Telling it as it is – home truths about parenting
Former prison governor John Lonergan, who shares his philosophy on raising the next generation in a new book, picks out three new year resolutions for parents
He’s a small, slight figure in front of a crowd, but former prison governor John Lonergan has the audience hanging on his every word when he delivers his highly popular talk on parenting.
With a relaxed, at times rueful approach, reminiscent of the late comedian Dave Allen, the father of two – and now grandfather of two – holds up a mirror to fellow parents. With plenty of humour and self-deprecation, he shares our foibles and our fears on the “demanding, challenging, responsible, complicated and never-ending” job of parenting.
If you’re among the thousands of parents who have attended one of his talks, you’ll know what I mean.
No doubt when Lonergan, then governor of Mountjoy Prison in Dublin, was first asked to address a group of school parents, they expected him to focus on crime, drugs and violence.
“It was a shock to be invited and I diverted away completely,” says Lonergan, who has no idea, more than 20 years later, where that talk took place. But he remembers he reflected on what it takes to be a good parent and the expectations we have for our children.
Even then, he was convinced that parents were by far the most significant influence in the lives of their children and, “if they could get their act together”, many of the problems that develop between parents and teenage children might never arise in the first place.
The positive response that first night encouraged him to repeat the experience and develop the talk, Parenting – The Challenges and the Rewards, enriching it with positive feedback and anecdotes shared.
Lonergan hesitates to use the word “advice” and refers to it more as “awareness raising”. But his zeal for trying to help parents recognise what really matters – and what doesn’t – is unequivocal.
For a start, he wants younger parents to know they have only 12-14 years (it’s shortening all the time) when they are centre-stage in their children’s lives.
Your toddler may be hanging around your ankles now, or somersaulting off the sofa, but by the time he or she is a teenager, it will be your turn to compete for their attention.
Now Lonergan has put his philosophy of parenting into a book, Parenting: Raising Your Child in Ireland Today, with all royalties going to Barnardos (he has never profited personally from giving the talks either).
It focuses on the pre-teen and teen years but the approach he advocates should start “the day the baby is born”.
Although he says the book’s content is based almost exclusively on his own experience as a parent for more than 30 years, it is undoubtedly coloured by the 42 years the Tipperary native spent working in the prison service.
For instance, the only issue that has more than one chapter devoted to it, is drugs; he estimates that, towards the end of his time in charge at Mountjoy, 80 per cent of the inmates were there, directly or indirectly, for reasons related to drugs.
“I learned more in prison than I did anywhere else for all sorts of reasons,” he agrees, sitting in the much more salubrious surroundings of a south Dublin hotel. He may have retired three years ago at the age of 62 but, dressed in a smart suit and tie, he obviously hasn’t let sartorial standards slip.
“I met parents in their 90s going into Mountjoy for the first time – [to visit] their adult children, who had usually done something horrific like murder, assault or child abuse,” he says.
He also encountered families where every single child was in prison, as were their parents and grandparents before them, and families where one child out of eight, say, was inside – the other seven children perfect.
“I learned that sometimes poor parenting was a contributory factor and then, on the other side, despite wonderful parenting, children got into difficulty.”
Principles and values
He also realised that social status and background was no great indicator of principles or values.
“Children in very affluent families are often children under severe pressure,” he remarks. Their parents are often too busy to spend any time with them. “Especially during the Celtic Tiger era when money was a substitute: ‘Here is €50, go off and enjoy yourself.’”
Presence is a huge factor in parenting. “You often have to be there – and just there: don’t interfere, don’t give your views.”
Speaking as a father who missed out on many aspects of the raising of his daughters, Sinéad and Marie – “I never went to a single parent-teacher meeting, that’s just one example” – he urges men, in particular, to “make the time” for their children.