Rediscovering the lost art of parenting
by Michael Cook | August 26, 2005
Andrew Mullins is the Australian author of the recently published book Parenting for Character. (He has also written two backgrounders for MercatorNet.) Based on more than 20 years of experience in teaching and in talking with parents, he contends that parents have to rediscover the lost art of character education if they want to raise happy, resilient children who become happy, resilient adults. Mr Mullins is headmaster of Redfield College, in Sydney.
MercatorNet: What do you think of Supernanny? Is her show a lesson in real parenting?
Andrew Mullins: The appeal of the program tends to suggest that it is onto something -- and meeting a need. From what I have seen, it does deal with certain immediate skills of parenting, particularly in the important early years. But Supernanny is more about training, the inculcation of conditioned responses in children, rather than parenting per se.
At Redfield College, we often talk about routines and consistency as the stuff of habits which is the stuff, in turn, of virtues. Much of the common sense training that the television show focuses on is connected with this essential substratum of virtue education. In addition we must do our best to form the moral dimension, the critical judgement, or conscience, of the young person.
Habits do not become virtues unless they are motivated by a loving intention. Dr Don De Marco, a Canadian philosopher, talks of virtues being the means by which we deliver love to others. It is important that we go beyond training children to respond unthinkingly to raising children who act thoughtfully.
MercatorNet: Many good parents fail to pass on their values to their children. The kids take up a different religion, or no religion; they cohabit, do drugs, etc. Why is that?
Andrew Mullins: Sometimes it is because the parents have been weak parents. They have not had enough moral influence on their children because they let other influences have more impact. It is just so important, particularly in these times, for parents to manage the inputs coming into the lives of young people. Children will imitate whoever or whatever they spend time with. And if that whoever or whatever takes an interest in the child personally or if he is admired, the influence will be enormous.
Other parents can fail to show by their faces and by their lives that the values they profess do bring happiness. This is a key insight in the teachings of parenting expert David Isaacs. He argues that we must show children that our values make us happy or else they will lock onto some other formula for happiness: "Mum and Dad, I love you but I have to find something other than your values to bring me happiness in life."
MercatorNet: A generation or two ago parents didn't need to read books on how to raise children. Is it really so much harder these days? Do mums and dads really need to "study" how to be a parent in today's society?
Andrew Mullins: Parenting is definitely harder. In our era, the nuclear family has shrunk and the extended family is practically non-existent. It is much harder now for parents to learn from other parents around them. There is much more competition from the media and peer groups. Children have more freedom of movement and money in their pockets than ever before, and the world is more dangerous for children at a younger age than ever in the past.
In past decades a young person might be making decisions with the potential to change their lives when they reached their mid to late teens. Now children as young as 12 and 13 are having to make decisions not to do drugs, not to binge drink, not to become sexually active. It is a whole new ball game.
But I believe it is not "studying parenting" in itself that is the most important thing. Rather parents must be focused on this beautiful and important life mission. Too many children are raised poorly because their parents did not see parenting as their most important duty. Much has been written about dads who prefer to focus their energies on what they are good at -- too often their work -- to the detriment of their families. More should be written about the tragic blind spot in parenting that is created when couples are breaking apart, when their vision is focused on their own relationship, rather than on a swiftly developing teenager. When parents are determined to be the best parents they can be, then study is natural and necessary.
MercatorNet: Video games, pornography, drugs, sex... What's the biggest danger that kids face today?
Andrew Mullins: In my opinion the greatest danger is the breakdown in the family. When parents are not united children pay the price. The statistics are in my book. When parental affection is lacking all sorts of mischief happens. I quote Barbara Holborow, a retired children's court magistrate in Australia, who says that most of the children in her courtroom lacked affection in their homelife. In his wonderful book How to Really Love Your Teenager American author Ross Campbell insists that most problems amongst teens are solved by addressing the parent-child relationship.
With the breakdown in the family comes the terrifying message that love is no longer for keeps. A cycle is created whereby the future relationships of these children are themselves gravely threatened.
If family life is weak, other factors become decisive influences in the lives of children. When parents are not focusing on family life, then electronic entertainments take over. When parents do not make their homes enjoyable, then children do not bring their friends home and look elsewhere for fun.
A loving family provides a sheltered environment. Parents buy time in this settled and peaceful environment in which to prepare children for future challenges. They are not putting their heads in the sand when they use this time to teach strength of character, virtues and the difference between right and wrong.
As the son of Odysseus proclaimed, "Mother, I know the difference between right and wrong. I am no longer a child." Sadly, too many young adults have never learned to distinguish right from wrong because their families were dysfunctional. Without doubt a child can be raised well in less than ideal circumstances, but it is much harder. It is not really meant to be that hard.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.