Saturday, 16 June 2012

Democracy or Dictatorship?

I'm picking up on a paragraph in my last post that was part of a stream of thought that didn't quite develop in that post. It's been niggling away at me though, and thinking through many conversations with friends and family members over the years, I thought it was worth a shot at trying to put it out there in some kind of cohesive form.

Current international events have many of us watching with some anxiety, as many countries struggle economically, politically and socially. The same colleague with whom I was discussing democracy the other day made some interesting comments about the European economic crisis - pointing out that Greece, Spain and Italy, all of whom are in serious financial crisis, are all countries who have experienced civil war within more recent history. As is usual in these cases, the conflict came about as part of the struggle to overthrow an oppressive regime and replace it with something that would offer people, among other things, freedom of choice about how they lived their lives and how their country was run. We're watching it in Syria now, and the question many of us ask while we watch the escalating violence is, "Who is coming after the previous leaders to take on the task of rebuilding the country, and will they be any better?"

And I'm discussing international politics on this blog, why? Some years ago, and I can't for the life of me think where, I stumbled across something - a book I suspect - where I read something that made its way into discussions with friends at the time who had kids of a similar age to mine. I don't know about those of you who may be reading this, but my generation of parents were saturated with 'how to' books on parenting at an unprecedented level. My mother and godmother had two books that they shared - there were six of us growing up together under the watchful eye of these two quite remarkable women, closely enough that to this day, our relationships are characterised by the kinds of dysfunctional markers common to siblings, rather than of two sets of children belonging to a pair of close friends. One of them was Dick Grantly-Reid's Natural Childbirth - more my mother's book, as my godmother's kids were all adopted, and another one that I know was called Ages and Stages, but I don't know who wrote it. A quick search online just yielded something with the same title, but it's a recent publication. Mum and my godmother referenced the latter book constantly as we were growing up - consulting with each other as they grappled with each new stage - often overlapping a different stage simultaneously with one of the other children, as we were all fairly close in age.

Ultimately, we grew up with a healthy respect for the authority of both these women, and all of us felt we'd grown up with, effectively, two mothers. My home turf was the inner western suburbs in Sydney, and later small town country South Australia. My 'siblings' were on ten acres of land in the foothills of The Blue Mountains - where my end of the family spent countless weekends and school holidays, and my brother and I spent a term - going to school there - when Mum had pneumonia. The rules were very simple, regardless of which mother dished them out or where we were - do what you're told, or there will be trouble. Go anywhere near the dams in the bottom paddock without a grown up (they were very deep and out of sight of the house) and there will be trouble. Ride the horses without permission and supervision, and there will be trouble. Answer back, and there will be trouble... You get the picture. Trouble, in my house meant a large wooden spoon. At my godmother's, it was a large tortoiseshell hairbrush. I have to say, none of us were actually on the receiving end of either of them very much at all - the threat of both was sufficient.

We grew up in a dictatorship. A benign and loving environment, but a dictatorship nevertheless. Food was put in front of us at regular intervals, and we were expected to eat it without complaint. If we chose not to eat it - for whatever reason, and none of them were granted discussion time - then we went hungry. Up at the farm, that wasn't sensible - we were out doors most of the time, happily running wild - within strict parameters - and usually starving through expenditure of huge amounts of energy. Our days ran, roughly, like this: being hauled out of bed and sat at the kitchen table in various states of sleepiness in front of a bowl of cereal (porridge in winter, weet bix in summer) and toast. We were then sent back to make our beds - the big ones helping the little ones - and to get dressed. We were then - after hearing again what we were not to do (or there'd be trouble) - packed off outside with the border collie who accompanied us everywhere and, like Nana in Peter Pan, pulled us away from places we weren't meant to be, and with instructions to stay out of trouble and not show our faces at the door again unless we needed the bathroom or someone was bleeding - until the bread van came with the day's delivery, which we were expected to collect from the box at the end of the driveway and bring to the house. Six hungry ragamuffins then waited at the door until large platefuls of sandwiches were handed out with apples and bananas, and instructions to bring the plates back - and then back to the great outdoors. As soon as darkness began to fall, we were expected back inside, to be lined up and shuttled through a sequence of baths, then pyjamas, dinner and bed. There was no television - my godmother didn't buy one until all her kids had finished school. We had one, but my mother turned it on for us for selected programs of her choice. 

I have to say though - it was a halcyon childhood. We built a raft and sailed it on the home dam (in view of the house and where we swam). Not for very long, it wasn't very good and sank in the middle rather suddenly! There was one horse - a small Australian Stock Horse mare, the only horse we could ride any time, and on whom we were all taught. There was a small patch of natural bush in the paddock beyond the tables and we bashed our way into the middle of that to make a camp; building huts with fallen tree limbs and old feed sacks from the stable (there was trouble over the feed sacks, which we took without permission). We asked for, and received permission - after the mothers had been down and cleared the site properly - to build a proper campfire, and they then gave us a frying pan and sausages for our lunch. We built a corral for Trinket, the horse, so that it was a 'proper' camp, with a horse... The corral was made of leftover binder twine from the bales of hay, strung from bush to bush - that remarkable mare, helped along with generous, regular handfuls of lucerne, never attempted to break out! That one summer holiday, we spent all our time there when the weather was fine, taking our sandwiches there when we didn't have sausages.

In the city, we didn't have as much physical freedom. We could roam the street and have the run of the vacant lot at the top of the street. We built forts in the trees up there and had grand wars. We played rugby league with mismatched teams of boys and girls of all sizes and abilities. We lined up at the top of the hill with a motley collection of bikes, trikes, scooters and billy carts and then raced each other to the end - how none of us wasn't badly injured is beyond me when I look back on it now. As it happens, the afternoon before our belongings were all packed up to transport across the country when we moved interstate, I took my scooter for a last ride - no wild careering down the hill, just a last ride on my street - and took a header over the handle bars down into the footpath below the actual street. I was winded and pretty bashed around and my mother had the lovely task of getting a bruised and scraped nine year old through two days of train travel covered in plasters!

There are many more stories, but the bottom line is that we grew up within a strict set of rules that, in their specifics, were adapted as we grew older, but the spirit of them was unchanged. Our parents were in charge, we did what we were told - or there was trouble. And trouble there was. The wooden spoon and the hairbrush took a back seat to increasingly restrictive consequences as we got older and our parent's perceived sense of the possible dangers we might face rose to greater levels. Did we break the rules - of course we did. Were there consequences - oh, yes! Did they leave us with terrible scars. No, they didn't. There were other things in our childhoods that left all of us with a variety of different issues - but not that one.

By the time I had my kids, there were many, many more books and teaching styles had changed too. A common thrust in the books and at daycare, kindergarten and school was the 'rights' of the child. My kids got taught at a scarily young age that they had rights - at an age when they had scant hope of grasping the reciprocal concept of responsibilities. Kids should have choices - was another - from what they ate for breakfast (even if that meant - theoretically - if you had six kids and they all wanted something different they should have it, or risk them feeling oppressed, which might damage them for life), to what they wore each day (how I LOVED school days and the school uniform!), to what time they got up and went to bed and everything in between. I remember a conversation I had with No.2 son's class teacher once when No.2 was about nine and acting out in class - we were talking about his routine, and this teacher was absolutely gobsmacked when I told him No.2 was in bed with the light out by 7.30. He wanted to know how I achieved that, because his kids were still up and running around until 10-10.30... I told him that I couldn't afford to have either of my kids so worn out and overtired that they were more of a handful than two very bright, healthy boys can be, as well as having no down time myself in the evenings to get things done for the next day - or just to veg out - so it wasn't a matter of how I got it done, because there was no argument. That was bedtime - and any arguments from No. 2 about it - particularly through the week - meant consequences. I had a repertoire of consequences that impacted on them quite effectively. I ran into all sorts of trouble with many of my friends - who, while deploring my fairly draconian methods, were constantly telling me stories where they'd been engaged in a massive, emotionally wearing battle with their children over something that, to my way of thinking, just shouldn't have been an issue.

Democracies, as my colleague so rightly argued, work effectively when all the members of said community are fully aware of both their rights and responsibilities and are committed to contributing their share so that everyone's needs and rights are met, and there is a sustainable balance. Families are small communities - particularly these days, when so few of us live close enough to our extended families to have the support of many generations of hands and experience as we make out way through the maze of parenthood. But, families, particularly nuclear families, are not a group of equals. There are - if we're lucky - two adults, but sometimes one, who have/has a mighty load of responsibilities - financial, emotional, domestic, professional, and countless others. Then there are the kids, who require love, care, time, attention, and countless other time-consuming and energy-demanding things. Is it an equal balance of work on each side? Of course not. Little children can't, nor should, be expected to shoulder adult loads - they have to grow up and learn how to be adults before they can do that. In turn that means that they shouldn't be the ones running the show when it comes to how people's energy is taken up in the daily transactions between family members. We've all seen people we care about being held ransom by a child's behaviour. I've been through it myself - battling as I was in a social environment very different to that of my mother's, attempting to parent old-style.

Despite various choices that I made, that we all make, that weren't perhaps the best ones I could have made that impacted variously for me and the kids, I don't know that many of the issues they both might have to deal with now stem from growing up in an environment where there were rules, consequences when the rules were broken, where they weren't asked constantly what they wanted to do, wear, eat, watch, and where they heard the word 'no' - a lot, sometimes. No.1 son, after watching some of his mates spinning out of control in their mid teens actually thanked me a few years later, for being a dragon. He says that for a lot of those friends, they didn't know where the fences were, there weren't limits around them - consequently, they kept pushing and pushing to find them, and the results weren't always very safe. 

Did I get it all right? Of course not. None of us do. Are there things I wish my parents had done differently? Yes. And do I think that there are things my boys wish I'd done differently? Yes to that too. The thing is, all of us parent the way we do because it's what we have to work with at the time. The choices we make are sometimes based on what we experienced as children - either to do it similarly or to depart radically in another direction. Regardless of those choices, there are times we get it wrong, and that's inevitable. We're dealing with families, people - people who, while we love them, we might not always like very much. That's a messy business sometimes. I think that if we can get our kids to adulthood more or less in one piece and they're capable of looking after themselves and standing on their own two feet, then we've done well. They'll probably have some issues, and some of them might well be with us, but so do we about our parents and our childhoods - because it's part of the human condition. We just tend to focus more on that stuff than generations past, who put more energy into just getting on with stuff... So, don't be afraid to give your inner dragon a voice - rules and limits are reassuring for most kids. It means they know where they are with us, and it gives us a fighting chance of perhaps anticipating roughly where they might attempt to break through so that the learning can happen safely and sustainably - for all of us, parents and children.


  1. Good on you, mate! I raised my kids in the eighties, when all these hippie-spawned, psychobabble, junk science "theories" were becoming mainstream. By what I'm sure is purely coincidence, that's right around the time that violent street gangs began to take over American cities.

    When our twins were in second grade (age 7), and little sis a year behind, they brought home some bright yellow business cards that were emblazoned, "SAFE CARD," and had a phone number for them to call if they were spanked, forced to perform "slave labor," or anything else I might think of that they might find unpleasant.
    "Well," sez I, "let me explain what's going to happen if you call that number. They're going to send two police cars. One will take me to jail. The other will take you to the county orphanage, where at your age, you'll probably live until you finish high school, unless somebody adopts you, into seperate families, you understand, to do all the rotten chores they don't want to do themselves. Meanwhile, after a day or two in jail, I will be brought before a judge, and given a date to report to court for trial. Then I will be released. Since my employer will fire me as soon as he finds out I'm in jail, I won't have anything to do but look for you. You had better find a way to get on the space station before I find you, because this planet is not big enough for you to hide from me!" Never heard the words "safe card" again.

    On the other hand, I always believed that children should be allowed to make some non life-threatening decisions for themselves. Want to try a funny hair style? Okay, it will grow back. Oddball clothes? Sure, you can always change back into what you used to wear. I think a child that has every single decision made for him without his input will wake up one morning an adult, and have no idea that he even can make a decision, never mind what it ought to be. Grant you, they made some stinkers; they still do, but they're all still around and functioning at a decent level, so I guess it worked.

    That's the trouble with parenting: No matter what course you decide to steer, you don't find out whether you made the right choice until about ten years later. It's good to see you offering the benefit of your experience, though. If one person gets one thing right because they read this, it will have been time well spent!

  2. Hey Jack,

    Great comment - and thanks for the positive feedback.

    I don't advocate doing it all for them and never allowing them to m.ake mistakes - that should be happening on an incremental basis, ie. as they can take on more responsibilities for themselves, let them make the decisions in those areas and, inevitably - until they get the hang of it - stuff up. For instance, when my No. 1 started high school and started catching the bus, it was his responsibility to make sure he got out the door on time so he didn't miss it and make himself late for school. If he wasted time or wasn't organised and was late, I didn't drive him. He caught the next bus, was late, and did detention. Wasn't too long before he was getting himself organised the night before and at the bus stop in the morning on time...

    Comes a point - one of my more inspired comebacks to No. 2 when he tried - at 11 - to throw a public tantrum, taunting me as he did so, that people would all think I was a terrible parent - that they're just too big for us to be blamed any more. They are the ones who get targeted by the disapproval, not us - the world expects a grown child/young adult to behave appropriately. So, it's themselves they have to look to after a while. We can only blame our parents for their shortcomings so far - at some point we have to say to ourselves, "Well, that might not have been so great, but now, what am I going to do about my life?" Likewise, as parents, if they can get to that point, and consciously take on responsibility for themselves, then I think we've done OK, even if we didn't get every single little thing right.