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Parenticus Jellyfishicus

By Harald Breiding-Buss

You’ve got to hand it to Parents Inc: they know how to get messages across and make parenting seminars fun. ‘No sweat parenting’ with comedian Pio Terei is the latest instalment of parenting talks by the Auckland firm.

As in previous seminars, the more boring classifications of parenting style are re-branded. The authoritarian parent is called “parenticus seargent-majorcus”, the permissive one “p. jellyfishicus” and the authoritative one, the one we all want to be, “p. backbonicus”.

The talks are mainly aimed at parents of teenagers (and many of the tips given should really not be applied to younger children) and contain a simple and logical approach to parenting that research has shown is working best.

However, there is one area where Pio leads his audience astray, with a throwaway comment: he claims that you can ask any police officer and they will tell you that it is the children of the p. jellyfishicus (or the ‘permissive’ parent) they have most difficulty with. The message here is that it’s better to be too hard than too soft.

I can see why police officers may be drawn to that view – you would not choose a career with the police if you would not believe in law and order, in and out of the home. It is also possible that a lot of the youngsters they pick up off the street have parents at home that don’t care. But it is rather unlikely that those kids have been subject to much permissive parenting.

One thing that stands out when I do parenting courses with youth inmates at prison is that they have all, without exception, experienced heavy physical discipline.

They are emotionally distant from their parents, and their concerns and emotions have most certainly never been listened to much. This is what has hardened them to the point that they ended up in there.

Some of the boys are very aware of this and vow to not repeat this with their own children. But others defend the beatings received at the hands of their parents, saying that they had only been beaten when they deserved it.

How does a kid ‘deserve’ a beating? The answer, unanimous: by showing lack of respect to your parents.

The former group are the ones where their probation officer will most likely tell you there’s hope. But the latter group has learned the lesson too well: they were put behind bars because they applied the teachings of their parents when someone showed them lack of respect.

According to Pio, the authoritarian parent (the Seargent Major) is defined by the words “because I told you so”. And it is those kids I meet in jail, not the ones who got away with everything.

Children who have been parented permissively tend to be miserable and selfish for sure, but you won’t see them joining gangs or becoming pregnant at 14.

A now fairly large body of research on the father-child relationship shows quite convincingly that the largest benefits of involved fatherhood come from emotional closeness to your children, and a parenting style that is responsive rather than directive.

Fathers, more than mothers, influence the ‘psychosocial’ development of their children of both sexes: pro-social behaviour, happiness, altruism and many other such gems are very strongly linked to an emotionally close dad.

I’d hate to think that Pio’s message will convince some that it’s better to maintain an air of control at all times than to ever be seen to be giving in to something your child wants.

One concern that occasionally comes up during a correspondence parenting course we offer to adult inmates is that they think they are too soft on their children. Having been beaten senseless so many times during their own childhood they are worried that they have now swung too far to the other side.

No doubt it is very important to strike the right balance, but I make no apologies for advising them that it is better to be too soft with your kids than to close yourself off from them emotionally.

Next: Agency of Last Resort?

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