Having read a recent article in the Observer about different parenting styles in Britain and France, how people may judge the success of these, and a new parenting book on this topic, it strikes me that it appears to have escaped the notice of an alarming number of people that young children are not young children forever. They grow up. Childhood is a relatively short episode in our lives, and yet, as so much evidence, research, and you would think our own experience tells us, such an important one in shaping who we are, how happy we are, how stable we are, our personalities and emotional well-being.
Now surely most, if not all parents will say that they want their children to be happy when they grow up. They want them to be various other things too; kind, considerate, confident for example. It follows that our goals as parents should be focussed on these outcomes. Think of it as raising adults rather than raising children. Our children will one day be adults.
So how do we go about achieving these outcomes? Well, it seems to me the importance of this question in relation to our children’s future is frequently forgotten in the rush to focus on our children’s present; their behaviour in particular.
Perhaps many parents think that if their child can be what society deems ‘well behaved’ this will lead to them being all the things they want them to be as an adult. But how is this supposedly desirable behaviour in children achieved? If the aforementioned article is anything to go by, I’d say it is achieved through fear – of being smacked or of other punishment or removal of privileges, or of the withdrawal of their parent’s affection, not because the child has learnt ‘respect’. Do not mistake fear or self-interest for respect. A child cannot be ‘taught’ respect; they learn by example. The parent is their role model. Smacking a child, expecting instant compliance, constantly disregarding their wishes and feelings, and using punitive methods to gain their obedience does not model respect.
Another thing that strikes me is that the behaviours that seem to be considered important in this article; whether or not our children can go to bed and stay in bed all night, sit still at the table, be quiet and unobtrusive on supermarket trips and on public transport etc, are in fact for the benefit and convenience of adults, and not necessarily for the benefit of the child. Perhaps we need to re-assess what behaviours are desirable in children and why. Somehow I don’t think harking back to the old ‘little children should be seen and not heard’ attitude is likely to be in the best interests of our children.
If we want our children to grow up being respectful to others, we need to be respectful to them. This does not mean we should allow them to run riot, but we might need to just bear with them a little while they’re just children, and find gentle, empathetic and respectful ways to show them the way. If we want our children to grow up to be confident and happy individuals we need to consider how their experience as a child may influence the likelihood of this outcome. A child who never has a tantrum is not a child who is likely to grow up able to face up to and deal with strong feelings. A child who fears disapproval at every turn and who is constantly made to feel their behaviour is ‘bad’ is not likely to grow up with a positive self-image. The society of ‘good little sleepers’ and compliant, docile children, that this article seems to imply is desirable, comes at a cost.
The last thing we need is another ill-informed parenting book that drags us back to old methods of behaviour focussed parenting, selling itself to parents looking for quick fixes and convenient behaviour, and ignoring any evidence and research that warns of the potential costs of such methods. The book has not yet been published so I may be speaking too soon, but if this article is giving a true flavour it is certainly not selling it to me.