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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Children who sue their parents: the dangers of over-permissive parenting

This morning over breakfast a friend told us a true story of the child of one of his acquaintances, who successfully sued his parents not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES to force them to pay for his university education. 

The parents refused on the first occasion because this very same child had defaulted on a car loan, for which the parents had stood as guarantors; understandably they were reluctant to fork out more cash to a child with no sense of responsibility.  The court decided otherwise, and out came the wallet to pay all the considerable up-front fees and set-up costs.

The child- not a child at all really, except in the eyes of the court- attended uni for only a few months before deciding it was all too hard and giving up.  (And no, there are no refunds.)

At 22, he ran the same scam again, won the case again, and again lasted only a few months at uni before defaulting.

At 28, he repeated the whole scenario, won the case for a third time, and yet again failed to last the distance- by which time the parents (financially speaking) had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana skin.

What outrages you most about this tale?

Yes, it would be understandable to feel that it's outrageous that the courts allowed the child to exploit his parents like this.  Perhaps you think the child was in the wrong from the start. Perhaps you agree that the parents should have paid the first time, but are annoyed by a perceived failure of the judge in the second and third cases.  (And if you think the child was in the right from the start, please go away- there's something about you that makes me deeply uneasy.)

I'm appalled by the behaviour of the child,  but I don't blame him.   Our legal system generally follows society's expectations to some extent (if somewhat in arrears); at some stage, WE gave children the power to manipulate the system like this.  

I'm appalled by the results of the legal cases, but nor do I blame the judge.  Our legal system is a complex and inflexible beast which treats each case as a closed system and makes no allowance for past history.  (For this reason the law is often a culpable ass, and anyone who expects common sense from our legal system is deluding themselves.) 

No- to me,  the big shock was that the child had so little respect for his parents that he could contemplate the idea of suing them in the first place.

That outrages me.  A child suing his parents, for whatever reason, says to me that there has been a complete breakdown of the parent-child relationship- and that in his formative years this child was not given appropriate limits, this child did not develop a sense of personal responsibility, and this child was not part of a mutually loving relationship with his parents. 

Which brings me to fashions in parenting styles, and the current fad for over-permissiveness.  Do I blame over-permissive parenting for this sad tale? Yes, I do.

We all have lazy moments in our parenting, when we know we should stop a child from doing something but we just can't raise the energy.  That's being human and being fallible, and there's no reason to beat yourself up for the occasional disciplinary ball slipping through to the keeper. 

But there are some parents who are chronically lazy.  They seem to think their children will learn to do the right thing without being taught, and without the parents actually putting in much effort at all- not even an effort to prevent the kids from learning to manipulate them.  That sort of parent is not you, because that sort of parent isn't interested enough in parenting to be reading this blog- and that sort of parent probably deserves to be sued by their children.

But many parents are making an effort to do the right thing.  How did 'doing the right thing' lead to our society allowing kids to sue their parents?

There is a wave of feeling out there in parent-land which has made many parents feel guilty for ever saying no to their child, and which makes them reluctant to draw lines in the sand and provide firm and realistic consequences for crossing them.  You might remember the story in my post about smacking (Smacking- let's stop pretending!) about my friend who smacked her partner's child's hand out of the way to save him from being burnt by drain cleaner, after warning him beforehand to stay clear.  The small hurt of the smack was surely a realistic consequence for crossing the line she'd drawn and risking a huge burn. Yet in today's climate, she could easily have been vilified and accused of child abuse (and in fact her motives were closely questioned by her more permissive partner).  To me, that's ridiculous.

Sure, all decent parents feel an overwhelming horror and distaste for the extremes of bad parenting found under the name of the 'authoritative parenting' style- sexual abuse, physical and emotional violence, neglect.  Nobody denies that these things are terrible- of course not- and nobody denies that it's worth making the effort to detect and reduce the incidence of genuine child abuse (by which I mean the sort of abuse that causes long-term emotional and physical trauma). 

But these extreme wrongs were always present in our society; they just weren't publicised, openly talked about and endlessly analysed the way they are today, and they didn't intrude upon our philosophy of 'normal' parenting the way they do today.  Today, capitalising on criminal parenting means money, and nightmarish tales are always in our faces.  Ghastly stories are trumpeted and exploited at top volume by the news media, the shock jocks and millionaire media mogul cynics, whose main concerns are profits and ratings. 

We have been so over-exposed to these horrors that we jump at shadows, flinching when an exhausted mother smacks a child's leg in the supermarket (when the child has just tried to sneak yet another sugary and unaffordable item in the trolley), immediately doubting the emotional capacities of a father who shouts at his son (who's just smashed a cricket ball into dad's windscreen after being told to play elsewhere).

As a result of this hypersensitivity to perceived signs of abuse, somewhere along the way we've fallen over backwards again.  Over-exposure and over-analysis has translated into a feeling that all children- even very young children- should be given an inalienable right of refusal, should be educated from a very young age to exercise that right and should be encouraged to cry foul whenever they feel their rights are being abused in any way.  Enter the irresponsible child- who thinks that they can do anything they want and you are in the wrong if you try to stop them- and the permissive parent, who may claim to be raising a free spirit but who is probably so full of guilt and fear that they never (or almost never) say no.  This, I suspect, is the sort of relationship that created the climate for our manipulative 'uni student' to sue his parents three times.

Do children really suffer in any way from being given boundaries?  Does it actually damage a child's ego or limit their creativity to hear the occasional 'no' to something they want to do, and to have that 'no' enforced?

I believe not- in fact, my experiences lead me to think quite the opposite.  Children respond positively to carefully administered direction and sensible limits... but you have to start young, and you have to balance your 'no's with positive experiences so that they understand instinctively that you care about them. 

Let me share a story to illustrate that.

I've worked at a lot of different care centres, all with quite different philosophies and practices.  On this day I was working at a very permissive centre, which faithfully reflected the underlying community attitudes of the area it serviced.  It was rest time, and one little three-year-old girl- we'll call her 'Millie'- was being quite intentionally noisy.  She was taking the blocks out of the shelf next to her, banging them together and looking around for a reaction.  The other teachers were ignoring her, which was the preferred method of discipline, but it was impossible to settle the other children to sleep while her performance continued.

After a short time I'd had enough, and said firmly 'Millie, put the blocks back in the shelf.  It's quiet time.'  She ignored me completely. 

I tried again. 'Millie, look- the other children are trying to sleep. Put the blocks back.'  She ignored me again.

I put on my teacher voice and drew the line in the sand. 'Millie, put the blocks back or I'm coming over to move your bed away from block corner.'  She stopped banging the blocks and looked at me hard. 

'Right, here I come-' The blocks went straight back in the shelf and she lay down on the bed.

No, it wasn't that easy!  The moment I turned away she sat up and pulled out the blocks again. 

So I got up immediately (before she could even bang them), stood her up and moved the bed away from block corner into an area where she couldn't reach anything noisy at all. 

To say she was startled by the consequence of her actions is an understatement- she was deadly quiet for the rest of our sleep time.

So did Millie resent being challenged and disciplined?  Was there any damage caused by me saying no to her?  Let me continue...

After rest time we went outside to play.  Far from resenting me for saying no and meaning it, Millie seemed to have decided I was her hero.  She followed me around all afternoon. 

Aware of the need to balance the equation with some positives, I spent quite a lot of time encouraging her to believe she could climb one of the big rocks in the yard as the big 5-year-olds were doing; at my suggestion she practised on a smaller one first, then I pointed out some footholds and let her go for it on the big one.  Crows of complete delight as she finally managed to scramble up without any help at all! 

She was rapt, I was genuinely delighted with her achievement- and she knew it.  It was the first sense of real relationship I'd had with this child, who I was having considerable difficulty liking (yes, sometimes it's a struggle- see Not feeling the love: when we can't connect with a child).

So please, don't be afraid to say no to your child.  It might just save you from being sued.  It might just enhance your relationship.  But do keep in mind the balance of positive and negative, be prepared to put some time in on the positives whenever you have to set a limit your child doesn't like... and START YOUNG!

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