I suppose this is a sort of “trigger warning”. I intend my blog this week to be provocative. If you don’t want to be challenged best you continue no further!
And what is the confronting issue I am going to attempt to deal with this week? It is parenting.
Now I am not going to pretend that I am a parental role model. When I look back at my own parental experience, there are obviously things I could have done much better. And I wish I had known as much about the human condition as I do now when my children were in their more formative years. But by and large they have grown up to be responsible adults, making a positive contribution to society, rearing children of their own and generally indulging me and their mother as we grow older.(Note the distinction here. As you will see later I disapprove of parents over-indulging their children, but I have no problem with children indulging their parents!)
But I have some concerns about some of the trends I see in parenting. I will elaborate on this shortly.
Some years ago, I wrote an essay on parenting which I commenced by relating this quote from Kahlil Gibran’s fabulous little book The Prophet (copies of which I have bought for my children).
And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, “Speak to us of Children.”
And he said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The Archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the Archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
(If you hark back to my essay of last week you can see how myth, metaphor and parable are still a large part of my world!)
In the past I have shared with you some of my thoughts on parenting. I suspect that competent parenting has more positive impacts on society than almost any other endeavour.
More recently I have tried to support the case ably made by Bess and Jacinta Price, Anthony Dillon and cartoonist, Bill Leak, among others, that a major factor in indigenous disadvantage has been the dereliction of parental responsibilities in some indigenous families and in particular in remote indigenous communities. But as I will try to argue the abrogation of proper parental support goes far broader than this, and the criticism we make of poor parenting extends well beyond the indigenous population.
But again before too many of you take umbrage, I must acknowledge that there are still many exemplary parents who provide wonderful role models for their children and reflect the unconditional love that is necessary for proper human development.
Now as I have remarked previously, the quality of our parenting seems to be dwindling because of a number of societal influences.
Unfortunately, it seems to me that there are growing numbers of parents who seem to have neither the skills nor the desire to ensure their children make a positive contribution to our society.
The proliferation of dysfunctional families means that many parents have no good role models for parenting themselves and often children are brought up in households where one parent (most often the father) is missing. I am probably old-fashioned and politically incorrect, but I can’t help but believe that the lack of positive male role models for boys is particularly deleterious to their upbringing. Combined with this, the fact women dominate the ranks of primary school teachers, means that many boys are not exposed to competent, well-functioning males for most of their formative years. But in any case, the fact that many more men are abandoning the children they have fathered must have deleterious effects on the upbringing of their children.
There are, in my estimation, societal changes as indicated above, impinging adversely on parenting.
But another factor impacting on parenting is the growing indulgence that parents extend to their children.
In an amusing article recently published in the Weekend Australian Magazine which was titled Bring Back Primitive Parenting demographer Bernard Salt reminisced on his childhood and highlighted some of the parenting practices that he experienced that would be severely denigrated in today’s world. Here were some of the practices he mentioned:
- Parents occasionally slapped their children to maintain discipline. This was done as a behavioural modification strategy, without shame and sometimes in public.
- Mothers cooked one evening meal that was consumed by all family members at the same time at the same table. There was no pandering to the particular preferences of family members, and surprisingly most were grateful for what they received. Importantly, the family all sat down together and discussed the events of the day. Experiences were shared, sometimes advice given and family values reinforced. (My children continue to regale me with their recollections of their childhood at mealtime. Whenever my wife served something that one of them didn’t like and there was the usual response, “But I don’t like ……” my consistent response was, “You don’t have to like it, you only have to eat it!”)
- Teenagers were expected to “do the dishes” after the evening meal. There was an acceptance that all family members should contribute in whatever way they could to the family’s welfare. There were meaningful chores for the younger children.
To a casual observer these might not appear to be important issues. But, reinforcing my reputation as an old troglodyte, I believe that Salt is right.
It cannot be disputed that parents strongly influence the behaviour of their children be it through good parenting that sets clear, consistent standards for behaviour or whether through adopting a laissez faire approach to parenting that allows children to behave in any way they wish.
A walk through any supermarket can be edifying in this regard.
John Narciso and David Burkett in their great little book Declare Yourself relate the following story.
I was in a supermarket recently and witnessed a mother ‘teaching’ (unknowingly, I’m sure) her young daughter how to get her way. The child was in a stroller. Suddenly, she spied some candy on a shelf and pointed to it. She wanted some. But her mother told her that she couldn’t have any because it was nearly lunchtime.
The child began to cry. She cried louder as her mother began pushing the stroller farther from the candy shelf, and finally the child threw a rattle to the floor and began stomping her feet on the bottom of the stroller.
Within a few seconds, the mother abruptly stopped the stroller, turned it around, returned to the candy shelf and gave her daughter some of the candy that she wanted. The daughter stopped crying almost immediately.
Many of my colleagues—looking for a motive—might say that perhaps the child had a familial deprivation of love. I would have to say that the child simply wanted candy. Some of my colleagues also might say that the mother, in submitting, demonstrated a weak ego structure. I believe she simply wanted her daughter to be quiet.
The two worked up a deal, and they both achieved what they wanted.
The child received her candy. The mother received quiet.
At thirty or even sixty, the grown-up ‘child’ still may be making similar deals with her husband, and getting paid off just as effectively.
Most get-my-way techniques can be lumped under three broad headings: helplessness, suffering, and anger. These are learned responses to interpersonal situations that aren’t going the way we want them to go.
This is quite instructive for those seeking to understand human behaviour.
In this vein the good Dr Phil has taught me that in understanding human behaviour it is often more instructive to look at what happens after, than what happens before. Indeed he states that one of the myths about human behaviour is the belief:
“How we feel and how we react is caused by what has happened to us.”
We approach human behaviour in the same way as we would physical phenomena. We see a stimulus and expect to see a response as a result. But often that is not how behaviour is best understood. If someone (in this context, let us say a child) responds to a situation using what Narciso and Burkett have termed “get-my-way” behaviours and they are successful, that behaviour is reinforced. In this way a repertoire of antisocial behaviours is built up because they have in fact delivered successful outcomes to the child.
It does not take long in such an environment for a child to develop wonderful skills in whining, performing tantrums, and other obnoxious behaviours because their parents and significant others around them (like the mother in the story above) have capitulated to restore a temporary peace.
Well, I suspect many of you might reluctantly agree with my assessment about how the behaviours of the young are formed. But my next point will probably challenge many of you.
In the USA and Australia in recent decades, there has been an exponential rise in the diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Many children are now branded with this so-called psychological disorder and as a result are given prescription drugs to render them more pliable in the home and school environment. (It is interesting that the incidence of ADHD reported in Europe is far less.)
No doubt the pharmaceutical industry has a case to answer for here as well, but I suspect modern parenting practices are also a contributor. One of the most dominant symptoms of children diagnosed with ADHD is that they are unable to sit still and listen in the class room. It is unlikely that a child who has not had to contend with parental authority will be compliant to the authority of a teacher. If a child is used to resorting to manipulative behaviour to get their way in the home environment, then they will surely resort to such strategies at school. If a child is used to being indulged in at home so that they are allowed to entertain themselves by “acting out” in an unconstrained fashion it is not surprising they will continue to do so in the school environment.
Accordingly I have a theory that some significant set of those children diagnosed as suffering from ADHD exhibit such symptoms because of inadequacies in their parenting.
I often believe that parents are confused about their role in bringing up children. Too many parents believe that in order to have their children love them they must be indulgent. Now I don’t think that is the case at all.
A parent’s first responsibility is to ensure their children can grow up to be competent human beings and as a result well-adjusted people who can contribute to society and have meaningful relationships. In fashioning a child’s behaviour it is inevitable that parents must sometimes act in a way that the child will find disagreeable. That in itself is a good lesson because in their adulthood they will often have to cope with disagreeable circumstances. Parents who indulge their children don’t allow such lessons to be learnt.
And such parents are mistaken in their belief that their indulgence of their children will cement a bond of love between them. Those parents are putting their own needs ahead of the needs of their children and the dysfunctional behaviour it promotes is hurtful to their children in the long term.
So I guess what I am promoting here is that parents must take some responsibility for the behaviour of their children. Providing proper discipline in an atmosphere of unconditional positive regard is our responsibility as parents. And as I stated above surely our ambition is to nurture our children to be competent human beings. Sometimes this requires us to put aside our own short term selfish desires. And, not surprisingly, I am sure that parents who use appropriate behavioural modification strategies on their children are actually more loved than those who adopt a laissez faire approach. Our children respond well to having behavioural boundaries defined.
Of course there will be children who really do have psychiatric problems that need special attention and medication. Let us care for them as well as we may. But it seems to me to be a flaw in the way we parent and in the way we diagnose childhood psychological afflictions that there are now so many children supposedly in the thrall of ADHD.
If I were to be perfectly blunt, I suspect that a diagnosis of some children (mostly boys) as having ADHD is a welcome outcome for parents who have abrogated their parental responsibilities.
Well that should stimulate some strong responses!