Too hard or too soft on the children? It’s a juggling act.

I am a bad mother.

No, really, I am. I've just read something that made me feel deeply uncomfortable about my "style of parenting". Icky phrase, sorry, and until now I didn't even think I had one. But apparently I do. And it's bad.

I wonder if it is too late to change? Are the kids ruined for good? As I write this they are in the next room playing Undertale on their computers. Shall I march in there and say: "Um, guys. Listen up. Forget everything I have told you these last seven to 11 years. All of that. Can you just wipe it from your minds? Erased? Great. Because things are going to be different from now on."

Actually, come to think of it, maybe I will just wait until I have finished writing this column before I install our new tough-but-fair regime. So in the meantime, let me explain.


When I say I am a bad parent, I don't mean I don't try to be good. But when it comes to getting the balance right between being authoritative and being permissive, I am starting to worry I have erred too far on the loose side. I have good intentions. It's just that I don't want my children to grow up in what's called an "invalidating environment". That is, where their emotional reactions are not responded to in an affirming way.

It can be very damaging for children, especially very sensitive children, to be told not to feel what they are feeling. This can lead to the child developing a "false self" because they soon learn that expressing their feelings, especially overwhelming negative feelings, is not acceptable.

They feel shame. So I have tried to let my children be themselves. But maybe I have gone too far in this endeavour. Child development specialist Leonard Sax would say so.

In his upcoming book, The Collapse of Parenting, he says parents have lost authority and we are not doing our children a favour by bringing them up to be our friends. As he sees it, we're guilty of giving the kids far too many choices. The example he gives is asking children "What would you like for dinner?" rather than "Which vegetable - broccoli or peas?" This example does not work for me as the chances of my children choosing voluntarily to eat broccoli are somewhere between zero and nil. But I take his point and I know I am guilty of all the things he says bad parents do.

Just this morning I asked my son, who is 7, what he wanted for breakfast. He said he wanted fish fingers. I made them (bad mother) and then he said: "Are fish endangered?" and wouldn't eat them. Even when I pleaded.

Pleading with our children is another sign of being a BFF parent and is very, very bad. "When you expect your child to do something, most of your sentences should end in a full stop," Dr Sax instructs, crisply.

It's obvious we are reacting against our strict 1970s upbringing and trying to cultivate independence and critical thinking, rather than raising obedient automatons. But maybe, as Dr Sax claims, we are creating a culture of disrespect towards adults.

"In relationships between parents and children, there has to be hierarchy."

I have been nodding along in general agreement until I read the following sentence:

"It's the job of parents to teach their child the rules of the culture they live in." Whoa, pull up there buddy. You've lost me now. I grew up in apartheid-era South Africa and I am grateful that my parents did not teach us the destructive racist, sexist, authoritarian culture of the time. In fact, there are still a lot of rules in this culture which I don't want our children to adopt. I don't necessarily want them to be parochial sports-mad property-obsessed conformist heteronormative bourgeois clones. Unless they want to be that, of course.

Rather than learning the rules of our culture, I would prefer that they learn to have courage. E.E. Cummings: "To be nobody but yourself - in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you like everybody else - means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight - and never stop fighting."

So I'm sorry Dr Sax, maybe I will just carry on with my ramshackle parenting for a bit longer. The kids seem pretty happy. "Mum, can I open the marshmallows?" "Oh go on then." Full stop.