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.)