Thursday 18 July 2019

Most parents are actually 'good enough'... let them keep the final say

Stella O'Malley.
Stella O'Malley.
Stella O'Malley

Stella O'Malley

Is your granny a criminal? Is your mother a child abuser? Or did they understand the term "reasonable and moderate chastisement" without needing to consult their lawyers? James Reilly's decision to remove the defence of "reasonable and moderate chastisement" appears to be progressive - it's following Europe's lead, after all. However, perhaps a more subtle approach is required for the messy business of parenting?

In these enlightened times, smacking children feels very old-fashioned; something to be left back in the 20th century along with the wooden spoon and putting children in the corner with a dunce's hat. The fact is that there are many, many better ways to discipline your child - but is making smacking illegal maybe a step too far? Because the intense insecurity that loving parents feel over their parenting abilities is a much more serious issue than the very odd event where the loving parent is proved to be fallible.

During the course of researching my book Cotton Wool Kids, I met many Irish parents who feel insecure, powerless and overwhelmed. Everyone else - the State, school authorities, media, childless adults - presumes to know better than the blithering idiot parent how they should handle their children. We saw the impact of powerless parenting during the 2011 London riots, when parents reported that their children rang social services every time the embattled parents attempted to gain control over their children and keep them inside the house during the riots.

Loving parents need to have the freedom to discipline their children as they see fit. Because that's our job. Personally, the only time I remember my mother smacking me was when I ran across the dangerous road. I was about four at the time and it is interesting that although I don't remember running across the road, I do remember getting the smack and thinking that it was a very serious offence.

A certain well-known personality told me about how his child stuck a knitting needle up the family dog's bum. The gentle dog, who had never shown any sign of aggression to man, woman or beast before, gave a little nip in the hand to the ­terrorist with the knitting ­needle. Many people would argue that, in this particular context, this was a perfectly reasonable form of "reasonable and moderate chastisement" (certainly the child needed to learn the clear lesson that you never put a knitting needle up a dog's bum!)

Some people are behaviourally led while others have a more cognitive disposition, and others still are more swayed by their emotions. When parents are disciplining their children they need to ascertain which approach will work.

I can only speak for myself, but sometimes brute force doesn't particularly bother me - I know where I am with that - however, manipulation and sly behaviour makes me foam at the mouth. Just like everybody else, other parents' method of disciplining their children occasionally troubles me; publicly embarrassing children, humiliating children by wielding excessive control over them or speaking nastily to children and undermining their opinions makes me feel deeply uncomfortable and yet, ultimately, it's their children and in the grand scheme of things, it's none of my business.

As a psychotherapist, it is only my business to ascertain whether the parents lose control when they discipline their children. There is always a line in the sand between control and loss of control and parents need to learn not to cross it. So long as the parent hasn't lost control, I don't think it's any of our business, whether we approve or not - raising children is not run by the State and nor should it be.

The British psychiatrist DW Winnicott was ahead of the game when he argued that it was "good enough" to have a good-enough parent. He warned about the dangers of allowing experts to override parental instincts and believed that professionals were undermining parents' confidence with "petty regulations, legal restrictions, and all manner of stupidities".

Parents need to have status and they need to have the freedom to raise their children as they see fit. Otherwise, perhaps all children should be taught discipline in crèches and in schools where the discipline is professionally controlled, where no one ever threatens bold children with smacks and where the punishment is clinical and efficiently administered?

Most parents aren't childcare professionals, and yet most parents are loving, most parents care about their children more than anyone else and most parents know their own children more than anyone else. Most parents are actually "good enough" so perhaps we should leave it to these loving parents to raise their children in their own fallible way?

Stella O'Malley is a psychotherapist and author of Cotton Wool Kids - What's Making Irish Parents Paranoid? published by Mercier Press, RRP €14.99

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