Every day when I read the papers I am disappointed to find myriad instances of social dysfunction. There will be stories about domestic violence, road rage, bullying, vandalism, children and young adults involved in petty crimes, and so on.
More and more the response to this malaise is for an outraged member of parliament to declare something must be done and task a government department or an appropriate consultant to develop a program designed to educate us and thus wean us off our evil ways.
Bullying and domestic violence are two such hot topics. People demand that governments intervene to find ways to protect the general populace and rein in the poor behaviour of the miscreants. The general public seems to want to absolve itself of any responsibility in such matters and hand it over to the state.
Well let me assure you this is never going to work.
We all (at least those of us who have children) do have a responsibility in these matters and it is principally discharged through our parenting, much of which we seem in recent times to have outsourced to others.
All the dysfunction I mentioned above comes from inappropriate behaviour. If people are inclined to physically abuse their partners, get their way through the use of gratuitous violence, delight in belittling those different from themselves, have no respect for property rights or indeed for legitimate authority and the law in general, you can be assured that the values and attitudes underlying such dysfunctional behaviour were largely learnt in their early years (according to some studies before about age twenty or thereabouts) when they should have been being positively influenced by their parents.
So I suggest that if we want to be serious about reducing this social dysfunction we should pay more attention to parenting.
Anyone who has close association with schools will be acquainted with the fact many children are not being taught by their parents the basics of how to engage productively with society. School teachers are now unjustly foisted with the burden of not only having to teach the basic traditional curriculum but to guide children in a wide range of behavioural issues that should be the responsibility of parents.
Of course in very dysfunctional areas schools even do more basic things like providing students breakfast! In some communities I worked in some years’ back the children didn’t know such basic things as to how to use cutlery because they had never sat down as a family at the dinner table!
In the evolutionary development of our race, genetics has ensured that passion will often over-rule rationality. Consequently many children are born in unfortunate circumstances. This problem has been exacerbated by our welfare system which results in a situation that for some, having children provides a relatively easily acquired economic benefit.
It is probably beyond our human capacity to suggest that the act of procreation should be tempered, at the time of conception, with the concern for the resultant progeny. But surely, never mind the circumstances of the pregnancy, we need to ensure that the parents have the desire and the skills to nurture the child. And by this I don’t mean just ensuring the physical wellbeing of the offspring.
In my era girls were taught how to bathe, dress and nurse babies. While this was admirable in some respects it had two major deficiencies. It suggested:
- Mothers had the predominant role of care for their offspring, and
- The principal concern was the physical wellbeing of the child.
I believe this is a grossly inadequate response to parenthood. So, as I have intimated above, in response to these inadequacies might I suggest some enhancements:
- Fathers need to play a role, and
- A child’s psychological and social development is just as, and perhaps more important than, their physical development.
Social problems, like the ones I identified above, are inclined to escalate quickly in a generation or two. One of the reasons for this is that the traditional nuclear family is on the wane. As a result of this, fewer children are being given competent parenting and fewer have good role models demonstrating appropriate behaviour.
Every second article I read seems to call out for more education in respectful relationship building. Well that’s all very well and good but it will never have the impact of good parental role models demonstrating just how this is done. Because most single parent families are cared for by the mother, the problem is more acute for boys. This is exacerbated by their schooling when certainly in their primary years they are more likely to have female rather than male teachers. Boys are therefore unduly deprived of helpful male role models.
(Perhaps I should have sounded a trigger warning here for those more sensitive souls from the GLBTIQ community or whatever compound alphabetical concoction they are hiding behind this week. It is ideologically convenient for these people to maintain gender is something arbitrarily determined by the socialisation of the individual and real freedom can only arise when the individual is free to choose their own gender. This confected notion overlooks a host of scientific evidence that shows much of human behaviour is genetically determined and that it is certain for most of us that the various combinations of X and Y chromosomes we acquire will impact on an individual’s behaviour, their sense of self and their social relationships.)
One article I read claimed that in Australia 1000 children a week are being declared abused or neglected costing us $3.6 billion per annum. These alarming statistics should alert us to the source of much of our societal dysfunction. It is hard to believe that this neglect of our young people is not a major cause of their later behavioural aberrations.
So what are the parental responsibilities that seem to be so sorely neglected?
In a previous essay when talking about the prevailing malaise in indigenous communities, I outlined some expectations we should have of all Australian citizens. I reproduce them again here. Then let me add a couple more expectations particularly as they relate to our roles as parents. I believe I can state categorically that enacting these parental responsibilities is an essential prerequisite for developing cohesive, productive and fulfilling communities.
In that essay I wrote:
Whatever your ethnicity we should expect this of everybody:
- Nurture and care for your children. This includes ensuring they attend school, get adequate sleep and nutrition and are not subject to violence.
- Take care of ourselves by avoiding excessive use of drugs and alcohol and leading generally healthy lifestyles.
- Be law abiding.
- Contribute to society where you can by gainful employment and community involvement.
And in line with my above arguments regarding parental responsibilities I might have added:
- Demonstrate to your children appropriate behaviour,
- Learn effective behavioural modification strategies to guide your children’s behavioural development, but above all,
- Love your children unconditionally.
Now all this sounds rather idealistic. Is it realistic to expect parents to learn such skills?
Well I know it can be done, because I have seen it happen.
For many years, during my professional association with the good Dr Phil, when we ran programs for employees at work we often ran programs in the evenings as well. In the evenings we conducted programs for the spouses of employees and even for teachers from the local schools. They were a huge success.
You might wonder at our motivation for doing this. After some time working with Phil, who is far wiser than I am, I came to realise that the most important thing I could do in my life was to help people become more competent human beings. When that happened I knew we were not only encouraging people to be better employees but that also they would become better spouses, parents and citizens, which was very gratifying. (Not surprisingly, it was this realisation that prompted me, after retiring as an executive, to take up executive coaching.)
I suspect that these days Phil’s very pragmatic approach to psychology and his robust approach to parenting would attract criticism from the politically correct, but we had many attest to its effectiveness in their own family situations and I have little doubt that it provides a hugely beneficial platform for people who not only want to be good parents but who also want to understand the basic underpinnings of human behaviour.
Phil’s approach was always built on the platform of unconditional love but it was augmented by very powerful techniques about behavioural modification. In the dysfunctional family situations outlined above, the parents, (in single parent families they are normally women generally doing the best they can under their difficult circumstances), are rendered relatively impotent as parents without such knowledge.
If you read the tragic stories of their miscreant children most of the parents would admit that they have given up – they have no idea about how to positively modify the behaviour of their children. Typically they characterise their children as being “out of control”. But they are only out of control because the parents are ignorant of effective control mechanism.
This is because they have no effective behavioural modification strategies. And as I have suggested the problem is not helped because they have often not had good role models of their own.
So I suspect that one of the most productive strategies in reducing the level of social dysfunction in Australia would be to teach effective parenting. As suggested above we should insist that all prospective parents know they have this responsibility, be explicit about the requirements, and then provide programs to teach them the necessary skills.
It is a shame that without the acceptance of this responsibility and the skills to deliver it, grandparents, teachers and others are being left to bring up other people’s children. Even faced with this dilemma some children thrive and prosper, but many do not and those who are failed in this process put disproportionate imposts on our society.
It is my belief that if we could get parenting right most other state sponsored interventions trying to address social dysfunction would become superfluous. It is time we stood up and championed effective parenting.
[Postscript: If anyone in authority has the courage to follow my recommendations I would strongly suggest that they lure the good Dr Phil out of retirement to help in the process. I would of course be more than happy to contribute. What do you reckon Phil – a worthwhile gig?]