OPINION: The good parenting debate rages on
The advice I sought from parenting books when my children were younger eventually convinced my husband and I that some of those authors probably never had actual kids. Like them, I was a perfect parent until I had one, two, three and then four human beings to call my own. My commitment is to raise adults, not big children.
I invested in the parenting books because I could not possibly trust how I was raised, having spent most of my adolescence convinced that my parents were getting it wrong. My friends never had curfews, they could ask their parents for extra money, they didn't always have to say please or thank you and they could click their tongues as they left the room and even sometimes slam the door. I felt that they were 'self-expressed' and I was trapped in a plethora of eldest child responsibilities, concrete cast conditions and consequences.
Years later as waddled my way to maternity leave, my colleagues had an office stork party for me. My grinning boss arrived with a big wooden spoon, wrapped with a big blue bow. I was completely incensed and then amused. He had five children of his own and I was still the perfect parent, my son would be perfect and that wooden spoon would serve as an ornament, I thought. He grinned.
The first time I dropped my son off for babysitting he was six weeks old and I had an A4 list of to-do and not-to-do bullet points for my excited parents. I (only later) fondly remembered my mum, her lips parted by an escaping giggle when I bravely put the list with all my instructions and contact numbers on the kitchen counter.
Hindsight being what it is, it didn't take long before our new precious cargo grew and so did our family. What I remember the most was hearing my parents' instructions coming out of my mouth to my children. It was frightening and yet it was safe. My three sisters, at that stage still child-free, shook their heads and mocked me. A parenting course I went to offered me advice that sounded the way the wooden spoon looked. "You must give little kids instructions, commands. Don't say please but definitely say thank you when they have completed the task. Don't ask them, direct them. As soon as they hear a questions mark, a request, a query, they negotiate and take the gap. It natural."
To my horror, it worked. I always showed my children gratitude and rewarded them for doing what I needed them to do, but told them what to do, I didn't ask them. This is how they learned how, what and when to do things, how they learned what worked in groups and open shared spaces. This is how they learned that if they were in danger, running too close to the road on the kerb and a speeding car approached, I could holler, "Stop!" That is what I meant, that is what they did.
I watch parents negotiating with their kids about safety belts, baby seats, not biting, pushing, grabbing from other children. They have to be taught and guided, not accommodated and not punished. These are pearls of wisdom I hope to not use on my own grandchildren one day. We are giving our children the skills we learnt; it is up to them to parent their children. My dad used to tease that, "Children and grandparents have a common enemy, they're called 'The Parents'".
By the time my eldest son was three, the big wooden spoon was broken, I used it as a last resort while teaching him how to behave. I didn't use it on him, but I did use it as a threat and sometimes had to slam-dunk it on the kitchen counter. There is a time when children are older for negotiations, consultation and sometimes they are convincing because they have been taught to use words, not tantrums, sulking, literally and otherwise throwing their toys about. They do need to know there is a consequence neither of us is going to like, but the choice is entirely theirs.
It was with relief when I realised that for me, for my children, the way their father and my parents raised us works better than children who are allowed to parent their parents. There is a time for parenting your parents and that is when they are elderly and dependent. I am relieved that the way I was parented made it my privilege to reciprocate lovingly.
A common phenomenon in all environments is where, to put it crudely but appropriately, the tail is wagging the dog. It is disturbing watching a generation who do not understand boundaries. Who do not take responsibility, cannot exert reasonable authority or be accountable for much. The easy way out is the hard way in.
Contrary to populist parenting guides, children need to hear NO, be given guides through your facial expressions, you moving them out of dangerous situations, teaching them to respect other people's space, others people's stuff and other people's rights. I've seen many parents trying to rein in that bolted horse; it is very hard to do. It is also then hard to take responsibility for a child who is rebellious, defiant, disrespectful, demanding and entitled, because you did your best. Love is patient, love is kind. Love also understands consequences for unacceptable behaviour.
Parent must take charge of their children from birth to young adulthood. They thrive with rules, boundaries and guides with explanations about how to be in the world. None of our children are special. But they are special to us. In the world they have to function as we all do, as part of humanity.
The absolutely only 'all' you can give to your child is love and acceptance of them as they are, and as they aren't. Everything else has a condition.
On the first night home from the maternity ward with each of our children, I sat up watching them. Not only lovingly and admiringly, but sure that they would stop breathing, suffocate or something on my watch. If they were too peaceful or still, I'd give them a little nudge. I never did get used to that first night home, even after four of them.
I am a comfortable learner parent forever. After 22 years and three months, I consider myself parentally guided. Like us, our children make mistakes, take risks and backchat when they are mad or disappointed, but they will get it eventually. I have not had to slam a wooden spoon for many, many years. We have an understanding: we are the boss of you, until you are mature enough to make your choices and decisions as well as manage the consequences. So far, the older boys have passed and failed most tests with lessons learnt, so we are fifty percent there.
Our born-free children are not free of responsibility. They are being raised on purpose to be adults with purpose. We will all do our children and the world a service if we strive less for perfection and we work towards, "You are good enough, you are smart, you are beautiful, you are valued, and you make me proud!"
Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn