Building good citizens

I CAN remember in my senior years, my mother had to go and help my older sister for a couple of weeks who was expecting a baby. I was left to attend school, work part-time, pay the bills, get the groceries, cash cheques and catch cabs. And mind my teenage bother brother.

It was very intimidating and I was pretty stressed for much of the time.

But it was a chance to play adult and suffer few consequences (because Mum would eventually be home to fix up any of my mistakes). Few people my age had had the same experience, so when they moved out of home, they were unsure how to conduct many everyday tasks.

And years later, meeting another young girl, she confessed she too knew very little about the ins and outs of daily adult life when she left home. She thought a how-to guide was a very good idea.

She might be right.

I read very briefly an article on Michael Grose’s book, Thriving: Raising Exceptional Kids with Confidence, Character and Resilience, which talked about the new dynamics of modern parenting. Largely the cotton wool conundrum otherwise known as the “bubble-wrap school of molley-coddling”.

People have fewer children and are predisposed to doing everything for them. It’s easier today to buy a second TV than to teach your children to take turns viewing certain shows and the invaluable lesson that – gasp – they may have to miss out.

In fact a University of Maryland study (US-based so it’s bound to be marginally better here!) showed a couple of years ago that children’s efforts in chores around the home had suffered a “free fall”, dropping 12% since 1991 and a massive 25% since 1981. Kids are catered for, and not necessarily made a functioning part of the household mechanics.

Grose suggested that in larger families, children simply have to do things for themselves, which was the case for me – even into my teenage years, and he recommended raising a small family (two children) with a large family mentality.

The article said that kids are going to school these days not knowing how to tie their shoelaces (that’s what velcro is for, but probably not the point he was trying to make!). I wondered, if kids are sent off into the playground with minimal knowledge, then what will they be like when they stagger out of school into the big, bad world?

Will there really be a market for an Everyday Living Guide For Dummies with lessons on how to use an ATM, the importance of washing whites and colours separate  and where the bin actually goes when you “take it out”?

The Onion (news satire, people) wrote a cracking piece about the inability of one modern man to assimilate into society after years of being reared by parents. Funny yes, but some pieces were dark reminders of some young men, and women, I encountered in my uni years that would shove me before them when confronted by an actual adult requiring communication.

I’m sure Lenore Skenazy has discussed this at length on her Free Range Kids website, since it comes directly under the category: Perils of Protecting your Children. While she’d probably slap me for my incessant “hovering” at the playground, she’d applaud the fact that my three-year-old puts his toys away, feeds the dog and helps to set the table for dinner. And my one-year-old (also dog feeder and toy-picker-uperer) can hold a very engaging conversation with just about anyone (I’m sure she’ll handle the PR for my next book launch).

Sure, some days it’s easier to do things myself than to show an ill-tempered child how to do it. Especially when one’s a perfectionist and believes if they can’t do it right, they shouldn’t try at all. But I got some tidy secondhand advice from my sis-in-law a few weeks ago, who had been told, “don’t think of it as ‘parenting’, it’s training them to be good citizens”.

And that’s a great way to look at it. Forget all the psycho-babble, parents ought to be teaching their kids to be good citizens. It covers everything from being independent enough to tie your own shoelaces (or strap your own velcro) to being confident enough to hold a conversation with a grown-up; from paying your bills on time to being an informed voter.

I would move the ends of the earth for my kids. But they can tie their own shoes. And hopefully they’ll be all the better for it.

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