This column first appeared in Malta Today
There is no overtime, no promotions, little gratitude and in some cases, no real retirement. Once you take on the job it is usually for life – oh and by the way (did they forget to tell you?), it is unpaid.
“Unpaid” in monetary terms of course, because there are often rewards on which no price tag can be placed, although there are also instances when the experience is the opposite of rewarding, sometimes due to circumstances beyond your control. In fact, the whole endeavour is pretty much a gamble, and not for the fainthearted.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the job I am talking about is that of raising children.
The path of being a parent is strewn with pitfalls and obstacles; you never actually know if you have made the right decision and the dilemmas are never-ending. At each turn of the road you are faced with several options, and the decision-making never really seems to stop until the children become adults which legally is at 18, but which in real terms can even continue until they are in their 20s if they still live at home. The angst and worry of whether you have made the right decision at any given point can probably haunt you for years to come; what parent hasn’t looked back and thought, if I knew then what I know now, I would have done things differently?
But as the saying goes, unlike a new washing machine, bringing a baby into the world doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Most people rely on their gut instincts and probably base a lot of their parenting on the way they themselves were raised (unless, as sometimes happens, they decide to go completely the other way because they did not agree with what their parents did).
I have been thinking about this a lot lately as I read accounts of the stress which comes with getting children settled in their new schools, the expense of books and uniforms, the hiccups which come with organising school transport and childcare, and the general juggling which hits all working parents once the scholastic year starts and extra-curricular events begin. Do you wake your child at 5am, as if he were going to the coal mines, in order to take advantage of free school transport, or do you bite the bullet and do the school run yourself, or car pool with other parents, to allow him some more time to sleep? Despite the advantages of having a free service, the snag is that children have to wake up at an ungodly hour, even though the official website says that children shall not be picked up earlier than 1 1/2 hours before school starts.
This surely is not right, nor is it normal, and certainly not acceptable on a tiny island where distances are short. Young kids need time to play and at least 10 or more hours of sleep, and should not have to sacrifice their childhood because their leisure time is frittered away on getting to and from school.
So do you try and buy a home which is near the school of your choice to cut down on the time your child spends meandering around Malta on a school bus, or do you insist on living in your preferred location instead, even though the child’s school is on the other side of the island? State, church or independent school: which one will give your child the best start in life, where will he be happiest, and where is he less likely to be bullied? In the end, will the school they have attended really matter to the way their lives turn out when they are churned out at the other end of compulsory education at the age of 15/16?
As soon as your toddler toddles off to kindergarten, that is just the beginning because soon you will be faced by other options – should you send them to football, ballet, music lessons, drama? Have you always had dreams of a protege who can play the violin or would you rather they know how to defend themselves with some timely lessons in Jujutsu? Of course, the more dreams you have for your offspring, the more time you will spend ferrying them around, and that is another major decision, as parents have to weigh the pros and cons of being stuck in traffic every evening and weekends, and basically having their lives revolve around their children’s activities, or simply giving up on any such aspirations because it is too time-consuming and chaotic to be really worth it. Unless, that is, one learns to be pragmatic and chooses activities which are within walking distance of one’s home. As with all the major decisions, a lot of (adult) peer pressure also comes into it, and “what everyone else is doing” can often become a crucial factor. Parents who have children of the same age are, I believe, the real ‘social influencers’ in our society, because I have often noticed how people tend to be swayed depending on the choices of others.
Among the million and one decisions there is the issue of discipline. In Scotland a new law has made it a criminal offence for parents to smack their children. Some say the ban is “long overdue”, but others believe it will interfere with parents’ ability to discipline their children. Before this, parents were allowed to use what is known as ‘reasonable chastisement” and according to a BBC report, “When deciding whether the chastisement was reasonable, the courts take into account factors such as the nature of the punishment, its duration and frequency, the age of the child and the effect – both physical and mental – it had on them.”
Do you believe in the adage that if you spare the rod, you spoil the child, or do you treat your progeny as if they were little Messiahs who must be pampered and coddled and treated with kid gloves? This is a tricky one, possibly the trickiest of all, as parents find themselves doing a balancing act to gauge just how much discipline they should exert. There is a wide pendulum swing, of course, between a mild smack on the legs and physical beatings but some parents are against any type of spanking whatsoever, preferring to talk to their children about their naughty behaviour, using time outs and less authoritarian methods. Others are firm believers of the “because I said so!” school of parenting. There’s no negotiation, no democracy, just a straightforward arrangement where everyone knows who the boss is, and it’s definitely not the child.
The bottomless well of patience one must have to raise children cannot be under-estimated. On the other hand, there are moments when I become exasperated with parents. A mother this week was complaining that her young son was not allowed to wear an earring to school, claiming it was discrimination. My immediate reaction to this is unprintable. There are worst things a child can learn in life than being told that you have to follow rules and a dress code depending on where you are.
Talk to a hundred parents and they will all give you their reasons why their way is the right way. We are all products of different types of upbringing, which is an often hit or miss affair because parents are human and not everyone has the patience or self-restraint to correct a child in a calm, even-tempered voice without losing it. Probably one of the biggest fears of Mums and Dads is that their children will one day turn around and say “I hate you”, which might explain why they go out of their way to keep the child happy by giving in to their every whim. Unfortunately, that is still no guarantee that when dreaded puberty strikes, your once loving child will not morph into a sulking, brooding, sarcastic teenager who lashes out at you for …well, just for being in their face (that is, of course, if they choose to talk to you at all).
If it is any consolation we need to remember that many of us were outright horrors throughout our teens, and even at an older age, blaming everything that was wrong with our lives on our parents, who could do nothing right in our eyes. We came through it, our parents survived it and life went on.
And for grandparents who are now playing an indispensable role in helping out with their grandchildren, the job is not quite over yet…..