Media-Smack in the middle of hysteria in the middle of hysteria

Miranda Devine
January 24, 2008

Illustration: Ed Aragon

At the gym one day during the holidays a mother was struggling with a shrieking toddler. The child had worked himself into hysteria and the sounds of his distress gave new meaning to “piercing” for those of us caught in the maelstrom. In the shower at first I thought I was hearing a hurricane ripping off a steel roof. Apart from prompting a flash of admiration for such energy and stamina from so small a set of lungs, the sound was deeply disturbing.

It continued for five or 10 minutes. All over the gym, from the pool to the women’s changing room, concerned gym-goers tiptoed towards the source of the sound to determine the cause of distress, retreating in embarrassment when they saw the mother, sitting passively in the face of such fury.

She seemed calm, if hunkered down, not remonstrating with the child, in fact scarcely acknowledging his drama, just unemotionally absorbing the noise at close quarters. Perhaps she was deaf.

On top of the incivility of subjecting others to the noise in a not particularly child-friendly establishment, her zen-like refusal to even try to dim the din was annoying.

Everyone else was powerless to control the volume and was waiting for her to do her job, or at least to remove the child to a place where his noise would not be amplified by porcelain-tiled walls.

What was her plan? Was she so exhausted by a difficult child that she could only cope by remaining silent? Or was she merely exercising a modern form of permissive parenting?

It was obviously not what the child wanted – he needed a reaction to all his effort, though after a while he was beyond reason. It can’t have been what the mother wanted, and it sure wasn’t what anyone else in the gym wanted.

People wanted to reach out and help the wretched woman and her poor child, but were at a loss.

How do you tell a women her child needs a good smack?

Remembering the bossy older women who used to exasperate my friends and me when our children were younger by offering unsolicited snarky advice about our tots’ perceived public misbehaviour, I hesitate before casting judgment on other mothers. We even started a joke support group, “Mothers Against Meanies” (MAM) to get the nosey-parkers to back off.

But, seriously, what happened to discipline? Little in the history of parenting has ever proven as effective as a sharp rebuke or, dare I say it, a swift smack on the bottom that acts as an instant “reboot” of a naughty child.

Some people will never agree with corporal punishment. But that doesn’t mean they can’t or shouldn’t control their kids; it’s just more complicated. For their own sake as much as for the children, not to mention the rest of society, they should at least try.

In the ABC-TV program The Madness of Modern Families, on Tuesday night, a British father described meal-times in his child-led household: “There’s been times when we’ve cooked a healthy meal and plonked it down in front of the children and then seen them eat nothing and worry they’re going to wake up in the night, and think it’d be easier to cook them another meal now.”

That’s not good parenting. It’s a recipe for monsters.

This reluctance by well-meaning modern parents to enforce fair, firm, quickly administered discipline is creating havoc with the generation into which infamous Melbourne party planner Corey Delaney (aka Worthington) was born.

The 16-year-old with the pierced nipple and trademark yellow sunglasses achieved international notoriety when he threw an out-of-control party while his parents were away, attracting 500 teenagers and the police riot squad.

He doesn’t seem a bad kid, and was at least trying to sweep up the mess the next day when TV cameras descended. His refusal to be intimidated by A Current Affair’s school-marmish interviewer was commendable. It’s his ineffectual parents, Jo and Steve Delaney, who are the problem, with their posturing TV interviews, “open letter” to newspapers and utter inability to command their son’s respect.

“He’s devastated,” Jo Delaney told one program while her son was on a rival channel boasting about “the best party ever”.

Public opinion on the internet advocates a firmer approach. The website, has an image of the spotty, barechested teen, and a hand you can click to administer the punishment. By yesterday afternoon almost 650,000 people had indulged.

The Delaneys seem typical of a subset of laissez-faire baby-boomer parents who haven’t learned to say “No”.

Data from a new NSW Government parent helpline shows a crisis in parental confidence, with 20 per cent of calls from parents tearing out their hair about how to discipline their unruly offspring. And a study last year from the Vanderbilt Medical Centre in Tennessee found a third of parents believe their discipline methods are “never” or only “sometimes effective”.

Perhaps working parents try to outsource discipline and training of their children to nannies and other carers in the mistaken hope that family time will be calm. Perhaps step-parents are reluctant to mete out discipline, concerned the child will not recognise their authority.

Meanwhile the anti-smacking lobby is flexing its muscles, with the Australian Childhood Foundation pushing for a national law, following New Zealand, to prevent parents using corporal punishment. The Federal Government last year even gave them $2.5 million to fund a campaign warning parents not to smack.

The idea is that banning smacking in the home reduces violence in society. But common sense and the facts say the opposite, that lax parenting leads to more aggressive children.

The Norwegian bullying expert and psychology professor Dan Olweus has shown that “overly permissive parenting” actually creates bullies. No one wants to go back to an era in which children were seen and not heard, or belted when they were bad. There is plenty to admire about today’s parents, who are involved and interested in their children’s lives, and treat them with respect.

But there is a sensible middle ground, in which a firm “No”, even the odd smack, or raised voice, does not make you a bad parent. At the very least, if permissive parents want to give their misbehaving children free rein, could they please do it in the privacy of their own homes. Preferably with soundproofing.


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