well, it’s possibly true. But, nevertheless, sticking together “for the sake of the kids” can still be a good reason. I’ve known many, many couples who did just that – and, in the process, they revived a deep love that they thought was gone forever.
I think back on my own family life. Dad was a postman and Mum was an office cleaner. They didn’t share the same bedroom from when I was about 12 – so it wasn’t a hum-dinger of a marriage. There were three of us kids. And, surprisingly, all my memories of our childhood home are of love and security.
The funny thing is, Mum and Dad kind of grew together. They were grumpy at times, but they tolerated each other, looked after each other. Yes, they argued occasionally. But they were there for each other, and they seemed drawn closer together as they approached old age.
I often wonder: if they’d split, would they’ve been any happier? And I don’t think they would’ve been.
It might not always be right – you can’t always hold family life together. There’s lots of pain that comes across my desk every day, so I know there’s no quick-fix answers. But I do think we sometimes underestimate the terrible effect that family break-up can have on children.
GRAPEVINE: Are we getting the message about spending time together as families? Or are too many of us still spending too much time at work?
ROB: It’s difficult. All over the world, people are suffering economically. And, sometimes, it’s not easy to spend as much time as we’d really like to with our kids.
Often I come across people – particularly men – who’d describe themselves as ‘workaholics’. They just can’t stop. They work long hours irrespective of any real need … they’ve just become long-hours people. I think they get their self-esteem from the fact that they work so hard.
I’ve talked to lots of them when they’re about 55 or 60, and they often say things like, “Where did my life go?” Those regrets are very common.
On the other hand, I was talking to a long-distance truck driver recently, and he said, “I can’t spend all the time I’d like to with my kids. I have to be on the road to put bread on the table. But I let them know in a hundred ways I’d rather be with them. I phone them … send them texts … and when I am at home, they get my full attention!”
GRAPEVINE: Do you have any timely tips for parents who want to do better in this area?
ROB: Yes. If we’re serious about spending more time with our kids and families, normally ‘goodwill’ won’t be enough. The mere idea that we’d like to go to our kid’s ballet performance won’t be enough to get us there, because something will probably come along and rob us of the moment. So I encourage families to plan those times.
I love the story about the little boy who says to his father, “Daddy, what are you writing in that book?” The father says, “This is my appointment diary. I write in here the appointments I have with important people.” And the little boy asks, “Am I in that book, Daddy?”
Now, it’s not a bad idea to put your kids in that book. Reserve times for those important things – school plays, soccer matches, ballet events, birthday parties. Fill them in … book those times … and make those occasions high priorities. Otherwise, the sheer busy-ness of life will crowd-out things that really matter most.
GRAPEVINE: Is that busy-ness mainly a mum-problem … a dad-problem … or both?
ROB: Mums tend to spend much more time directly with the kids, especially little ones, than dads. But mums and dads both help create tremendous busy-ness in our homes. We rush the kids to karate and piano lessons and sports and swimming … and poor Mum’s tearing around, delivering them here and there.
I heard of one woman who was driving one of these big SUVs. She notices a small boy sitting beside her and asks, “Well, if Justin’s at soccer, and Susan’s at ballet, and Simon’s at his piano lessons, who the heck are you?”
Home-life can get a bit like that. We can easily forget that what our kids most enjoy – especially when they’re little – is just being with us.
GRAPEVINE: When we spend time with our kids we’re giving them roots – right?
ROB: For sure! And there’s power in those family traditions: “We always did this …” “Every Saturday morning Mum would make bread …” “On Sundays we did such-and-such …” “Each Saturday afternoon Dad would light the barbecue …”
These memories add so much to our sense of family. Even silly things – like sleeping in the tent in the backyard overnight.
Good traditions don’t have to cost a lot. In fact, often the poorest parents (financially) can create the best memories. And those traditions work almost at any age or stage in life. You can begin meeting your grown-up son for coffee at Starbucks once a month on Tuesdays. Yes, he might be 35 years old, but there’s nothing to stop you establishing a precious new tradition.
GRAPEVINE: There’s lots of discussion these days about self-esteem, and the need for kids to feel accepted – especially by their mums and dads. Do you go along with that?
ROB: I do. And I think it arises out of the best of motives. Parents desperately want their children to do well – academically, or at sports, or whatever. But the problem is we can so easily give them the message that, “I love you if …” If you achieve … if you come first … if you win that cup … if you get that degree.
And that’s a dreadful thing to send a kid out into the world with.
Society encourages it, too. Everything seems to reward success and achievement. And kids are under constant pressure to look a certain way. Believe it or not, 50% of teenage girls in the UK would like a tummy-tuck … 60% of teenage girls believe they’re overweight (no matter what their weight really is) … and 15% would like a nose reconstruction.
And it’s not just girls – it affects boys too. It’s not enough to be a great footballer today … you have to be a great looking footballer too!
So who’s going to stand up for our kids and help them assess these pressures? Who’s going to help them feel good about themselves? It has to be their mums and dads.
It’s tricky, though. Because, at the same time, of course, we do have to motivate the lazy little tykes. We do have to push them a bit …
GRAPEVINE: But it’s encouragement rather than criticism?
ROB: Well, it’s both. Encouragement, yes – but sometimes you have to criticise, too. I remember once having dinner with a psychologist. He told me, “The problem with some parents is that they don’t love their children enough! They want to be their kids’ best friends – but parents simply can’t have that as a goal. Parents have to say and do things that best friends won’t, because it’ll knock them in the popularity stakes.”
So, yes, sometimes parents have to criticize and correct. Their kids need to know when they’ve crossed a boundary … where they’re going wrong … where they could’ve done better. But, at the same time, there must be the belief in those children that “Mum and Dad love me anyway – no matter what!”
The saddest letter I ever got was from a woman who said, “I was a disappointment to my father. He’d wanted a son. He never hugged me. He never told me he loved me. And he never praised me. He thought praising me would make me big-headed.
“My self-esteem is very low. I’m often depressed. I’m riddled with guilt.”
And then she added, “I am 85 years old.”
I’ve tried to imagine her as a girl of five coming home to show her dad a painting, and hearing him say something like, “Cows don’t have five legs – cows have four legs!” I picture her dressing as a teenager to please him, taking the career he wanted her to have. She wanted to be an actress, but he wanted her to be an accountant. He’s long since dead, but he’s still like a ghost at her shoulder demanding that she become somebody she just can’t ever be.
Sometimes, without meaning to, we do that to our children …
GRAPEVINE: Do many parents make a conscious decision about “what kind of parent” they will be – or do most of us just drift into the job?
ROB: Oh, I think most of us do what I did – we just drift into it. And I wish I’d known more when my kids were very young. Because, the truth is, the style of parenting we adopt is very important. And most of us probably don’t even think about it.
There are three main styles which I describe in the book:
1. Permissive Parents – “Do what you want. Anything goes!”
2. Authoritarian Parents – “Do what I say. Don’t ask questions, just do it!”
3. Authoritative Parents – the most effective, summed up by, “Say what you mean and mean what you say!” In other words, if you say, “I’d like you to be at the table with your hands washed and toys put away by six o’clock,” then you mean that. And you’re not caught an hour later saying, “I won’t tell you again!” … And the kid’s thinking, “She probably will – she’ll probably tell me another five times yet!”
Generally, when you mean what you say, you pick as few fights as possible. You say “Yes!” as often as you can. You don’t go looking for trouble. And after a while, your child knows (if you’re consistent and follow through on this) that you really mean it.
This is not just a matter of discipline – but also a matter of security. There’s nothing that’ll undermine the security of a child worse than believing there are no boundaries … or, even if there are, nobody cares if you cross them.
GRAPEVINE: But how do we handle the conflict that erupts when boundaries are crossed?
ROB: Well, as I like to point out, Colonel Custer’s Last Stand was courageous … but it was his last stand! You can’t fight all the battles. As a parent, you can fight the smoking battle, and the homework battle, and the untidy bedroom battle, and the shirt-hanging-out battle … but you can’t fight them all.
You must fight some. But if you try them all, two things will happen: (i) your child will feel you’re always on his back, always picking at him. But worse, (ii) he’ll never know when something really matters to you.
It’s much better to choose your battles carefully – and pick the really important things.
A woman came to see me recently. “I’m a single mum. My daughter’s 15 and I want her in on school nights at 9:30pm. She comes in at 10pm … so we have a row, four nights a week, over that.” She asked me, “Am I doing the right thing?”
I said, “Yes you are. You’re her mother. Nobody knows her like you. Nobody loves her like you. And at least you’re keeping the bar high. I know it’s exhausting. But if you give up, she’ll start coming in at 11pm, then midnight, and then eventually she’ll stay out all night.”
That woman is doing okay. She’s saying, “This is critical – it’s one battle I’m going to fight!”
We don’t always get it right, of course. And if we get it wrong, if we fall out, if there’s bruised feelings – it’s very important that we say sorry to our kids. It’s critical that they see us modelling both apologising and forgiving.
I remember one dad declaring to me, “I wouldn’t apologise to my kids for anything. Ever!” Well, you can fear a man like that … but it’s hard to respect him.
GRAPEVINE: This apologising and forgiving needs to happen between partners, too – right?
ROB: Right! And that gets to the heart of couple-communication. I remember many years ago coming back from leading a seminar on marriage. I got home very late – slipped in to the guest bedroom so as not to wake Dianna – and I found a note on my pillow. It said, “Darling, we haven’t spoken much recently, and I’m missing it.”
I’d just told 500 people how to be great communicators … and here’s my own wife saying, “Let’s remember to practice what we preach!”
GRAPEVINE: You talk about making ‘emotional deposits’ in the lives of those we live with. Tell us what you mean by that?
ROB: It’s a bit like banking, and the idea is this: when you interact with people, you make emotional withdrawals or deposits. If you treat somebody badly, you make an emotional withdrawal. You treat somebody well, you make an emotional deposit.
You take a little boy fishing, and you laugh together and have fun together – you’ve made a deposit. You help him with his homework – another deposit.
Your teenage daughter shares the fact that her boyfriend’s broken her heart, and you listen and care – you’ve made a deposit. You tell her to shape-up and not be so stupid – that’s a withdrawal.
Ideally, you want to be building up as many deposits as you possibly can, because one day you’re going to need them.
I remember one day when my son was 15. I didn’t want him to go out that night, but he was determined to go and we literally ‘squared up’ to each other in his bedroom. I stood blocking his bedroom door and he glared at me … and for a moment it looked as if we were going to be rolling around on the floor. At that moment I remember wondering, “Have we got enough in the bank?” … all those years, all those stories, all that laughter.
So I went and sat on his bed. Now he could walk past if he decided to. And I said, “Son, I don’t deserve this from you!” It was almost a holy moment.
You’ve got to hope that there’s enough in the bank to see you through the tough times and tense moments. That’s what I mean by ‘deposit’.
GRAPEVINE: Can we talk about happiness – and our tendency to think we’ll be a lot happier once some future event occurs: when the mortgage is paid off, or the rain stops, or the kids are out of nappies. Why can’t we be happy in the here-and-now?
ROB: We either look back – to a time when we think we were a lot happier: “Oh, life was so good back then!” Or we look forward – to something in the future we think will make us happy: when we get married, buy a house, earn more, when our kids grow up.
But, actually, people who are really happy find their happiness in this moment – right now. And it’s so important in family life to grab the moment.
There’s a little girl making scones … and she’s got flour all over her face … and we’re rushing because we’ve got to get the house tidy and we’ve got to get her to ballet. But wait – it’s important to grab that moment. To seize the satisfaction and happiness that the here-and-now offers. To just savour it. Otherwise, we can end up wishing our lives away.
Even in tough times, we need to develop the belief that in this moment – for all its sorrow or grief – we can still find some joy, that it’s not all black, that we’ve still got each other.
Because, the truth is, life is a long-haul business …
A woman came into my office several years ago. She was 97. She said, “Mr Parsons, I can rest in peace now!” I asked, “Why’s that, my dear?” She replied, “I’ve just got my youngest son into a home for elderly people.” He was 72 and a bit shaky. But she wasn’t in a rest-home. She was 97, and she was still tying up the last few loose ends as a mother!
GRAPEVINE: Lots of people who read this magazine will feel a sense of failure. Have you got any encouragement for those who haven’t done as well as they’d have liked as parents?
ROB: I think the thing to remember is this: when it comes to your own kids, there are no experts. Not the people who write all those self-help books or appear on TV or write the articles. We’re all just trying to get our own kids through as best we can.
As I look back on my kids who are grown-up now, I wish I’d done a million things differently. But perhaps I’d just make different mistakes …
The truth is, we have to leave the past behind. We don’t know really how well we’ve done … or how badly. But what I do know is this: these simple principles can begin working today – no matter how old or young your kids are.
You can let a 40-year-old daughter know that you really do accept her and love her. You can reach out to your kids, even if they’re not speaking to you – even if you’ve seriously fallen out. You can drop them a line and let them know that you’re sorry and that you’re there for them. You can stay in touch.
You can always begin these things today. They are life-principles that will help you invest in your loved ones.
With all its pain and frustrations and fears and hopes and joys, this is your family … the only one you’ve got!