It is obvious that people are much more permissive with their children, nowadays, than parents (or teachers, or grandparents, or elders of any kind) used to be. We know this because we see it all around us. And research has now confirmed it.
A quarter of adults – according to a recent survey of 2,000 parents – are “so afraid of upsetting their children” that they shrink from scolding them at all. Three parents in ten confessed to being a “pushover” when it came to disciplining their offspring in any way whatsoever.
More than half of the parents surveyed liked to see themselves as their child’s “friend”, rather than an authoritarian “Victorian” parent-figure.
Almost all respondents said that their own parents had been stricter with them than they are with their children: 93 per cent of the parents today reported that they had grown up “respecting” their elders, and had been subjected to parental discipline, which included smacking, having their “ears boxed”, being sent to bed without supper after a misdemeanour, and, for bad language or impertinence, having their mouths washed out with soap.
The research data is British – carried out by professional pollsters for the Armed Forces Cadet movement – but I’d bet a pound to a Euro that the profile of permissive parenting would be similar in Ireland. There might be a bit more of a structured tradition in this country because Ireland still has more intact families than the U.K., but I’d wager the trend is the same.
The picture of these easy-going parents – some virtually terrified of the disapproval of their own children – has elicited various jeremiads about the evils of permissive parenting. There’s even a theory that binge-drinking among teenagers is all down to over-liberal attitudes by today’s weak-willed parents.
My sympathies, however, are rather with the permissive parents. It’s nice to be nice to your children. It’s sweet to be tolerant.
Who wants to be seen as some kind of Victorian enforcer of morals and manners, like the odious Mr Murdstone in David Copperfield? I wouldn’t.
Tales of miserabilist childhoods in the past are a common genre now and I am not much of a fan: the “poor little me” approach seems woefully overdone. Yet it can hardly be denied that children used to be much more rigorously treated, even in the recent past.
And although my own childhood was not particularly unhappy, I did absolutely hate the constant criticism, nagging, and belittling that routinely went on.
As far as I recall, nobody ever praised you. Adults were always correcting you, giving out to you, and generally putting you down. Your opinions carried no worth – since you had no experience of life, you were not considered to be qualified to hold any opinions, anyway.
Being “precocious” in speech or writing was considered a defect in a child. Being articulate was considered “brattish”, and American kids, unafraid to put themselves forward (particularly in the movies), were thought particularly “brattish”.
The entire project of childhood seemed to be to squash your personality: and the only children who gained adult approval were goody-goody kids who were utter conformists to the adult world.
Beneath the surface, certainly, there was subversion: comic books could be subversive, by iconising bad kids like “Dennis the Menace” (in the modern version, significantly, Dennis’s risky antics are corrected to meet with Health and Safety requirements!)
But altogether, the adult world seemed one long saga of cranky criticism. So I am very glad that children today have a nicer time of it. I feel quite gratified that the boot is now on the other foot, and adults are more afraid of incurring the displeasure and disapproval of children.
I have just one little twinge of concern. The toughness of childhood experience in the past could cause unhappiness: but, speaking for myself, I think it also made us more robust. The world can be a nasty place. People can be horrid. Love and work and relationships and endeavours of all kinds can meet with rejection, disappointment, failure, and verbal abuse, and you have to take these experiences courageously.
Will the children of today, brought up with such respect from their elders, such freedom to do as they choose, such consideration for their feelings and such liberal values be able to face the hardships of living?
For hardships there will be. In later years one sees that those stern elders, murmuring, “you have to be cruel to be kind” were, in their own way, trying to prepare us for the rough seas through which every mortal must navigate in the passage through life. ENDS