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.
“Don’t worry, if you drop dead tomorrow morning, the job will continue. You are not indispensible.”
Just one hour can make a lot of difference. “The sad thing is it doesn’t come back. It is no point having regrets. No point saying when your child is 20 it’s a pity I didn’t . . . It is the now that counts. Try to be there as much as possible and prioritise a little bit.”
At this time of the year, when people take stock of their lives, what are the three top resolutions he would recommend to parents going into 2014?
He doesn’t hesitate in nominating “chatting” more with older children as the number one. “When you have a three or four or five year old, you’re chatting all the time – what the hell happens to us as parents that we begin to transfer from chatting to interrogation –‘Where are you going? Who’s going with you’ – and instruction – ‘Bring your coat; come home at two o’clock.’
“If you’re chatting and not reacting, your child will tell you things that their friends are doing – you know what they love, what they hate, what they’re thinking. That is massive knowledge because you are now tuned in to what your child is all about.”
His second resolution for parents is that they update themselves on the latest trends in social media, which he sees as a huge challenge. They should organise a talk by an expert in their community or for their school parents’ association.
“It will be the best spent hour they’ll ever spend,” he says. “Technology and social media has brought in a whole new world, which many parents have no insight into, or knowledge of, at all.”
It is not just cyberbullying parents need to know about – “the whole social media thing presents children with challenges that weren’t dreamt of five years ago”.
Lack of empathy
A particular concern of his is an apparent increase in lack of empathy in today’s society.
“Perhaps it is linked in some way to technology. You are communicating but you are not directly connected to the person.” Somebody growing up with a lack of empathy is going to have difficulty relating to people and maintaining relationships, he points out.
Lonergan’s third suggestion is a greater emphasis on positivity. He gave a talk in Offaly not so long ago and a woman came up afterwards and said she was a member of a big family and, on reflection, her mother was so negative.
She recalled going home from school one day saying, “Mammy, I was best at English today in my class” and her mother’s response was “Well, God help the class.”
Another anecdote, which always prompts a ripple of self-recognition around a room of parents, is about the child coming home to say she got 19 out of 20 spellings correct and the instant response is “What one did you get wrong?”
The greatest gift you can give your child on leaving home is, he argues, self-confidence and self-belief – and then they will cope with any knock-backs.
He feels strongly about too much emphasis, both in schools and in the home, on academic achievements – particularly, at the moment, in maths and science.
“It is all job related and we know that and understand that but I am trying to say to parents, if your child is not academic, don’t fret. That child will be brilliant, that child will have some other gift – be it a creative gift, a sporting gift, a human gift.”
And he bemoans career snobbery, particularly among more affluent families.
“I was asked so many times, ‘What do you do when you know your child is making a wrong career choice?’ I always say, ‘How do you know that?’
“It is the child’s decision. Do you want your child to be a disgruntled adult, doing a job that they absolutely hate every hour of, just because it has a higher social status?”
More about agreement
People think he’s mad, he says, when he suggests that parenting pre-teens and teens should be 10 per cent about enforcement and 90 per cent about getting their agreement.
This has nothing to do with not dealing with serious issues in a firm way, he stresses. “What I am talking about is how you do it, not what you do.”
Getting it right as parents is “totally hit and miss” at the start. “You learn from both if you’re reflective. But by the time you have conquered it all and have a great insight into it – it’s all over.”
He closes the book with Diana Loomans’s poignant, “If I Had My Child to Raise All Over Again” . . . which has such lines such as “I’d finger paint more and point the finger less,” “I’d take my eyes off my watch and watch with my eyes,” and “I’d do more hugging and less tugging.”
Perfect sentiments on which to reflect at the end of another year.
Parenting: Raising Your Child in Ireland Today by John Lonergan is published by Orpen Press, €16.99, with all royalties going to Barnardos.
Not so sporting ‘Competitive sport is not appropriate’
Competitiveness is ruining the sporting lives of far too many children, argues John Lonergan, who believes competitive sport is not appropriate for those aged under 12.
Try telling that to the soccer, GAA, or rugby mums and dads roaring at the under-eights from the sideline. But they are part of the problem, as far as he is concerned, complicit in making what should be enjoyable and healthy recreation into yet another pressure in a child’s life.
“Many parents believe that being competitive in sport will help their children to realise that life itself is very competitive and the sooner they learn this, the better they will be prepared for life. I completely disagree with this philosophy.”
He sees coaches of underage teams, with children as young as eight and nine, “picking teams to win, therefore there are a lot of kids excluded or sitting on the sidelines as substitutes. There is nothing more powerful to undermine their self-esteem and their self-worth than to be on the sideline.”
There is a case for elitism in sport, he acknowledges, but 99 per cent of people will never reach that level in any sport.
“Are you going to write off 99 per cent of people simply for one? Common sense will say of course you don’t.”
But there’s little common sense in, for instance, junior soccer clubs so obsessed with winning that they scour Dublin for the best under-10 or under-12 players, he says. Then they boast that their under 10-team has gone 15 matches undefeated . . .
“In my view that’s a disaster: winning is important and losing is even more important.”
John Lonergan on . . .
“Your long-term objective is to help your child to become self-disciplined, responsible and accountable . . .
“Autocratic decisions should be avoided at all cost because they do not involve your child in the decision-making process.”
Accepting your child
“Your child is who he or she is and you must embrace him or her from day one; otherwise , you and your child will have a very miserable life.”
“Creating a happy and relaxed home environment for children is absolutely essential . . .
“You should not get over obsessed with having your house spick and span all the time.”
Value of chatting
“As parents we tend to lecture far too much and listen far too little.”
“There is no need to spend a full hour ranting about a discipline issue . . . I believe that two or three sentences are more than adequate to deal with any teenage disciplinary issues.”
Alcohol at home
“I would strongly urge you not to normalise alcohol within the home.
“For example, when you are doing the weekly shopping, do not include alcohol as an integral item on the shopping list.”
Discovering your child is using drugs
“Take the time to discuss and plan your response and perhaps seek professional advice . . .
“Do not burst into action and go straight for the jugular; the worst time to confront your child on such a serious issue is when you are upset, stressed and angry.”
“If the number one objective is to help your teenager to stop using drugs, then the second objective should be to try to discover why they opted to use drugs in the first place.”
Knowing what’s best
“The sad truth is that because, as parents, we have convinced ourselves that we know what is best for our children, we often actually cause a lot of unhappiness for them.”
Blaming the parents
“Parents can only do so much and the rest is over to the teenager.”