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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Never mind the mess, the kids are all right

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Cyber-mom's bleat ignores basic joys of being parents

Cultures that believe families are built around the dining table are on to something. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Cultures that believe families are built around the dining table are on to something. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Despite its insufferably self-congratulatory tone, a blog by a Canadian woman who downed tools in protest at her daughters' sloth and messiness has become an internet hit.

Having broken the spirit of her "basement trolls" - twin 12-year-olds and a 10-year-old - striking mom Jessica Stilwell then extrapolated from the personal to the universal, as people who are quick to pat themselves on the back have a habit of doing: "I fear we are raising a generation of young people whose attitude will be 'What are you going to do for me?"'

Notwithstanding the apparent outpouring of cyber-support, I suspect most parents would wonder what all the fuss is about. Newsflash: Kids make a mess. Update: If they can get other people to do stuff for them, they will. And if the three little Stilwells were pathologically messy, that presumably didn't come about overnight. You'd therefore have to ask what the parents were saying and doing as untidiness degenerated into squalor.

I was an untidy child. My bedroom could have been the inspiration for the Who song Teenage Wasteland. Then I went to boarding school.

If your locker didn't pass muster, you could expect to have a sandshoe applied to your backside by prefects who regarded the whole palaver - the snap inspection, the weighing of guilt or innocence, measuring out the run- up, handing out the beating, post-beating damage assessment and analysis of technique - as recreation.

You could argue that it showed zero tolerance works, if by zero tolerance you mean arbitrary cruelty. What it really shows is how far we've come; nowadays, most people would agree that the punishers had a lot more to be ashamed of than the punished.

Do today's youngsters have a greater sense of entitlement than previous generations? I suspect that since the dawn of time, adults have complained that "kids today don't know how lucky they are". You do hear the odd story about private school girls flying to Paris to choose a designer gown for the school ball, but that simply bears out what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Rich Boy: "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me."

And so what if today's kids have a better lifestyle, more toys and richer experiences than we did. Isn't that the whole idea? Isn't that a big part of the reason parents get up and go to work every day? Isn't that why we obsess about economic growth, or the lack thereof?

Perhaps the key is to indulge rather than spoil. My dictionary defines spoil as "to weaken the character of [a child] by complying unrestrainedly with its desires". That's clearly a bad thing: quite apart from fraying the child's moral fibre, it reduces the parent to little more than a servant with a credit card.

No doubt some also frown upon indulgence ("to gratify a whim or desire; to pamper"), but I love indulging my step-children. There are very few things in life that give me greater pleasure.

The pleasure comes from their enjoyment. A spoilt child takes everything done for them or lavished upon them for granted, making it a joyless experience for the giver and receiver.

I wouldn't claim to be an expert on parenting, and I'm well aware that to dispense advice on that subject is to give a hostage to fortune. I would, however, suggest that the southern Europeans are on to something in their belief that families are built around the dining table.

This isn't quite as straightforward as it sounds. It involves instilling an appreciation of food and the rituals surrounding it at an early age, and requires a willingness to go to some trouble in terms of ingredients and preparation.

You can't expect children, and certainly not quasi-sophisticated teenagers, to cherish family meals if they are instant and unimaginative gap-fillers to be processed rather than savoured.

In 2006, a Florida University sociologist published the results of a survey of 13,000 adults that indicated parents experience higher levels of depression than non-parents. According to the author, this finding conclusively disproved "the strong cultural assumption that parenthood is the key to lifelong personal development and happiness. The worries associated with being entirely responsible for another human being appear to outweigh the benefits".

I thought it was rubbish then, and I'm more certain of it now. All forms of love breed anxiety because one's happiness is dependent on the health and happiness of the loved one(s). Parental love breeds the most acute anxiety because the level of dependence and therefore responsibility is greater.

The vast majority of parents embrace that burden in the well-founded expectation that raising their children will be the most rewarding thing they will ever do.

- NZ Herald

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