Give in, cop out - a mother's confession

What are we doing to our children? Bringing them up to express themselves freely in a way we never could, or failing them by refusing to teach them how to behave? Is it because we are enlightened that we give them their own way?, it is because we feel guilty ...
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I recently had tea in of those grand old fusty hotels, in Leamington Spa, with my grandmother and mother. I took along my four and nine-year- old daughters, both giving smart dresses a rare airing. I felt so proud of them as we walked in.

While we were waiting for the tea to arrive, my four-year-old behaved as she always does - climbing over the chair, peeping at people, and then, bored, trotting up and down the aisles of chairs, singing happily to herself. I smiled fondly at her, until I realised my grandmother was not smiling. She was appalled. "You would never have behaved like this," she said. "Oh, come on nanan," I said. "She's only four." My mum butted in, "No, you wouldn't." Thinking about it on the way home, I realised that no, I probably wouldn't. My sister and I would have sat quietly on the edge of our seats, buttoned up in well-pressed Windsor Woolly outfits. If I'd started to climb on my seat, or shouted, my mum would have smartly removed me from the hotel lounge and I would have been in severe disgrace. My whole approach to parenting is radically different from my mother's. It took this one small episode to remind me how different. Our children wear bright, stretchy leggings from Next, T-shirts and soft Lycra tights. Their clothes are like mine are - stretchy, bendy, do what you want.

We give in over all sorts of matters, large and small. Go to the supermarket any day of the week, and you'll hear children pushing their parents to the limit with demands for sweets, throwing themselves to the ground, yelling, refusing to move. And what do we do? Instead of smacking the child hard - in front of other people - tucking them under one arm and walking out of the supermarket never to return, we negotiate. We say, "If you stop behaving like this then you can have some sweets. If you're good you can sit in the front on the way home". Our generation of parents believe you don't impose absolute authority on children - you negotiate, let them have their say, and their way. Are we producing self-aware children or uncontrollable ones? Many of my friends - including mothers who stay at home - say they are finding it harder and harder to control their children. My own nine-year-old will frequently answer me back - in public - and almost every request is met with, "Why?" or, "So what?" The question is - why have we changed our parenting styles so radically from those of our parents? Is it love? Or is it something else? Guilt?

"The main difference is of course that often both parents work," says Jenni Renwick-Smith, a child psychologist who deals with behavioural problems. "Instead of the mother making it her main job to bring up children, we rely on childminders, nurseries, nannies or au pairs. Even grandparents now are often too busy, or live too far away to help."

Of course, she says, there have always been children who were cheeky or rebellious, but now she fears we are creating a generation of deeply insecure children - who don't react to their parent's attempts at discipline because it isn't consistent. Most parents feel they're doing their best - but often they're simply not. "This is very hard to say and I don't want to impose further guilt on mothers who have to work, but if a child goes through a lot of changes in the years before they are five it does have an effect. We are forcing our children to be independent much earlier. Most children search for consistency and boundaries. If a creche has different members of staff each week, that is enormously confusing to a young child. If a nanny or au pair suddenly leaves, then that is a loss tantamount in importance to a death - and they will think it's their fault.

"To a young child, the adult they're with is their whole world. Anyone in child psychology will tell you that if you change those adults on a frequent basis, a child will become very unhappy and very insecure.

"If you leave the upbringing of your child to a constantly-changing rota of adults with different sets of rules, you cannot expect your child to accept your rules at home. They will become very confused, if they're allowed to do certain things at the creche, but not at home. It's insecurity we're talking about, and it's not an intellectual problem, but an emotional one."

This makes very uncomfortable reading to so many of us, who exist in a generation where it is entirely acceptable for mothers - and fathers - to work full-time and delegate the responsibility of bringing up their children, for the majority of time, to others. Parenting now means child- care hassle. Jenni Renwick-Smith goes as far as to say she shudders to think what our children's parenting skills will be like.

"It is a conundrum for every working parent I know. We try so hard to think we are doing the best we can for our children, and we try to compensate in so many ways for simply not being there."

This, says Renwick-Smith, is why we see so many children throwing tantrums and refusing to accept authority, and why older children seem so reluctant to accept our rules.

"We refuse to accept that parenting is a long, hard, consistent slog. It is hard work to make children behave. You have to be ruthless at times, and unpleasant.When you've done a full week's work and you're confronted with a screaming child in a crowded supermarket on a Saturday, do you really feel up to a blazing row?

"Laying the law down and denying our children things they want is so hard for us - because we're so scared of pushing them away - we feel so guilty about working in the first place. It isn't just parents. It's now the philosophy of most schools to let children self-express - if they're bored sitting down, they get up and wander around. Children are taught to think far more independently, and not be afraid to voice their own opinions.

"This is a positive step forward, but what's also happening is that many of the teenagers I see have little or no awareness of other people's feelings. We give in to our children so often to make up for not being there, we're not teaching them to think about other people's needs," says Renwick-Smith.

My mother regarded bringing myself and my sister up as her main job. If we behaved badly, it reflected on her skills as a parent. I have spent much more time working than I have bringing up my children. There is now a much greater acceptance of uncontrolled behaviour - if my children behave appallingly in public I get sympathy, not opprobrium.

The main period of change in parenting came in the sixties, when the extremes of libertarian philosophy filtered down gradually to ordinary young parents and became authorised by Dr Spock and, later, Penelope Leach. Authoritarianism will never return - and shouldn't, says Renwick-Smith, citing the example of Japan, which has one of the highest rates of child suicide and depression in the civilised world. But many of us are slowly coming round to the idea that children do not necessarily know best, and that in over-compensating for the lack of time we spend with them we might be creating a generation of insecure brats.

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