We’re parents. We’ve got young children who we love and adore. We share this wonderful thing called parenting. And you know what? Because of that, we’re terrible, awful people.
I can see you’re a bit annoyed by this revelation already, but there’s no point denying it. Just stop and think for a moment how truly awful we are. And it’s our own fault, really. We made the decision to do this parenting thing, and as far as everyone else is concerned (whether they have kids or not), we’ve become pretty dreadful. If you don’t know this by now, you really should.
Just consider what we do: We have deliberately upset the natural equilibrium of our own lives by bringing into the world, and taken responsibility for one or more screaming creatures. These things disrupt our lives and everyone’s around us. We have changed our routines to suit, of course. But we expect others around us to act accordingly. Some of us demand that our own parents (who have already put in decades of servitude to ourselves) take care of our children when it’s only convenient to us, sometimes for no reward.
We expect our friends to accommodate us now that we have children, and to excuse our weird demands: “Oooh, we can’t stay too late…”, “Do you mind if we use your toilet…?”, “She can’t have that, we only allow chocolate at weekends…”, “Sorry for her being sick all over your rug, she’s not used to red meat…”, “We’d prefer it if you didn’t watch Ben 10, she gets over-excited. Can she watch Waybuloo instead…?”, “Please don’t swear…” and so on. If they have kids themselves, then there’s usually a lot of sympathy and understanding.
Our friends who don’t have children get treated appallingly. Their adult-only homes suddenly have to conform to a small, sticky child for a few hours if we visit. If our children don’t behave themselves in such places – and they generally don’t because they find themselves in unfamiliar, sometimes exciting new places with other grownups – we don’t admonish them properly for it. And we suddenly foist all sorts of bodily fluids, allergies, demands, noises and smells on dear people who have grown accustomed to no bodily fluids other than their own for many years.
Despicably, we treat our friends who don’t have children with a patronising mixture of pity and contempt (yes you have; you’ve done it to some poor childless friend at some point, don’t lie). We’re not very good at switching that “parent mode” off sometimes. Most of the time, our decent wonderful friends understand this, and indulge us, even if they feel excluded from the Parent Club. Every so often, it irritates them. Sometimes they tell us so. Sometimes we deserve to be told.
We treat other parents as our rival. We engage in passive/aggressive conversations where we each try and outdo each other on how bloody marvellous we are.
Ever sat in on a group of parents discussing the gynaecological details of childbirth? It’s like listening to a description of an early David Cronenberg movie. Ever sat in on a bunch of mums trying to outdo each other on their breastfeeding history? Ever sat in on a bunch of dads bleating on about how they’ve DIY’d their home to the extent they’ve put up some coathooks at a height which is easy for child access? It’s laughable how pleased we are with ourselves.
Everywhere we go, we expect special treatment from the rest of society: Specially created books and films purely for our own children, discounts for entertainment, discounts for tourist attractions, discounts on holidays, expensive facilities at theme parks and zoos for our own use, special areas of public ground set aside purely for the entertainment of children, modifications to our vehicles, modifications to public vehicles, the expectation that other people put up with our noise, mess and smell on planes and trains and boats and buses. We require help and assistance, and above all, courtesy in every public place.
We insist that strangers do not lean over and chastise our children when our children are being their most publicly obnoxious. We tell them to mind their own business, oblivious to the fact we’ve impinged on their own business and serenity. Above all, we expect strangers to not hit, abduct, or do unspeakable things to our children. The massive overwhelming majority of strangers do not do these things, and yet we return this accorded respect by treating all strangers (and even people we know) with suspicion and fear, to the point that we do not allow our children to interact with anyone outside of their family group.
We keep our children indoors, away from other children, except in strictly controlled environments. We teach them to fear and suspect everything: traffic, the internet, the news, adverts, soap operas, teachers, figures of authority, failure, the naughty corner, falling over, heights, hard ground, rain, wind, snow, pain, bad language, and confrontation. Woe betide anyone who shouts at our kids (despite the fact that behind closed doors we yell, shout at, intimidate and force our children into being polite little conformatoids), even if our kids richly deserve it.
Our children grow up scared of the outside world, wary of strangers, devastated by any criticism, and easily upset by raised voices. We keep telling ourselves, each other, and the whole world, that we can’t wrap our kids in cotton wool, yet we hermetically seal them indoors, and raise them in a greenhouse environment.
We have become totally selfish to the needs of our offspring: We force the people who look after our kids into treating them with reverence. We ring up schools and nurseries at the slightest hint of bad news. We bully the teachers who do not favour our child with due respect, and expect them to show consideration to our precious snowflake’s every need. We use nasty, condescending phrases like “We pay your salary!!” to belittle the unimaginably hard job teachers do (why do we fling this in the faces of the teachers? They pay taxes too, you know), and we make unreasonable demands on their jobs. We demand them to provide more: More challenging homework, more letters home, more disciplined, more school trips. And then, when the kids are challenged, disciplined, taken out of school and we get more letters home, we march into the school to complain.
Sometimes we do so with nice smiles on our faces. Sometimes we do so incredibly rudely and aggressively.
We drag our children to boring weddings, church services, shopping trips, museums, country houses, art galleries, family do’s, funerals, and public events, and expect them to behave like adults. We expect them to stand around obediently, talk politely, and not say in a loud voice how bored they are – hang on, aren’t we all about encouraging them to be honest and good at communicating their feelings? – and we prevent them from actually enjoying themselves on their own terms. And then, when they roll around on the floor we either ignore such terrible behaviour to everyone else’s tutting annoyance, or wonder why the kid’s acting up in the first place. Yes, a wedding is a sacred ritual, a wonderful, magical experience which families should share and exult in. They’re also, if you don’t know the context of the event, or how reverent it should be, incredibly dull events where people don’t do anything exciting, but everyone throughout expects you to shut up and sit still while you wear uncomfortable clothes. Imagine what a wedding is to a four year old: Blimey, it’s a tedious day out, innit?
We buy increasingly expensive gewgaws and blingy trinkets. This things are electronic and expensive and, were we in a post-apocalyptic world where our basic survival is paramount, these things would be utterly useless.
We buy them for all the wrong reasons. Partially it’s to shut the kids up, after months of nagging, pre-Christmas or birthdays. Partially, it’s for the benefit of how others see us: “Look at me, I can afford to buy a Shitendo Gamex2000. Not only does it display that I listen to my kids basic desire to remain cool in the eyes of their peers, but also I can demonstrate to other adults, that I’ve done well this year, and got my bonus”. So an expensive entertainment/procrastination device becomes less a declaration of love, but a gag to keep the kid happy, and a smug look to all the other parents on the first day back in January.
We pay to have our children’s talents broadened whether the child wants it or not. Dance lessons, drama clubs, music lessons, junior sports teams, and we leave our children in the care of someone we hope will be professional. And, as always, God help the professional who has the temerity to inflict any sense of discipline on our kid. If the kid comes home and says they feel miserable because coach/teacher/instructor tells them to keep their hands in the right position more, or tells them to practice, or not run around screaming all the time… well, would you march back in and tell the offending instructor off for making the kid do something the kid doesn’t want to do? I have it on very good authority that a lot of parents do exactly that: Bollock a mentor for doing their job properly. Is that good parenting? Is it good to basically tell our kids “don’t bother trying. If you’re made to do something you don’t want to (even though you’d benefit from it), let me know and I’ll go and intimidate, cajole, and bully the person we pay to do a difficult job into doing a completely different job tailored to our whims, according to your feelings”?
Some of these things are essential life skills (swimming lessons, cycling proficiency), some of them definitely are for our own puffed sense of importance (dance, drama, music, art), and some of them are because the child demands it, and we don’t want to deny their precious development.
We treat our kids as though they are the reincarnation of Buddha, delighting in their every utterance, beholding their beauty with endless photos and videos, praising their every endeavour as if it’s an award-worthy performance, and showering them with gifts, tributes and sacrifices. We build little shrines to them on mantelpieces, or on Facebook. Have you ever listened to a parent drone on and on about how wonderful their child is? And have you ever thought “yeah it’s a nice kid… but he’s not a Nobel Prize winner. And probably won’t ever be, not with that father as a role model”? I know I have. And I can assure you, I’ve blithered on and on about my offspring to patient ears many a time. It’s a wonder they haven’t slapped me around my chops and told me to shut the heck up about my blessed loinfruit for a moment.
We’re terrified of our kids as well. Scared of what they’ll be traumatised by. Scared of their honesty and their perceptiveness. Scared they might be ill one day or have some sort of accident. Frightened out of our wits that our children – if they are imaginative or creative – might actually have trouble fitting in with their peers. So we teach them to be individuals, and be imaginative, and creative, and assertive, and be true to themselves… but not too true to themselves, not be weird or uncompromising, just be marginally different so that there is some distinctiveness and personality there.
We’re scared they’ll eat the wrong thing, or grow up the wrong shape, or be unhappy with what they’ve got. We are frightened that one day, they’ll turn to us and say “You never gave me…” and so we give and give and give; and yet I promise you, they’ll still find some way to resent us, or show us no gratitude when they hit puberty. We’re scared that they might get bored (even though boredom can be immensely stimulating and encouraging to creativity, and getting off your lazy backside and doing, discovering, or enjoying something new), so we organise free time as if at any moment OFSTED are coming in to assess us. Say, would you like to be assessed as a parent, and have your parenting applied to a set of arbitrary standards?
I bet you’re afraid you’ll be found out – because we’re all terrified someone will say “you’re lacking as a parent” (ironically, we’re also petrified of insecurity – our own, as well as our kids’ feelings of inadequacy). And we’re so terrified that our children will have a miserable time at school (probably because we have fairly conflicted feelings about our own experiences in education), that we attack anyone who criticises our kids, or force their teachers to do things OUR WAY, or anyone doesn’t treat our beloved offspring with the respect we think they deserve.
Above all, we’re petrified that our kids will eventually reveal us to be incompetent, awful parents – with their behaviour, their language skills, their development, or through just telling someone “my Daddy is horrible to me because…”. And we’re really, really scared that our children will turn out to be just as flawed, just as capable of failure as we are.
We’re constantly being lied to, by the media, by pop songs, and by companies who rely on us to invest in their idea of happiness: Mattel, Disney, EA Games, Sony, Universal, etc. They make millions out of sending us the message that we should not listen to what people think of us, and yet when you’re a parent, it seems all we ever do is worry about what others may think. Sometimes, I’m even scared of raising my voice in anger in my own home in case the neighbours – who I imagine live their entire lives with an ear cocked to listen out for the noises of domestic abuse, child neglect, and excessive sex noise – think less of me. Isn’t that pathetic? As a result, I’m a permanently bottled-up sort of person, scared of what others think, and not really being true to myself. Failed by Disney.
And then we push our kids to do better. To do work when they really don’t want to. To win. To Run Faster. To Jump Higher. To Dance Better. To Beat The Others (the others being the other children and the other children’s parents). To take part. To not worry about winning, but try your best. To not worry about homework but try your best. No pressure, but come on. What we don’t want is our kids to lose, to fail, because it makes us look bad.
We only want our kids to be happy, right? But our quest for their happiness involves a lot of pressure, work, discipline and motivation. It’s fucking exhausting and a lot of stress trying to give our children a happy life.
We’re ruining our kids for the real world; we’re certainly not training them to cope with it. We cosset them and build them up and then when they’re let loose, we wonder why they have crappy relationships, or are unable to articulate their feelings properly, or not make the career progress we’ve always dreamed they would. When they fall down (metaphorically as well as literally), we berate them for not being able to get up, or we just let them wallow. Maybe we should learn to fall down ourselves, and teach our kids that getting up and walking away is the most valuable lesson ever. Maybe we’ve never learned to get ourselves up from a knock – although let’s face it, we all have to at some point, and the first time is always incredibly painful. Maybe we should be the ones who need to learn that falling over is OK in the first place.
Worst of all, we seem to enjoy doing all of this. And if we want to be seen as good parents, we inflict all of these demands on everyone around us, including our own children, because the alternative is to seen as a BAD PARENT, and there’s nothing in this world – nothing – worse than that.
God almighty, we’re awful people.