Sunday, May 13, 2012

What Happened To Parenting?

I'm proud of my kids. Yep. I admit it. It's a bit stupid of me, really, since a lot of it is genetics, and a whole bunch more is just the kids themselves learning, growing, being people. But I'm a parent, and being proud of the offspring is an occupational hazard.

I was thinking about it the other day, though. The kids get quite a few compliments on their behaviour and their outlook, and that's nice and all. And I'm aware that as often as not, people are trying to find a way to say You're doing something right, Mr Flinthart, but as usual, I'm not so good about taking a compliment.

Can't dodge forever, though, can you? So I suppose this is a good time to say 'thanks' to everyone who's spoken nicely of my unruly spawn - and most especially, to the very many people who've had a hand in their upbringing. Some of you know who you are. Some of you don't.

Every adult who comes through my life makes an impression on my kids. They remember all the mad friends that come through here. They remember peripheral people, who turn up once or twice because they're studying medicine... and then they go off to be doctors somewhere, and we don't see them again. All these people have all had a role in helping me raise my kids.

Seriously: you may think that half-drunk afternoon you spent here, raving about movies and science fiction, knocking off Tasmanian wine and eating sumptuously barbecued salmon and garden-fresh veg was just a lark. But you know what? You behaved like a decent human being, and my kids noticed. And I'm grateful. You silly bastards who read to my daughter in her bed, or climbed into that princess-tent of hers; you mad pricks who wrestled on the trampoline with the boys; you daft tossers who played gin or lost at Zombies! or giggled your way through an incomprehensible game of Robo-Rally -- you've all played a part, and I'm grateful.

All of this occurred to me the other night when I was telling Genghis that he was going to do his bass practice, and I didn't care whether he liked it or not. I was thinking about it, wondering why I was being such a hard-ass, and long after the event, I kept thinking. It's not easy to summarise, but the high points go like this:

Nat's a product of a divorce family. So am I. And that's not actually a bad thing, really. Given the stories I have from both my mother and my father of the "traditional nuclear family" of the 1950s... all I can say is Fuck That Shit.

Mum used to talk about being beaten with a 'switch' - a piece of springy branch, stripped of bark. The worst, she said, was when her dad made her go out and pick the switch herself, and prepare it so it could be used on her. My dad's a little more closed, but I've talked with him, and I've met his family, and that's all I really want to say.

A lot of things got all shook up in the late sixties and the seventies. All that flower-wearing, hair-growing, Vietnam-protesting crap was tied up with a cultural groundswell. The social institutions were, for the first time, open to question, and to attack.

One of those institutions was the Traditional Nuclear Family. And I have to say: good fucking thing, really. My impression of the TNF of old is one of repression, and thinly-restrained violence. Children to be seen and not heard. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Father Knows Best. And so forth.

But to give the TNF its due  it did, at least, provide a blueprint. Sure, you might have been raising miserable, repressed, fucked-up kids who would grow into suit-wearing serial killers... but at least you had guidelines, right?

The Great Cultural Revolt threw those guidelines out. Anybody remember Dr Benjamin Spock and his touchy-feely bullshit? Yeah. Or that idiotic Feminist approach that said boys and girls only acquire masculine and feminine characteristics because of the way we raise them? Oh, shit, how I wish the people behind that crap could have seen my 11 month old son Jake making pistols out of his very first Lego set, and shooting with 'pyew pyew!' noises at  his surprised and mortified mother. Holy crap, there was a lot of shit vomited up about parenting back in those days.

I sympathise strongly with my parents. The old rules - of all kinds! - had been shown to be false. The new rulebooks were pretty much made up on the spot by people who didn't do a very good job of hiding their personal political axe-grinding. So what the fuck were you supposed to do?

Thinking back, I would guess my parents were just trying to avoid making the mistakes they saw from their own parents. My sister and I got a lot of encouragement to be individuals. We also got a lot of other stuff, particularly from my dad, who has long since admitted he really had no idea what the hell he was doing. What we didn't get was a sense of yes, this is how parenting is done.

And I'm guessing that many, many other people of my generation got something similar.

If my kids are doing well... okay, yes. I'll take some credit. But how do you take credit for 'choosing a relatively sane mother'? Because that's important, you understand. Natalie and I have our differences, but we're pretty solid on the whole child-rearing thing, and we support each other there. The kids can't play us off against each other, because we deliberately present a united front. Even where we disagree, we work out the position we're going to take, and we stick to it. No wedge politics from my kids: they know where they stand, and the rest is up to them.

And how do you take credit for 'stubborn bastardry'? I make sure Genghis practices his bass because I have thought it through. He's a kid. He's nine years old. If I leave him to his own devices, he'll play computer games and cause mischief all day long - in between reading ferociously, of course. His whole life to date is just nine years. He has no conception of the long-term value of practice, or of music. He picks up something, shows an interest, futzes around with it... and left to himself, he would put it down and move on to something else. Eventually, he'd wind up at the end of high school with mediocre academic scores, an abiding interest in computer games... and not a whole lot else.

How the hell can I expect someone as young as he is to have real persistence? How can he possibly conceive the lifetime of rewards which comes with learning music, and mastering an instrument? If I don't sit on his head and make him do this, then at best, he'll be like Natalie, and take up an instrument in his mid-twenties, and curse as all the kids around him learn faster and play better than he does. At worst, he'll be like my father - who is always utterly delighted whenever any of us does anything musical around him, because much as he loves music... the making of music is a closed world to him.

So you see, I can think this shit through, and explain why I'm doing it. But is that worthy of some kind of credit? Having more experience than a kid, and being stubborn enough to make sure the kid gets the benefit?

I'm not sure. I do know this. Jake is really starting to enjoy the 'cello, and he writes much better than I did at his age, and if he works with me, he'll have a legit black belt before he's twenty. Genghis hasn't passed the hump with his bass yet, but he's getting there, and it's amazing how fast he picks up Swedish vocabulary. The  Mau-Mau loves showing off her piano chops, and she's handling gymnastics well, and is learning ju-jitsu at a spooky rate.

There have been things they've been permitted to quit, of course. The boys do trampoline now, not gymnastics. Spanish has given way to Swedish. Jake put aside the piano for the 'cello. But overall, they are being not just encouraged, but physically, mentally, and emotionally dragged into learning these things, and more importantly, into the practices and habits of learning and overcoming. It's hard fucking work, and it costs a lot in terms of sanity, but it's happening, and that's all the scoreboard shows.

I do know of others who've taken this kind of approach. Props to John Birmingham, for example: he once mentioned to me how much work he and Jane put into monstering their kids until they learned 'restaurant manners', and could be relied on to go out for dinner without causing disaster. But at the same time, I have a lot of sympathy and understanding for the people who haven't gone down that road. There were a lot of really goddam ugly elements to so-called 'parenting' in the old-school Nuclear Family, and we're better off without those. The art of being more stubborn than your kid, for the right reasons, is on the surface very similar to a lot of the things that got thrown out with good reason.

Look, I'll be honest: times are it feels like hell. It feels like I'm bullying my kids. Take the 'clothing on the bathroom floor' shit, for example. I spent more than a year trying to get the little bastards not to leave their dirty clothes on the bathroom floor, but no amount of cajoling, punishing, example-setting or any other behaviour made a difference. In the end, I figured it out: I gave the kids the right to fine each other 20 cents if they found clothes on the bathroom floor. The kid who'd left the clothes behind not only had to pay the other kid... but they still had to pick up their clothes and put them in the laundry.

The boys learned fast. The Mau-mau... not so much. And she absolutely hated having to pay up her 20 cents. Huge, huge tantrums. Massive crying jags. Screaming blue murder. Hated it.

It took her four months longer than it took the boys, by my estimate. But here's how it is now: they do not leave their clothing on the bathroom floor. They hang their towels up when they're done. They put their dirty clothing in the laundry.

Is that a particularly good thing? I don't know. I do know it extends the life of the clothing, and makes the bathroom safer, as well as tidier. I also know I endured countless hours of heartbreaking rage and sadness from the Mau-mau to achieve this, and that it would have been infinitely easier to give up, and just pick up the clothing for her.

So. Very. Much. Easier.

That's the point of this screed. There was an awful lot of shit associated with the old-school version of parenting, and I'm very damned grateful my parents didn't try to pass it on to me. But along with all that horrible shit, we also lost the good stuff: the rules that worked, the ideas that made sense. Natalie and I are lucky: we're smart, educated, stubborn as fuck, and well situated. We can make decisions on this kind of thing, talk it over with one another, and then put a plan of action into place.

But how's that supposed to work out for a single parent with three kids in a welfare suburb?

I know. You see shitty, nasty little kids every day, and you wonder what the hell is wrong with the parents. Sometimes I feel exactly the same way. But when I stop and think about it...

... I really feel for them. Parents and kids both. Because here's the real secret, the hidden truth:  in the short term, it's heartbreaking to battle your kids, and it's horrible to deny them simple things they want, and it's incredibly draining to force them to act like human beings, But in the long term, you have to live with the little bastards, and you have to deal with what they bring into your life.

I'm playing the long game, and I hope I'm teaching my kids to do likewise.