You are not going out dressed like that!

By Deborah Coddington

Nigel Latta. Photo / Supplied
Nigel Latta. Photo / Supplied

You wouldn't expect a parenting guide to include explicit graphic descriptions of a hardcore porn slide show, exhibited by Scandinavian psychiatrists at a Wisconsin conference on treating sex offenders.

The sex show - gay bondage sex, lesbian sex, gay sex, bondage scenes, "and stuff that seemed to make no sense at all" - magnified into three metre square, high-definition images was used by the therapists as "masturbatory reconditioning". Presumably, if sex offenders watched enough of this, they'd wear themselves out and stop assaulting innocent citizens.

Nigel Latta writes what happened next: "Our small band of quietly amused New Zealanders tried not to giggle as the cloying silence was broken only by pained and uncomfortable shuffling of beige-trousered legs."

What the hell does this have to do with raising daughters? It's Latta's kooky style of introducing Professor Janet Shibley Hyde from Wisconsin, who published a paper in 2005 which showed that despite all the Mars and Venus hype, men and women are more alike than they are different.

In fact, when all the differences were examined, the only major differences between males and females boiled down to the speed and the distance an object is thrown. Boys can throw a ball faster and farther than girls can.

So there, says Latta. Dads needn't be scared of their daughters because really they're just like guys. Except they play with Barbies, like pink, wear high heels, and perhaps talk more. Sometimes in that order.

Latta rages at the way he sees science being misconstrued and thrown at parents to scare them, to sell books with "elaborate loads of poppycock" and make people enormous amounts of money.

Isn't there an irony here? Latta is briefly back in New Zealand publicising this, his fifth parenting guide and right now, according to his publishers, he has 59,000 books "in print" in New Zealand and 20,000 in Australia.

We've not only read Mothers Raising Sons, Before Your Teenagers Drive You Crazy Read This, Before Your Kids Drive You Crazy Read This, How to Have Kids and Stay Sane, we've also watched on television the Politically Incorrect Parenting series. After our interview, he's off to Waiheke Island for a parenting talk, then flying back across the Tasman where he's filming an Australian version of the parenting show for Channel 9.

"Yes," admits this tall, lean Mr Beanish-looking man, whose wicked wit has kept the publishing rep laughing all day, "it's utterly ironic I end up writing parenting books and doing parenting shows on telly, but I think that's [pseudo-science] half the problem. People don't trust their instincts any more.

"They over-complicate it. They look for one true way to raise a child prodigy genius, when my mum and dad's generation had it right, really. Give them the basics, give them room to grow."

Children need to learn to be bored, he says, they must learn that life is all about various people threatening them - the Government if you don't pay your taxes, police if you speed - so if you are smart you learn to recognise credible threats.

"So I think parenting is basically about threatening people much smaller than you, not in a mean way, but as in, 'Well, you have 10 minutes to do that and if you don't, this will happen'."

Punishment is fine because, properly applied, it changes behaviour, but the naughty seat, he says, is "bullshit". Time out doesn't work, kids just don't like being bored so they plan their next lawbreaking trip.

What about ignoring bad behaviour? This brings a good laugh. "Well smashing things or thumping people is fun so if you don't get a reaction, or any punishment, why not keep doing it. I'm all for reinforcing good behaviour, but you have to punish bad behaviour, too.

"The families who understand the balance between punishment and reinforcing stuff seem to have really happy kids because the kids know if you do something wrong, you get punished; it's fair, and the punishment is reasonable. You know where you stand, you know what's coming and you can't complain.

"The unhappiest children I see, including teenagers, are those who don't have a clear sense of the rules and boundaries, with no consistent punishments. They have parents who are trying to be their friends, parents who buckle and cave in all the time.

"The kids whose parents have the common sense to say, 'You're responsible for what you do, these are the rules you must follow and if you don't, this is what will happen,' tend to be far happier, in my experience."

And here's an interesting observation from Captain Common Sense: one decent parent is far more important in raising a child than two crap parents.

"Single mums have been treated badly, the world was going to hell in a handcart in the 70s because of single mums, but it doesn't matter if you've got two mums, one dad, one mum, two dads, whatever - so long as you've got one good parent, someone who puts dinner on the table, you feel is on your side, puts down rules, doesn't try to be your mate but your mum or dad."

Latta has seen solo parents from appalling backgrounds with far better parenting skills than "parents who've made heaps of money and take their kids to France for holidays but are not there for the kids".

Born 42 years ago in Oamaru to a builder dad, educated at Waitaki Boys' High, Latta met his dentistry student wife at Otago University while he was studying zoology. Bored with sciences, however, he switched to psychology, moved to Auckland and spent 17 years working on the front line of offending, which included the parole system, family therapy, and treating adolescent sex offenders.

Five years ago he moved back to Dunedin, "to get as far away from Auckland's paedophiles as possible", and opened his private psychology practice.

Latta's not frightened of strong opinions. He looks you right in the eye, with the gaze of someone who's stared down pure evil, whether that be Clayton Weatherston, Mark Lundy, or some solo dad's she-devil 14-year-old daughter.

Latta and his wife have two sons, aged 7 and 10, so how come he's qualified to dish the dirt on bringing up daughters?

"I've spent more than 20 years working with them, but it's just what I think, it isn't necessarily right or inscribed in stone. I've seen sweet, savage, napalm and spring-loaded bear trap girls, so even though I've never raised girls, I've spent more time with them than most families."

As a rather erratic mother of three daughters and one son, aged 24 to 35, who never usually reads parenting books, I have to admit I enjoy Latta's books because they don't induce deep guilt.

He reassures that it's okay to get mad - "have a psych", as my kids tease now about the time I came home from work to find food all over the bench and completely lost it. I flung the melted margarine, which hit my daughter on the head and splattered over the ceiling (the margarine, not her head).

"In fact, that's what makes me dissatisfied about all this nicey-nicey, never yell at your kids stuff. What stories will they tell when they get older if you don't chuck margarine at them?" Latta reassures.

"Those are the spice of family life, not bland conflict-resolution stuff. If you lose your rag at kids, but it's fair enough because they left the margarine out and it melted, they don't hold a grudge. In fact, it becomes something they laugh about years down the road.

"I think modern kids are going to have crap stories when they get older."

Modern parenting. It's all about keeping kids happy, 24/7. Negotiating. Solving their problems. Catering to every little whim. We've become a child-centred society with parents bombarded by experts.

Is it any wonder, then, that parents are over-anxious, hovering like helicopters, wrapping their kids in cotton wool? Latta has some sympathy for schools and teachers who, he says, are squeezed between the Wellington bureaucrats and parents.

His own kids' school in Dunedin used to have fish and chips every Friday until the Ministry of Education stopped it. On the other side, he sees "a whiney minority of parents" who complain about everything, and make teachers gun-shy.

He reckons the first thing every parent should say to a teacher when their kid starts school is, "I won't complain, and if my kid's being a shit I want you to tell me".

Such language would not go down well among some of Latta's clinical psychologist colleagues in the United States. They would prefer a parent to use the term "Oppositional Defiant Disorder", which seems to be the latest fad to afflict children.

But, scanning the symptoms, as defined in the authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, this "syndrome" looks suspiciously like naughtiness.

Attention Deficit Disorder, Autism, Hyperactivity Disorder, and now we have Oppositional Defiant Disorder - why do we put children in boxes then try to fix them and make them better? Didn't we once just love them unconditionally? Accept them for what they were, unless they were seriously unwell? Why can't they be a bit different?

First, Latta explains, in America, for parents to access medical insurance to pay for assistance with difficult children they need a specialist diagnosis and a child with ODD needs to be naughty "beyond the usual whatever".

"But I've been around the family area more than 20 years, long enough to watch fads come and go, and now there are huge numbers of kids being told they have features of autistic syndrome disorder.

"Without doubt autism exists. I've seen good research on that. But people who don't know enough about it are diagnosing it. I don't know enough about it to diagnose it or work with children who have that diagnosis, but I know people who know a lot less than me who are diagnosing it - kindy teachers, teachers, psychologists, therapists.

"This is a small country, with a small number of people qualified and able to diagnose this. Right now, there are a lot of kids who are not autistic, they are just different, but what happens is parents get these labels thrown at them."

With the result, I suggest, that many parents unnecessarily end up pushing aside their primary role as mum or dad to become an intensive therapist, trying to make that child "normal", whatever that may be.

Well, anyone who's raised teenage daughters knows normal is a word with varying definitions. As Latta advises, sometimes it's best to think of your 14-year-old, with all those hormones coursing through her body, as Mad Aunty Harriet: She's slightly unhinged and lives in the basement. One night when you ask if she'd like a cup of tea she bursts into tears, calls you an effing selfish whatever, stomps off downstairs and slams the doors. You shrug and ignore, because that's Mad Aunty Harriet.

Remember this analogy when daughter reacts similarly after you tell her she's left the bathroom in a pigsty and visitors mightn't care to see her bras and g-strings hanging from the towel rail.

Don't get hurt, says Latta, adolescence is more like a mental illness (qualifying that by adding he's not trivialising teenagers with genuine psychiatric disorders). "They are not right in the head. The good news is, she'll make a complete recovery."

But, despite The Politically Incorrect Parenting Show pulling 600,000 viewers at its peak, Latta is not everyone's favourite, and he's rapidly discovering the price of being a media darling.

"A woman blogged she saw me in The Warehouse and wanted to punch me in the nose. A man said 'f*** off back to the old days Nigel Latta and get scurvy'.

"But we're finding in Australia the show's rating well for the same reasons as here. People are fed up with modern parenting nonsense. I made it easier to say things, like you can laugh at kids and make fun of them because sometimes they're vicious little beings.

"Of course as soon as you do that some bloody miserable beige person emails saying how precious children are. I just hope people like that, if they have children, they [the children] leave home at an early age and hang out with people with a sense of humour."

Has anyone every threatened him with Child Youth and Family? "Oh, I've been asking CYF to take my kids for years. Just for the weekend - I'd collect them on Monday. Maybe."

- Herald on Sunday

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