Cheeky or cherished?

2008-05-03 00:00

“My mother thinks my children are cheeky because they question her instructions and express their own opinions. My father says I’m not bringing them up properly and thinks that ‘all they need is a good hiding to set them straight’.”

“My parents think I let my children get away with too much and don’t punish them enough. The older they get, the less they want to visit their grandparents. It’s hard being caught in the middle between my children and my parents.”

If these comments sound familiar, take heart, you are not alone. There are many others like you standing on the battle lines drawn between the generations on the issue of child discipline.

Because of the sensitivity of this issue, most of the parents and grandparents The Witness spoke to did not want to be identified, so names have been changed. However, it is clear that many local families experience difficulties in this area, particularly when grandparents look after their grandchildren while their parents work.

Sally*, a Hilton grandmother of three, said: “Many modern parents are reluctant to be parents to their children — they want to be friends with them, which does not work. We were the first generation to be friends with our children, but we kept the balance. We were still firm and set boundaries on their behaviour.”

Primarashni*, a mother from Oak Park, said: “There tends to be difficulties when grandparents see their grandchildren often because we discipline our children differently from the way we were disciplined. Also, the older generation often doesn’t have the tolerance and patience to cope with things like the noise young children make.”

Someone who can help to explain this particular clash in the “battle of the generations” is Hilton social worker Jane Markham. She counsels many families and runs parenting courses for new parents. “I’ve had a 100% response from young parents on my courses who say their parents ‘pooh-pooh’ the fact that they are attending parenting classes. These grandparents are very dismissive of modern approaches to child discipline.

“Many grandparents were brought up with a Victorian approach to children — they should be ‘seen and not heard’. Discipline focused on punishing children for not behaving. When they became parents, these people brought up their children, the current generation of parents, in a similar way. They adopted what I call a ‘do as I say and not as I do’ or ‘because I said so’ approach.

“This approach includes confiscation, removal of privileges and various forms of corporal punishment from hidings and ear-twisting to a clout on the nearest available body surface. It denied children the right to defend themselves or their actions, which often left them with feelings of hatred, revenge and defiance rather than teaching them anything constructive about their behaviour.

“The punishments meted out seldom fitted the misdemeanour and were often totally unrelated, making no sense to children. For example, you were running and making a noise in the house, so you weren’t allowed to watch TV that night. Punishment was a quick-fix — easier and quicker for parents to administer, but it was harsh and didn’t have the desired effect at all, which is sad. The negative consequences were not what parents planned or wanted and punishment often led children to behave just as badly — or even worse — on purpose.

“There has been a gradual shift away from punishment, which is what causes conflict between grandparents and parents. The difference between the generations’ approach to bringing up children is the difference between punishment and discipline. There are modern alternatives to punishment that can reduce stress for parents and allow them to be just as firm as previous generations.

“The objective of discipline is to teach children self-discipline, to behave because it’s the right thing to do and not because they are afraid of being punished. This more liberal approach is time consuming and requires more mental effort and ingenuity from parents. The irony is that most parents now do not have the time that their parents had.

“If you want children to internalise particular values or ideas about the way they should behave, any consequences have to be related to their unwanted behaviour and make sense to them. Parents need to be firm from day one, talk to their children about their behaviour and help them to understand and experience its consequences.”

Markham identified another growing trend, which is bringing parents into her counselling rooms. “I see more and more parents who complain that their parents — their children’s grandparents — are swinging to the opposite extreme of punishment. We know that many grandparents spoil their grandchildren, but these grandparents are far too indulgent. They set absolutely no limits on the way their grandchildren behave and allow them to do things their parents don’t. This obviously affects the way the children behave at home, causing conflict between parents and children, as well as between parents and grandparents.”

This was confirmed by Mduduzi Mjwara, a minister in the Hilton Assembly of God Church and father of one, who said he’s come across both types of grandparenting.

“Firstly, where there are grandparents caring for children who have lost their parents, they try not to be too strict because the children have already suffered so much. Then there are grandparents who try to give their grandchildren a good environment to grow up in because they feel the parents are too lenient. These grandparents are stricter than the parents.”

* Penny, a Wembley mother of two said: “We were rarely indulged and grew up knowing what delayed gratification was. Now, my mother totally indulges my oldest son. I worry that he will grow up thinking his every whim will be met immediately.” * Helen, a Hilton mother, said: “My five-year-old son is so used to having his grandparents’ undivided attention and getting his own way that he’s quite impossible with me sometimes. I have a hard time re-establishing some sort of discipline.”

Markham offers advice to parents who are in conflict with their parents over discipline: “Whether your parents think you have no control over your children, or you feel they are too lenient themselves, the approach is the same. Thank your parents for their role in your children’s lives. Communicate your feelings. Explain your approach to discipline and get them on board with the process. Ask them to identify what they can do that suits your approach and stress that you need their help.”

* Not their real names.

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