Thursday 18 July 2019

'Is a slap on the wrist and a quick hug afterwards more violent than a 6ft man roaring in a two-year-old's face?'

'The loss of control, and dignity, is what is damaging to the child'
'The loss of control, and dignity, is what is damaging to the child'
Stella O'Malley.
Cotton Wool Kids by Stella O'Malley.
Stella O'Malley

Stella O'Malley

Oh dear, parents are at it again; poor old-fashioned Pope Francis utters a vague, half-formed opinion and cue hysterical weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth about what is the right way to discipline children.

The parenting mafia enthusiastically shame, blame and almost maim El Papa for his comments and he suddenly seems to be just like the rest of us - all too fallible.

'Violence begets violence' is repeated endlessly by absolutist parents and they are right of course - violence does indeed beget violence. But the problem with hysterical over-reaction is that it closes down all debate; reason and logic get left behind and people start bleating blindingly obvious aphorisms as if that solves everything.

But repeating clichés rarely solves anything, and the truth is that trying to get your child to behave appropriately is extremely difficult sometimes; what exactly do you do when your two-year-old bites your newborn for the 15th time that day?

Is a slap on the wrist and a quick hug afterwards more violent than a 6ft man roaring in a two-year-old's face?

My book Cotton Wool Kids - What's Making Irish Parents Paranoid? explores how most parents are motivated by the noble and natural desire to raise happy kids and to keep them safe. The problem is that the general message from society today is that parents are useless and need to be monitored so as to prevent them from inflicting untold damage on their children.

At the same time, society is making ever-increasing demands on parents. So heads we lose, tails we lose; we are inept fools who aren't to be trusted with our children and we need to up our game if we are to be considered respectable parents.

Consequently, these days, if a child runs across a dangerous road, many parents are uncertain how to respond. Our automatic reaction these days is not to teach children about danger, but instead to avoid danger at all times, which means that the children aren't getting the opportunity to grow and develop.

Parents need to be free to teach children that some behaviour is unkind, some behaviour is very bold, and some behaviour is so galactically dangerous that it must never, ever be repeated.

In the course of my work as a psychotherapist I meet many parents who feel overwhelmed and powerless over their teenage children. These parents have lost the ability to discipline their children and their teenagers have become out-of-control tyrants. To ensure that our children grow up to be responsible and considerate adults, we parents need to accept our role as the disciplinarian in the family. Because that's our job and we need to be allowed to do it properly.

The true key to disciplining your children is that the adult learns not to cross the line. We all know when we cross the line, and our feelings of shame and guilt are generally enough to ensure that we soon learn not to cross it.

Crossing the line can involve beating the child, however it can also involve locking them in a dark room; it can involve screaming and screeching at them; it can involve mocking them or degrading them; and it can involve waving a poker in the air and threatening the child with it.

Many coldly furious parents give their children the silent treatment for hours over minor misdemeanours, and over-controlling personalities often use the naughty step as a means to 'break' their child. The mass hysteria about smacking has resulted in many parents missing the subtler but more important message: do not cross the line.

Within the counselling context, I am uninterested in a parent's chosen method to discipline their children as I don't believe that it is any of my business; I am only exercised if the imaginary line in the sand is being crossed - because it is the loss of control and the loss of dignity that is damaging to the child.

The most widespread reasoning given to support the banning of corporal punishment is that without an all-out ban, parents otherwise won't know where to draw the line from smacking children to physically abusing them - and with emotive subjects such as this, the conversation tends to move wildly from a slap on the hand to children being beaten black and blue with an iron bar.

This argument that we don't know where to draw the line is incredibly insulting to everyone involved. Any reasonable and rational adult knows where to draw the line - that's what maturity is all about. Most of us know that we can shout at children without roaring our heads off; we can deny treats without being cruel or sadistic; and we can use the naughty step but refrain from using it as Stalin used the Gulag.

The truth is that most parents are good enough just the way they are. Most of us love our children, and most of us will never, ever assault our children. There is a line, and loving ­parents know not to cross it.

Cotton Wool Kids by Stella O'Malley is published by Mercier Press (€14.99)

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