The perils of PhD parenting

Last week Thesis Whisperer Jnr (aged 9 and three quarters) had to find out seven facts about Ireland for a school project. After the last homework debacle, where we ended up in a screaming match, I have made an effort to adopt more of a Tiger Mother Style, at least with respect to homework. So I set him up with the encyclopedia and told him to get on with it while I did a bit of blog maintenance.

After twenty minutes or so of mucking around he got out his pencil out and started writing a list. I couldn’t help myself and looked over at what he had written:

“Ireland’s flag is orange, white and green”

So far so good I thought and looked at the next item on the list:

“People in Ireland believe in Leprechauns”

The PhD monster inside me was roused at this blatant generalization, the words were out of my mouth before I could even think:

Me: “What evidence do you have for that claim about everyone believing in leprechauns?”
TW Jnr: “What do you mean?”
Me: “It’s a blatant generalisation!”
TW Jnr: “huh?”
Me: “Well…. Do you believe in leprechauns?”
TW Jnr: “no”
Me: “Are boys who live in Ireland somehow different than you?”
TW Jnr: “Um. No. Probably not”
Me: “So do all boys in Ireland believe in leprechauns?”

At this point Thesis Whisperer Jnr burst into tears, threw his pen down on the page and stormed off in a huff. Later,when he had calmed down, we had a little talk. It turned out that he had to illustrate the facts he had found; he included leprechauns as a ‘fact’ because, well – he wanted to draw a leprechaun.

I felt like a complete asshole.

Some time ago I wrote a post called “Parenting through your PhD” about trying to carve out time for study when you have a young child. I was under the naive assumption that finishing my PhD would mean this need to balance my work time with family life would change, but sadly this is not the case. Becoming an academic is like signing up for a whole lifetime of study, so the challenges are still there. I’ve been talking to other PhD parents since this incident and I’ve come up with 5 ways your PhD might affect your school aged child:

You are the parent their teacher dreads talking to

I have a PhD in an education related topic and, like many of you I’m sure, I have done a lot of teaching. Of course, my experience as a teacher does not include primary school aged children, but this doesn’t stop me from being obnoxiously opinionated about it. I am an academic after all.

As a consequence, I am a complete nightmare come parent teacher interview time and will sprout post structuralist theory until the teacher’s eyes glaze over. I don’t want to be like this, but it seems I am compulsive. Luckily Mr Thesis Whisperer will kick me under the table when the 4 syllable words start coming out of my mouth.

Your theories become their theories

When you are doing a PhD what you are reading and thinking about colours your world. I don’t know how it happens, but your kids can can soak up your pet theories along with your taste in music and politics. Sometimes this can lead to conflict with the teacher, as @pinniesp explained to me on Twitter:

“I used to live with a teenager and when his teacher said Australia was discovered, he corrected him: “colonised”. I felt a bit of remorse about the indoctrination – this may have been in year 7 – but oh well”

Precision in all things

My son is going to have to get used to substantiating his knowledge claims with evidence, but that’s not all he has to contend with. I am a grammar nerd too. It’s just no fun to have a parent who insists on the correct use of semi colons in a grade four essay. Other parents on Twitter told me it is even worse if you work with statistics, as @DrBekMarketing remarked:

“… my kids hate it too when I go PhD-parent on them. their response:”n =1 IS a sufficient sample size mum!”

‘Googling’ is not ‘research’

On the tram the other day I heard a 16 year girl complaining to her mother about the bad mark on her essay – apparently she “couldn’t find the information on Google”. I actually turned around in my seat and stared at her, which I know is a stuffy old 40 year old thing to do but I couldn’t help it. All I could think was “no child of mine will think googling is research!”. This is why I set Thesis Whisperer Jnr up with the encyclopedia.

OK,  call me old fashioned, but I think being able to look up an index is a skill that will still be valid through the rest of the century. I am awake to the chance I might be wrong however. My mother wouldn’t let me learn how to type because she was worried I would become a secretary like her. This turned out to be a poor decision as I still can’t touch type and had to write my way through 2 long theses while looking at the keys!

They are the only kid with a bibliography attached to their essay

I laughed when @MisaimedBrain asked me on Twitter: “How old is Thesis Whisperer jnr? I’m imagining a small child developing impeccable referencing.”

It’s funny, because it’s true. Part of the fight over the last piece of homework was my insistence on correct footnoting and formatting of the bibliography. Poor little bastard. But there may be hope for Thesis Whisperer Jnr and I after all. The next day, on the way home, I asked him how his project on Ireland was going:

“Well, I still got to draw a leprechaun, because I wrote under it: SOME people believe in leprechauns. That’s not a generalisation is it mum?”

Related posts

Parenting through a PhD

PhD grief

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29 thoughts on “The perils of PhD parenting

  1. Elisaurus says:

    Despite being a completely different situation, this post reminds me of trying to help my housemate’s fifteen year old sister write a year ten essay on Baz Luhrman’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet and how it was similar/different from the original play. I got my English nerd on and her eyes glazed over when I talked about the visual representations of themes and how some aspects were modernized and blah blah blah….she just wanted to write about the drug use and Clare Danes 🙂

  2. Kikidotca says:

    That is absolutely bang on. My poor little PhD kid is 7 and told my husband and I that he was going to ‘unpack’ a concept for us so we could understand.

  3. Ellie says:

    My mum is a maths teacher, not a PhD, but she once made one of my teachers cry at parents’ evening. I had posters of multiplication tables when I was 4, and had tests on them before bedtime. I don’t think it’s just PhD parents…

    • ingermewburn says:

      I think you’re right. Other parents who are school teachers tell me that you will always see problems and you just have to try and survive your kids’ education.

  4. El says:

    LOL! My hubby and I just copped the evidence based parent interview, where the teachers dragged out all the test results and bell curve charts (our eldest is 6). After quizzing the other parents we discovered that we were the only ones that got the treatment. The funny thing is because we are both teachers we don’t set much store by all that carry on! ‘She’s great at art. Fabulous! She sucks at maths. Groovy!’ 🙂

  5. Karen McAulay says:

    Oh, it all sounds so familiar! Here I am, the librarian-with-a-PhD, telling my kids “keep a record of the websites you visit for your project – you’re going to have to cite them” , and insisting that it is ABSOLUTELY FORBIDDEN to cut-and-paste someone else’s work … not to mention drawing up work schedules for my youngest, establishing how much he needs to have done each day, in order to have time for editing before the submission deadline … poor little soul!

  6. elanorjade says:

    I think if you specialise in anything it’s going to affect how you parent. I cracked it with my husband for singing “The Wheels on the Bus” to our baby because it’s banal and I’d rather he hear interesting music. I sing him Faure and jazz standards and even stuff that I’ve written. And The Rainbow Connection. It’s the same thing, I don’t think parents can help but impart their intellectual snobbery to their children. I suppose it’s just a question of learning where to draw the line and at what point you tell yourself to just let it be, which is harder than it sounds.

  7. Karen McAulay says:

    That’s interesting, Elanorjade. I used to sing the Skye Boat song, “Couter’s Candy” and Greensleeves to my offspring – before we discovered the Singing Kettle – and that was years before I did my PhD on Scottish song collecting. Had they known, they were getting a foretaste of what was to follow! (Mind you, my very musical firstborn also endured Widor’s Toccata in utero, when truth to tell, I had such pins and needles in my hands that I couldn’t feel the keys …)

  8. rabotha says:

    All this sounds so familiar… the uncontrollable impulses to correct spelling and grammar, the pursuit of credible references… To make matters worse my wife is also now handing in her PhD, thus my kids are getting it in stereo 🙂

    On a lighter note I think your post just provided me with a topic for a Toastmasters speech – possibly a humorous one! B.t.w. love the alliteration in the title.

  9. rabotha says:

    Yes I enjoy Toastmasters quite a bit. While I am very comfortable speaking in front of an audience from my subject area, I found that my skills in talking to general audiences were lacking – I found (actually still find) it very difficult to make small talk, but my exposure to non-technical, non-academic audiences at Toastmasters is helping quite a bit. I can definitely see a difference and would recommend it to anybody as a self-development activity.

  10. TortoiseMum says:

    I really enjoyed this and can see myself in this scenario all too easily.

    I find it interesting that in this post and the earlier one on Parenting through your PhD the focus seems to be on the impact of your PhD on your parenting. For me the much tougher challenge to manage has been the impact of my parenting on my PhD. I write about this ALL the time in my blog (oh the irony), but in particular in this post:

    I could read about combining family life with the PhD/academic life all day so more please!

  11. NewtoHDR says:

    So glad to read this! I have just started on the PhD journey and I have two young children. It hit me last night just how big my research load is going to be and what I am in for. They are both at school now, but I have started this in their holidays. Feeling so down about it when I was initially so excited about starting this venture. It has been something I have wanted to do for many years. But reading this has put a positive spin on it. I like your approach to some of the issues.

    Is there any chance you could write some follow up posts about PhD parenting? Dealing with the emotional side of it too? I will check out TortoiseMum’s blog as well. Thank you!

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