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Raising kids without pain and trouble

By Peter West - posted Monday, 30 July 2012


If you are a parent or grandparent you’d be familiar with some of these areas of dispute with kids: When should they get up? When should they go to bed? How to get them to clean their room? What should they eat in a café or restaurant? How do you get them to do their homework?

Jesper Juul, author or Raising Competent Children: a New Way of Developing Relationships with Children (2012) is a Danish writer and family therapist. His book seeks to help us understand why we get into these disputes and help us raise kids more painlessly.

Juul is making a number of points about how we can fully understand kids’ behaviour and respond better to their needs. This story is illuminating: “The father of a violently uncontrollable seven-year-old boy once looked me straight in the eye and asked, with exactly the same kind of despair and defiance in his voice that his son had inherited, ‘Is it really necessary to think so much about what you say to a boy of his age? My parents never damn said anything but ‘NO’ !’” (p.214).

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Juul’s answer was yes, it is necessary to think about how we raise our kids. And how were you raised?

Many baby-boomers would have had experiences similar to mine. We were in a family that saw singing, fun and laughter. We were hit with straps, rulers and canes, both at home and school, sometimes. We were punished for reasons that seemed to us wrong or trivial and when we complained to parents, we were told: “That makes up for the times you didn’t get caught”. After that, when we were accused of wrongdoing, we didn’t bother complaining: it got us nowhere. Of course, boys were hit more than girls, who were soft, delicate creatures, we were told.  We were kissed and hugged sometimes, lectured and read to, and made to go to Mass and other religious events. And we were told “you should go down on your knees every night and thank God you have such wonderful parents”.

When we went to university, we joined our fellow students bemoaning all the terrible things that happened to us going to a Catholic school and having a large Catholic family - in my case, of five kids. Reflecting on similar experiences, some would say we had an easy growing up, without significant war or depression or food shortages to affect us. Others would cite the song from West Side Story - “I’m depraved on account of I was deprived”. Most of us can turn our teenage years into a comedy or a tragedy if the mood inclines us.

Juul says: “The majority of us develop so slowly as human beings that we do not cease to become angry or irritated until long after our children have become adults. Learning to change our perception is difficult and takes time. But there is nothing wrong with taking our time as long as we do not persist with the illusion that the fault lies with our children” (p.214).

Readers will have their own deeply embedded experiences and feelings about their youth. All this makes it hard for us to look in any kind of objective way at child rearing. There must be enormous differences in the ways kids are brought up in a hundred different cultures and countries around the world. Which way is right?

But Juul says violence towards kids is always harmful: “I said, don’t hit your brother!”  Whack!  And the kid is hit by an angry parent. No hard evidence is offered for most of what Juul says, and we have to trust that he knows what he’s talking about. Which of us can say we weren’t damaged by the hitting we received as a child? Children raised with physical punishment expect to raise their children in the same way, with frequent hitting and other punishment, he says.

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These days, hitting is called violence. Instead, it’s more common for Australian parents to put kids in a ‘naughty spot’ for perceived misbehavior. Or lock them in their room for a time.

Juul suggests that it’s better to reason with kids and to try to understand the logic behind their behaviour, than to threaten or punish them. He wants us to let kids take more responsibility for their behaviour. For instance, let kids do just the homework they choose to do, he seems to be saying.

Yet we’ve heard about the Tiger Mother syndrome, in which Asian mothers apparently take a deep interest in their children’s school performance. A friend said there were ten parents who appeared at a Sydney teacher’s door to discuss a spelling mistake in the homework. All the mothers were Asian. And school exam results show marked success for many Asian kids, who apparently are often highly directed. Does this mean that highly directive parenting helps create more successful kids? Do we want our kids to be high achievers, or happy kids going along at their own pace?

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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