Where have all the cross mothers gone?

July 31, 2014 § 2 Comments

Some time in the mid 1970s, I was on a beach, perhaps Brittas Bay in Wicklow, when a mother threatened one of her children in roughly these words, ‘Get dressed quickly or a lion will come and eat you up.’ It is probably the outlandishness of the lie that has caused it to stick in my mind.

Parents do not tell such lies to children any more. No more than they appear to say things like ‘You are making a show of me.’ or ‘Money does not grow on trees.’ These were some stock phrases that parents used in the 1970s. Now they are not to be heard.

Some years ago my own mother commented on the devotion of today’s parents to their children. In her day, children were seen as so much more of a nuisance. There has been a revolution in the behaviour of parents towards their children, at least, in the case of middle-class parents.

The authoritarian mother or father has been replaced by the indulgent parent. When A S Neill founded Summerhill, a progressive school, one of the problems he had to combat was parents’ inclination to repress their children. A S Neill allowed the children great freedom: they could choose what to do, but they could not run riot, and equally they could choose to do nothing: not even to learn to read, as in the case of one boy who was an illiterate seventeen-year-old when he left the school. (But later when the boy found what he wanted to do, he learnt to read and turned out to be a great success.) Now Summerhill is run by AS Neill’s daughter, Zoë Neill Readhead but her aims have changed. In an article* headed ‘Liberal Summerhill tries discipline’ she says ‘permissive parenting is producing a generation of over-indulged children more attentive to televisions and computers in their rooms than playing with fellow pupils.’

All the same, the parent-children relation is not necessarily just one of over-indulgence, there appears to be a ‘Look at Me’ element to it too. The ‘Me’ being the parent not the child. You hurry into the library wanting to quickly return a book but Father is there, dressed perhaps in long shorts, wearing flip flops or sandals or some other footwear that indicates that he is in no hurry. He is being served by the librarian and is talking to or addressing his son, a toddler:  ‘Max would you like to get this out or have we read it already? You loved the one about the bears  . . . .’ Little Max, contrary to his father, is not yet articulate; he takes little notice and wanders away. Father may stroll over to him and bring him back to the counter or raise his voice to continue his monologue but one thing is sure: Father will not turn round and see the four people waiting behind him and bestir himself. Father will take his time and, worse still, our time.

We hurry into the bakery, hoping to fly out with our loaf of wholemeal bread but there is no hope. Mother and Nina are there. ‘You like pink don’t you? Do you want the one with the pink icing? Don’t forget this afternoon, we will be going to little Ian’s birthday party. Do you think he will like the toy we got for him?’  The shop assistant is waiting behind the counter, poised to serve. But she must first hear about Nina’s afternoon.

In another shop, mother is clapping her hand against the outstretched hand of a very small child. Too small, we think, to understand this gesture of jubilation. She is talking very loudly. We are bemused. Have we stumbled into a performance of one kind? One we would never have paid for and certainly do not want to see. We want to do what we came in for: get a photograph taken. That’s, after all, what the shop is for. We don’t wish to view a ‘talkie’ tableau vivant, ‘Wonderful Mother interacting with Child’.  We can be in a hurry all we like: Mother is not. We must once more be the unwilling witnesses to another performance from a ‘model’ mother. Sometimes we can’t help but feel that there is a hidden camera that mother knows of but we don’t: it is one way of accounting for the performance.

What strikes us about the way these parents relate to their children is its ‘unnaturalness’. We find it hard to believe that they go on like this all the time when they are at home without an audience. However self-absorbed these parents appear, we believe they are very conscious of their audience; and are as much talking to their audience as their child: letting the dull old bystanders know what an exciting life they have, or indeed just showing what wonderful parents they are. Must parents always be imposing themselves on their children? What about the ‘benign neglect’ that Rudolf Steiner went in for.

A few years ago in Lismore, Ireland I was transported back over thirty years when a car pulled up, the door opened and a child ran out to go over to the playground, but mother stayed sitting in the car. She did not get out of the car to be with her daughter in the playground. Before me loomed a seventies-style mother.

That it not to say that we want the cross mother back. No, not at all! But sometimes that old astringency might be a welcome relief.  If you want to get a flavour of how parents were in the seventies, you could do no better than to read the children’s picture book, Come Away From The Water, Shirley by John Burningham

*. The Sunday Times, 4 June 2006


The word ‘mother’ is virtually anachronistic, but ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ other than when used as an appellation do not come naturally to me.





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