When Kids Rule The Roost

13th February 2015

Who’s in charge here? Claire Moulds explains what goes wrong when children rule the roost

It’s safe to say that my generation – the 30-somethings – have transformed parenting beyond recognition… and not in a good way.
The results are plain to see in your local supermarket, restaurant or park, where ‘no’ no longer means ‘no’ and where the whole world is expected to accommodate each little darling’s endless wants, however anti-social these may be.

Last weekend provided the perfect illustration of just how far we have, as a society, strayed from the path of ‘good’ parenting and the impact it has on the wider community. On the Friday night my husband and I met up with friends, one of whom teaches reception at a local primary school. A highly experienced and dedicated teacher, she admitted to being on the verge of a breakdown after a term of dealing with a classroom of children who have all been brought up to believe that they can do, and have, what they want, when they want. Thanks to ‘helicopter’ parenting, the children are so used to having someone’s complete attention at all times that they resent having to share their teacher with their fellow pupils and demand almost constant interaction and praise from her.

And she’s not alone in her frustration. A survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) revealed that 51% of education professionals feel that the behaviour of pupils has got worse over the past five years. Another survey by the same organisation found that 79% of teachers blamed poor behaviour in the classroom on parents failing to set boundaries in the home environment.

But back to last weekend… the next evening we went out with other friends who have a ‘spirited’ two and a half year old. During the meal the subject of discipline came up: earlier that day he had broken a precious family ornament only to shrug it off with the words ‘doesn’t matter’. When we asked how he’d been punished for his behaviour they said that he hadn’t, adding that they ‘can’t tell him off for everything’.

It is this inconsistency where discipline is concerned, and an unwillingness to ‘spoil the moment’ by telling a child off, that means we’re raising a generation with no clear framework of what constitutes good behaviour. Parents may argue ‘our house, our rules’ but they need to realise that those are the rules that will govern their child’s behaviour out of the home as well as in.

The truth is that the balance of power has shifted markedly in recent years. Research by the Army Cadet Force revealed that a staggering one in four parents won’t discipline their child for fear of upsetting them while three in ten admit to being a ‘pushover’ with their children.

And woe betide anyone who goes against this ‘turn a blind eye’ approach. Another friend was struggling with her young daughter biting everyone around her. Having explained that it was naughty and given multiple time outs and punishments, the mother asked on Facebook what friends thought of her biting the child back – gently, of course – to show her why it was so wrong. Admittedly, it’s a controversial idea, but it was the reaction that was interesting: sheer outrage ensued, with nearly everyone who replied telling her it was ‘just a phase’ – as if that makes it socially acceptable – and urging her to ‘just ignore it’ and to ‘praise good behaviour instead’.

And yet, if parents ignore a child’s bad behaviour and don’t shout about it or draw attention to it, how does the child know it’s wrong? No wonder so many grow up thinking, like my friend’s son, that it ‘doesn’t matter’, when it so obviously does.

It’s a sentiment shared by parenting expert and author of new book New Old-Fashioned Parenting: A Guide to Help You Find the Balance between Traditional and Modern Parenting, Liat Hughes Joshi. “I don’t agree with the whole ‘reward the good, ignore the bad’ idea, unless it’s attention-seeking behaviour, which does deserve to be ignored. Rewarding what you do want them to do is indeed more powerful but ignoring really negative behaviour just makes children think they can get away with it, and that’s not a wise message.”

Moreover, Hughes Joshi believes that a number of factors are influencing modern parents’ approach to discipline. “We’re seeing a lot of what I call ‘guilt-led parenting’. A lot of us feel guilty about not spending enough time with our children so we find it hard to say no when we are with them as we just want to make them happy.”

Since the current crop of parents were kids themselves, Hughes Joshi notes, this idea of the importance of creating a happy childhood above all else has gained momentum and is now enormously prevalent.

“The problem is that while shying away from saying no and disciplining our children might be easier for us, and happier for them, in the short-term, it makes it harder to parent them in the long-term. Plus, we risk leaving our children ill-prepared for adult life where rules are enforced and it isn’t all about what they want.”

This ‘softly, softly’ approach to teaching ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is also now seeping into schools as parents object to their precious angel being disciplined – or, as they see it, ‘picked on’ – by teachers. If they don’t punish their child for their behaviour, then they don’t see why others should be able to. And they aren’t afraid to challenge those who do.

In September last year the ATL reported that 27% of education staff had faced aggression from pupils’ parents or carers in the previous 12 months. A staggering 80% had been the victim of verbal insults, 60% had suffered intimidation, such as threats, while 4% had faced physical violence. And, tellingly, 40% of those surveyed also said that they thought that the behaviour of parents/carers had got worse in recent years.

Parents might believe that their child isn’t capable of the good behaviour being asked of them – but they need to ask themselves whether they should actually be expecting more. If you set the bar low, what reason do they have to aim higher?

My brother-in-law is a classic example of this, opining that ‘you can’t have nice things with kids as they will only get ruined’… which is why his teenage children are incapable of visiting my house without inflicting some sort of damage on it. They’ve never been expected to behave any differently. My parents, and my friends’ parents, all had ‘nice things’ when we were growing up and we were taught to be careful around them. Moreover, we knew that there would be consequences if we weren’t.

Worryingly, parents now have even less incentive to discipline their children as, with the advent of social media, their words and actions can be recorded for posterity and uploaded in a matter of seconds by an aggrieved son or daughter for judgment by the whole world.

What particularly irks me is when I attempt to remove myself from the situation – for example by sitting in a ‘child-free’ zone in a pub – only to find myself joined by a family who believe that their child is the exception to the rule. In their blinkered opinion, he/she behaves beautifully. Indeed, they are positively outraged that people wouldn’t want to be in close proximity to their son/daughter and they are therefore going to make a stand and sit wherever they want. Cue an immediate onslaught of screaming and crying.

And yet nobody says anything. Because to criticise children these days, especially if you’re a woman, is tantamount to donning a black pointy hat and jumping on the nearest broomstick.

My generation may well be the most ‘informed’ parents ever, thanks to books, magazines, TV programmes, parenting courses and the Internet but, in and amongst all of this, they seem to have forgotten the very basics of parenthood: things like who is in charge, setting boundaries, teaching respect and instilling a sense of responsibility in a child. Too many want to be their son or daughter’s ‘friend’ rather than a parent and focus on having fun rather than bringing up a well-rounded individual who understands that life is a mixture of both work and play and doesn’t revolve entirely around them.

Sadly, whether it’s through guilt, fear, laziness or a desperate need to create a utopian childhood, until parents understand that by being ‘kind’ to their child all the time they are actually being ‘cruel’, by failing to equip them with the skills they need to be a fully functioning member of Society, we will all continue to suffer at the hands of little emperors.

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