This morning as I sat down to our usual Saturday breakfast with the kids. The West and The Australian splayed all over the table among plates of bacon, eggs and pools of maple syrup, kids fighting over who has the comics first, I came across this marvellous article by Ros Thomas. It hit a nerve. The conversation she had with her ten year old was something that had played out in our house just a few months ago. I had to share this article! I emailed Ros and asked if I could use it here and she said yes. So here it is, in its entirety. A complete archive of Ros’ editorials are at her blog “Tales from the Minister for War”. Thanks Ros!
Being too kind can be cruel
Ros Thomas | View Archive August 24, 2012, 12:10 pm
Being too kind can be cruel
The West Australian
Published: Saturday August 24, 2012
Birthdays often end in tears in our house. Usually mine. That’s how you know the party’s been a good one. I’ve disintegrated from exhaustion.
But the last thing I expected was a birthday that started with tears. Two sleeps out from the big day, I sat my almost 12year old down to deliver some unpleasant news: He was not going to become the owner of his much coveted PlayStation 3, kingmaker amongst boys.
There was a moment’s silence as the news sank in, but I was not prepared for the sudden wave of grief that swept over the dinner table and ran in rivulets through the peas and corn on his dinner plate. My son was crushed: “I’ve been counting down the days, now no-one will ever come to my house again!” And he took himself off to bed puffy-eyed and inconsolable at 7.30pm instead of 9. (At least that was a nice change.)
He wasn’t angry, just devastated. And I felt awful. I realised I had cost him currency in the playground. Already his peer group was jostling for elbow room, and exclusive membership required all the necessary gadgetry.
That night I wavered on my stance not to allow any teenage anaesthetic into our house: no PlayStation, no Xbox, no gaming consoles. My husband lent me enough of his testosterone to stiffen my resolve. By next morning, eldest child had bounced back and accepted his fate. His birthday was a triumph (and I didn’t cry.) In fact, with new headphones and a funky iPod cover, I overheard him telling a mate ‘it was a cool birthday anyway.’
I’m afraid it was a hard lesson for me. As a mother, my nurturing instincts often tell me to clear the obstacles and smooth the road for my progeny, and here I was deliberately installing a speed hump. It got me thinking that maybe son number one felt he deserved a Playstation and that his assumption had grown into hope, then into anticipation and finally into expectation, encouraged by my silence on the subject.
Perhaps the problem with kids today is their parents? My husband says I spoil mine. Spoil them how? With too much home cooking, lifts to school in the rain, unconditional love? Or does he mean spoilt with new shoes every six months and a $20 haircut four times a year? Or rooms of their own and family holidays in rented beach houses?
Sociologists are reporting that today’s parents will do anything to see their kids succeed. Why? For bragging rights? Or so they can be admired, or one better, envied, for having reared such high achievers?
”Never before have parents been so (mistakenly) convinced that their every move has a ripple effect into their children’s future success.” So says Madeline Levine, a San Francisco psychologist specializing in young adults.
I see her point. I’ve been known to continue glueing and pasting a school papier-mache project long after my budding artist has lost interest. Are we prepared to stand back and allow our kids to fail, fall over and miss the bus? But am I one of those parents who can’t say no? That’s not me, I know that.
But perhaps I lean too far towards leniency. I give too many warnings and not enough punishments. I don’t reward bad behaviour but I go overboard praising good. I try to be a spontaneous fun-loving mum rather than a cranky dragon. And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it – we’re all trying to do a good job of raising our children. None of us is deliberately cocking it up. Often, all we have to go on is how our parents raised us and what we learn by osmosis from others.
My mum, in contrast, has the kind of authority over my children I wish I had. She’s always consistent and her standards are demanding. All three of them love her fiercely and take turns behaving impeccably at her place. I watch, sometimes with awe, how she can head off an encroaching tantrum with quietness and patience until it dissolves into a fit of giggles. I can be clever like that too. But not after three months of crawling out of bed at 5am to a juiced up toddler, negotiating with a middle child who has made an art form out of crying wolf and managing a 12 year old who thinks he’s twenty.
Life gets in the way of good parenting. I do my worst on school mornings, scrambled by the chaos of burning toast and missing socks , when shoes are calmly emptied of their sandpit on the lounge, and overdue permission slips are suddenly discovered at the bottom of bags. I rant and huff (apparently) and on occasion, do my lolly.
Everywhere I go, I feel the watchful eyes of other parents, and nannas and grandpas, and worse, those not yet with children. Most of them look upon me with benevolence (and often amusement) but try disciplining a wayward two year old in the supermarket. I never know whether to feel proud of drawing the line, or ashamed of losing my cool. Usually I feel both.
So are we as good at parenting as our folks were? Or better? Factor in the different challenges we face – children with endless choices and pre-occupations: an overly connected world of play dates and catch ups, hockey practice, on line gaming and text tag. There’s no reason to be bored yet I still hear the whines. I spent half my childhood on a bed reading, or building cubbies in untidy gardens or riding my bike tirelessly round and round the block. It was a simpler existence. Boredom made me creative.
Go back a third generation, that of our grandparents, and there were even more pressing concerns: would there be enough for a roast for Sunday lunch? Would they grow old enough to see their children into adulthood?
Maybe I’m in danger of being kiddie-whipped. I’m at home, doing endless housework, trying to write, and my 5 year old, drawing on the floor, says “Can you bring me a yellow texta?” I forget to say “Sorry honey, I’m busy right now, you get it” and instead ask him to say “Please?”
I know why I put the rubbish out and unpack the dishwasher. Because I gave those jobs to a 12 year old boy who left the lid open so often we had a plague of ants and who doesn’t bother to check if the dishes he’s putting away are still dirty. I can save enough time for an episode of Desperate Housewives just by doing it myself.
Hence the great conundrum of our serialized lives. We want to raise good people, who know the value of hard work, tenacity, generosity and kindness. But we’re too quick to make it too easy for them, and perhaps they’re leveraging that willingness and over-zealous investment. As one socially observant writer puts it: We’ve created ‘a broad savannah of entitlement that we’ve watered, landscaped and hired gardeners to maintain’ but we’d be better off ‘letting the grasslands revert to forest.’ (I’ve torn that out of the New Yorker magazine and stuck it on the fridge.)
For the good of my children then, I am going to let my house turn into the local dump. Beds will be lumpy and unmade, the cat will be starving and no one will know where their clean uniforms are. I will stand back and allow my offspring to learn for themselves how to be on time for school and what really happens when they skip breakfast. And I’ll lie back on the sofa and read the paper while I do my nails. Knowing I’m being a model mother.
Please realise that this article is copyright. If you would like to use it, please go through the right channels and ask for permission.
I will be doing a post about Day 5 of Book Week – it may or may not appear today, more likely on Monday.
An instagrammy for your weekend. Thanks to Usborne Books who keep my kids creative when I can’t be bothered.