Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Good Enough Mummy II

In preparation for having the Little Dude, I read a lot of childrearing advice books. And there was something I noticed about these books. Everything, and I mean everything, is about the child, and not just practical details like how to change a nappy. The overall portrayal is of a very child-centred life.

It starts from the very beginning. Breastfeeding, we are told, should be baby-led. We should not try to get into a schedule that might make it easier for mummy to organise her day so that she can fulfill other responsibilities or to preserve some time for mummy and daddy to be together. We should feed our baby as soon as he is hungry and let him end the feed - we should never end it ourselves.

And from there, it goes on. In so many areas, the advice is that the child initiates most changes, decides when or how much he wants, and the mummy learns to read his signals and follows his lead. Supply and demand. Or, more correctly, demand and supply.

Now, there is plenty of truth in the wisdom of this approach to some aspects of childrearing, including breastfeeding. But, in all honesty, sometimes I think it establishes a pattern that tends to go too far. What I notice about these books is how much everybody around the child is expected to change their own routines, their preferences, the way they use their time, in order to suit the child. Not to suit the child's needs, with which I have no problem, but the child's wishes.

Canberra is a very middle class town of conscientious parents. As a result, all around me I see parents endlessly buying their children things, listening breathlessly to their child as if he holds the secrets of the universe, driving them to what seems like an awful lot of scheduled activities but not giving them any chores to do and, most damningly of all in my opinion, not just helping their kids with their homework, but often doing their homework. The whining about how a kid with disabilities in the class is holding their own little genius back is also pissing me off.

Where is the scope for these children to learn to deal with the hard reality that the universe is not about them? That family relationships involve more than fulfilling their own wishes? Where will these children learn about the satisfaction of hard work and personal achievement? Where will they learn respect for people who are different from themselves and kindness and compassion towards others?

Why do I suspect that the brattish behaviour of some of these kids is going to follow them into adulthood?

Sometimes this modern approach annoys me so much that I am not sure if I actually disapprove of it, or if I am just jealous. My own parents went for a very different approach. Children and animals knew their place, which was mostly outside. On educational and other issues, they followed more of a "benign neglect" model. They whinged about having to go to the school to pick up my report cards once a year, but they also gave me a lot of space to read and think and even just stare into space for a bit. Certainly there were some disadvantages to this model, but it also fostered independence and an acceptance that the world doesn't owe me anything. And those two lessons have often served me well, particularly in the hard times.

This issue about modern childrearing advice was brought into quite a sharp focus for me when I picked up an old edition of Dr Spock's Baby and Childcare. I looked at it as a historical curiosity, rather than expecting to find some good contemporary advice. But I still remember the shock of recognition I felt when I read this paragraph:

...what is making the parent's job most difficult is today's child-centred approach... I mean the tendency of many conscientious parents to keep their eyes exclusively focused on their child, thinking about what he needs from them and from the community, instead of thinking about what the world, the neighbourhood, the family will be needing from the child... I think we've brought up our children not only less ready to do their part in meeting the world's urgent problems but actually less happy in the sense of being fulfilled. For human beings, by and large, can only be really happy when they feel they are part of something bigger than themselves and when a lot is expected of them and when they are living up to these expectations.

Now, the shock I felt was not just the echo of some of my own deepest instincts. It was also the shock of realizing that I had seen nothing like this in contemporary childrearing books.

And a combination of Flutterby's recent post on kids and consumerism, this article and this paragraph from Dr Spock point me to why I have a problem with a lot of the modern approach to childrearing. As much as I want my son to be happy, and even to have a certain amount of stuff, I also want him to at least have the capacity to become a person of character. Courageous. Loving. Resilient. Hard working. Able to make sacrifices for others when needed. Not just because the world will need certain things about him, but because I believe these qualities will ultimately help him to be happier and more fulfilled.

The standard advice makes me uneasy because it seems to inevitably tend towards producing a very individualistic and selfish little person. I want to be a mother. But there is something about the standard advice that suggests what I should become is not a mummy but a conscientious provider of mummy services to a discerning little consumer. He wants what he wants and the customer is always right.

And there is another side to this. Surely, if the child is basically a consumer of mummy-services, then the mummy ultimately becomes a person who expects a certain type of return on all this investment. She, too, becomes a consumer.

How could a mummy that has spent her life tending to her child's every wish, encouraging his every talent, helping him to "maximise his potential", feel other than disappointed and cheated if her child doesn't turn out the way she wants? If he never maximises his potential at all (most of us don't)? Or even if his potential turns out to be not quite as wondrous as she had hoped? If he just becomes a pretty average sort of person and not the child genius she was trying for?

Hmmmm. Still thinking.


Blogger O272 said...

I think the best you can do is lead by example. (My poor kids!)

1:55 PM  
Anonymous rob_man said...

And then there is the old saying that does have some kernel of truth to it:

"spare the rod and spoil the child"

Note that I am NOT condoning undo child corporeal punishment but it seems pretty obvious (to me at least) that spoiling a kid and giving into his/her every whim does nothing to properly prepare for the life that adulthood will surely impose.

3:54 PM  
Blogger Mu Ling said...

99% of my friends who have children parent this way, and I have wondered about it in precisely these terms. I have a friend who has a profound crisis of conscience every time her son and daughter fight. Are they learning violence? Are they expressing inner pain? Should we have a family meeting and Talk About This?

Give me a break, they're siblings. Siblings fight. It's how they learn to manage conflict. This is a useful thing to learn as a human being. (I'm not condoning kids doing physical harm or terrorizing each other. I'm talking about everyday little squabbles over what board game to play.)

But I don't have children, so I keep these thoughts to myself. Thanks for speaking some common sense, Emily.

4:51 PM  
Blogger flutterby said...

Emily wrote:
"But there is something about the standard advice that suggests what I should become is not a mummy but a conscientious provider of mummy services to a discerning little consumer."

This, this was profound. Well observed, Emily.

11:02 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

Emily, just so you are aware, there seems to be a problem with posting comments to your blog posting immediately following this one (titled "Marital Duties"). Another Blogger hiccup methinks.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Desmond Jones said...

Another very insightful post, Emily. I won't say that we had eight kids just so as to keep them from selfishness, but it does have some of that effect (altho, alas, not nearly to the extent that we might have hoped). But there is a certain enforced 'not-about-you-ness' that happens even if they think it really IS all about them.

Also - if the mother is just the provider of 'mummy-services' (well-turned phrase, that), then what's leftt for her once the 'mummy-services' are no longer required? Or, worse - how does one cut off 'mummy-services' from an adult child who won't quit demanding them?

8:02 AM  

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