Life & Culture

A parents’ guide to embarrassing their children


My son has just started secondary school, and with this major step towards the adult world has come the realisation that his parents are horribly embarrassing.

We are not alone. My friend’s eleven-year-old girl appeared at the top of the stairs one recent Shabbat morning, dressed ready for shul. “You look nice,” said my friend, casually. Without a word, her daughter turned round, went back into her bedroom and changed into something less appropriate.

And if I am to be realistic, my son has viewed us as liabilities for some time. Two years ago when he was nine, for example, I was due to go to his school show.

“You know at the end, where the teacher says the parents can all come and talk to their children?” he said to me, as we were eating breakfast.

“Yes?” I said.

“Well, this time, can you not be too embarrassing like in previous years?”

I racked my brains to think what I could have done wrong after the last show. Did I throw my arms around him and weep?

Present him with a giant bouquet of flowers? I didn’t think so. So it was hard to know what I was supposed to do differently this time.

In the end, after the show finished I just sat there and let him come to me — which he did for all of three seconds before dashing off again.

Then one morning last year, my husband and I had a meeting at the school first thing in the morning, so we said we’d walk there together with the three kids.

My son, now ten, was appalled. Worse than appalled: he was scandalised. Apparently, the whole family walking down the road to school was the absolutely the most mortifying thing imaginable. It wasn’t that he was worried about anything we might actually do while we were walking — it was just the very fact of us, all in a group. Once again, I tried to understand, but failed. In the end, he walked by himself and we followed on.

When I asked friends about the embarrassing things their parents had done to them, the answers almost all involved singing or dancing.

“Whenever we passed a car playing ultra-loud rap music,” said one, “my father used to turn up the volume on his opera tapes and lower the car windows.”

“My dad had a tape of brass band marching hits in his car that he used to play extra loud as he dropped us off at school,” said another.

For my own father, embarrassing me was one of his favourite pastimes. Every week, for example, when he collected me from Brownies, he would do a Morecambe and Wise dance from the Brownie hall back to the car — skipping along touching each hand to his head in turn. He thought it was hilarious; I didn’t.

So why is singing and dancing so particularly awful? I think that children as they grow older want to avoid acknowledging the fact that they even have parents.

(That’s why the mistake of calling your teacher ‘Mum’ is one of the most dreadful things that can happen to you.)

So if, heaven forbid, your parents start singing or dancing in public no wonder you want to sink through the floor.

Of course, this tendency can be used to our advantage. On the beach this summer my husband, tired of answering constant questions from the kids, announced that from now on he was only going to answer them through the medium of interpretive dance.

It’s amazing how quickly the questions stopped after that — which was something of a relief for everyone else on the beach as well.

But while singing and dancing seem to be the main culprits, some of my friends’ parents took the art of embarrassing their children into far more creative territory.

One friend tells me that on a family trip to the cinema, his father turned round and shouted at the projectionist to focus the picture. His dad claims to this day that his action was fully justified, because the film did then become more focused.

Meanwhile, my sister-in-law ran down the street in her pyjamas to the school bus stop one morning, waving the piece of toast and jam her daughter had forgotten to take with her.

And, as proof that your parents can still embarrass you as an adult — at my friend Sarah’s first ever book signing, her mother waited patiently in the queue. When she got to the front, she said extremely loudly, “Are you managing your laundry without a washing machine in the house, darling?”

It makes me think I need to up my game and give my kids something to be properly embarrassed about.

Perhaps I’ll start by leaving the JC open at this page.

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