In an age where children can take their parents and teachers to court if they are subjected to physical castigation such as spanking or a clip around the ear, the adult world is forced to become more inventive in its quest to retain the upper hand over its offspring.
Usually, my mother and father restricted themselves to a good tongue-lashing at different volume settings, most menacing when delivered in a harsh whisper. Only once, as far as I can remember, did my mother slap me and deservedly so! I was supposed to run the bath for my six-year-old sister and thought it funny to fill the tub with scalding water. You can imagine the shock as my screeching sibling exited the cauldron at twice the speed of light.
Today’s environment, in which the next generation is being raised, represents a strange mixture of permissiveness, savagery, insecurity and over-zealous political correctness. Undoubtedly, youngsters face more dangers in their battle to reach that mythical kingdom of adulthood, than others did in the past. Our world has become less predictable, less stable. Going out to play until nightfall, acting out imaginary games, oblivious to our surroundings, is no longer a safe option – the bogeyman has become a reality. As a consequence, the internet, television and playstations have taken over, preventing modern teenagers from developing inter-social skills. School bullying has increased to such an extent that specially set up helplines are permanently engaged. I just wonder if the situation is really as bleak as we are led to believe. Maybe the media focus has merely highlighted age-old problems, which all of us, and our parents, have had to go through.
The latest craze in Norfolk, Kent, is nursery webcams, installed at great cost, which allow parents to monitor their kids over the internet during the day. Apart from ‘Johnny’ suffering swift retribution for stealing ‘Jenny’s’ doll, the scheme sounds like a paedophile computer hacker’s paradise! Not to mention the ‘Big Brother’ syndrome depriving children of their basic human right to privacy at a very young age.
Moving from electronic surveillance at kindergartens into school, political correctness comes into play. In July 2003, children at a West Yorkshire comprehensive were told not to bring lunch-boxes as they were deemed to represent a health and safety risk to teachers. The mind boggles! When I went to school, the only danger to my lunch-box was other boys trying to steal my delicious cold drumsticks. This directive was topped by a government-backed booklet, published in 2000, warning teachers that playing musical chairs encourages aggressive behaviour. ‘Problem-solving’ sessions were a suggested alternative. What hope is there for rugger?!
On the other hand, a recent lack of sporting success has led to a U-turn in government thinking on school sport. The powers-that-be have decided that more emphasis is to be placed on fostering competitiveness, despite conflicting claims that competition ‘damages’ children. I have always had a competitive streak, something I regard as healthy and normal. I certainly don’t feel damaged. It is also something you have or you don’t have, and not an appropriate ‘A’ Level subject. Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, however, wants it to be taught in school. “What competing in sport in childhood does is to teach children how to win and lose, which is not only good for them when they are young, but stands them in good stead for the rest of their lives,” she says. Wonderful!
What bored kids get up to in the absence of such character-building organised activity – or indeed webcams – is amply illustrated by the exploits of French three-year-old twin brothers. The duo disappeared from their home, prompting abduction fears, until resurfacing hours later, stark naked, holding a bedside lamp. It transpired that the boys had broken into a nearby house and gone berserk, emptying out drawers, scribbling on walls and gobbling up vitamin pills. They discarded their clothes after getting covered in shampoo and toothpaste while ransacking the bathroom, squeezing out bottles and tubes. Vandalism in its purest form! The question facing the distraught parents in their, and other cases, of ‘misconduct’ is what to do. Borstal for toddlers? Surely not. Trust the Americans to come up with the answer in the form of a controversial parenting advice book entitled Creative Correction, which is currently sweeping the good old US of A.
If the title sounds ominous, listen to this. Lisa Whelchel, a former actress, born-again Christian and mother of three, advocates ‘spanking’ your child’s tongue with a splash of Tabasco sauce as an ideal punishment for infants who lie or answer back. “It does sting,” she says, “and the memory stays with them, so that the next time they may actually have some self-control and stop before they lie or bite or something like that”.
Spraying water into the face of a toddler who has a tantrum and telling children they can either have their hands held or be pulled along by their hair are other loving pieces of advice offered by the star of the 1980s comedy TV series Facts of Life. Whatever next? Electric cattle prods when the little ones wet themselves?! Whelchel’s book, now in its fifth printing, is a best-seller and she has lectured to tens of thousands of parents on coast-to-coast tours, but her shock, if not shocking, techniques are not going down well with psychologists, paediatricians and child-welfare professionals. Boston family therapist, Dr. Carlton Kendrick, insists: “There is no room for pain and humiliation in disciplining healthy children. I believe that ‘hot saucing’ is a particularly barbarous practice to say the least.” Unfortunately, an online ABC TV poll shows that 35 per cent of voters disagree with him.
I have only two questions. How do Welchel’s children feel about their mother’s draconian methods and how will tomorrow’s generation of Americans deal with its prisoners of war, captured during the next inevitable imperialistic adventure embarked upon to keep American cars on the road?