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Kids rule

By Peter West - posted Friday, 20 October 2006

How many parents look at their children today and ask, “where did I go wrong?” Before I answer, let’s take a trip back into the past.

Before the 1970s, I found that children were usually raised strictly. My research was based on a small country town near a railway line. Children of either sex could be smacked: probably boys more than girls. Boys were held in place in many ways. Fathers spoke and their sons quaked: for fathers were respected.

Boys were scared of police; many of the boys I spoke to said they were “kicked up the bum” by a policeman. Other men could tell a boy off, perhaps raise a hand to him, or tell his father of his misdoings. Mothers were always there to keep a tight check on a boys’ tendency to skylark (the modern term is “goof off”).


“Boys worked outside; girls worked inside” was often said to me. But all kids had their chores: feeding horses; moving the cows across to better feed; bringing in the harvest. Girls helped cook, sew, and stayed close to their mums as assistants.

Churches helped keep boys under tight control. All children were wary of teachers, who had a hundred ways of making you learn, whether you wanted to or not. Boys talked of being caught stealing apples by a neighbour. A neighbour would tell the policeman, who might tell the boy’s father when he saw him in the street or the pub. The boy would be sent to the woodshed to wait with his pants around his ankles until his father was ready to come out and whack him.

Thus the community worked together to raise kids. The boys I talked to enjoyed their youth and grew up wanting to be a husband and father.

Kids had to go to school for a specified number of years. If they “wagged” school, they would be liable to be picked up by truant officers and placed in reform school. This was so horrible that it was always an effective threat for any boy or girl tempted to take time off school.

This was not a perfect setup. Children could be punished in error. If I was caned at school in the 1950s for something I didn’t do, I would complain to my parents. They would do nothing. “That makes up for all the times you weren’t caught”, Dad would say. It made me think that life was unfair (and I’m not sure I’ve ever changed that opinion). There was too much room for abuse of many kinds, whether violent or sexual. Many bad things did occur and there was little to stop them. We are still finding out about crimes committed by “holy” priests, brothers and other clergy.

But society did keep kids in check. Parents usually had authority and kids didn’t rule the roost.


Now look at kids today. Travel in a train or a bus and watch children with their parents or grandparents. Children scream their heads off while parents watch helplessly and try to hustle them away from watching bystanders. Almost any day of the week I can see children daring parents to stop their tantrums. Why do we need to have supermarket aisles free of chocolates and lollies? The conclusion is simple: parents are afraid of their children. They are afraid of what they might do. They are scared to hit them and they are scared to discipline them.

It starts early. Dad tells the child, “You can’t play with that, you’re not old enough”. So far, so good. And then he adds “OK?” Once a parent might have said “Turn off the TV and do your homework. Now.” Instead, Mum asks the child to leave the TV and promises a Happy Feast at McGluggs.

As Leonard Sax points out, the parent is afraid of the child disagreeing. Most parents think they can’t smack a child, ever, for any reason. I think we need to rethink this issue carefully, respecting the needs of parents and children. And children sense parents’ fear of being judged, and guilt of not having done enough. They demand their own way, though really they just want to know their limits.

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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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