I know full well how good parents behave. They are consistent in their dealings with their children, set clear parameters for the children’s behaviour and always take appropriate disciplinary action when their children step over the line of acceptable behaviour.
I have few illusions about my own performance as a parent. I admit that I was a hopeless parent and that I just did not have the right personality to be anything but mediocre in a parenting role.
In our household, as our children were growing up, there was a lot of inconsistency in how we dealt with them as parents and far too little discipline. Gill, my wife, who was intent on setting and enforcing the rules of appropriate behaviour, was constantly frustrated at what she viewed, with good reason, as my unsupportive if not downright undermining actions.
My problem is that I am a hopeless softie who lacks the toughness required to be a good parent. I would say, for instance, “If you do that again I’ll ground you tomorrow,” but the next day I would feel so sorry for the child that I would not enforce the threatened punishment. This probably stems from my own upbringing by loving but super-strict parents who never gave me any leeway when I was growing up. I knew the right thing to do as a parent, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
My daughter Laura could twist me around her little finger ever since she was quite small. When she was at primary school I would take her with me to the Greensborough Shopping Centre, where she would tell me out of the blue, for instance, that she had run out of jeans and needed a new pair.
“Are you sure?” I would ask. “I thought you had a few pairs of jeans.”
“No,” Laura would tell me firmly. “They’re all very old and daggy and I need a new pair. The other girls will laugh at me if I keep going around in those old jeans that are faded and full of holes.”
I would then buy her a new pair of jeans of her choice, not the cheap Target ones that her mum would have insisted on. As soon as we’d get home and Gill found out about the new jeans she would be outraged and tell me, “Why do you allow yourself to be sucked in by that child? I bought her a new pair of jeans just last week! You spoil her silly and then I always end up looking like the bad cop.”
Laura is a lovable child, but she would never listen to a thing that I told her. Her first car was an old Hyundai which you couldn’t lock or unlock remotely with the key. When she first had her P-plates she rang me one night at 2 a.m. to ask me to bring her spare car key from home, as she was in the city and had locked her keys in her car. Grumbling to myself, I did as she had asked.
“Don’t ever lock your car door by pushing in the locking button on the door,” I advised her when I got to the city. “Always lock your car door with the key. That way you can’t lock your keys in your car.”
Barely a week had gone by when she rang me mid-afternoon from Diamond Creek’s main road, about two kilometres from our house. She had locked her keys in her car again. When I got there, I said to her, “Why don’t you ever listen to me, Laura? I’ve told you that you must always lock your car door with the key.”
Quite matter-of-factly she replied, “When have I ever listened to a thing you’ve told me, Dad?”
I saw a program on television the other night in which they were discussing parenthood. “A parent should never try to be friends with their children,” an expert pronounced. “That is not the parent’s role. The parent is there to set boundaries and to teach the child appropriate behaviour, not to be the child’s friend.”
I thought about this and realised that I had never really cut the mustard as a parent. The day after I told Laura what the fellow on the television had said. “I have to apologise to you,” I told her. “I’ve been a really bad father when you grew up – erratic and inconsistent. And I never disciplined you like a good father should.”
Laura was silent for a little while. Then she smiled that cheeky smile of hers that always melts my heart and said, “That fellow on the television was talking rubbish. You were the best dad that anyone could ever hope for. I used to get away with everything. It was a great way to grow up! And I haven’t turned out too bad, have I?”