Tuesday, 25 November 2008

The Gay Uncle's Guide to Parenting

Brett Berk is the author of a great new parenting book called The Gay Uncle's Guide to Parenting. You can read my interview with him in The Jewish Chronicle this week

Or you could read it here:
By Sarah Ebner

When Brett Berk invited his friends and their young son for dinner, he didn’t expect a potty to be placed next to the table.
“We should be celebrating,” said the boy’s proud mother, after her son had demonstrated his toilet training prowess.
“We should be fumigating,” Berk replied, quite put off his food.
This was the trigger for Berk to take action. Having seen too many friends fall prey to what he calls the “parenting bubble” (where they can no longer see sense, and life revolves around the children) he decided something must be done. The resulting book, The Gay Uncle’s Guide to Parenting, has become a phenomenon in the States. Berk has become a modern parenting “guru”, and there are now plans to turn his book into a reality TV series.
“These days there’s so much emphasis on people being perfect parents and raising perfect children,” says Berk from his apartment in New York. “I wanted to offer parents a new perspective on how to deal with kids and deliver sound, actionable advice. I also wanted to let people laugh at themselves and to realise that they are the grown-ups.”
Berk, who’s 39, seems to have delivered what he intended. The book is 230 pages of candid advice, wrapped up with some delicious anecdotes - the parents who worry that their pre-schooler is choosing the “wrong” child to be friends with, the new mother convinced that her baby’s nappies don’t smell and the granny who pinches her 3-year-old granddaughter and claims that the pre-schooler “started it”. As an “outsider”, Berk considers himself eminently well qualified to try to bring parents back to reality. He’s emphatic that the book is for those who want to be “people as well as parents,” and wants them to step back from trying to control every aspect of their children’s lives,
“Investing all your time and energy in your child is a lot of pressure to place on a kid,” he says, “but there are things you can do to really focus on the big picture, rather than whether you’re feeding them the right organic grape or not.”
Berk is scathing about people who pander to their children’s every whim. He clearly feels that parents are out of control, spoiling themselves and their children with all sorts of things they don’t need.
“The baby business seems to play on your fears that you’re ill equipped for the job and going to do it all wrong,” he writes. This is where his checklist for “Baby Product Substitutes” comes in. Instead of a digital bath thermometer, Berk suggests using a finger or wrist. Instead of an “infant in-crib sleep positioner,” he suggests a mattress or rolled up towel, and instead of a baby wipes warmer (for those ever so sensitive babies who just can’t handle a wipe at room temperature) he suggests…a lobotomy.
Despite having no children himself, he doesn’t see that as a problem. He’s worked with children for such a long time (he has a Masters in education, taught in schools and also ran a day-care centre) that he feels he knows an awful lot about them. He’s also convinced that it’s about time gay men, who are already feted as gurus on clothing, style and grooming, moved into another arena.
“Some people said maybe we should take the “gay” part out of the title,” he says, “but in some ways, that’s part of the shtick of the book, you know what I mean? Gay men have taken on this role as lifestyle gurus and this is the next logical thing for us to address, telling people how to raise their kids.”
The appealing thing about The Gay Uncle’s Guide is not just that it’s funny, with a wry sense of Jewish humour (Berk says that, although the book isn’t “overtly” Jewish, he guesses that “everything I do is somehow informed by my Jewishness), but that the advice is actually useful. Much of it is common sense – that the adult should be in charge, or that children benefit from routines – but it’s amusingly presented.
“Don’t worry about whether your child or children can cope if you’re thinking of adding another child to the family,” he says. “Think about whether you can cope. Your children are going to resent you for the rest of their lives anyway, regardless of how many or few of them you have. Providing a sibling will at least give them someone to corroborate the reasons for their resentment.”
Berk has been with his partner, a screenwriter called Tal, for 18 years, but is adamant he doesn’t want children of his own.
“I’m not opposed to gay parenting in any way, shape or form. It’s just not for me,” he says. “I do more good as an uncle and an educator than I would do as a parent. I think we all muck it up as parents. It’s impossible not to.”

The Gay Uncle’s Guide to Parenting: Candid Counsel from the Depths of the Day-care Trenches, by Brett Berk, is published by Three Rivers Press.
Brett Berk’s blog is at http://brettberk.com/

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