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The authoritarian mother or father has been replaced by the indulgent parent.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.





A Children’s Year Book

November 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

A Year Book was devised for a class of twenty seven pupils* in the final year of their primary school (July 2012). Each child was allotted a page of the Year Book;  favourite films and books and so on were recorded there. The information had been obtained by way of a questionnaire.

Two difficult questions produced such similar responses that it can only be assumed that the children were influenced by the answers other children gave. Few adults, I imagine, would like to be confronted with either question:

How do you think your friends would describe you?

What three words would describe you best?

On average, three words of description were used to answer the first question. Eighteen children noted ‘funny’ as one of them (ten girls and eight boys). Fifteen of those children also used the word funny in question two.

‘kind’ was the next most popular adjective to appear. Seven children (four girls and three boys) put it down for question one, and three (of those children) for question two. Occurring a few times were the adjectives: fun, friendly, helpful, and caring.

A member of the class, who did not put ‘funny’ in either of his answers, was scornful of many who did: most of the children were not funny. And, no doubt, some of those children did not think they were funny either. They were more concerned with having an answer that was acceptable. To be funny must be perceived as a good quality but not offensively so. No children, for example, noted that they were intelligent or good at English or any academic subject.

It was clear from a few children’s idiosyncratic replies that they had no mind for their  classmates’ answers.

Does fear of their peers’ judgements prevent children from being what they might be? Do children feel, as many adults do, that to belong to a community they must conform?

* all pupils, apart from three who were ten-years-old, were eleven.

Mistress Anne Herbert at home in the Tower of London

October 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Mistress Anne Herbert confidentially addressed a party of school children: she wanted their advice. Her sister Catherine Parr was going to marry the King of England, Henry VIII. Where did his earlier wives go wrong and how could Catherine avoid their mistakes?

Here was teaching outside the classroom, a bit of history coming to life. Catherine of Aragon had been married for about six months to Arthur, Henry’s older brother. When Arthur died, his father, Henry VII, decided to hold on to Catherine (about sixteen) for marriage to Henry (eleven). Some years later, they married. It seems their marriage would have lasted, if there had been a son to succeed Henry. Mistress Anne Herbert told us they had six children—elsewhere I read eight. In any event, only one daughter, Mary, survived.

Henry decided to end the marriage, but the Pope would not agree to an annulment. All the same, Henry divorced Catherine and married Anne Boleyn. The Act of Supremacy in 1534 established Henry VIII as the head of the Church of England.

Catherine’s marriage to Henry lasted twenty four years, Anne’s only three. Henry’s impatience to be rid of her is a little hard to understand. She was found guilty of treason; the charges were believed to be trumped up.  The executioner, poised to decapitate Anne with a swing of his sword, could not bring himself to do it. He heard her commending her soul to God. A witness, understanding his reluctance, created a diversion. Anne, distracted by the noise, turned her head away from the executioner: he was able then to strike the fatal blow.

A number of the children were not interested in Henry’s misdeeds. One boy strolled a little aloof from the group, his hands in his pockets, and seemed oblivious of his surroundings. Other children (mostly boys) drifted to the perimeter of the group and looked around or chatted to each other. One boy spotted a discarded chicken bone and pointed it out to other children. They were more entertained by that remnant of lunch from a nearby fried food place than Mistress Anne Herbert’s talk.

But Mistress Anne Herbert engaged even the most inattentive child when she asked them to warn her if any courtiers were about. If she were caught gossiping about Henry VIII’s wives, things would go badly for her. The children were keen to alert her to the presence of any courtier (any person in medieval clothes) strolling among the tourists. This looking-out for courtiers became an end in itself. The inattentive boys (more boys than girls were inattentive), although keen to play this game, were not keen to listen to another word about Henry’s six wives.

Jane Seymour (Henry’s third wife) died shortly after the birth of Edward VI. She appeared, after a few faux pas, to have been happily married to him. She was outspoken but Henry VIII nipped this tendency in the bud with: ‘Remember Anne!’

We heard some not so well-known facts: Anne Boleyn did not have a sixth finger. This was a fabrication of a later time.  Henry VIII  never called Anne of Cleeves, ‘the Mare of Flanders’. We heard how things went wrong between them: Anne of Cleeves, in preparation for her marriage to Henry VIII (sight unseen), had been installed in some royal apartments. She was gazing out one of the windows when a man, unannounced, entered her room. Dressed in Lincoln green, he disported himself, presumably in the manner of Robin Hood. Anne was not alarmed; she gave him a sidelong look and then resumed looking out the window.

The eccentric man was none other than Henry VIII who—we learnt—loved to dress up. How he expected Anne of Cleeves to be familiar with the Merrie Men, we don’t know. Her indifference to his little pantomime put him into a bad mood. It was all off with Anne of Cleeves. But it couldn’t be all off: the wedding preparations were too far advanced. Ostensibly, it was less a bother to marry her, and—six months later—divorce her.

Where did Catherine Howard go wrong? Births of female children were not recorded. Catherine might have been fifteen or seventeen when she married the fifty-year-old Henry. She may have had an affair with the most handsome man in court. She was flighty; she was related to Anne Boleyn. Flighty though she was, the night before her execution she asked for a block. She practised walking blindfold to the block, bending down, and placing her head on it. Was she seventeen? Was she nineteen?

The school children’s advice to Catherine Parr: produce an heir (Catherine of Aragon’s sons had died); don’t be outspoken (as Anne Boleyn had been); enjoy what Henry VIII enjoys (as Anne of Cleeves so evidently had not); don’t have boyfriends (as Catherine Howard may have had).

And indeed Catherine Parr did see that her true love Thomas Seymour (Jane’s brother) was sent from Court.

The children were studying Henry VIII in school; they were primed for their trip to the Tower of London. Did the children benefit from this guided talk? Was education made ‘fun’ for them?  When children turn away, or put up a hood, or fool among themselves, they seem as indifferent to education as they are in the classroom. Do some children just switch off when learning is in the air?

When I was at school, I learnt that the volcano has three phases: active, dormant and moribund. It is certainly hard to know if some children’s interest in learning is dormant or moribund. One might say if the teacher were good enough, she would inspire everyone with a wish to learn. Small children love to learn. That changes when they go to school. Does our system of education stifle their love of learning?

At the end of nearly an hour’s discourse on 23rd October in the year 2012, one child asked Mistress Anne Herbert, if she really was Catherine’s sister. No child cried out to disparage such a notion. It is something for the sense of wonder of nine-year-old children to remain intact. Was this young lady in medieval clothes Mistress Anne Herbert* from 1553?

* I cannot vouch for the historical accuracy of Mistress Anne Herbert’s conversation. I found both textbook and online accounts of the Tudors to be at variance with each other.

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