Wednesday, 26 March 2008

The "D" Word

Recently I went out to dinner with a friend whose life is a tribute to the hard graft of all of those pioneering feminists.

She has an extremely equal relationship with her husband, and if anything, he pulls more of the child-care duty in their family. She runs her own company in health administration, which regularly requires her to do battle with arrogant doctors and difficult government officials. She also manages to regularly volunteer at her daughters' school -- despite the fact that she is on the road at least half of the week. She is beautiful, witty, smart and a first-rate schmoozer. Yes, she's a great all-rounder and an awesomely competent woman; but here's the catch: Her 11 year old daughter is running rings around her.

I suspect there is a little bit of Working Mommy Guilt at work here, but that doesn't totally account for the fact that a child is holding her hostage emotionally. Despite the fact that my friend bends over backwards to do things for her daughter, she is always found wanting . . . and regularly receives critiques for her many "failings." The 11 year old is like a crotchety boss who is impossible to please. Let me provide an example: Every Saturday morning my friend wakes up at the crack of dawn to drive to a fairly distant town so that the daughter can take ice-skating lessons. Does she want to wake up early on a Saturday? No, she does not; she is a person who regularly wakes at 5 am so she can negotiate some of England's most unpleasant motorways. It should go without saying that she is exhausted by the time Saturday rolls around; particularly since the daughter is also taken skating on Friday night -- at a time when Mommy would rather be lounging on the couch with a stiff drink.

Last Saturday night she confessed to me that "she just couldn't face ice skating" that morning. But instead of just telling her daughter that, she lied and told her that the lesson had been cancelled.

Now, I rarely (if ever) make verbal judgment on the way my friends parent their children. First of all, I wouldn't presume; secondly, it's not an easy job, and I'm pretty sure that we are all doing the best we can. But in this particular instance, I jumped all over my friend. "You LIED?" was more or less the gist. This seemed to me to be a very bad policy, both for philosophical and practical reasons. Philosophically, parents do not want to "model" lying to their children. The little darlings will figure out the lying-thing on their own, and all such tendencies need to be rigorously curbed. While I want to make clear that I don't approve of lying on a purely moral basis, it is also just bad parental policy. When you have an incipient teenager in your home, signs of parental hypocrisy and mendacity are about as dangerous as just handing them the joint, the bottle, and the car keys. (This is exactly the time when you need to be brainwashing them into thinking that you have both a crystal ball and eyes in the back of your head.) Practically, I also thought it was pretty stupid because there is just no way she's not going to get caught. My highly educated friend was behaving like a two year old lying that she didn't take the candy -- when the evidence was plastered all over her face! If you ARE going to lie, surely the first rule is to make sure that you're not going to get caught!

When I asked my friend to defend this irrational behavior, she replied, "I just couldn't face L throwing a strop and being mad at me."

In the immortal words of my very own Mother, "Who's the parent, and who's the child here?"

Although I have an imperfect grasp of History in all of its comprehensiveness, I am going to go out on limb here and make a bold statement: I think that we must be the first generation of parents who have ceded our natural authoritarian rights to our children. Throughout history, children have existed to serve; to be seen and not heard; to mind, without question, their parents. Now I'm not saying that there aren't drawbacks to this sort of policy, but surely we have gone too far in our efforts to redress the wrongs of a system that gave the children the scraps to eat -- after the adults had gorged themselves.

My own husband is quite Victorian in this regard. Although we don't quite bring him his pipe and slippers when he walks in the door, there is no question of the children's needs and desires being privileged above his own. He never, ever negotiates with the children -- or asks for their approval. And not coincidentally, when he demands obedience -- and not just when he raises his voice -- he gets it. I wouldn't claim to be anything near as firm, and I reap both the benefits and the drawbacks of my flimsier parental pose. On one hand, the children are more confiding and affectionate with me; but on the other, they don't always take me very seriously.

Just this weekend, there was an article about the difficulties of discipling children in our culture of liberal and permissive parenting. Apparently, DISCIPLINE is the new "D" word. Schools are hamstrung in their attempts to administer it; and parents just don't even know where to begin. We have collectively lost out authority over our children, and I think it is largely because we want to be friends with them.

From the Guardian article, "Go on then, make us!" I offer the following food for thought:

To the psychotherapist Adam Phillips, it is clear that the issue is not so much a crisis of childhood as one of adulthood. "Broadly speaking there's a real fear of being hated by children, and of frustrating them, so parents allow their children to bully them. In fact, children can only grow up by being frustrated by their parents, and the most frightening thing for them is
thinking all the power lies with them," he says. "Parents feel they have to justify themselves to their children, as if in some way their children are a court of law, and this is an
absurd and preposterous reversal."
Sigmund found these words piquant enough to share them with the breakfast crowd. There was also much chortling from his corner, as he finds it delightful to frustrate his children. He was only too happy to be justified by a psychotherapist for a behavior that comes absolutely naturally for him.
Although I err on the side of not wanting to frustrate my children, even I can see that respect and authority are intermingled.
Some lines from No Country for Old Men keep ringing in my head. Sheriff Bell: "I think once you stop hearin' sir and madam the rest is soon to follow." My father, who is 66 years old, still says "sir" and "ma'am" to anyone who he might defer to because of greater age or authority. It might be a now-quaint token of respect, but it does give a certain comforting order to things. I always felt secure as a child, because I knew that my father was a grown-up.
I realize that the "D" word has actually been on my mind for awhile.
My youngest daughter and I have been reading the "Little House on the Prairie" series for the last few months now. (My oldest daughter never cared for them, so it's been a good 30 years since I revisited these childhood favorites -- and I must admit that the saccharine television series has interfered with some of my memories of the books.) Although I had remembered that the Ingalls family was a cozy, loving one, I have been struck over and over at the absolute obedience that "Pa" demands. Of course they lived in a dangerous frontier; it wasn't all just jolly fiddle playing. But our world has plenty of dangers too . . .
In one scene, Laura gets a stern talking-to because she thinks about disobeying Pa -- not that she actually does disobey him. It was just accepted that he could better calculate all of the world's dangers than she could, and so it was her role to mind him. In another scene, she gets spanked when she hits her sister. I think that she must be about four at the time -- and she has been provoked by that goody-goody Mary. But Pa has a zero-tolerance rule about his children fighting with one another. He orders his home with a fair, but absolutely implacable, rule of law. The children may not want to wash the dishes or pick up wood chips for the fire, but there's not going to be any arguing about it. I tell you, it shames me.
I've been wondering that if you never truly serve your time as a child -- in the old-fashioned sense of the word -- it hampers your ability to grow up and be an adult. Sheriff Bell ruminates on the difficulties our generation seems to having with the "growing up" bit -- and he wonders which generation is going to raise the children of the children now currently being raised by their grandparents. (You might have to read that twice to make sense of it, but let's just say that there is at least one generation of parents missing in action.) It does strike me that we are getting stuck in a self-indulgent loop and there's no one to set any boundaries. In other words, if we are not made to be children, perhaps we then lack the ability to move beyond being children.
It just struck me as worrying that my friend -- who wields so much authority in the workplace -- is kowtowing to her preteen daughter.
(And believe me, I'm in no place to judge -- only to learn.)


Brave Sir Robin said...

This is an amazing post.

What a mine field is child-rearing these days.

In my case, the added guilt of the divorce, and (unfounded) fear that they will want to run to their Mother just adds to the anxiety.

I know I am harder on my kids than some of my friends are on theirs, but at the same time, I am light years easier on them than my Dad was on me.

I didn't feel like my parents were good parents, and I wanted to do better by mine.

It is a balancing act that must be done everyday. The desire to be friends with my children is strong. As a parent, I want them to be comfortable enough to confide in me. No matter what the subject. If they do, I can guide them in making responsible decisions. At the same time, I run the risk of losing "authority" if I am viewed as a friend more than as a parent.

Tricky, tricky stuff.

You are right to chastise your friend. Lying is never a good idea. Telling a friend her new bag is charming when you think it is hideous is one thing. Flat out fabricating a fact is just wrong. I wouldn't except if from my kids, I wouldn't except it in myself.

I am a huge proponent of total honesty.

brilliant post.

Bad Bunni said...

Let me begin by saying not only are you right, but thank god there are still some parents who have a concept of boundaries and discipline. Although I am not a supporter of "total honesty", in this scenario the mother should be truthful.

But the issue of being liked reminded me of what Meesha at is going through with her boyfriend and her stepdaughter.Her stepdaughter is actually physically abusive (or was) to both her and her bf.(The girl is 6 so she can't inflict TOO much harm...yet.) He feared disciplining her lest she not like him because I think we all agree that nothing shows affection like a punch in the nose. Luckily, Meesha recognized that there needs to be discipline and is working on it because all I could think was "What happens when this girl gets bigger and goes to school?"

As for schools, they get hamstrung because they often think of themselves as a business and have adopted the motto the customer is king. The private school I went to, as I said, was strict about discipline even if your parents were rich and thinking about donating a building. More schools have to think about the safety of their students before they think about catering to the desires of the parents.

What is interesting to me, and as you pointed out, is that often the people who fall into this trap are people who in the business world have no problem administering "discipline." I know a married couple and the wife is a high powered lawyer. She is the type of person who is retained to TERRIFY, yet at home they are both literally held hostage by their 3 year old. Strangely when Grandpa comes to town, the kid behaves. Why? Because Grandpa kicks it old skool, and the kid, like most, knows who lets him get away with what. Still the parents haven't changed their style and worried me what is in store for this kid in the future.

Awesome freakin' post.

Anne said...

Excellent, excellent post. I'm completely with you on the lying. In this case it seems particularly ill-advised, as her daughter would no doubt find out at the next practice that there had in fact been practice on Saturday morning! No parent is perfect, of course, but it seems to me that to the extent that one can, one ought to try to minimize the frequency with which one's credibility can be questioned.

I grew up in a reasonably well disciplined household. It wasn't as orderly as aboard a submarine, and there were still tantrums, but overall we were expected to behave, do our chores, learn and use good manners, and so on. We were sent for a time-out in our rooms or had various privileges taken away (computer, tv, etc.) if we talked back too much or refused to do a chore. (My dad rarely got angry, and would more often just say, "why don't you see if you can go find a good attitude in your room.") I suspect that my parents were a bit more lax than their parents were, if in some ways less so than my dad's parents.

I'm not sure what kind of parent I would be. I think I would easily fall into the trap of wanting to be my child's (children's) friend, but at the same time, I also fear that I'd be too hard on them when it came to expecting good behavior. I certainly erred on the side of friendliness when I babysat or worked as a TA, and was always very uncomfortable when I had to lay down ground rules--even completely reasonable things like telling a student not to answer his phone in lab.

Perhaps it's less uncomfortable starting with a small child who won't judge you or sneer at you if you don't let him or her have free rein, but even as a babysitter for a young child I had to steel myself to refuse requests for more TV time before bed.

I think you're spot-on, Bee, in your theory about needing to to through childhood in order to be a pleasant member of adult society. I definitely think that kids who don't experience boundaries being set by parents, or who grow up thinking that the world revolves around them (I find that these two are not necessarily the same thing, but can overlap), wind up with some rather objectionable qualities as adults. There is value in learning that sometimes one must do things one doesn't want to do, that sometimes it's best to put someone else's needs first, and so on.

BSR, as in so many other things, my hat is off to you for how you well you manage with your kids. I can't imagine how difficult it is being a single parent, but from everything that you write, it sounds like they're turning out to be wonderful people. Well done.

Brave Sir Robin said...

Thank You for saying so, trust me, it's not without pain.

Anonymous said...

"and the most frightening thing for them (kids) is thinking all the power lies with them" I think this is an important idea that hasn't occurred to super-permissive parents.

Kids, like dogs, can relax when they know who's in charge. (Did I offend yet?) They should not be cowed but they should have some authority to push against. So they know that it's there when they need it.

And that said, I fervently hope that I can be a good enough parent for my children. Perfection is not in the cards and adequacy will satisfy. I hope I am a good enough model and a good enough leader. With plenty of allowance for error on my part and obnoxiousness on theirs.

I wanted to ask about your use of the word "graft" at the top of the entry, Bee. Is it a Britishism for work or effort? It means a botanical or surgical attachment or corruption to me. I love learning vocabulary! --Jenine

Bee said...


It is the hardest thing in the world to know when to say "no" for the greater good of your kids -- even though they are going to be angry with you, and may even temporarily "hate" you for it. Unlike me, (who has the ogre father making me look good), you have to always contend with the fear that the kids will reject you because they have another option. But as Jenine says, I think we all forget sometimes that kids really, really want to feel SAFE. And that means boundaries. I'm with Anne -- kudos to you. It's always easier to say "yes," isn't it?

Just lately I've been reading about various writers (Phillip Larkin; Julian Barnes) who had such bizarre, distant, emotionally twisted relationships with their parents. I don't think anyone would want to go back to the "Victorian" way of doing parenthood, yet somehow we have to find a line that falls a little bit short of total democracy -- or even worse, a monarchy with the little child as "Sun King." (kind of what Bunni describes)

Bunni, it's great to see your always intelligent and interesting "voice" here.
Here's a "freakin" story for you: there's an 11yo girl at my daughter's school who went through a phase of BITING boys. Biting them hard enough to draw blood! Well, I was complaining to a small group of fellow moms, and questioning why she hadn't been expelled after the 2nd transgression, and it turns out her father is Lord So and So and owns half of Berkshire (and donated the science block).
Having said that, though, my daughter's school generally demands quite good behavior/old-fashioned manners from the kids.

Your parents must have done a great job -- just from the way you describe them it's obvious that you really respect them AND like them. Like you, I err on the side of being too friendly. I hope, now that I'm in my 40s, my inner bitch will manage to vanquish some of the little-miss-please-like-me.

I've obviously picked up this rather rare usage of "graft" through reading. Wikipedia says,
In American slang of the mid-1800s, graft was used to mean work.

I have no doubt you are a good parent!

You know, if for no other reason, I'm too selfish to NOT SET BOUNDARIES because there is just no way that I'm always going to put the kids' "wants" before my own.

maurinsky said...

Well, I happened to read this on a day when I was feeling like a spectacular failure as a parent. Not because of a lack of discpline - I'm by no means perfect on that front, but I'm not terribly permissive and I have no problem saying no. As my poor almost 11 year old who is cell phone-less will tell you, I'm a meanie.

I am a failure on many other fronts (nurturing, quality time spent with kids, creating a calm and peaceful space for them to dwell in, etc.) however, and I think with my youngest daughter, this is where she needs me the most. I'm not quite sure how to provide for her the things she needs, though. I had no model for it.

It is such a balancing act, as Brave Sir Robin said, to remain authoritative yet safe, someone a child knows they can't ignore, yet someone they also feel safe enough with to confide in; and how easy it is to fall on the side of being the FEARED parent or the FRIEND parent, when you really just want to be the RESPECTED parent.

(That would have been great if I could think of a word that means respect but starts with an F).

On the lying front: I learned how to lie at my mother's knee. It is a hard habit to break, she should definitely be the grown-up and be honest.

heartsease said...

My mother always says that you can't be friends with you children until after they have left home - she's managed so that all 3 of us willingly keep in touch and go on holiday with her, so I reckon it's good advice

Bee said...


I found your comments really moving; and you've put your finger on a slightly different (although related) problem.

How can you be a good parent if you've not had a model for it?

(This is also what Sheriff Bell is saying -- and it's interesting, because he also speaks quite eloquently to the subject of honesty and learning the difference between right and wrong. I am still digesting that book -- well worth a read!)

It must be awful to grow up with a parent that you can't trust; it sounds like, no matter how much you might get down on yourself, you've evolved a lot from that disadvantage.

As for the nurturing bit, I know you didn't ask for my advice, but this is what works best for me:
Getting in bed together and reading -- we call it "snuggle time." Baking together. Going on walks. Yesterday I was watching "Scrubs" with the kids after school -- and we were laughing so much, and I felt really close to them. (I have a 10 yo and a 13 yo.)


I definitely think there's something in what your mother says -- especially when it comes to drawing lines for acceptable behavior. However, I think we have a closeness with our kids (for the good, too) that is just unimaginable to your parents' generation.

Lucy said...

What a great post (as usual!)

Not having any kids, I feel I should be hors de combat, which doesn't stop me being a smartarse about these things! But when I hear about people like your friend I do despair.
People here moan about the way the youngsters are going, but, despite car burning in the banlieues, I think they've still quite a long way to go before they catch up with the UK for indiscipline and brattish behaviour. I think part of that is the Sir or Madam thing; there are formalities about how you greet and address people which can be a bit tiresome and unimaginative but do mean that everyone, children and adults, knows what you are suppose to do in certain situations. So a charmless teenager will come away from his or her group of mates when their mother's friend walks by to greet and kiss her properly, which I think maintains a bit of humility and politeness in things. Adults still aren't frightened of children like they are in Britain. Recently at a press conference an American journalist stated baldly to Gordon Brown 'you in Britain have a problem with your children; they are out of control', so it is clearly evident.

You can probably afford to be more friendly and flexible because you've got Sigmund laying down the bottom line; the time will come when they'll be happy to have both of you as their friends, I'm sure, in different ways.

Bad Bunni said...

I have to disagree with you. An epidemic of Enfant Terrible seems to be afflicting the US, or at least the area of NY in which I live. Meesha and her physically violent as well as verbally abusive step daughter are representative of what I have witnessed and heard about here in the US including a couple with whom I am friends who are literally kept prisoners by their son. More and more talk shows and magazine articles are concerned with this very issue including an article published a year ago at Psychology Today. I'm not talking about being rude, I'm talking about being insulting, threatening, and violent. And these are kids who aren't even 10 years old yet.

I think your point about the "good role model" is really intriguing. And one thing I find interesting is that corporeal punishment was acceptable 50 years ago. Now it isn't, but I wonder if parents fear disciplining their children because they have such traumatic memories of discipline themselves.

Oh and I just fell in love with you a little more because you like scrubs and watch it with your kids! That is just so many shades of awesome. A totally irrelevant side note: my mother and I used to churn our own butter together. Nothin' brings a family together like homemade butter. (I kid, I kid.)

Bee said...


Just to clarify, Lucy lives in Brittany -- not the U.S. (However, considering your recent adventures with Petite Enfant Terrible you may still choose to disagree with her!)

What I'm speaking to is not SO much a loss of manners, per say, (although they are certainly the "signs" of respect), but the loss of authority amongst parents . . . which then results in the highly brattish behavior you and Lucy describe. And that comes, more than anything else I think, from parents not being able to say NO or set down boundaries or provide a good example in their own behavior. More than anything else, I think what we Do in front of our children is more important than what we Say.

As you mention, corporal punishment used to be the favorite method for dealing with childish transgression -- and mostly for the good, we have done away with that. When I was student teaching, my mentor was a regal African-American who could quell bad behavior with a flare of her nostrils or an eloquently raised eyebrow. She told me once that her father-in-law quit teaching the year they took away the teacher's "right" to physically chastise the children. (Apparently, he wholeheartedly believed in ruling with an iron rod.) He claimed that without discipline there could be no teaching.

With parents like Anne's (and mine), the solidity and consistency of their characters was enough to create respect. I don't THINK we need physical discipline to control our children; but we do need for adults to ACT like adults.

On a lighter note, "Scrubs" is the coolest! I try to save my ironing for the late afternoon, so I can hang out with my kids and watch the Friends/Scrubs double-bill.

k said...

< I always felt secure as a child, because I knew that my father was a grown-up.>

EXACTLY!!!! my parents were my parents when i was growing up, and now they're my friends. it's like the payoff of not being my friend when i was younger! they were kind, they were loving... but they were in charge, and i knew it. i so admire & respect that, but it's hard for me to do it as a parent now!

i read something the other day that really hit something deep in me- "be who you desire your children to become"

Anonymous said...

I suggest reading THE EPIDEMIC by Robert Shaw MD.

Permissive parenting has created kids who are angry and have no understanding of respect for authority.

As for your friend, what will she do next week when the other kids at ice skating ask where her daughter was? Create a bigger lie?

Parents need to PARENT! My husband and I make sure that our two girls understand that when we say no, it is not a negotiation. Any whining or complaining past that will get you sent to your room. If you continue to throw a fit, the request may be permanently denied.

We give them room to be themselves, but we are the ones who hold the reins.

Too many parents give in to whining or make excuses for misbehavior, instead of making their kids face the consequences and follow rules!

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