By Judith Woods
Can there be a parent in the country who isn’t chilled to the marrow watching the Myerson family implode so very publicly? The sight of such ordinary middle-class people locked in the sort of internecine warfare more usually associated with The Jeremy Kyle Show is a wake-up call to every mother and father in the land.
The Myersons were plunged into a state of despair and fear when their eldest child Jake’s drug use destabilised family life, throwing out their volatile and violent son in an attempt to safeguard his two younger siblings. In her controversial new book, The Lost Child, Myerson documents the pain, shock and sadness as her domestic life fell so messily apart.
The rights and wrongs of whether Myerson should have published (she has certainly been damned for it) have become something of a side issue. What she has succeeded in doing is lifting the lid on our darkest fear, that through our own well-intentioned but wishy-washy parenting, we are creating a generation of teenage timebombs.
“I wish you weren’t my parents! I want to live with Phoebe’s parents. At least they respect her.”
As the door slams behind my furious six-year-old daughter (yes, that’s six, not 16) I am left wondering what on earth I’m supposed to do next. I have no idea. Should I run after her, rugby-tackle her on the stairs and demand she acquiesce to whatever request I had made – to hang up her coat perhaps, or tidy away her toy farm? Quite possibly, but I haven’t the energy, or, if I’m honest, the will.
I stand as guilty as the next modern parent of believing that benign is best, and if the price to be paid is picking up a few handfuls of 1:32 scale Friesians, then so be it. My daughter is generally a sunny, sweet child, so why make a fuss when she throws an occasional strop? Yet there remains a nagging suspicion that my generation of parents has got the balance wrong and that, far from our reasonable boundaries being adhered to by our hopefully reasonable children, we are in fact in danger of storing up a host of problems in years to come by treating our children so democratically now. Like many parents reading the Myerson story, I wonder: what can I do to avoid a full-scale teenage rebellion? And, just as importantly, am I already too late?
I would never have dreamed of giving cheek to my mother at any age. There was, at the heart of our relationship, a healthy degree of fear on my part, and steely resolve on hers. I knew, instinctively, that her word was final, argument useless and retribution would be swift and biblical if I was disobedient.
Crucially, I was seldom hit (although a slap across the legs wasn’t unheard of); for my generation our parents’ approval was what we craved and its withdrawal was punishment enough. So where did that all go? What happened to the consensus that grown-ups are in charge and children should do as they’re told?
My friends, battling with the issue of discipline, find it almost impossible to impose on their youngsters at any age; the naughty step is all very well, but what the hell do you do when they reach the age where they realise they can just stand up and walk away whenever they like?
No wonder we’re obsessed by supernanny and bossy parenting programmes; our offspring, encouraged by us to be free-thinking, autonomous individuals from the first nappy-change, have so much attitude by the age of 10 that they routinely patronise us and treat us like halfwits. By 15, we’re scared of them.
“My daughter went off the rails by the age of 14, throwing terrible temper tantrums, and screaming abuse at us,” says one mother I know. “We had no idea why she was so angry and we still don’t – she was drinking a bit, but there weren’t any drugs involved, as far as we could tell. It was so bad it got to the stage where we put a lock on our bedroom door, so she couldn’t storm in whenever she felt like it.
“She hit me and attacked her father. When he defended himself, she called the police and said he’d assaulted her. Thank God they could see that wasn’t the case, but it was horrific that she would do that. She moved out at 16 to live with friends in a flat, and is now 19. We’re starting to rebuild a relationship with her but I feel a real sense of bereavement about the time we lost.”
Nowadays I don’t know of a single parent of teenagers who hasn’t been sworn at on a fairly regular basis. Apparently, it’s now regarded as normal. There’s no longer any of the “my house my rules” be-home-by-10-or-else edicts we were brought up with. They have been jettisoned in favour of a peer group-imbued “everybody else does it” laissez-faire ethos, which may make things easier in the short term, but stores up a plethora of horrors in the long run.
The Myersons, remember, were “pretty relaxed” about their son smoking dope initially, their only proviso being that he did not become addicted to tobacco. So when it became an issue, how could they deal with it? He wasn’t used to being told what to do, so he was hardly going to suddenly throw down his spliff, crimson-faced with contrition.
Perhaps because we were ourselves brought up with strict – sometimes overly strict – codes of conduct, as adults we are in grave danger of veering much too far in the opposite direction.
The biggest mistake we can make as parents is to want to be our children’s friends. Yes, they may like us more, their classmates may think we’re cool, (Really? Gosh, isn’t that lovely!) but the truth is that they also see us as weak. And weakness in those who ought to be powerful will always invite contempt.
And so as you shake your head in disapproval and puzzlement as Julie Myerson hauls her dirty linen into your nearest branch of Waterstone’s, pause for a moment and take a long, hard look at your own offspring. Are they respectful and biddable at all times, are they shining beacons of model behaviour thanks to your conscientious, consistent parenting?
Be careful when it comes to casting the first stone. Not all of us seek to cash in by writing a book about rampant children and our terrible family tragedies, but there but for the grace of God, go we all.
Five golden rules for raising children
By Sue Palmer
1 Love. From the moment they’re born and until they’re fully grown, children need to know that their parents really care for them. In the words of developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, “Someone’s got to be crazy about that kid. That’s number one. First, last and always.”
2 Discipline. Children need to learn the ropes of day-to-day family life, how to behave beyond the home, and how to abide by the necessary rules of institutions. Adults must set clear boundaries.
3 Play. Active, imaginative, social play is essential (not sedentary, screen-based entertainment). It is unstructured, preferably outdoors and doesn’t need adult control.
4 Communication. This starts with a 'dance of communication’ between parent and babe-in-arms, usually accompanied by babytalk. As they grow into the teenage years, children need loving adults to talk to them, and opportunities to talk (and listen) to friends during play.
5 Given these four essential foundations, almost every child should be able to take advantage of education, starting with literacy. But this doesn’t need to start too soon. It is generally agreed that, until the age of six or seven, it’s better to prepare the ground for learning through play and opportunities for spoken language.
- 'Detoxing Childhood’ by Sue Palmer (Orion) is available from Telegraph Books for £7.99 plus £0.99p postage and packing. Call 0844 871 1515 or books.telegraph.co.uk