They’ll get by with a little help from their parents

16th March 2018 at 00:00
Children need guardians who provide boundaries that help them grow, not who try to be their friends or defend them unconditionally, writes Martin Stephen

There’ve been two unfortunate developments in parenting in recent years.

The first is the growth of the “buddy” syndrome, summed up for me by a father I once knew who made this announcement about his son: “There’s one thing you should know about John: I am his best friend, and he is mine.” Really? In my experience, children have their friends – the last person on earth they want to be at the party with is their parents.

Parents aren’t there to be friends. Friendly? Yes. Friends? No.

Parents are there to dictate unreasonable times for the child to be home by, to limit screen time and to sniff for the cigarette in the bedroom, as well as to hug the child when the longed-for invitation to the party doesn’t come, someone else is given the best role in the school play or the bike falls over with you on it. Parents are there to set boundaries, boundaries which may provoke annoyance but also give security.

Children can kick against those boundaries, but in so doing learn and learn again how to negotiate if they want changes.

Problem parents

An impeccable source reported recently on a father who had come to school about a troubled seven-year-old boy. He explained that they had to bring in grandma to feed their son at home, because he was on his mobile all the time – and if he wasn’t fed like a baby, he wouldn’t eat. Would the school tell him this wasn’t acceptable?

Why didn’t the father simply tell the boy that no mobiles were allowed at the table? “Oh, I couldn’t do that,” said the father. “You see, we’re best friends – and I don’t want to destroy my relationship”.

If a parent can’t tell their child to behave sensibly, surely it’s a relationship that needs to be destroyed and replaced by another as soon as possible?

Another thing that is more and more common is the parent who will ferociously defend their child whatever they have done.

Many years ago, I was watching my school’s 11-year-olds play sport. One little boy committed an appalling foul on a member of the opposition who didn’t even have the ball in his possession – and was summarily sent off. The father dragged the boy into the car, loudly castigating his son.

Recently I was watching a match and there was a near-copy of the incident, again with 11-year-olds. This time the father shouted at the referee, for being “blind” and “ignorant”, all the time rubbing his son’s shoulders and saying, “It wasn’t your fault, son.” At least he didn’t say “buddy”.

Children do get things wrong – and they need to learn that actions have consequences. Increasingly it’s the teacher’s fault, or the school’s fault – or the fault of the other boy or girl who led the accused astray, never the fault of the child.

If we defend our children regardless, we bring them up never to accept responsibility for their actions. It’s someone else’s problem to solve if they’re not working hard enough, or fooling around in class.

Rights and what’s right

There’s a cartoon which shows a “Then” and “Now” parents’ evening. In the “Then” picture, the child is being told how badly he is doing. Everyone is looking at the red-faced child with the caption, “And what are you going to do about it?” In the “Now” picture, the message is the same – and so is the caption. The only difference is that everyone, including the delighted child, is looking at the teacher, who is red-faced and discomfited.

We’ve all been guilty of the primeval urge to defend our child. Yet there’s an analogy here with the adult who keeps a house so clean that their children never develop the natural antibodies they need.

The buddy syndrome places more pressure on children than mollycoddling. It makes life even more confusing.

In my experience, over-defensive parents don’t soften the child or stop them developing grit and determination. They make their child determined about the wrong things. I doubt it’s a coincidence the two most prominent parent-defended children I came across were also bullies.

The “my child can do no wrong” parent encourages the child to think what they wish to happen is theirs by right – and that only they have rights. Children sometimes need to fight – and lose – their own battles, hurt us as parents though it may. They need to learn to earn their rewards: to graft for them.

As it stands, we’re visiting the sins of the parents on the child, except in this case, it can last longer than childhood.

Martin Stephen is the author of the forthcoming The English Public School: A Personal and Irreverent History and a former headteacher of St Paul’s School in London and Manchester Grammar School

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