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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Lessons from The Slap: My child is perfect... or not.

As I wander around the internet reading blogs, advice columns and news articles about bringing up children, I often have cause to stop and cringe. 

Of course, I often have cause to stop in my tracks and say 'AHA!', too.  There is some brilliant parenting advice out there.  But sad to say, there are a lot of dodgy recommendations out there masquerading as good parenting advice. 

I don't mean the sort of 'whack-'em,-silence-'em-and keep-'em-in-line' advice that lacks respect for children as human beings; I scan that, shaking my head, and move on, because some people are just lost and will never see the light.  There's a lot of it on the forums.  I drop in my two cents' worth of rationality, hoping to balance the scales, and move on.

No, I'm talking about the sort of advice that is so fulsomely positive (and I use 'fulsome' with its original definition) that it gives children a false view of the world.  Your child is perfect. Let them follow their desires or you risk stifling their creativity.  Praise everything you can, to boost their self-esteem. That sort of thing.

Poor, confused parents.  Good parenting, like truth, is such a subjective thing. It falls somewhere between 'too much' and 'too little', and nobody will agree on the location of the line.  In fact, people will argue till they're blue in the face about whether the line's over HERE or over THERE. (They can get quite nasty about it, actually.)  Parents who are struggling are not helped by vague, extreme advice.

That's probably why the ABC TV drama 'The Slap', about a 'spoilt' child who is slapped by a non-parental adult at a party, is causing so much debate.

This I do know, without a doubt: life is hard.  You don't always get what you want.  You don't always even get what you need. You do have to consider other people.  And life's big lesson is that you are fallible, and heaven help you if you take too long to learn it.

Anyone want to argue? No?

At this point I have to take particular issue with the sort of positive parenting that insists that every child is perfect.  What absolute rot.  I'm sorry, but just like the rest of us human beings, every child is flawed.

AND you can stop right there, before you scream, object and call me names.  Please let me finish.  It took a lot of courage to write that down- it gave me pause, too- but it IS the truth. (Queue to the left to tell me that the exception is Jesus; I'm talking about OUR children.)

Given that children are not some magical, flawless creation that we all manage to mess up so badly that they end up as flawed adults like us- given that perfection is a flawed concept anyway, and as subjective a concept as 'good parenting'- our job, as parents, is twofold:

-to deal with the flaws in ourselves, instead of visiting them on our children, and

-to help our children learn to deal constructively with the flaws in themselves, and not to learn new ones at our hip.

If you've been watching 'The Slap', or if you've read the book by Christos Tsiolkas, you'll maybe recognise that Rosie's problem with parenting is similarly twofold. Unable to face and deal with her  alcohol abuse and compliance with an abusive relationship, she creates a fantasy 'perfect' relationship with her child into which she can escape; she can feel like a perfect mother to her perfect child, redeemed by perfect devotion- and in the pursuit of that mistaken belief that her child is perfect, she destroys herself and all the relationships around her. 

Hugo, her ruined child who thinks 'wanting' equals 'having', will blame her for everything that's wrong with his life one day- trust me.  And perhaps Harry, who delivers that slap to an out-of-control Hugo and sets off a train of calamitous events, has been brought up just like Hugo- judging by his sexual, economic and business shenanigans, he also believes that 'wanting' is 'having' and that he can do anything he wants without paying any price.

Powerful fiction aside, being blind to our own and our child's flaws is terribly dangerous.  We need to work at keeping our eyes open.  We need to find the line between thinking everything (about them or us) is wonderful, and thinking everything (about them or us) is not good enough.

It helps if we don't judge ourselves.  It helps if we don't judge our kids, or anyone else's kids for that matter. It helps if we've done some work on ourselves before we try to become parents, or if we're humble enough to recognise when we need help or counselling.  It helps if we haven't invested our own ego and ambitions in our children. The line between 'perfect' and 'not good enough' is over HERE, near 'recognition', 'acceptance' and 'proactive response'; it's nowhere near 'uncritical acceptance' or 'ubiquitous praise', it's miles away from 'blame', 'castigation' or 'guilt'. (It's on another PLANET from 'flogging'.)

That, of course, is in the best of all possible worlds. But what do we do when confronted with a situation where someone else's 'perfect' child runs wild?

Slapping Hugo when he tries to hit another kid with a cricket bat doesn't 'fix' Hugo, and it doesn't 'fix' Rosie. Violence isn't an answer. It just relieves our feelings, and then we spend a lot of energy persuading ourselves that it was a justifiable action.

Telling Rosie that Hugo's a 'brat' doesn't change anything- Rosie just goes deeper into her bunker.  Verbal abuse isn't an answer. It just relieves our feelings, and then we spend a lot of energy drumming up support for our point of view.

What would I have done with Hugo instead?

Taken the cricket bat out of his hand before he managed to hit anyone, told him 'I won't let you do that', picked him up and removed him from the backyard and taken him to his mother, kicking and screaming if need be.  Told her quietly and calmly that I wouldn't let Hugo play cricket while he was being violent towards other children. 

(No, Hugo, you aren't perfect, and you can't do anything.  There are boundaries.  It is your parents' job to teach you this, gently and with love.  They have failed you. This, sadly, I could only think.)

Talked to his mother about those boundaries, endured her anger, tried again, offered her a coffee and a shoulder to cry on, been there for her in the long term, listened a lot, modelled better parenting, suggested counselling and AA once I had her trust. 

(No, Rosie, you aren't a perfect mother. There's no such thing. Look in the mirror before you look at your child.  Again, just thinking.)

You can't 'fix' a situation like that in a moment, like you'd swat an annoying fly, and if you try to do so you'll end up in as much hot water as Harry.  Slapping Hugo was reactive, immature and petulant. Harry's supposedly an adult, but he showed the same lack of control as four-year-old Hugo.  He's on the wrong side of the line himself, relieving his feelings by hitting out.

But Rosie's no better; telling Hugo that all the fault was Harry's, tossing blame around, calling the police doesn't set that child up for a better future. Excusing all Hugo's ills by wailing 'he's four years old' doesn't cut it, either.  Hugo needs someone to show him, lovingly, that he's not the one calling the shots, that he doesn't make the rules, that the whole world is not put there for his convenience and whim.

So siding with either adult in this debate is foolish. They are both too deeply flawed to be of any earthly use to a four-year-old child.

In the end, a parent who tells me they have a perfect child will have my attention for all the wrong reasons. A parent who tells me that slapping a child fixes anything in the long term will have my quiet anger and private scorn.  As adults, we need to see that all of us, children included, fall somewhere between 'perfect' and 'brat', that perfection is deeply subjective, and that there are no quick solutions to behaviour problems.

Your child is not perfect, any more than you were perfect as a child.  And if you teach him or her that they can do anything, they are capable of anything, they can have anything, you're setting them up for disillusionment and conflict with the rest of the human race- and more worryingly, deep problems within their soul as they try to traverse life's hurdles armed with a flawed belief system. 

Children who are encouraged to think they are perfect, and able to do and have anything they want, are heading for a series of deep and crushing shocks.  You can't always be there to protect them from that basic truth of life.


  1. I've been reading your blog for a few weeks now Aunt Annie and I think I love you. I wish more people realized that their children are just humans like the rest of us. Then maybe by the time they were in my classes at the University the child would be a little more prepared for real life.

    As much as I love my 3 littles I know that they are not perfect. They & I know that I'm not perfect either by a long shot.

  2. Honey, I've WORKED with ADULTS who weren't prepared for real life. ;D

    If you're finding the right line with your own little ones, well hallelujah, because that's what the world needs- and more to the point, that's what THEY need.

  3. I wish you were in my book club!

  4. Emmie, maybe we need to start an online Book Club! I live too far away from major cities to have access to one...

  5. I'd be all for that! Now that I'm back at work I can't go to my old bookclub anymore! I also live in the middle of nowhere so don't think there is another one in town

  6. Emmie, if you put your email address in the comments (which are all moderated, so I can see your email without publishing it) I'll try to work out how to do this- maybe a book club blog where everyone who joins can be an author? What do you think?


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