Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Romantic Parenting and The Cocktail Party Theory

There's a psychological concept known as the 'cocktail party' theory which holds that you will always pick out your own name in a jumble of otherwise indistinguishable conversational babble. Your brain cuts through the noise and tunes in to what feels important.

Sometimes parenting chatter is like that for me. Blah blah blah BINGO! Something rings so true that it gives me a little shake up. And often it happens right when I need it.

Monday, I had a tough day. Just the usual: sore back, too many errands, weekend recovery, preschooler nuttiness. I had one of those ranty monologues to Keith in bed that you hate yourself for even as they burst forth, but burst forth they must.  It went along these lines...

'OH MY GOD Teddy drove me crazy today, all I'm asking him to do is pick up his toys in his room while I'm in there making the bed and putting the clothes away and it is so hard to get him to do any jobs ever unless I make it into a big game and I don't have time to make every job into a fricken game but I don't want to be so stern to get him to do anything but how can I get him to do anything? So I yelled at him and then I feel like, why? Why do I have to yell before you do anything? I feel terrible. I feel mean. I'm so TIRED. My back hurts. THE HOUSEWORK.'

Repeat, with variations, ad infinitum. It's crazy hard to get small kids to help out, no matter how small the task. At least, it is in my house. I try to enforce the rules, reward the good, ignore the bad, be consistent and firm. But I also do whatever I can to avoid the point where I must  employ the voice we call The Fishwife. And yet, the kids don't take any notice until I do. Keith, either. ( Except then we call it the Fish Husband.)

Yesterday, as I washed up,  I listened to a Life Matters podcast on Radio National. I was half-engaged; one earphone in, one ear tuned to the kids as they squirrelled around. The program was discussing smacking when this fabulous philosopher John Armstrong suddenly started talking, and my little ears pricked up. I put my other earpiece in. Then I got a pen, played him again, and wrote it down.

This is what spoke to me:

There's a romantic conception of childhood in which a child benefits from being unconstrained, and the task of the carer is to make the world so generous and safe that the child's spirit can expand without any kind of artifice or interference. 

And that contrasts with the classical conception of childhood in which... children need order and structure and that our natural condition is one of confusion and selfishness, and the task of bringing up a child is to organise and discipline and structure life, and that is the task of loving the child. That is the way in which you get a good life for your children.

And I think that we have these kind of historical roller-coaster rides when sometimes we're at a very romantic point, and sometimes we're at a very classical point. And right now, we're at the end of a very romantic conception of childhood. 

So interesting.

For me, it made me think about why I had been feeling upset at myself for cracking the whip. Like if I was less tired or more patient I could create a kind of domestic environment where everybody pitched in and did their share without nagging or coercion.

An environment where the moulding of disciplined and domestically capable young people could happen in an atmosphere of calm and creativity, if I just got the balance of rewards charts and positive reinforcement and constant encouragement so perfectly aligned so as to gently nudge the the kids along to some magical, glorious tipping point of internal motivation.

Thus, every threat, every raised voice, every punishment is a failure. As theories go, this one I seem to have developed for myself is something of a shit sandwich. Sort of classical expectations within a romantic framework.  I really do believe in discipline, and I enforce it. I think I just need to stop feeling bad about it. And buckle up. I still, after all,  have one more child to shepherd through the ages two to four.

Today, my back was hurting less, which made life 75% easier, but I also felt myself letting go of the stress about disciplining the T-Bone. I stood firm on the jobs he was required to do, and felt much less emotionally attached to his foot-stomping and wailing about it.  It's not pleasant going through those phases of standing tough as kids pull every trick in their arsenal to avoid doing stuff they don't like. It's tiring. But he needs it, I've been telling myself. It's good.  It will help him be the best person he can be.

Plus, this is the mother he got. Part good, part bad, part fishwife.

Work in progress.


  1. these words are dead on for me right now. what an interesting idea about the different conceptions of childhood- i think i switch between the two several times in a day ;) my sir three is driving me batty with the whining and refusing to do stuff. and the whining. his latest is to look at his dinner, make a face like he's going to vomit and say "ewwww! Disgusting!" thanks champ.

    1. Ted once looked at his dinner and said 'Dog food, mummy.'

      I'll give you dog food.

  2. I console myself with the idea that when I scold Bas in French it sounds almost sophisticated.

    But seriously, I don't know anyone who doesn't resort to their outdoor voice from time to time, even as they cling to romantic ideas about child-rearing. You are remarkably patient for someone dealing with three kids and a sore back. Hang in there, sister.

    1. Nice one Sal, I shall start using French. Immediatement.

  3. I am totes picking up what you are putyingbdown, sista.

    Hallleluia that this romantic crap about children and childhood is coming to an end. Discipline is essential. I'm not saying I'm good at it, but f me, I believe in it. That other idealists stuff is a fantasy.

    Love it.
    Will head to the podcast of that Life Matters show forthwith.

  4. I most especially like "plus, this is the mum that you have".

    But I can't tell whether I like it because it's a defensible, Seligman-esque approach to building skills and resilience in my kids or whether it's just attractive post-hoc rationalisation of my unintentionally inconsistent approach.

    I don't know it matters either.

    Love Sush xoxo

  5. I always think that everyone else is doing a way better job than me. I saw a good friend of mine become exasperated at her child this morning and it made me smile, it made me feel normal.

    I am really inpatient by nature so I was given a child who moves at the pace of molasses for everything. I remind myself that she is here to teach me patience, but its HARD!!

    1. Oh, it is good for the soul to watch somebody else lose it.

  6. Love a good "Conversations" to keep the grey matter ticking over while slogging over the housework and a good lightbulb mumma moment.

    PS Backs and babies aaaaaaaarrgh I feel your pain. Not a great combo. So hard to not be a fishwise when constant agony sucking every last drop of patience out of you. Hope your back improves for you - life so much rosier with a good strong pain free back

    PPS sure you have done it all but PILATES, CHIRO, PHYSIO (and DRUGS) and a lot of time (and fishwifing) got me through mine...but I only had the 2 babies not a third. Couldnt go through it again : (

    Hang in there with your "shit sandwich" (hey maybe that could be offered up for dinner next time you hear a Dog Food comment? That should sort that one out). Bless him x

    1. Thanks Michele; yep, done it all....and true, I think life will get a lot easier when everybody is the next stage bigger. Thanks. x

  7. I think you are completely and utterly right. By disciplining your kids you are making them the best people they can be. There is a lot of talk about "l'enfant roi" in France. The little darlings must be allowed to do, say, have, express anything their innocent little hearts desire. But the tide is turning against such parenting techniques. I think discipline is essential. What kind of greedy egotistical dysfunctional adult are you going to create if you don't teach your kids discipline and how to be mindful of other people and their wants and needs? Sure, creativity, freedom and self-expression are all hugely important but unless you manage to spawn a billionaire recluse then giving the little buggers a few tips on living within the bounds of society, which I think means understanding the benefits of rules and discipline, and cracking the whip when they get lary is the job of any responsible parent. Bx

    1. Thanks Bex. Totally agree. Gosh I do hope I have spawned a billionaire recluse though. Just one. x

  8. It is hard taking care of kids while your attending a party. Nice article.


Thanks for talking to me. I don't got cooties. Oh, except for when I got cooties.