I’m a slack mum, I’ll confess. My “spit spot” friends have their kids fed, bathed, storied and tucked up by 7.30 every night. Meanwhile, my six-year-old daughter might be prancing round the living room like a pop star, or lapping milk from a bowl like a cat until we wrestle her into bed with the promise of a chapter of Harry Potter, somewhere between eight or nine. Sometimes later.
I’m on the slack side of strict, but that doesn’t mean I have no bottom lines. I just don’t say “no” very often – I say it when I mean it, and then stick to it (well, I try to). I am typical of many baby-boomers (I console myself) who were brought up strictly, harshly or just plain boringly, and have felt uncomfortable about imposing rigid regimes. This can lead some slack parents to be far too permissive, and then, when push comes to final provocative shove, to erupt volcanically, much to their little darlings’ total shock.
Parents have never worried so much about “getting it right”, as the mountains of parenting bibles would suggest. We worry about our children growing up into antisocial slackers, or worse, crack-smoking, carjacking delinquents. But we can’t agree about which parenting style is at fault. Do “bad” kids hail from sloppy, permissive households, or is it the “spit spot” brigade who are to blame?
“All-out permissive parenting can make children feel unsafe,” explains the psychologist and author Dorothy Rowe. “Children can feel as if they don’t exist, when they need to feel that they are important.” Over-permissive parents, for whom anything goes, can actually make a child feel neglected, especially if it is because the parents are too wrapped up in each other, or too focused on their own lives. “There’s an old adage that expresses it,” says Dorothy Rowe. “’The child of lovers is always an orphan’.” And “orphans”, isolated, angry, disconnected, can get up to no good just to get some attention from those absent parents, even though they may seem to have enough, materially (think celeb children).
Overly strict parents can also be problematic. The desire to control, to make the child fit in with the adult world for their own convenience, can turn a parent into a rule freak. At the home of an acquaintance, I saw a list taped to her four-year-olds bedroom wall telling her to not get up before 7am, or to come into her parent’s room, or make a noise; and how she had to dress herself, brush her teeth, comb her hair before coming to breakfast. Needless to say, this four-year-old knew her place, low down on her parents’ list of priorities. I wondered why they just didn’t get a cat’.
“Controlling parents try to make their child into what they want them to be,” explains Dorothy Rowe, “and this can come from a religious model where the child is seen as being intrinsically bad, needing moulding into good shape.” Even though the intention of this kind of strictness is genuinely concerned with creating model citizens, it can simply miss its mark. “When parents are too strict, children can’t be themselves and they lose a sense of who they are. In time, they feel beaten down and might become depressed, schizoid, or, of course, they might rebel,” says Rowe.
At the extreme end of strict, of course lies smacking, which, according to Rowe, is even more psychologically damaging: “The parents who yell, shout and hit every time a child ‘misbehaves’, make the child feel bad, while the parents feel good about themselves.” Research worldwide upholds the view that the main contributor to delinquency is parental violence towards their children. “Boys who are beaten have the highest likelihood of becoming criminals as adults, while girls divide into those who become criminal, and those who get depressed,” explains Rowe.
In more enlightened countries where smacking is illegal, such as Sweden, “there are the lowest rates of teenage suicide, drug use, bullying and delinquency”. Despite powerful evidence against the usefulness of smacking as “reasonable chastisement”, the UK government has not yet embraced the more progressive means of disciplining children advocated by at least 10 other European countries. Indeed, campaigns such as ‘Children are Unbeatable’ advocate “positive” rather than “negative” discipline, and actually call smacking a legal “assault”.
“We confuse discipline with punishment,” explains Jan Parker, parenting specialist and co-author of Raising Happy Children (Hodder & Stoughton, £9.99). “Discipline is essential for children’s healthy development because it helps them develop empathy, the ability to compromise and negotiate, and to take life’s knocks and reach life’s heights.” Appropriate discipline also “teaches children what they have done wrong, increases their understanding of what is expected of them, encourages self-discipline and motivates them to do better”.
However, discipline should not be “Punishment that involves hitting, blaming and shaming, because this forces children to comply, to be obedient in the short term, without understanding why”, says Parker. I certainly know someone who slaps her child regularly for all sorts of misdemeanours, but once my friend is out of view, the child proceeds to misbehave in exactly the same way. “Because a smacked child hasn’t internalised the ‘whys’, they will misbehave the minute the parent is absent,” explains Parker. Conversely, a child who is taught through love and reasoning may well behave equally well away from the parental gaze, because they have internalised why and how their behaviour affects others. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they don’t misbehave – they do – but it is how parents handle it that seems to make the difference.
Of course, the argument as to whether a slack or strict parental style is best is not that simple. Some of us will be repeating what was done to us, and others, with hindsight, or therapy, may be doing something different with their children. As 21st-century parents, we may feel that everything is within our control. It isn’t. We may think that children are a blank page to be written on, but we’d be mistaken. And the old nature vs. nurture debate is even more complex now that we are beginning to realise the effect that our genetic make-up has upon us.
The happiest medium seems to be adopting a parenting style that is neither overly strict, nor overly slack, which treats a child with respect as an individual, while adhering to firm, non-violent boundaries. “If you can listen to your children and make them feel safe, important and loved,” says Dorothy Rowe, “they can probably put up with, and survive, any peculiarities of your particular parenting style.” Phew, that’s all right then. We’ll just have one more video and chocolate milkshake, even though it is a bit past bedtime…