I’m doing a course. I kept crying because I couldn’t get my son to hang his coat on his peg at nursery. So I’m doing a course. What I want to get out of it is either a) I will be able to get my son to hang his coat on his peg, b) I will not cry when my son will not hang his coat on his peg or c) I will not care what his teachers think and just hang his coat on his peg for him. And I tell you this, if I crack this one, I’ll have pretty much cracked everything, so watch out. And there are signs I might be going to crack it. In the past fortnight I have successfully; re-pressurised my boiler ( not a euphemism), dyed my hair without staining my dressing gown, and spent four days with my mother without losing my temper. Global domination and coat/peg/nursery/teacher triumph look tantalizingly within my grasp.
It’s very good this course. It’s in our local community centre, and you get a free crèche space and a free scone and lets face it you don’t a free scone very often these days. It’s about The Solihull approach, which is all about containment and reciprocity. We haven’t gotten to the reciprocity yet, but the containment bit is good. What I take from it is this: when my son is kicking off and won’t hang his coat up it is because he is very angry. What I need to do is stay calm and not take it personally. Not make it about me being a bad mother, or my mother being a bad mother, or about what the teachers think of me. If you are a sensible well-rounded human being this is obvious. If you are me, it is not.
Buts it’s all pretty controversial stuff in some circles.I endlessly find that I am not as progressive as I like to think. I’m all for cuddly creative and playful rearing of children but even I get a bit twitchy at the mention of a Steiner school. Whatever my progressive side thinks in principle there is always a voice inside dreading the day when the tanoy announces that the train on platform seven will be delayed indefinitely because the driver was Montessori educated and he wants to do sandpit today instead.You see we all carry around our pasts to a greater or lesser degree, and while as a mother I have gorged on a diet of super-nanny, naughty steps, positive discipline and Strictly No Smacking Unless Your Child is About To Be Run Over O Something, And Even Then Ideally Not, I live with a constant conflict: somewhere ingrained in me is the belief that my children should just bloody well do as they are told. Not for custard creams. Not for stickers. Not for marbles in a sodding jar. But because mummy says so. I may reject strict parenting methods, but in my head I can’t quite shake the values, or not all the time. My mother floats around at my shoulder, sometime in reality. more often in my imagination, saying ‘you need to be stricter, those children are not ok, you are not ok….’
because that is how thousands, millions of us have been raised. The phenomenal Alice Miller has trudged through centuries of hideous parenting manuals. They paint a bleak picture beginning with J Sulzer, in 1748: who argues that all parenting is about the driving out of wilfulness, by means of scolding and the rod, and this must be attended to in the first year of life. After this comes obedience:
“obedience is so important that all education is actually nothing other than learning how to obey. It is a generally recognised principle that persons of high estate who are destined to rule whole nations must learn the art of governance by way of first learning obedience…It is not very easy , however, to implant obedience in children. It is quite natural for the child’s soul to want to have a will of its own, and things that are not done correctly in the first two years will be difficult to rectify after. One of the advantages of these early years is that then force and compulsion can be used. Over the years, children
forget everything that happened to them in early childhood. If their wills can be broken at this time, they will never remember that they had a will, and for this very reason the severity that is required will not have any serious consequences.”
nasty stuff eh? but while this is an extreme example the same themes emerge over and over again. Miller puts together a list of the rules which inform parenting ethos over generations. how many of these can you recognise from your own upbringing? even if not in massively sinister or upsetting ways?
1, adults are the masters (not the servants!) of the dependant child
2, they determine in godlike fashion what is right and what is wrong
3, the child is held responsible for their anger
4, The parents must always be shielded
5, the child’s life-affirming feelings pose a threat to the autocratic adult
6, the child must be broken as soon as possible
7 all this must happen at an early age, so the child “won’t notice” and therefore not be able to expose the adults
And perhaps even more importantly, how many of these values which are instilled in children do you recognise? there are thankfully only a handful that are familiar to me, but many more are achingly familiar from people I have been exposed to:
1, a feeling of duty produces love
2, Hatred can be done away with by forbidding it
3, Parents deserve respect simply because they are parents
4, children are undeserving of respect simply because they are children
5, obedience makes a child strong
6, a high degree of self-esteem is harmful
7, a low degree of self-esteem makes a person altruistic
8, tenderness (doting) is harmful
9, responding to a child’s needs is wrong
10, severity and coldness are a good preparation for life
11, a pretence of gratitude is better than honest gratitude
12, the way you behave is more important than the way you really are
13, neither parents nor God would survive being offended
14, the body is something dirty and disgusting
15, strong feelings are harmful
16, Parents are creatures free of drives and guilt
16, parents are always right.
Miller argues that because we are brought up feeling these things we are then bury all our anger at our parents and take it out on our own children, desperate to stamp out in them all the things that are ‘wrong’ with ourselves.
what strikes me most of all is that these methods of child-rearing do not actually ultimately produce adults. , To be an adult who holds true to these values is not
to be an adult at all. You cannot really be an adult if you always, always
believe your parents are right, that their actions are beyond reproach, and
that they must be shielded. You certainly can’t expect another adult to want to
have sex with you. You cannot have open, meaningful relationships if you
believe that pretence is more important than reality, that behaving is more
important than being, and that love is a duty. Which is why, I suppose, as Miller reminds us that“the traces left by our childhood accompany us not only in the families of our own we have as adults, they manifest themselves in the very fabric of human society, all the way up to those outsize personalities who (again, for better or worse) have left their imprint on the course of history.” This is why, too, the work Nick Duffell is doing over at Wounded Leaders is so important, and I hope people will listen to it, as I am sure he will have many critics who say it’s all too many cuddles, too much sandpit. Not everyone will be ready to look at their pasts to understand their presents and hopefully transform their futures.
But I like to hope that I will. My name is sally Fraser. I am a person. My son will not hang his coat on his peg and my daughter eats spaghetti with her fingers. But its ok to be them. I am incapable of concentrating long enough to empty the draining board and sometimes I east a whole packet of ham without telling anyone. I honour my father and mother but I disagree with a lot of what they say. I am a deeply flawed human being, An earthen vessel. And its ok to be me.