Secret to being a good parent? Take your pick

By Vanessa Thorpe

Author Oliver James says it's important to know yourself. Photo / NZ Herald
Author Oliver James says it's important to know yourself. Photo / NZ Herald

A great parenting debate is about to be reopened as authors publish books with clashing prescriptions. But will parents be any the wiser?

Mothers are to be subjected to a volley of rival strategies for surviving the child-rearing years. A ticker tape of fresh pronouncements seems to be running continuously; a fact that must do nothing to soothe the mood of a mother already contending with a crying infant and a lack of sleep.

Last month parents were told that running a tidy, ordered home would boost their child's development - but that having a cosy home was even more important.

The phrase "mother knows best" has never looked so quaint.

"The single most important point of all in childcare is that none of these prescriptions is the right answer," says Oliver James, whose book on child rearing, How Not to F*** Them Up, is out in paperback in April.

In an effort to turn down the heat on parents, the child psychologist adds: "There is an endless searching for a right way to care for a baby or a small child. But there is no right way."

In the next few months Rebecca Asher's book Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality will try to raise the consciousness of exhausted women.

They have been complicit, she says, in maintaining a status quo in which mothers bear the primary responsibility for bringing up children, to the detriment of the rest of their lives.

Then there is the provocative book by Yale law academic Amy Chua taking up a position on the other side of the maternal boxing ring.

In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother Chua aims to shake up Western complacency and to highlight what she sees as the superiority of strict traditional Chinese child-rearing methods.

Chua's book, a social formula in the guise of a memoir, reflects a wider reactionary trend, or a "breath of common sense" as its proponents might have it.

There is a growing interest, too, in letting working mothers throw away those tiresome balls they have been juggling to embrace their role at the hearth.

James feels it is a shift in emphasis that comes from young women. He says he has found that many in their early 20s or late teens are asking what the point was of trying to do everything.

There is no prize awarded for working and mothering hard, James points out, although he concedes that for poorer women and single mothers choices are limited.

"Mothers of young babies should consider whether they are comfortable in their skin," he says. "And that is not an easy thing to achieve, particularly if you have been living like Bridget Jones. It is not an ideal preparation to have enjoyed a career and had little experience of having a status lower than a street-sweeper. It is a huge wrench."

Much of the "new" advice being offered to parents is the blindingly obvious delivered in fresh wrapping. Arguing repeatedly in front of children is bad, apparently, as is moving house frequently - not revelations that are likely to stop parents in their tracks.

After a bruising early experience, writer and new mother Eleanor Birne has decided to dump the books and look after her 22-month-old son, Noah, according to her own lights.

"I have an ambivalent relationship with all those guidebooks," says Birne, 34, from east London, whose memoir of motherhood When Will I Sleep Through the Night? comes out in March.

"None of them seem to relate to my baby or to my life. I stopped reading them quite early on because they made me feel quite depressed and as if I was not doing it properly."

She says her book has no agenda and is designed to reflect how it feels to start living in the "amazingly new world" of a mother.

James feels that a fundamental question has not still been addressed: What kind of children are we trying to create? One mother's high-achieving prodigy is another's miserable swot.

"The Chinese theory is right on one point at least. There is a lot of scientific evidence to suggest that if you want your children to be prodigiously skilled you need to be this strict."

James suggests parents should be honest with themselves.

"You need to ask yourself what kind of an objective you have. If you are determined to have a Tiger Woods or a Williams sister, you probably can follow the advice of the Chinese parenting formula. But if you want your child to be laid back, that is another matter."

While James fears society has become too judgmental about this area, he thinks the growing attention paid to the first six years of life is progress.

Recent work on the human genome has proved to his satisfaction that genetics has little to do with our behaviour and mental health.

"So we should be getting more concerned about the quality of life at an early age."

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