Getting parents off the naughty step

 

Parenting in Ireland has changed in the last half century, but mixed messages have left many parents confused, writes MARIE MURRAY

AS RELATIONSHIPS Ireland prepares for its 50th Anniversary Conference this week, nothing is as stark as the changes in family and parenting practices in Ireland in the half-century since its services began.

There wasn’t much said or written about parenting 50 years ago. There were a few academic theories and a rake of proverbs – mainly of the “spare the rod and spoil the child” or “children should be seen not heard” variety. There were some ideas creeping in from psychiatry. Psychology was suspect. Pediatrician and parenting guru Dr Spock had produced the first parenting bible with ideas promoting children’s rights and challenging harsh discipline, but mainly parents looked to their own authority. Parenting was “got on with”. Praise was sparse and respect expected. Relationships were not discussed much. If you could educate your children better than yourself, give them more opportunities than you had, set them on the road to a finer life than yours, then your job was done.

In the relative poverty of the post-war era, a good father was one who fed, clothed and put a roof over his children’s heads. Good mothers mothered, managed housekeeping, washed, ironed, mended and made do. They were supported by the traditional wisdom of grandmothers, extended family, neighbours and friends. Television was too new to influence. Entertainment was in community, community was in Church and Church had a moral code to be implemented at home and in school; the rules of childhood, marriage, family, living, life and death were clear.

If a child had problems the mother was blamed. Children who had difficulties were “problem children”. The emotional world of the child was poorly understood. Recognition of the cruelty of corporal punishment, mothers’ grief for babies lost in miscarriage, the impact of the death of a child on a father, postnatal depression, the terror of hospitalisation for infants, fears, phobias, trauma, social anxiety, parental stress or family life-cycle pressures was minimal. Fifty years ago there was a lot to be learned, much to be changed, sensitivities to be sharpened, services to be provided, supports and information to be given to couples and families, as the new era of the 60s saw a radical change in Irish culture and family life.

But somehow over the 50 years the pendulum has swung from not talking enough about parenting to not talking about anything else. Parents are suffering from advice overload. In a terrible irony, the more attention that has been paid to parenting, the less confident many parents have become. Too much information disempowers people and too many theories confuse, so that parents are afraid that the wrong move will traumatise their children or erode their self-esteem. Tiger or touchy? Authoritative or authoritarian? Home or creche? Attachment parenting or rigid routine? Why can’t parents be reassured that it’s okay to have a bit of both – to be lovingly responsive but with a bit of routine?

Many parents are confounded by patronising “nanny” programmes which put parents on the naughty step if they don’t master all the skills. There are three problems with these programmes. The first is the belief that there is one right way to parent. This makes parents feel guilty if the strategies of the latest parenting model don’t work for them. While there are recognisable no-nos in parenting, there are many good ways to guide children until they are grown up. The second problem is that parents often blame themselves for what are external pressures on them and on their children, especially during the adolescent years. Single theories do not take account of the many new family forms, the complexities of family configurations and the range of partnerships in parenting today. Sometimes the problem is not lack of parenting skills but the practical challenges of bringing up children in a stressed-out world.

The third problem is that with the swing from minimum focus on couples’ relationships to intense attention on everything, many couples’ expectations of each other, as people and as parents, have soared beyond what is reasonable to expect of each other or of anyone at all. Many couples have lost sight of how to work together, how to listen to each other, be compassionate toward each other, love each other and how to be friends.

In the final analysis most parenting comes down to simple rules. Children benefit when their parents spend time with them, support them, know where they are, treat them gently, are firm but fair, set reasonable boundaries, and are confident and consistent and not in conflict with each other.

It may be expressed differently now than 50 years ago, but parents have always loved and done their best for their children. The naughty step is no place for parents, but parents who want help should seek and get sensible personal professional support.


Clinical psychologist and author Marie Murray is one of the speakers at the Relationships Ireland Conference on Saturday in the Mansion House, Dublin. For more information tel: 01-6443909 or email info@relationshipsireland.com

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