Monday 18 December 2017

Is child-centred parenting the way forward?

Child-centred parenting is the norm these days but maybe parents should instead just ignore their children a bit more

Fiona Whelan with her children
Fiona Whelan with her children
Who's the boss: Fiona Whelan at home in Dublin with Adam, Lara and Isabelle
Balance: You have to be there for your children, says Sandra McKenna, but you also have to let them do things for themselves

HER 12-year-old daughter refused to take her calls, the woman said. "She won't answer me when I call her on her mobile. She turns it to silent and lets it go to voicemail because she's busy playing with her friends."

We looked at each other in the brief intimacy of two mothers caught in a lengthy supermarket queue.

"Would you have refused to answer a phone to your mother at her age -- and then told her it was because you were too busy?" I asked.

"Not in a million years," the woman said.

"What can you do," she sighed, shrugging.

Modern motherhood. But, hey, let's face it. Who's really to blame?

We live in an increasingly child-centric world where parents know their place -- and for many, that place seems to be in perpetual, anxious orbit around their children.

From the outset, we teach our kids their wants come first.

This thought occurred to me following a recent incident. I had been about to enter a shop when a well-dressed girl of about nine came out of nowhere, ducked around me and shoved through the door, allowing it to slam right into my face.

Stunned, I followed her into the shop only to see the same child pause and courteously ask an assistant for help.

I stood there, marvelling at the apparent contradiction. And then I had my eureka! moment.

After all, why would she give way to an adult? She hadn't been taught to.

From the perspective of this modern child I was, as an adult, either there to help -- as with the shop assistant, to whom she was flawlessly polite -- or unknown, invisible and of no obvious use, which is why the door was slammed in my face.

But why should we complain? We design these children. We dance attendance on them 24/7, making their worries our concerns. We interrupt interesting conversations with our friends when they tug irritably at our skirts.

We're so anxious for them to be happy that we're afraid to let them suffer the thoughtlessness of friends or become even a little bored.

We intervene to alleviate their troubles because we fear a knock would damage their self-esteem. We rush to compensate them for the things we didn't have. And with disastrous results.

We have a generation of little princes and princesses on whom 24/7 attendance has been danced since they were carefully placed in their very first deluxe armchair-sized car seat.

"My daughter is seven years old. Yet when she goes to a friend's birthday party, it's expected that I will stay with her," says Mary, a mother-of-two.

"Years ago, children went to birthday parties themselves, but now the parents are expected to be present throughout."

Although she believes this is helicopter-parenting at its most ridiculous, she has to stay.

"If you were to leave, you'd feel very uncomfortable doing it. The assumption is that a good mother would stay throughout the party to watch her child.

"You'd be afraid that they'd talk about you if you brought your child to a party and left her there."

Busy parents

Micro-parenting is an issue, agrees Sandra McKenna, Managing Director of the parenting website and mother of two little girls.

"Some parents are heavily involved in aspects of their child's life, which wouldn't have come up on the radar of a parent 20 years ago.

"There's a good bit of micro-parenting going on -- not every parent, but quite a number of them."

This "very tight focus" on the child is partly because modern families are smaller, she believes, and partly because busy parents over-compensate for the guilt they feel about not spending enough time with a child.

McKenna points to two mothers who emailed, one expressing concern about schoolyard squabbles involving her child, the other about the fact that her daughter didn't get a birthday invitation.

The first, says McKenna, was "wondering if she should go to the principal".

"It surprised me that a parent would not just say to their child to go out and find someone else to play with, which is what my mother would have said."

Worried because her daughter didn't get an invitation to a classmate's birthday party -- even though the classmate had attended hers -- the other mother was considering contacting the classmate's mum and requesting an invitation.

Although any mother could see where these women were coming from, it's worth asking whether it's a good thing to protect children from the rough-and-tumble of growing up? Sure, a squabble with a friend or the lack of a party invitation can hurt -- but isn't it normal?

Not everyone sees it that way.

"There's a lot more understanding out there today and a lot more analysis, and there's much more focus on a child's wants and opinions. I've heard about play-dates where the mother is constantly peering over the kids' shoulders to ensure everything is fine," says McKenna.

There's a downside to all this.

"Parents who micro-manage every aspect of a child's life can end up creating one who sees its own wants as paramount and who will thus end up dictating what the parents do, where they go, or even what they eat.

"Such a child can be quite oblivious to the needs of others. In the end of the day the child rules," McKenna observes.

If you mollycoddle them, she feels, children will end up less independent.

"You have to be there for your child but there's a balance with letting the child do things for themselves."

There is a growing number of parents whose lives revolve almost entirely around their children, agrees Fiona Whelan, a marketing consultant and mother-of-three.

"I know parents who almost cannot see past the child. They arrange their lives around their children, and everything is always on hold until the children are sorted. The child comes before everything, including the mother or her husband or partner."

This over-emphasis even comes down to decision-making. On occasion, says Whelan, she has invited a mother to bring her child to a get-together -- only to be told that the decision isn't the parent's to make.

"The parent will explain that they cannot make a decision on the child's behalf, even through the child may be quite young. The parent will have to consult the child and then get back to you."

Of course, most parents are just doing their best to give their children things they didn't have.

But if this results in a generation of 'diva' children, who, as psychologist Patrick Ryan warns, can grow up into "irritating" adults, perhaps it's time we took a different approach.

Perhaps it's time we parents exercised some benign neglect and ignored more.

Perhaps it's also time our 'diva' kids got to know their place and understand that it's not necessarily at the epicentre of the domestic universe.

Perhaps, in fact, our kids should spend more time in orbit around Mum and Dad, and not the other way round?

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