On Discipline

Recently I was asked to "name something you've never got around to doing." Owning a dog, I said. The idea was planted. I started looking up breeds, frowning over their characteristics. I fancied a beagle, one of those conscientious little super-grasses at the airport, the drug and fruit police. (The dogs I used to joke to the children I was going to kick as they snuffled self-righteously past.) But beagles, I discovered, can be "ungovernable." I was told of one atrocious local beagle that had driven its owner to nervous breakdown. A cocker spaniel? These innocent-looking creatures, I was amused to learn, are prone to "rage syndrome." As for cross-breeds, controversy swirls around them, a hotbed of snobbery and slander: for every website extolling the virtues of "labradoodles," there's another scorning them as "mutts."
I sat on a plane, reading books on dog training. There were schools of thought, cautionary tales. Experts who favoured the electric shock, the smack, the show-the-dog-who's-boss or it will dominate you and ruin your life approach, squared up against those who advocated rewards, understanding, and harmony with the dog's nature. A dog is essentially a wolf, one grim theory goes, so if, for example, you let it peer down at you through the upstairs banisters, it will develop the idea it can eat you. If you catch it eyeing you in this sinister way you have to throw it on its back, pin it down and dominate it. I found this hilarious – the idea of the dog lying in wait like Cato ready to attack Inspector Clouseau, the strenuousness of having to throw it to the floor all the time – and also familiar, in that the theories seemed similar, in many respects, to opposing theories on childcare.
My earliest childhood memory involves dogs – specifically dog turds. I was one year old, toddling behind my mother. I remember leaning down to pick up a calcified deposit from the pavement. I didn't know what it was, but I remember the flurry from the adults, the shriek, "No, don't pick that up." This is the interesting thing about the memory: I couldn't talk but I understood what they were saying. Picking up shits is a bad idea. So I didn't do it. People say, "I smack my child to stop him doing dangerous things," but that seems unnecessary and counterproductive if you can actually just tell a one-year-old something's dangerous. If he or she defies you, or, less likely, doesn't understand, you can work on the lines of communication.
I remember being smacked as a child. It produced feelings of rage and, worse, humiliation. It seemed to me so emotionally destructive that I decided never to do it. On occasions when I lost my temper and whacked my first son on the bum I knew it was a loss of control that didn't do any good. By the second and third child I'd worked out how not to smack them, ever. Child one and three had the odd tantrum; child two only ever had one in her whole toddlerhood. I have, so far, maintained order and control without using much punishment. There's the odd bout of parental screaming and storming, threatening to withhold pudding or confiscate a phone, but I've never had the drive to carry out the more formal punishments. Life is mostly harmonious. It seems to me that if you've got to the stage of punishing and smacking, then you've lost your way tactically.
Some advice floating around about children appears to start from a very grim perspective: Your teenage son is essentially a wolf. If you allow him to peer down through the upstairs banisters at you... As for your teenage daughter, she's likely to turn into "a princess" and "a bitch". These dicta have the same dubious degree of accuracy as "all elderly people are wise," or "Nigel Latta is a parenting guru worth following."
When my kids were toddlers, we lived in London, and had very little money. I remember making the dreary choice: shall I buy honey or jam, because we can't afford both. In shops, security guards would follow me and my shabby pushchair around, leaving older, more prosperous mothers alone. We had some tough times, especially in winter, and I remember one fellow parent saying: "You're always together. You never leave them with a nanny." I thought, "A nanny. As if!" But I learned one counterintuitive fact: the more hours you spend with young children, the less they annoy you. If they're getting on your nerves, you need to spend more time together. Strange but true: I was never more irritated by the kids than when I'd had time away from them, never less pissed off with them than when we'd hung out together all day.
First published in Metro Magazine NZ
November 2012