Rule 1: you and your child have the same interests
Our monthly column on parenting.
In her new monthly column, Jennie Bristow will send today’s parenting fads and panics to the naughty step. This month she advises parents to turn their backs on both ‘child-centred childrearing’ and ‘Me-time for mums’.
When it comes to the unseemly wrestling match that represents debates about Good Parenting today, two equally bad ideas are squaring up to each other. The first is child-centredness – the notion that everything in your entire life should be organised around your child, and their presumed wants and needs. The second is Me-ism – that good parents retain the right to be selfish, and have a duty to their own sense of selfhood and identity to do things just for themselves. The place for the subversive parent is right in the middle, fending off blows from both sides.
Child-centredness began as a philosophy preached by childcare gurus such as Penelope Leach, author of the bestselling Your Baby and Child, in opposition to advice that preached the importance of routine and discipline in raising a small child. For the child-centred advocates, babies and toddlers knew what was best for them, and the Good Parent was to feed them on demand and never let them cry (as babies, apparently, always cry for a valid reason). It was a Bad Parent indeed who ignored their child’s tantrums, or told them what to do, or attempted to fit the child’s wishes around their own.
These days, child-centredness has become the official orthodoxy, dictating the terms on which everything from daycare for toddlers to high schools should be run. A few months ago my children’s nursery, when I asked why Emma (the two-year-old) kept falling asleep in her buggy on the way home, explained that they had stopped encouraging the toddlers to sleep in the afternoon because the schools inspection body Ofsted objects to ‘mass sleeping’. When it comes to napping, apparently, children know what is best for them and you have to give them the choice. (Of course, if you took the same approach to food, giving them chocolate for every meal instead of organically-grown low-fat stir-fries, you’d probably be done for child abuse.)
In schools, child-centredness means ‘personalised learning’ strategies and ensuring that every subject is fun and directly relevant to students’ interests. From the moment your newborn pops out until the distant point at which he or she might leave home, the official approach to parenting emphasises putting your child at the centre of everything you do, and every decision you make. Which is not only bonkers, à la ‘mass sleeping’, but is based on the lousy idea that parents and children have conflicting interests in the first place.
You may not like leaving your baby to cry. You may well organise your weekends around things your children like doing – after all, going clubbing or contemplating fine art are not activities ideally suited to pre-schoolers. You may ask your kids what they want to wear, eat or do today. This practical accommodation to children’s desires is not child-centredness; it’s just one of the many dynamics of family life.
Child-centredness means presuming that children have needs, desires and interests that are directly opposed to those of their parents – and that it is the parents’ duty, at every turn, to figure out what these are and strive to meet them, regardless of whatever else the parents might want or need to do. This notion of the essential separateness of adults and their children is both artificial, and damaging.
Just think, for a minute, about the daily business of bringing up children. Parents feed them, clothe them, kiss bruised knees and tell well-worn fairytales again and again and again. We get up for them in the middle of the night, think about them throughout the day, buy houses, toys, book holidays, hold down jobs, get them to school, save money for their futures – and this is all the stuff we don’t think about as ‘child-centred’, we just do it. Whose interests are being served here? Not just the children’s, and not just our own. As families, we pursue a winding, muddy path through life that is broadly in line with how we want our life as a family to be. There is no conflict of interest.
But the more the idea that there is a conflict of interest between parents and their children is promoted, the more it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once parents are schooled into thinking that they must be ‘child-centred’, the spontaneous decision-making of everyday family life becomes much more of a tortuous process. ‘It might be fun to go to the beach today’ becomes replaced by ‘It would be good for the children to go to the beach today so that we can spend some quality time with them as a family and compensate for not having seen them all week while we have been working to ensure they have an adequate fund for university’, and all kinds of tensions and resentments come piling in.
Is the beach the best use of this precious time together? What if you do it for the sake of the children and they don’t get the requisite amount of enjoyment / learning / relationship-building out of it? What if you would really rather not go to the beach, but spend the time on your own having a facial and a manicure? It’s not your fault you have to work all week; you’re doing it for them anyway; ungrateful little buggers who can’t understand any of this and what about Me! Me! Me!
And that’s how we arrive at Me-time.
Over the past few years, there has been an apparent backlash to the orthodoxy of child-centredness, which takes the form of the argument: ‘It’s good to be selfish sometimes.’ One-time career women who have turned raising their children into a full-time mission and ambition, and who are still reeling from the shock of finding it all quite stressful, frustrating and bloody hard work, start broadcasting the ‘taboo-breaking’ notion that the Good Parent is one who isn’t afraid to take time out for herself. This becomes the justification for using childcare while they go out to work (which they disapprove of), allowing the kids to watch telly (which they really disapprove of), and leaving the children at the mercy of their grandparents for a few days while they jet off on a mini-break (which makes them deeply uncomfortable, but hey, something has got to give). On another level, it also becomes part of the justification for extra-marital affairs and divorce, but let’s not go there this month.
As it goes, I think that work, childcare, children’s TV and grandparents are all pretty good things, so would never apologise for making full use of any of them. And any parent who has not had daily pangs of desire for ‘Me-time’ must be some kind of saint. Yes, you love your children, but it would be nice to be able to sleep off a hangover, go to the toilet on your own and for longer than 30 seconds, and spend a bit more time contemplating the universe and a bit less time wiping lurid orange stains off the furniture and picking bits of shredded tissue off the floor. But Me-time is not about the odd act of selfishness – it’s a philosophy of selfishness, which preaches that you should stop subordinating yourself to the needs of your children, and put your own desires first.
Me-time is the flipside of child-centredness. It, too, rests on the notion that there is a conflict of interests between parent and child, and demands that this conflict be addressed by taking sides with the beleaguered adult against a tyrannical tot. Just as child-centredness implies that parents are self-centred gits who need to learn to think of their children more than themselves, Me-time implies that parenting is a selfless and unrewarding activity that should allow mothers and fathers (but especially mothers) time off for good behaviour. But it isn’t, and it doesn’t.
Having children has never been a selfless activity, and in an age of women’s equality and contraception, it is surely even less so. People do not decide to have children for the greater good of the world in general – they have them because they want them. While the philosophy of Me-time focuses on what is lost to the individual by having kids – the ability to go out, to focus on one’s career, to be carefree and spontaneous and badly behaved – it ignores the deeper question of what is gained.
When individuals become parents they don’t subsume themselves but extend themselves – in a sense, they become more than what they were before. The act of raising children, loving them, caring for them, setting them on a trajectory through life, is an act of selfhood, and people do it because they sense it is ultimately more rewarding and meaningful than the accomplishments they might make on their own, as individuals. To pretend that this impulse isn’t there, that as a parent you are doing something despite your own interests rather than because of them, is a dishonest conceit. When push comes to shove, nobody forced you to have children, and you would rather lose a limb than be without them.
Like child-centredness, the promotion of the Good-to-be-Selfish Parent is damaging to the core relationships of family life. It assumes a fundamental conflict between adult and child, and foments resentment about the basic aspects of being a parent – that it’s hard work, that it’s for life, that there is no off button or instruction manual. Also like child-centredness, Me-time rests on an infantilised notion of the parent. Child-centredness denies the reality that adults should make decisions based on their instincts and experiences, and counsels instead that they should take their cue from the child. Me-time denies the reality that being a parent is a constant emotional and practical burden, and counsels people to throw tantrums about their desire to escape. Both philosophies denigrate what it means to be a parent, and encourage parents to turn themselves off from the creativity and intensity of the parent-child relationship.
For when it comes to family life, cultivating the relationship between parents and children is the only thing that matters. What books you read your children, what you feed them, how you discipline them, whether you work or don’t work… none of these practical, everyday things is really important, and all families do things differently. What counts is that parents and children see themselves as part of the same life, tied to each other with affection, trust, commitment and experience. Or to put it another way, All You Need Is Love (and stain-remover).
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