Five ways to parent like a tour guide

Imagine that you are a tourist who has just arrived in a brand new country you have never visited before. In fact, before you arrived you had never heard of the place. You have never even read so much as a brochure about it. Upon arrival, you know absolutely nothing about the culture or social norms.

You don’t speak the language.

You have no idea what is safe and what is dangerous.

You have no idea how or where to find food or other basic necessities.

You don’t even know how to find a bathroom.

Luckily, the one thing you do have to help you navigate this new and unfamiliar place is a tour guide who has lived in this country from birth. Your tour guide moves around in this country effortlessly, talking to locals and generally getting a positive response when interacting with other people.

You, on the other hand, haven’t had much luck. When you try to talk to people, they have a hard time understanding you and often don’t take you seriously. Sometimes they think you are rude when you forget to participate in some of the elaborate social rituals that are required in the culture. Your tour guide is pretty good at helping to prompt you with gentle reminders about what to do, but sometimes you sense your tour guide is annoyed with you. Sometimes you even get the sense that your tour guide is embarrassed by you.

You try to keep up, but it’s hard. Everything is new. It’s incredibly frustrating to be reliant on someone else to meet your basic needs. Sometimes you have an urgent question about something you just witnessed, but your tour guide is busy catching up with an acquaintance and doesn’t really have time for another one of your questions. Sometimes you break down and start crying because it’s all so overwhelming.

I’m sure it’s pretty clear by now that our children arrive in our families like this tourist arrives in a brand new country. They don’t arrive knowing how to navigate everyday experiences or how to act responsibly. They aren’t born knowing how to keep themselves safe, how to handle everyday objects so they don’t break, how to handle conflict, how to cope with overwhelming emotions, how to clean up after themselves, or how to follow basic social courtesies. These are the things we as tour guides have to model, explain, and coach so that our new arrivals can succeed in our society.

Being a tour guide on its own is a full-time job. As parents, though, we rarely have the luxury of acting only as tour guides. We have to complete the basic tasks of everyday living like grocery shopping, meal prep, car repairs, and filling out insurance forms, while simultaneously trying to meet the immediate needs of one or more tiny humans AND trying to teach them to be kind, curious, creative, and empathetic, or at least doing our best not to let life squash those qualities in them.

No wonder we tour guides are exhausted and frustrated on a regular basis. We will inevitably be impatient and lose it on occasion, and we shouldn’t feel like failures when we fail to live up to the lofty parenting goals we set for ourselves. But in those moments when are not totally overwhelmed and we have the breathing room to pause and consider how to react, it’s worth taking the time to think about how you would want you would want to be treated if you were a newcomer.

Here are some tips and tricks tour guides use that we can adapt to parenting.

1. Let them know what to expect ahead of time.

Sometimes we forget that the things that are obvious to us are not so obvious to newcomers to our culture. For example, if you invite kids over for a playdate in your home, it’s customary to let the kids play with the toys you have available, but it is not customary for the visitors to take those toys home with them when they leave. They belong to you, after all. That’s blatantly clear to an adult but may be news to a toddler who doesn’t have a lot of playdate experience yet. Trying to see a situation from a newcomer’s perspective and sharing relevant information about what’s going to happen can avoid some major misunderstandings and meltdowns.

2. Coach instead of criticize.

To an adult it may be clear that we shouldn’t stomp through the house with muddy shoes, but to a young child that is initially new information. It takes some time for new information to be integrated into a person’s habits. I would hope that my tour guide could coach me to develop new habits rather than criticize me for not picking them up immediately, or worse, try to train me into or out of habits using a carrot-and-stick approach. Even though I’m new, I’m a person, not a pet.

3. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

In our culture it’s customary to say “thank you” when someone gives you something. You can imagine another culture where the tradition might be to spin around in a circle or jump up and down or bow to the giver. We all want to raise kids who are grateful and gracious, but forgetting to adhere to a new social norm doesn’t mean someone is being rude. It means they are still learning. I would hope my tour guide would model how to behave with others and perhaps privately offer a gentle reminder if necessary, rather than calling me out in public if I misstep. I would hope my tour guide would assume that I’m doing my best, and that even if I forget social norms it’s because I’m still learning, not because I’m being rude or selfish.

4. Try to stay calm.

For someone who is navigating unfamiliar territory, it can be a terrifying thing to witness your guide enter panic mode. After all, the guide is supposed to be the expert. The one who knows how to survive this terrain. If the expert is freaking out, it must be time for all of us to panic. Cue meltdowns by all.

On the other hand, if the guide stays calm, it increases the newcomer’s feeling that this strange new land is a safe place to be and that the guide can be counted on to handle any situation that comes up.

5. Have a sense of humor.

Any newcomer to a culture is inevitably going to commit a major faux pas here and there, even while trying really hard to stay on top of cultural norms. Having a guide who laughs easily, brushes off little mistakes, and shares some stories of their own blunders goes a long way feeling more at ease in a strange new place.


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