Wednesday 16 January 2019

Compulsive behaviour

You can hold as many courses as you like, but you cannot force people to attend

The ‘Prime Minister for a Day’ competition has been won by a 30-something mother of three whose winning proposal, on the face of it, sounds commendable enough.

Her suggestion was that any couple wishing to have children should be made to undergo a compulsory parental skills course first. The snag, of course, lies in the very word ‘compulsory’.

No matter which way you look at it, this kind of course would be virtually impossible to enforce unless you follow it up with draconian tactics (some people suggested not issuing the children’s allowance to the couple, for example), which smack of the state, yet again, interfering in people’s private lives.  It verges too uncomfortably close to fascist methods for my taste.

And what if the couple goes ahead and gets pregnant anyway without having done the course – then what? Will the state snatch the child away from them?

I can understand and appreciate the good intentions behind this proposal; for let’s face it, we have all come across mothers and fathers who are such bad parents that inwardly we mutter to ourselves, “some people should not be allowed to have children”.  But thinking about it and actually going through with it are two different things.

The only time the state can actually step in and interfere in the way parents bring up their children is where there is extreme neglect and/or outright physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Other than that, children who are unlucky to be born to a couple who have no parental skills to speak of, have no choice but to muddle through life as best they can. Sometimes, against all odds, they emerge at the other end of their childhood relatively unscathed, usually because they were born with a resilient character.  In many cases, however, they are simply destined to perpetuate the cycle, growing up to repeat their parents’ negative behavioural patterns.

But let’s just say for a moment that it was possible to force parents-to-be to attend this course, how would it work exactly? How would the organizers of the course ensure that once the child is born, the skills which have been passed on to the couple would actually be put into practice?

The fact is, just like the Cana marital preparation course cannot possibly prepare you for the Pandora’s box which is marriage, no one can possibly prepare you for the daunting task of parenthood.  While there is plenty of guidance and help when a problem comes up, it is usually only when a problem crops up that you realize you need expert help to cope with it*.  And the sad truth is, just like it is the parents of the children who are doing poorly in school who never show up for parents’ day – the same holds true for “bad” parents. They will not go to courses or seek help because they are completely oblivious to the fact that there is anything wrong. Or else, they simply don’t care – which is why they are considered bad parents in the first place.

Having said all this, there is another factor at play here: who exactly is going to decide which is the best method when it comes to good parenting? There are as many theories about parenting as there are parents; indeed, all of us have different tales to tell of the way in which we were brought up. Personally, while there are methods which my parents employed which I have absorbed and agree with, there are a few others which I rejected.

Even couples who (before they have kids) vow to never repeat their parents’ mistakes, sometimes catch themselves using methods they themselves abhorred as children.  Take spanking, for example, which today’s child psychologists tell you should be avoided at all costs, in lieu of the more liberal “time out” method. Sure, it sounds great in theory, but who can really blame a mother whose nerves are stretched to breaking point as her child makes an almighty scene in a public place and who resorts to smacking him (lightly) on his bottom?  Suggest using the ‘time out’ method to her at that moment and it is you who would probably have to run for your life.

As someone who is fed up of seeing unruly, obnoxious children being allowed to run amok in restaurants, coffee shops and other venues, annoying others with their racket while their parents pretend it has nothing to do with them, I have come to conclusion that there is a lot to be said for some good old-fashioned discipline. Others, however, believe that being lenient and treating children like their ‘friend’ is the best route. I have often argued against this way of thinking for one simple reason: if your child is your friend how will you be able to exert your parental authority when this is necessary?  You cannot suddenly morph into the “I’m your parent and you have to listen to me because I said so” mode when it suits you. Or rather, you can, but your child will most probably not take you seriously and ignore you.

The thing is, in most cases, parents learn how to raise children as they go along, based on a combination of their own upbringing, sheer instinct, and of course, the personality of each child. There are no hard and fast rules. I often hear parents, exhausted and frustrated beyond repair saying through gritted teeth: “I know I should not just plonk my toddler in front of the TV for hours on end to keep her quiet but it’s the only way I can get some peace.”

I have seen parents giving children a McDonald’s meal for breakfast. I have seen distracted parents walking out of shops  as their three-year-old trails behind them and steps heart-stoppingly off the pavement into the busy street. Every day, at any one instance there are parents doing things they “shouldn’t”.

And unless you make it illegal for certain people to procreate, unfortunately, there is little you can do about it.

*A parental skills course is already in place, organised by Agenzija Appogg

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