I was driving to work this morning, listening to radio national, as one usually does, musing about my weekend, which had been blissfully, child free. Feeling calm and relaxed, I tuned into life matters, and felt my calm dissolve, completely. Now, I fully expect that what I am about to say will raise some rancor, but I feel compelled to write this, cringing while I do so. The article was about Facebook, at least initially, and the need for parents to monitor their children's use faithfully, to prevent online harassment, as the harassee (although notice how all articles on parenting assume that YOUR child will be bullied, and not one ever discusses what to do if your child is oppressor, not victim). The psychologist/researcher in question suggested that for teenagers, one should 'friend' one's children and monitor their use vigilantly, and for older children, one should download a 'media contract' that will limit the oppressive material downloaded, posted and viewed by the child in question. And these were older teenagers, not littlies.
And it struck me afresh: there is something seriously wrong with the current model of parenting. Nowadays, the word 'parent' seems to be used as a reason to ride rough shod over privacy, schooling, peer interactions, and social media. If we gave the word 'parent' in print the importance and dictatorial rights that it seems to be accorded in the media, it would be 40 point, super bold, flashing, and given a page on its own. The word 'parent' now is no longer a noun to describe one's reproductive status, but rather a justification for behavior that is at best intrusive, and at worst, self righteous and self justifying to an extreme degree. So, I thought I might make a few points.
The first is that I, like many other parents, am not a fan of bullying. Perhaps that might be related to my high school days, when I was relentlessly teased for my sway back and protruding bottom. It is not pleasant to know every year has a different nickname for you, which they shout when you walk around the quadrangle. It is vile to feel 'different' in a way that is pure accident, and beyond any personal control. But in the end, I survived. Even now, I check all my clothes as I buy them to make sure that feature is not accentuated, but now it is from long habit rather than angst. Sometimes I wonder how I survived, ego intact from this devastating experience, but when I (seldom) stop to analyse, I put it down to resilience, another seriously overused word.
I had other sources of esteem - academic achievement, prowess at sport, and writing. I survived, and I went on to better things, perhaps because I had many years of fighting my own battles behind me when the teasing was at its most relentless. The bullies hurt me, but they did not damage me. I had a sense of self that could not be attacked. I worry about the current generation of children for just this reason.
Bullying is harsh, but it builds character. Failing is unpleasant, but necessary. These things hone us and harden us for the knocks and traumas of adulthood. We have, in our overprotective, self-centered, ‘all children are special’ way, spurred on a sense of entitlement without achievement. We have destroyed the importance of coming last. We have over cosseted, overprotected, and over interfered, until our children have no battles left to fight. We all assume that our children will be victims, so we can charge in and fix things, flashing the 'parent' word so that our sense of personal entitlement is assured.
I understand that children are bullied, and sometimes commit suicide, but I feel it my unpleasant duty to state that it ever thus was so. Teenagers sometimes commit suicide. The thought is terrifying, but this is an unpredictable, but certain obstacle in the paths of our children. There is not one shred of evidence that our current culture is preventing teen suicide. What I am seeing now is a concentrated effort to assign blame when a suicide occurs, and the first thing that is blamed is social media and cyber-bullying.
We have no idea how many children are bullied, but it is a fair chance that most children experience bullying at some time or other, and survive. But parents who leap in at the first sign of trouble do two wrong things. The first is that they hinder the development of character. Resilience (the modern day word for character) doesn't spring, full blown from the ether. Like every other skill, it needs to be practiced. Overcoming hurdles and obstacles is now unfashionable, but our children will not develop character if their parents artificially smooth every bump in the path. Rather, they will evolve an expectation that life is simple, that the universe does truly revolve around them, that the purpose of every other person around them is to fulfill their list of needs. I believe we are already seeing this in job and career change statistics, and in divorce rates.
The second thing that occurs when we over-parent our children is the we (and they) lose a sense of proportion, and ability to shrug the minor incidents off, to rationalise that ‘A’ may not like me, but ‘B’ does, and that's fine. So when catastrophic bullying occurs, our children are less likely to actually tell us. And spying on our children via Facebook is reprehensible, anyway, and therefore doesn’t count.
Which brings me to a final point. For every 'victim', there is an oppressor. For every child bullied, there is a bully. I was at a talk recently at my children's school, by an eminent psychologist, about building resilient children. The talk was fascinating, and covered a few of the areas I am discussing today. The post-talk question time was lively, very focused on helping children overcome bullying. I asked: "How do you know whether your child is actually the bully? Everyone here seems to have a victim. Who are the oppressors?" The silence was profound. Parents actually moved away from me, as if I was contagious. Even if our children might be the bullies, they would only do so because they are 'victims'. The speaker looked at me in amazement: "I've never been asked that question before" he said.
Character and moral certainty, these are traits that only develop in the presence of decent examples, followed by opportunities to practice, unsupervised. I have raised my children by setting what I hope are examples of trustworthy behavior that I expect from them, and then actually trusting them to model that behavior. So if I say to them: “I trust you, but I reserve the right to spy on you online”, then I am not really trusting them at all. If I can't trust them, of what value is trustworthiness?
Childhood is a remarkable time to witness, and raising children is a profoundly satisfying process, but we need to keep the aims of childhood in mind. For me, raising children increases my happiness. For my children, childhood is an apprenticeship for adult life. Parenting is that gradual process of letting go, of fostering character and trustworthiness, and of slowly loosening the ties, and watching them leave. The process should be in increments, organic, responsive. But the aims need to be kept firmly in mind. Our job as parents is to raise people who are fit for adulthood, and as any adult will tell you, fitness involves pain.