Despite the gurus, there is no instruction manual for parents
Sydney Morning Herald
Saturday January 2, 2010
Baby boomers were once dubbed the spoilt generation - and much more besides. Undisciplined, work-shy, selfish, the youth who flowered in the late '60s dismayed their parents, alarmed the authorities, and prompted a lot of angst.Someone had to be blamed for producing such ingrates. The culprits were parents, either those of the "because I said so" school, too strict, materialistic and boring, who gave their children cause to rebel; or parents under the influence of the child-raising guru Dr Benjamin Spock, who were too permissive.We never did get a definitive answer as to the ultimate guilty party, but the baby boomers went on to become home-owning, hard-working materialists - making their parents proud but criticised for betraying their ideals.It's happening again. The current youth generation is supposedly the most spoilt in history - whether people are referring to the 20-somethings who never leave home, or the 10-year-old "little emperors" who call the shots. Parents are being blamed once more. The kids aren't turning out right.In the Herald letters pages there has been a lively debate about stay-at-home 20-somethings who can't find the power button on the washing machine, or, if they have achieved that level of independence, can't locate the clothesline. Most letter writers blame pusillanimous parents who won't put their foot down, or kick their kids out.And to be released in Australia next week is a polemical new parenting book that has caused a stir in Britain called The Spoilt Generation (Piatkus). It focuses on the younger age group, children being raised, according to the author Aric Sigman, by a bunch of "pushover parents" who won't hit their kids, pull rank or impose sufficiently rigid limits and boundaries. Ineffectual mothers who sideline fathers and put their jobs before their kids, television, Facebook, childcare and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child have all contributed to producing a rash of bad, sad children, the most spoilt that ever existed, according to the author.When it comes to being a parent, there is no shortage of experts to tell people they are doing the wrong thing. In 1928, one of the early child-raising gurus, John Watson, fulminated "parents today are incompetent".Unfortunately, the right way to parent has proven elusive. As Raising America, a history of child-care manuals and gurus by Ann Hulbert, shows, the "right way" has flip-flopped over the decades between the disciplinarians and the permissives. Penelope Leach aside, nearly all the key experts have been men - many of them, according to their adult children, not very successful fathers; and even among those who were scientists, there has been a lack of consensus and a good deal of inconsistency.In more recent times neurobiologists have held sway with their findings on infant brain development, prompting pregnant women to listen to a lot of Mozart, to no avail as it turned out.Parents, like children, want to be told what to do, so if a new guru comes along, proclaiming old saws such as "spare the rod and spoil the child", as Sigman does, there's a temptation to nod one's head in furious agreement.Parents don't raise children in isolation but in a particular social context that can't be ignored. Yes, more parents could insist their adult children find the clothesline, cook meals and pay board. But it's not a failure of parenting that 20-somethings like their parents' company, and stay at home longer, whereas baby boomers of the same age raised hell in shared households and sneered at their "oldies" across a huge generation gap. Today's young people need years more education than their parents' generation to get a decent job, must hold down part-time jobs through school, face prohibitive rents, and an almost impossible challenge to become a home-owner without parental help.There's a tendency to turn social problems into family problems, and to blame parents when it is the times that have changed. How parents can support their adult offspring in a different economic and social environment without coddling is not easy, but then parenting never was.As for raising "little emperors", there's absolutely no doubt that children need firm boundaries, limits, stability and routines. On this there is a good deal of overlap between all the gurus. The debate is over how rigid the boundaries, how unswerving the routines, how fierce the punishments. In Sigman's book, for example, there is much commonsense: parents should not try to be their child's "friend", pander to their every demand, fail to discipline bad behaviour, or undermine teachers' authority.But if we have learnt anything from the past, it is that the shift to a kinder parenting style is a positive development. Nor is it bad that children are encouraged to speak up, and that people listen to them. It can protect their lives. Changing times demand that parents adapt, pick their way through old maxims to keep the useful ones, and discard the rest, and follow their intuitions and commonsense.Of one thing we can be certain: there has never been a child that was brought up right.