Parenting wrongs can create a lasting, painful legacy


If I'm honest about my mother, as out of loyalty I hesitate to be, my over-riding memory of her is fear.

She had a flashpoint temper, was prone to hitting, and I was smaller than she was at the time. Her life was full of frustrations; I understand that now; but back then I was simply bewildered. I never connected her violence to anything I'd done because I was too young to make the connection, and because her hitting seemed random to me, I was always a bit on edge around her. I still jump when I drop something in the kitchen with a clatter, expecting trouble that will never come. I'm a regular Pavlov's dog.

So much for violence and child-rearing, the breaking of a child's spirit and such nasty notions. All it really amounts to is bullying. Sugar-coat it in Christian piety if it makes you feel better, but you're only fooling yourself. Respect, if that's what you're after, can only be earned. You can't demand it by force.

The boarding school matron who boxed my ears when I was little was no better or wiser than my mother; my hearing problems go back a long way, but nobody thought about the rights of children back then.

It was open slather on family, and as a result people of my generation reacted quite the other way with our own kids.

We opted for benign neglect, or tedious lectures to toddlers designed to shape their minds along logical paths, like acting older than they were. Good luck with that. Because parents are insecure about parenting if they are at all thoughtful, there are gurus to help them feel better. That can lead to intriguing advice - on punishing babies, for example - such as, "For the under one-year-old, a small, 10 to 12-inch long willowy branch is sufficient."

Sufficient to assume the mighty cloak of omnipotence on a captive child is what is meant there. As if you don't have that anyway as a parent.

Michael and Debi Pearl's To Train Up a Child, authors of that unusual advice, produce controversial evangelical Christian publications. This one gets slammed on the internet, has made its way into Auckland libraries, and 2000 people have signed a petition demanding that copies be removed. They're a bit late because it was published in 1994.

I'm not a big fan of censorship in general, and I'm not sure you can really blame the Pearls for cases of extreme violence against children that people have laid at their door in America. The Pearls come from Memphis, Tennessee. Things are different there. Michael Pearl's long white beard suggests he's God, and he may think he is, but there are other contenders for that job. His wife submits to him - they have another publication on that - and she advises, among other doormat hints, against provoking violent husbands.

Now that is offensive, but let her say it.

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We can no more control what other people think than we can control the independent minds of our own children, bash them as we may, and if the Pearls believe such nonsense they're condemned to live it, a just enough punishment in itself.

It happens that the steely Pearls came to my attention in the same week as the St Bede's College boys whose fathers hired lawyers to challenge their punishment by the school. They climbed on to an airport luggage carousel, entering a secure area in the process, knowing full well they shouldn't. Call it boyish high spirits if you like, but even boys of 16 and 17 have to behave sometimes, especially when they've signed an agreement to. That is, unless they have parents who think rules apply to everyone but their child. We know gang parents think like that, and so do middle-class Pakeha apparently.

The school banned the boys from the rowing event they'd been preparing for. Now their fathers have demonstrated to the whole school an axiom of a sophisticated nature: that you can get away with anything if you've got the funds to hire a lawyer. They've also shown that signing an agreement can be made to mean nothing.

That isn't true, because Jeremy Clarkson, the overgrown bad schoolboy of the BBC, has just lost his lucrative contract over bullying Top Gear's producer, splitting his lip and subjecting him to a tirade of abuse.

I wonder what sort of parents he had.

 - The Dominion Post


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