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Here Comes Treble: No Guarantees

... Many parents, in the absence of knowledge of alternative methods of discipline, allow their children to grow up without any sense of action, reaction and consequence, of the need to control themselves and take responsibility for their own behaviour, both good and bad. Good parenting is not a natural instinct, and to make matters more difficult, each child is different, and so needs to be treated differently within the family....

Isabel Bradley brings excellent advice on how best to instil civilised behaviour in children.

To read more of Isabel's superb columns please click on

Throughout the ages, parents have loved their children, strived to do their best to bring them to adulthood in some semblance of moral and ethical rectitude. There have been almost as many methods of raising children as there have been parents.

From prehistoric times, most of the hard work in caring for our offspring has been done by women, while men have been off hunting, fighting wars and doing battle in boardrooms and other workplaces. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts and older siblings all kept an eye on the little ones, and by emphasizing certain aspects of behaviour while ignoring others, ensured that children conformed to the expectations of the society they were born to.

In mediaeval Europe, children were treated as miniature adults and by the time they were six years old, participated in life as adults. In the case of girls, this included wearing uncomfortable and often unsuitable items such as tightly-tied stays. How uncomfortable those little girls must have been. The boys had to learn to fight and kill, or be apprenticed and work for a living. Many children were sent to abbeys and monasteries, far from their families, to live lives of sacrifice and seclusion. They had no childhood at all, as we see it today.

In those far-off days, infant mortality was so high that parents in the middle and upper classes, understandably, avoided emotionally bonding with their children. Babies were given to wet-nurses to feed and care for, often being sent many miles away from their parents. They were raised by nurses, governesses and tutors. Boys were sent away to school or put to work as apprentices, while girls were taught to sew and sing, to run a household, or be servants in someone else’s, but not to read, write or even imagine a ‘career’. Men barely interacted with their sons and daughters at all before the age of six, and apparently it was deemed irregular and improper to have any feelings for them at all.

Then came the Puritans, and things became even worse. The Puritans believed that children were ‘evil and ignorant beings’ whose natural tendency to be sinful had to be curbed at practically any cost. This is when the concept of children being ‘seen and not heard’ originated.

For most of history, harsh physical punishment of children was the norm and perfectly acceptable, apparently to the point where most of us in modern, Western society, would consider it abuse and report such parents to child welfare organisations.

In many cultures today, corporal punishment of many descriptions is still not only practised, but approved of and expected. In such societies, children who are not beaten for bad behaviour, or banished from home for disobedience, feel that they are not loved or cared for.

In Western culture today, most people agree that physical punishment is unacceptable, at least in theory. However, many adults were on the receiving end of much harsh treatment themselves, ranging from a tap on the hand to beatings with belts, canes and other weapons that distanced parents, teachers and care-givers from the pain they were inflicting. When they become parents, they don’t know how do discipline their children without resorting to physical punishment. Many parents, in the absence of knowledge of alternative methods of discipline, allow their children to grow up without any sense of action, reaction and consequence, of the need to control themselves and take responsibility for their own behaviour, both good and bad. Good parenting is not a natural instinct, and to make matters more difficult, each child is different, and so needs to be treated differently within the family.

However, the best basic guidelines* I have seen for modern parents go something like this:

* Start the way you mean to continue, and continue doing the best you can. Be consistent.

* Establish good behaviour patterns that are easy to maintain.

* Be in control of your own emotions when interacting with your children.

*Parents unite.

* Never lie to your children: if you threaten them, carry out the threat. When you make a promise, keep the promise.

* Reward silence, ignore crying. Don’t give in. It doesn’t actually last as long as it seems.

*Encourage your children to acknowledge their bad behaviour, to take responsibility for it. They should learn to apologise to those they have hurt by misbehaving, and to ask for forgiveness. This develops that uncomfortable emotional muscle, the conscience.

* Once a child apologises, accept the apology, forgive them, love them and continue with normal living.

* When you make mistakes, apologise to your children and seek their forgiveness. They need to know that you are as human as they.

* Teach them about high moral standards and why they are important, and teach your children to be polite.

* Both parents, equally, should reward and punish children where and when appropriate. Never make threats such as, “Just wait until Mom or Dad gets home, then you’ll be in trouble”. The trouble must be dealt with immediately, for everyone’s sake. Avoid turning your spouse into a terrifying monster in your children’s perception.

* Disciplining your children means training them. It cannot be emphasised enough that you should maintain control of your own emotions, particularly when punishing a child. Here are some disciplinary measures to help you train your children to become independent, socially well-functioning adults. In all cases, these measures should be taken immediately so as to demonstrate the connection between behaviour and consequence.

* In a case of bad behaviour, isolate your child so that he is removed from your love and has time to consider his bad behaviour and its consequences. His bedroom, behind a closed door, is an ideal spot. This will also give you time to bring your irritation, annoyance, anger or upset under control.

* Show your disappointment at their naughtiness, that you expected better from them.

* Withhold privileges such as going to play with their friends, riding their bike or visiting the petting farm.

* Reward good behaviour, not as a bribe, but as a spontaneous show of approval. For instance, during a day at the petting farm where they’re behaving beautifully, buy them each an ice-cream and have one yourself: tell them it’s because they’re being so good.

* Physical punishment should be avoided, or used extremely rarely, in the best interests of the child, and not to cause harm or injury, and never executed in anger. A hand smack to the buttocks acts as a shock factor and can be effective to stop uncontrolled behaviour immediately, or a tap on a hand can make a child realise what they’re doing with that hand is unacceptable.

As your children grow older, they spend increasing amounts of time away from you. They go to baby-sitters, nursery school, then school and friends’ homes, university and eventually out into the world. The best you can hope for is that the guidelines you raised them with will help them to live comfortably and be happy in a world where different cultures and values meet and mix, and people query the accepted and the traditional every day.

No matter how parents raise their children, what disciplinary measures they use, those children are individuals from the time they are conceived, and will grow into the adults they are destined to be no matter how much or how little discipline they receive in the process. Caring, hard-working parents sometimes produce lazy, drug-taking socio-paths. The most intelligent, responsible parents can raise adults who can’t hold down a job and end up begging on street corners. Conversely, abusive parents can turn out successful lawyers, doctors, teachers or nurses. There are no guarantees when it comes to raising children.

No matter how your culture dictates that you raise your children, if you love them enough and make your short time with them as parents comfortable and enjoyable for them and yourselves, no-one can ask for more.

Until next time… ‘here comes Treble!’


Excerpt from “History of child-rearing Practices”, author unknown: www.lotsofessays.com/viewpaper/1687138.html.

* Adapted from: “12 tips for Child Rearing”, Ibrahim Bowers, Sound Vision Foundation: http://www.soundvision.com/info/parenting/parent.12%20tips.asp

“The Emotional Life of Nations, Chapter 8: The Evolution of Child Rearing”, Lloyd de Mause: http://www.psychohistory.com/htm/eln08_childrearing.html

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By Isabel Bradley


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