'The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they alone knew everything and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them.' So Socrates said, according to his student Plato. Plato added, 'What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?' Quite.
After last summer’s riots across British cities, parenting has frequently been mentioned as a contributory factor. Love comes naturally to most parents, but parenting skills don’t necessarily. Most of us start with a default mode from the parenting we received, which we adopt or reject. Our own character and expectations affect our parenting style, along with current trends, absorbed consciously or otherwise. Lifestyle and economic situation affect the way we interact with our children.
Unlike in the time of Socrates and Plato, parenting advice and courses have been readily available to us for some time. Solid research on child behaviour is generally accepted, translated into sensitive, accessible courses. I’m a graduate of three of them, and my husband two, so we should know.
Children are handed out to parents according to genetics and some sort of random selection process, which means that even in the best regulated families there can be challenges. One of our children was always described as ‘a pleasure to teach,’ the other a constant case of ‘Mrs Riddell, I need to have a word with you.’(I still quail if addressed as Mrs Riddell.)
The first course I attended (‘I’m only here because the nursery teacher suggested it’) was the basic parenting course offered by the primary school. A group of harassed parents found themselves spending several weeks exploring subjects such as ‘the power of praise’, ‘positive discipline’, ‘choices and consequences.’ It all seemed slow, rather laid-back, when what we wanted was a magic formula to instantly produce well-behaved children. But it covered the groundwork of good parenting: appropriate expectations, establishing a healthy relationship, treating children with respect whilst setting them boundaries. Some of the lessons we learnt were for life, such as listening and negotiation skills.
The second course was aimed specifically at parents of ‘children with challenging behaviour.’ You could describe this as the Masters course (we live in Oxford, and I like to tell people I’ve attended courses here.) Advanced subjects were taught, such as ‘What you pay attention to is what you get more of...’ and ‘when and how to ignore’ (surprisingly useful.) Prejudices about other parents were quickly shed during this time. No matter what background, the desire to be a ‘good enough’ parent stands out as being what really counts.
A third course was titled ‘Assertiveness for parents: ways of respecting others but not letting yourself be walked on.’(I really could use a refresher course, now my children are assertive young adults.) I don’t know if it was here that I first met the ‘broken-record technique’ but it became one of my favourites. Basically you act like a broken record, and just keep repeating the same command in a calm voice, as in 'You need to go to bed now... (times infinity)' This device can also be effective with dogs, husbands, and shop assistants.
However, in our case parenting courses were not the only tools we had at our disposal. We also employed IofC’s core values.
First, change starts with me. Joseph Joubert wrote, ‘Children have more need of models than of critics.’ In parenting terms, this means looking at our own behaviour, having appropriate expectations of our children, and putting time into the relationship. All the parenting sessions I’ve attended have one strong theme, ‘All behaviour has a reason... It’s trying to meet a need.’
The courses teach 'love the child, not the behaviour.’ A child psychiatrist, Harold S Hulbert, wrote, ‘Children need love, especially when they do not deserve it.’ ( Pick your moment: do not point this out to an irate parent.) The concept of ‘love’ was taught on one parenting course as ‘unconditional positive regard’ which at least removes any temptation to sentimentality. Love equals responsibility, which produces authority. My most challenging child wrote on a pre-GCSE Mother’s Day card, ‘Thank you for all your help to me of [sic] this period of hard work and stress, you truly have been a life saver. You have been an amazing Mum.’ Phew!
Next, a regular practice of listening to our inner voice, for discernment and direction, provides moments of insight into our own or our children’s behaviour. The wise Anonymous wrote, ‘It seems a shame that most parents weren’t given their neighbours’ children, because those are the only ones they know how to raise!’ Children need secure boundaries and consistency, and in a world of materialism, egotism, and ‘Whatever...’ it’s tough deciding what will give each child their sense of security and space to grow. As parents we have the responsibility – and the privilege – to make those decisions.
Living the application of values of honesty, unselfishness, purity, and love is exactly the same as the parenting course concept of ‘choices and consequences.’ The theory of the latter is that children learn by experience. An example of a natural consequence is that if a child breaks her toy when angry, she will have no usable toy. An example of a logical consequence is if a child refuses to eat dinner, there will be no snacks or dessert. Dishonesty, selfishness, indulgence, not caring, all produce consequences accessible to different age groups. For instance, telling fibs means you won’t be trusted next time (you have to set up a deal where honesty wins a calm hearing, this doesn’t work if Mum goes ballistic.) Selfishness is obvious, it means less cake or toys all round. Indulgence is a more useful concept with young children than purity: applied to pleasures such as watching the TV, or playing on computer games, it works because it’s all about beginning to say no to yourself (eg ‘you need to stop now and go to bed, or you’ll be tired for school tomorrow.’) Love, of course, is all about do-as-you-would-be-done-by.
‘Because I say so’ is not a valid piece of reasoning accepted by modern youth (I doubt it worked well in Plato’s time either.) However ‘sausage machine reasoning’ just about gets through, as in ‘when you do X, then Y will result.’ For example, ‘If you are honest with your teacher about your undone homework, then they’ll know they can trust you if ever you really can’t do it.’ ‘It may not matter if you drop one piece of litter, but it adds up when everyone does it.’ They may not like this type of reasoning, and may choose to ignore it, but they can’t argue with it. Well, not effectively.
Making the connection between the personal and the global appears to be very hard for this generation. It must seem a Herculean task to effect change in the world. Nor can they clearly see themselves as part of a community. ‘It’s takes a village to raise a child’ is an old saying. Are we, the older generations, modelling good communities? ‘Could do better’, as they say on school reports.
So, time to stop writing and apply theory to practice. A certain 18-year-old is still asleep upstairs, and it’s past midday.
PS I show this to said 18-year-old later on. It is returned to me with a big grin and the message, ‘Very good, just a few spelling mistakes. 28/30’