Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Parents, kids and responsibility

A couple of blogs (here and here) recently have discussed the way parents are judged for their kids' behaviour and how much responsibility they have for it. I can sympathise with some of the "kid haters" because some children's behaviour is abominable. But where is the responsibility and how much should the rest of society have to tolerate?

I think I come down mostly on the "anti-judgment" side of the argument, in terms of commenting on parents you meet in passing. Because while some children's behaviour is abominable most of the time, all children's behaviour is abominable some of the time. When you see a child being truly hideous, you have no idea whether this is just his/her moment for the week, or whether this is standard. And furthermore, if this is standard, whether there is some very good reason for it (such as autism or other issue that no amount of clever parenting is going to address).

However, I can see the point of people who see parents doing things we know to be a Bad Idea thinking "That is a Bad Idea". The issue here is one of leaping from "Bad Idea" to "Bad Parent". Every parent has partaken of the Bad Idea on occasion. It doesn't make them a Bad Parent. (My often repeated favourite is my telling my son "You can't have an apple until you have finished your lollipop" - I have many justifications for this statement, but it remains a Bad Idea.)

Given that all children will have their moments, how much should the rest of society have to put up with? I walk a middle line here. I accept that people may not "want to hear [my] fucking spawn shrieking at the top of its lungs in the supermarket", but then I didn't want to listen to John Howard's smug, irritating voice for 12 years either. Nor do I want to wait in queues at the supermarket. Some things are beyond our control. If we want society to continue, even long enough for Gen Y to die, we need the next generation to pay for it. So kids are a fact of life, build a bridge.

Still, there are places kids shouldn't go, both for their sake and for ours. In general kids are worst behaved when they are bored. So don't take kids to adult places for long periods of time and expect them just to be happy to be with you. People know their own kids, it is reasonable to expect that people don't bring kids to a place that they will hate. Unless of course it's a necessity. This is the problem with the supermarket complaint. Sometimes kids need to be taken there. Kids don't need to be taken to intimate restaurants on a Saturday night. The kids will hate it, and the other people dining there have a reasonable expectation to eat their meal without my 2 yr old whinging loudly next to them (or worse!). I don't think this is ageism, this is caring for the comfort of everyone involved, especially your kids. My kids would genuinely rather be at home with the baby sitter than at an adult dinner party.

The other issue is how responsible parents are for their kids' behaviour. In all that follows, I am assuming normally abled kids, in all the stuff I've read and seen about child rearing, I've seen very little about dealing with problems over and above average child stuff. (Hence my feelings on judging people.)

I think for kids up to about teenage years, it is possible for parenting to address pretty much all behaviour problems. But it is very important to note that this doesn't equate to parents causing the behaviour problems. This is obvious, plenty of parents have one child who is a problem in some way, while their others are fine. Children have their own personality, and sometimes it is necessary to parent each one really differently. By extension, their will be times when a parent has a child who needs parenting so different they can't work it out themselves. The benefits of an outside observer can be enormous.

There is a really fine line here, but I think we have to get it right, rather than err on either side. If we blame parents, it creates hostility and guilt, but doesn't actually improve the situation for child, parent or annoyed onlooker.

If we say that some kids are just like that, it removes the power from the parents and again, the situation is not improved for anyone.

Parents need to look at parenting as a constantly changing puzzle we need to solve. Sometimes we will make mistakes, but this should not be guilt producing. We are always aiming for a better life for everyone, not worrying about what went before. As with all puzzles, there may be times when we need a hint from someone with a different perspective. There should be no shame in this, it is just being sensible and using all the resources available. Changing tack is not admitting wrong doing, just learning and adapting. I watch lots of what Tanya Byron does, and I like it a lot. Kids that any onlooker would judge as right little shits turn around so quickly with a different approach. It is never about Bad Parents, it is about working out the right relationship with this little person.

As they get older, other people have much bigger impacts on their lives, and so parents have less ability to change behaviour on their own. The better the relationship going into puberty, the better the odds of being able to help steer them, but there are no guarantees. I haven't been there yet, so I am only speculating and channeling stuff I've read. Time will tell.

With my own kids, I've seen spirals start, where my behaviour is not inspiring good behaviour in my kids. Then I'll watch something or see someone else doing exactly what I'm doing and I'll realise it's time to change tack again. Often what was working 3 weeks ago isn't any more. I can so see how a spiral can get out of control before you even realise it. I have no doubt some of the issues I have had have been caused by exactly that, and I never did realise it. Seeing that parenting can fix pretty much all problems is empowering to me, not condemning. Although I have often wished I had my own personal Tanya to tell me what I'm doing wrong right now. Like what I do wrong with toilet training. I seem manage to make it a mission. But I am the sleep Queen. :) We all have our strengths and weaknesses.

Having said all that, I still have an enormous amount of difficulty not having a knee jerk reaction to any advice my mother gives me. My sister pointed out recently that just because my mother said the problem could be X, doesn't mean it isn't X. Hmmm...

1 comment:

  1. I loved this. You did such a great job of unpicking the issues. I guess as much as anything - and this goes beyond the kid-no kid debate - is the way in which being judgemental and intolerant has become a sport, a badge of pride in our society.

    Someone- maybe Plato - said something like, 'Be kind. Everyone is fighting their own battle'. Sound advice.