Tuesday, 31 July 2012
On compelling and forbidding children
Commenting here recently, somebody expressed interest in how I had been able to forbid my child certain things without creating arguments and tension. This strikes me as such a simple business, that I was at first reluctant to devote a piece to the subject. Assuming that the question was meant seriously though, I shall outline the methods used to ensure that a child does not do or even ask for those things of which you, as parent, disapprove. I will not go into the ethics of the case, merely the mechanics of the process.
My daughter was forbidden to watch television or eat ice cream or sweets. Television was a simple and straightforward matter. Because she did not go to nursery or school, she was unaware that slumping alone in front of a screen, watching cartoons and other rubbish, was the main and preferred leisure activity of many children, and adults too for that matter. We have only a fourteen inch screen, anyway, so it is hardly a prominent feature in the home. She grew up never once seeing her parents watch television. If there was something we wished to see, we recorded it and watched it once she was in bed. For her, the very concept of watching a live broadcast was wholly unknown and so she did not know that she was missing out on anything. She would not even have asked to watch television, because she did not realise that ’watching television’ was an activity in itself.
Films about nature and programmes about science are a valuable learning tool and so I used to tape those and let her watch them with me as a treat. It was invariably a shared activity and she never once sat down alone in front of the television. She enjoyed seeing things like the ’Science in Action’ schools’ programmes and David Attenborough and I used these as a reward, a way that we could unwind together. Because this was how our home was constituted, it did not seem odd to her and she never once asked to ’watch television’. Now that she is home for the summer at the age of eighteen, there are of course no restrictions at all upon what she may or may not do. Since she returned a month ago, she has not once switched on the television set. The virtues of early conditioning!
Ice creams were a slightly different case. I would only let her have one when we visited the seaside in the summer. She never asked for one at any other time, because she knew it would have been pointless.
The way to establish such routines and ensure that the child obeys them unquestioningly is by absolute consistency. If you fall into that all too common habit of intermittent reinforcement, whereby you sometimes give in to your child’s requests for a generally forbidden item or activity; then you are lost. Like a gambler who has once won the jackpot, the child will get into the way of nagging and pleading until you give in. I never once varied these rules when she was small and she accordingly knew that there was no point even raising the subject.
I had supposed that things like this were common knowledge among the more enlightened type of parent, but judging from a few comments here, this is perhaps not always the case. There is no cruelty involved in the thing; the child who grows up without ever watching a television broadcast, will not miss it. She cannot possibly do so; the very concept is unknown to her. We cannot miss what we have never known. The case of ice creams is a little different, as my daughter did see other children enjoying them. She knew though that the rule was as fixed and immutable as that of the Medes and Persians. Even if she felt any longing for such a thing at times other than when we were visiting the seaside; she knew that it was hopeless to ask. I do not think it at all a bad thing for children to learn that there are things that they cannot have, no matter how much they might want them. As God He knows, this is a lesson that they need to learn in life and the sooner the better!