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Latham's right - parents need plenty of education and social support

By Peter West - posted Monday, 2 February 2004


Mark Latham has got a lot of people talking about whether we need to educate parents. He has a point. Parents in 2004 need a great deal of support.

Sometimes I start parents' workshops with a question: "My son [daughter] makes me angry when …"

Every parent jumps to answer that one. At a workshop in Parramatta the first answer was "He kicks a football in the house". In Ipswich it was "Scratches his balls in public". Parenting is a tough job, and hugely important. Yet there are no qualifications for parenthood. And most people get no training for it.

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Some years ago I wrote Fathers, Sons and Lovers about how males grow up in a country town. I found that boys were held in check by webs of authority that had six key points. First was fathers. Boys were afraid of fathers and respected their fathers. A father could wallop you behind the house. Equally, he could give a few words of praise that a boy treasured. Fathers were supported by other men in the community - their brothers, friends, mates from the sports they played. Fathers were supported too by churches: everyone I interviewed from a country town belonged to a church. Schools, too, worked with parents to keep children in check. Police supported fathers: the country cop knew the fathers of the town and worked with them to keep children in check. Finally, sport acted to channel children's restless energy, especially that of boys.

Today that web of authority is so much weakened it seems like a long-lost dream. Parents can't provide authoritative parenting. Schools are wary of saying the wrong thing: my teacher-education students are terrified about saying almost anything but the blandest praise about Aborigines or immigrants, for fear that someone might attack them. Schools don't know how to deal with rebellious adolescents.

Only recently the NSW Department of Education decided that children need an ID card so that if found 'jigging' school, they can be made to return to the classroom. Churchmen simply don't have the authority they once had, partly because of disturbing patterns of child abuse. Young people are insolent to the lifesavers I talk to, and disobey their directions. Small boys sometimes sneer at police, or taunt them with comments that are just short of insolent. With many children growing up in a pluralistic society, there is a massive authority gap.

Thus, children look around for confident guidance, and there is little of it. Consequently they buck their parents' authority, asserting their need for stability in their world of wobbly values and an Australian society that encourages gambling, drunkenness and drug-taking. Travel in a train or bus and almost every day you will see children arguing with parents. And the familiar whine "No, Johnny, don't do that.. don't annoy that man.. don't put your hands out the window." To simplify somewhat, parents today talk too much and act too little.

Parents who attend my workshops are afraid to discipline their children. Physical punishment is abhorred. While I would never support physical violence, it is understandable that a small slap might be one way or providing the authoritative parenting that is so much wanted by both parents and children. Of course there are others: sending a child to his or her room; or depriving them of a coveted treat. The point is that parents are so afraid that they give in to their children much of the time - anything to avoid a confrontation, because they lack the confidence to stand their ground.

The exceptions show us what can be done. HSC success has been enjoyed by many Chinese and Korean students. But this is the merest tip of the iceberg. Confucian principles reinforce parental authority: sons should respect their parents; parents have a duty to bring up their children strictly and urge them to learn; people must look after parents in their old age. No wonder Chinese and Korean children are wonderful kids to teach. Reviews of literature on educational research emphasise the same thing: if we want something to happen, we have to work through organisational culture. Chinese families show us how it is done.

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Some parents in my workshops want more support than others. Single mothers have a very difficult task and need particular encouragement and assistance with working miracles in terms of time and energy. Divorced fathers need to concentrate on their children's welfare, rather than sink into depression, lamenting the time they once were able to have with children. But nearly all the parents I talk to want encouragement and support. They want someone to listen to their problems. They want someone to give them creative ideas for dealing with sons who slam doors, grunt or yell. Or daughters who run up telephone bills or burst into tears because of something someone said about their figure.

Adolescence is a difficult time for all of us. Kids are at risk from suicide- young Australian males 16-25 have the third highest suicide rate in the western world. Our kids are often overweight in a time that relentlessly praises physical beauty, strong muscles, curvaceous thighs and flat tummies. So we have to give kids more help by supporting those who can help kids best.

The research I have analysed states strongly that those people are their parents. And so I support Mark Latham's proposal to teach parents to parent.

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This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 28 January 2004.



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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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