Monday, May 09, 2005

Catholic Herald 14 April 2005

Home Front by Sarah Johnson

The Archbishop of Canterbury says parents need to grow up: has he been reading this column? If so, I feel I should warn him of the hazards. I have been told off by a reader for being too ready to criticise other parents.
You have to be very careful when you criticise parents. Human beings, on the whole, do not take kindly to having people point out what they are doing wrong, which may be largely why very religious people are so unpopular nowadays. And when human beings do not take kindly to a piece of advice, they stop listening - and then you have lost them.
A large part of newspaper journalism - the column-writing, why-oh-why part of newspaper journalism, is taken up by people creating elaborate moral arguments which justify their own comfortable life choices, choices, they calculate, which are shared by their readers - why it is necessary to get divorced, to send your children to boarding school, to have Botox, to have an abortion, to let a loved ones‘ feeding tube be removed... Column after column devoted to the inner fumblings of anxious Oxbridge graduates desperately trying to convince themselves, and us, that the choices they wanted to make for pure convenience were also the right ones morally. And they call us Catholics Jesuitical!
Criticism of one’s parenting style hurts. I speak as one who still smarts at the memory of one mum who stopped letting her little boy - younger of two - come to play with my 3 year old daughter - middle of three - when she found that Sesame Street on channel 4 was an immoveable feature of our post-prandial routine.
She (who had wall to wall nannies) was of course absolutely right, and I (who had a small baby as well) was being lazy - I suppose, logically, I should have got up an hour earlier every day to do the work and chores which I got done during that blessed hour when I could guarantee that no small fingers would be poking into any places they shouldn’t be poking into, then I would have been free to supervise real-time finger-painting and model-making instead of plonking my daughter in front of the TV. Listen to this anxious Oxbridge graduate desperately trying to justify herself. Ten years on, the dig still rankles and I squirm with fury.
“Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do,“ said Dr Spock, the American child psychologist who set the tone of parenting for the 1970s. Unfortunately, Spock’s advice has been taken to mean that parents have nothing to learn. That you can simply please yourself, do what feels most comfortable and that will be just fine. It hasn’t really worked, has it?
I sense a new mood in the air for parents. The Archbishop has stepped through a window of opportunity during which parents seem unusually open to constructive criticism. Perhaps we have learned from Jamie Oliver, the school dinners hero, that changing the way you do something is not necessarily a complete indictment of everything you have done in the past.
This new mood offers a great new opportunity for the Church to supply young Catholic parents with the education they need - at parish and school level. Never so much have Catholic parents needed the solidarity and support that a Church community supplies. Grandparents laugh at the idea of parenting workshops, structured teaching; but the post Spock years have surely taught us that none of it comes naturally.
It won’t make me vote for them, but I am grateful to Charles and Sarah Kennedy for allowing their son Donald to be born when he was ready, and not a minute before. It would have been very tempting for the Liberal Democrat leader’s wife to book herself in for an elective caesarean to fit in with her husband’s election campaign - celebrity mums have done the same for less pressing reasons. The Sun newspaper has even been lately perpetuating an outrageous falsehood - that a caesarean means a “faster recovery”. Faster than what? A double hip replacement, perhaps.
But the Kennedys didn’t take the safe, technology route - they left nature to take its course, and in so doing learned the first important lesson of parenthood: humility in the face of God’s mysterious ways.

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