I am not, nor have I ever been a parent. Nonetheless, I give fantastic parenting advice- maybe it’s down to the wisdom I’ve gleaned from watching all that TV?
As a result, it felt perfectly normal for me to be watching Joined-up Families and Bridging the Gap, two of the Leeds Animation Group short films about parenting and relationships, especially as I’d recently watched Out to the Family– which also deals with issues between parents and children.
Joined-up Families and Bridging the Gap are both designed to be watched by parents and guardians. And while they both emphasise the importance of open communication, and certainly treat the adults’ perspective as valid, the primary focus seems to be on drawing out the children’s feelings and motivations.
As such, the choice to have Michael Rosen narrate both seems wise, as he’s a children’s writer and former Children’s Laureate.
I enjoyed the tone of both, while remaining sensitive they manage to inject a lot of humour. The graphics were as snappy and fresh as the dialogue, and the scrapbook-y style emphasised the theme of change over time.
The film starts with the simple fact that all families change over time. People age, and people die. There will be new relatives- younger siblings and cousins, as well as new generations. All families, even nuclear ones with 2.4 children, are complicated.
The accompanying booklet points out that step-families are not a particularly modern phenomena. In the past it was more difficult to obtain a divorce and life expectancy was lower, so many were brought about by the death of a partner instead. But there’s definitely a framework for thinking about these potentially complicated familial relationships.
The booklet also makes the point that the members don’t have to live together all the time to be part of a step-family. They don’t even have to consider themselves part of it- but ex-partners, aunts and uncles, grandparents and -possibly- third cousins twice removed- are going to be affected by changes to the family.
There’s no way that a parent having a new partner won’t affect their family, and a child’s point of view about this, whatever it is, is legitimate and important. Joined-up Families explores the way that various family members might react to issues surrounding becoming, and being part of, a joined-up family.
Adults are of course entitled to their opinions. They might be ecstatic at meeting someone new, or feeling trepidation about how to involve them in their children’s life. Or they might be hurt and upset to see a former partner moving on and, apparently, replacing them. They might want to act out- have tantrums and/or down wine- but when there are actual children involved they don’t really have that option.
It’s harder for children to express their opinions about their family changing. They won’t necessarily have access to the vocabulary and concepts which would allow them to get their point across, and it can be hard for parents to acknowledge that their children might have something valuable or important to say on such a complicated topic.
The style of Joined-up Families allows the audience insight into individuals’ thoughts and opinions- which often aren’t expressed to the others. It acknowledges that people can be very guarded about their feelings, and might give a completely different impression to their real emotions. It’s also possible to feel a lot of conflicting things at once, and to find it difficult to express all of that. This highlights the central tenet- the importance of communication.
Focussing on the distinction between “parent” and “step-parent” (thus giving primacy to biological family) can be extremely damaging. Nonetheless, to a child the people who first cared for them- no matter their biological relatedness- will always be important to them. These people can’t simply be replaced, and the film illustrates that trying to tell a child they have a new mother or father will definitely produce a negative response.
Despite dealing with these serious and emotive issues the film definitely retains a sense of humour, I giggled a lot at the man who “failed” with his first family and therefore demands perfection- resulting in Von Trapp-esque salutes from not just the kids, but also the cat.
Likewise, it advises that step-parents who have a sense of humour (and of fun) are likely to build relationships with children more easily- as with the easy-going rollerskater. Although it also points out that this can be troubling for a child, because they might wish for a more “wicked” step-mother cliché so as to not upset and “betray” their mother.
There’s also a humorous hypothetical where the school demands that parents don’t change partners before exams to ensure that all pupils do well. There’s a point to this though, as upset children are far more likely to get into trouble at school- both because of behavioural problems and finding it difficult to concentrate on studying. It also raises the point that travelling between homes can add extra stress- make it more likely to forget homework, for example.
The film definitely emphasises the point that it’s very important to talk to children, to ask them about their feelings, and to let them express themselves.It’s much better to have these problems in the open so that they can at least be dealt with, especially because stress can result in behavioural changes, and even physical ailments.
There can be extreme repercussions down the line when these kind of issues aren’t discussed, parents may lose touch with their children (or try to cut the other parent out) because they think it’s for the best (for example, seeing the visits as too stressful rather than acknowledging that the whole situation is a potential stressor that needs to be dealt with carefully). Children can harbour resentment about that for years, and find it very difficult to forgive.
Joined-up Families avoids making sweeping generalisations, and considers various possibilities. There can of course be very good reasons for not allowing a parent to be in contact with their child, for example domestic violence. In most cases, however, children benefit if their parents can be amicable and live within easy reach of each other.
Parents certainly shouldn’t use their children as a messenger, or as a tool in their battles. The film makes several practical suggestions- ensure children have a “place” in the house (even if it’s just a shelf), discuss the positives of going to visit even if the child doesn’t seem to want to, stick to arrangements, and allow older children to make their own plans with their parents.
It’s important for adults to try to remember what’s important to a child, and to not belittle these concerns. Not getting a “fair” present, cookie or room can make a big difference to self-esteem and relationships with others; and this can be heightened even further by new siblings being added to the situation.
It might seem like there’s lots of negatives- children being pulled in two directions, dealing with extra stress, being expected to adapt to new rules and situations. But there are also lots of positives- lots of potential babysitters, more relatives leading to more presents, and being able to have a game of football without ever leaving the house! Having more relatives at your disposal is an especially important perk at a time when extended families are becoming less prevalent and less important. Dealing with conflict can also equip individuals with important coping and communication skills from a young age, which will be very valuable.
The film is certainly a very positive one. Just like any other family, joined-up ones will change over time, and there’s a lovely example of a girl who initially hates her step-mother but when she herself becomes a mother she grows to love and appreciate this woman. The Parenting Plan- discussed in the booklet- is a useful resource for families to lay out the arrangements they make regarding living arrangements, visits, holidays and much more.
Bridging the Gap
The generation gap is something anyone who’s ever had parents- or indeed had children- is probably familiar with. Bridging the Gap specifically focuses on the gulf of comprehension that exists between teenagers and their parents.
The tone and animation style are very witty and light-hearted. Bridging the Gap begins by investigating the stormy climate and interesting inhabitants of the gap and establishes that both parents and teenagers are in fact individuals with their own personalities and problems- despite how samey they might appear en masse.
The difficulty of communicating cross-generationally is not a new concept, and it’s formed an important part of the plot for many movies and TV shows, one of my favourites being this musical number from The Simpsons:
Although parents being oblivious to the concerns of their teenage children is annoying, them being too interested can also present its own set of problems. This isn’t necessarily about being overprotective either, it may come from dissatisfaction with their own lives- and a craving for real conversation, support, company.
NOFX had their own take on parents behaving inappropriately:
Parents have to adjust to the fact that their kids won’t be around forever, and must learn to be independent- to focus on themselves and their own friendships (which they might have forgotten about when their children were younger and parenting was the most important aspect of their life).
And the same is true vice-versa, parents won’t be around to be relied on forever which is why teens have to develop their own independence and individuality.
The generation gap is a relatively new phenomenon, caused by rising life expectancy and a change in lifestyle. Young people are not legally allowed to work full-time and are expected to be in education. This group, ‘teenagers’, has been identified/created, and constitutes huge new marketing opportunities, capitalising on their search for identity and the possible conflict they may be experiencing with their family.
Teenagers may feel, and act, very grown up at times, but they also sometimes appear to be very childish and in need of support. This contrast leads to unpredictable behaviour which can be hard for parents to understand. Adolescence is a time of great change and emotional turmoil- adolescents are trying to find/forge their own identity, and to work out how they’ll now fit into their family, what role/s they’ll play.
Although it might be a stressful time for everyone, teenagers are doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing if they’re testing boundaries and parents are doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing if they’re providing an environment where they can do this. As Bridging the Gap puts it, being dreamy, self-centred and moody is an important part of the process. Teens need to rebel and to challenge- but they also require the support of their parents. In a way, parents ought to appreciate being raged at by their teenage offspring!
Parents need to remember that they have a huge impact on teenage children (even if it might not seem like it), and here Bridging the Gap neatly ties in with Joined-up Families by examining the impact a new partner can have on a family, and by emphasising the need to communicate.
This is important because parents don’t always say what they mean- there’s a communication gap within the generation gap. “How dare you come in at this time?!” can sound accusatory and mask the real meaning which is closer to “I was worried about you”. It can make teens feel like they’re not trusted by their parents, and not respected as an adult/individual.
Parents might be very good at being friendly (and civil) to other adults, but feel comfortable being rude or even aggressive to their children in a way they’d never dream of behaving to their peers. Parents should actively seek to make friends with their children, and their children’s friends. Parents also need to be willing to negotiate, as being authoritarian can be damaging. Being scared of upsetting very strict parents can lead to teens running away, for example.
Maybe parents should be forced to take listening skills lessons, as the films slyly suggests. Very small, simple things can make a huge difference. For example, You have to show that you are listening- and pay complete, undivided attention. And many people make them mistake that “listening” involves them talking. Young people don’t necessarily want to be told what to do, and there’s no reason to believe that they don’t have good ideas- so allow them to express themselves. It will also help parents to understand them, which in turns helps negotiations on both sides.
Older children do not tell their parents everything, and certainly don’t run to them immediately in the way that younger children will. This can be very hard for parents, both feeling cut out and seeing their child dealing with a problem. While parents need to be sympathetic to the fact that their child is going through something, they also can’t take it personally or get too stressed- and do need to take a break sometimes.
If there’s one key point that I’d take away from these films, it’s the importance of dialogue, and of realising that people don’t necessarily wear their true feelings on their sleeve. And along with that the hopeful mantra that it’s never too late to build, or to repair, bridges between people.
Both of these films- along with shorts on topics such as equal opportunities in the workplace, bereavement, the environment and racism- are available through the Leeds Animation Group’s website.