Very Ordinary Parents


A few years ago, my friend’s daughter was accepted into the OC (Opportunity or Selective Class) in her local public school. In the first week of first term all the parents attended a parent-teacher night in their children’s new classroom.

As the evening wore on, parents asked lots of questions about how many hours homework their children would be getting and what sort of things the teacher would be doing to stimulate the children in class. My friend was sitting at the back of the room and, after some time, grew impatient with this line of questioning.

So she put up her hand and asked a question of her own: how was the teacher going to handle the fact that all the 10-year-olds in her new class were used to coming in the top two or three of their class, and that now only two or three of them could do the same? How did she intend to handle the inevitable blow to the kids’ self-esteem?

The teacher was very relieved by the question, or so she said, because it was the biggest issue she had to deal with at the start of every year. But it was the reaction of the parents that really interested my friend. Despite the fact the teacher was in mid-sentence, they turned and looked at my friend in astonishment. So caught up were they in the reflected glory of the ‘specialness’ of their kids that such a thought had never crossed their minds.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson.

In my last column for New Matilda, I wrote in praise of Australia’s love of ordinariness. In this piece, I want to look at a particular area where we seem to be losing our confidence in the ordinary: the way we are bringing up our kids.

I believe my generation of Australian parents is possibly the worst we’ve ever had. The rightly criticised ‘helicopter parenting’ (so called because the parents hover protectively over children to an obsessive extent, I presume) is a direct result of our new — and if I may use a term I normally hate — unAustralian attitude to parenting.

As another friend of mine (in her 60s) said recently, if a teacher had told her mother she showed signs of having ‘an imagination’ at school, her mother would have expected the school to knock it out of her.

While I am not necessarily recommending a return to those extremes, these days the opposite is true. Now every parent seems to feel his or her kid is ‘special’ in some way. They are either ‘gifted and talented’ (pass me the bucket, please) or are only not little Einsteins because they have learning difficulties that mask their as-yet undiscovered extraordinary abilities.

Public schools and their teachers have been the losers as a result of this projected egotism by parents. It seems that ordinary schools are no longer good enough for our kids. The last thing we want is our kids to sit in the middle of a scruffy classroom with a bunch of ordinary kids from the local neighbourhood. We want the rest of the world to feel about our children the way we do: that they are the most remarkable creatures in the universe.

This attitude is not only delusional but extraordinarily damaging. The purpose of childhood, after all, is to grow up; and the purpose of parenting, from the moment of birth, is to slowly, gradually but inexorably let go of our children.

Tying our children too closely to us, drowning them in our often self-indulgent love, prevents them from getting on with their job.

So why have we lost our sense of the ordinary when it comes to parenting?

First of all, we are having far fewer children and we have much more money to spend on them, possibly the two most important ingredients for bringing up a spoilt (read emotionally crippled) brat.

Secondly: guilt. We are not only indulging our children to the hilt, we are indulging ourselves and we know it. Perhaps we try to make up for our emotional neglect and cowardice by throwing money at our children and fussing about stuff that doesn’t matter. Parents, particularly middle-class ones, have never spent more time and energy fussing over their kids’ diets, and our children have never been fatter.

Thirdly, we are terrified. We worry about the world we have created for our children and, as we no longer have confidence in our own ability to navigate it, we have correspondingly little confidence in our children’s ability to find their way. Our own anxiety about the world causes us to see our children as fragile and vulnerable, when in fact it is ourselves who are feeling out of control.

We keep kids indoors because of a fantasy danger, the abductor, the paedophile, the nasty stranger and thereby make them much more susceptible in the long run to such real dangers as obesity, hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure and heart disease. Doctors already speculate that our kids may be the first generation in history to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.

If, as M Scott Peck says, love is not a feeling but an action, maybe the best thing we could do for our kids is stop indulging our overwhelming feelings of love for our kids and start acting in ways that are more likely to help them in the long run.

At the moment, the world is full of grown children who have never been allowed to be ordinary, who have been protected from failure, hurt and danger to an obsessive extent.

If we could just stop using our kids to manage our own anxiety about the world and start doing our job by judiciously and slowly allowing them to experience reality, to take risks and survive them, then perhaps they would have some chance of successfully completing their own job, and really grow up.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.