I’m no Daddy Blogger because I don’t write much about my personal life (this is a political blog after all) and because I find Mummy Bloggers to be terribly self righteous and I’d never want to sound like that over a human experience like parenting that has so many variations, interpretations and pathways, so I can only speak humbly for myself and my experience of Fatherhood.
Normally my fatherhood is a private space I enjoy without wanting to share it outside my circle of friends and whanau, but a recent column about parenting really caught my attention and I felt compelled to say something about it because it had a deep resonance with my own experience of being a father in Aotearoa and watching others around me.
I’m a solo stay at home Dad to my a wee daughter and she is very much the apple of my eye. Our relationship is one of the most important to me and we spend an enormous amount of time laughing. She’s in a bilingual class and when she speaks Te Reo it gives me a deep joy I can’t articulate. Her intelligence, sense of humour and personality fills my horizon and gives me purpose.
My journey of Fatherhood has been difficult and at times the Family Court process has left me emotionally mutilated, so I don’t write this from a position of privilege, safety or ease, I write it despite that experience.
One of the most interesting oversights I’ve had as a parent in NZ is what this column revealed last week about the tough love mantra so many NZ parents seem to adhere to…
Tough love, an outdated parenting style that Kiwis favour
OPINION: Let’s be real, there are many surprising things about parenting. The crippling fatigue, the consuming adoration and equally, the consuming frustration, and the wonderment that a turd so small is capable of being so stinky.
But the most surprising is how we as parents can’t get enough of sharing snapshots of our life in the fast lane of childrearing with other parents. And by parents, I mean mums. Mums love talking to other mums.
We accost each other at traffic lights, our strollers breaking down the social norms of talking to strangers. We share tales about forceps, stitches and emergency caesareans at the supermarket check-out, like we’ve known each other a lifetime rather than just eight minutes.
I liked these moments as a new mum and then as a parent to a toddler. But that joy kind of left when I moved to New Zealand in December. Like many ex-pats, you notice nuances that make a country and its population tick.
I like the unrivalled obsession with mince and cheese pies. I like the fact that the summer months are savoured in such a way that everyone takes a whole month off to go to their favourite corner of the country to sit in a tent.
There’s a lot to like, but the parenting style here is not one of them. In the eight months I have been in this country, after six years as a British ex-pat in Sydney, I have probably spoken to a hundred or so parents.
There have been a handful who share my views that unconditional love can come with authority. That parenting shouldn’t be just stick but also carrot cake, with delicious whipped creamy topping. But as a whole, a terrifyingly large number wanted to nail the parenting style of tough love.
Just this week as I sat reading to my toddler in the library, a mum told me that the night before, she had made her six-year-old son sleep in the hallway as he hadn’t cleaned his room. “I’m unreasonable like that,” she laughed.
The exchanges have come thick and fast, all entrenched with a real “that’ll teach them” mentality and worryingly, all told with proud glee. And each has made me feel uncomfortable and strange and chipped at my heart a little.
A mum told me that she never compliments her daughter as she doesn’t want her to get “too big for her own boots”. Another mum told me that she ignores her son when he asks for attention so he doesn’t get “too needy”.
This is just a few of many moments I’ve shared from mums from all walks of life. There was the in-house solicitor for a global company, one who fixed phone screens and another who worked part-time in a charity shop. Tough love, it seems, does not cater to a single socioeconomic group, but is for all.
And equally, the unsolicited parenting advice has been just as steady in its arrival. My son never sleeps so I was told to put his cot in the garage for a week. Later, a childcare worker told me that comforting my son when he cries is rewarding bad behaviour. He lasted at that daycare for two hours.
Tough love is a term that was coined in a book of the same title back in 1968. It’s a parenting style that was dished out to children who were a little unruly and when other avenues had been explored and failed.
It was the understanding that while you loved your children, you were treating them in a harsh way to help them in the long term, so they would become decent human beings.
But the snapshots of tough love I’ve seen in New Zealand are less about the love and more about the tough. It reeks of the ideas of Sir Frederick Truby King, the founder of the much-loved Plunket, who doled out advice about restricting feeding to every four hours, never at night and leaving children in the garden as a way to make them tough.
Nodding your head in agreement that this is the way to avoid spoiling your child? Then just remember that this advice was born in the 1890s and a lot has changed in the last 100-odd years. Evidence shows that conditional parenting – restricting love to get a child to act a certain way – doesn’t work.
Studies show that your child might try harder at school and around the home and actually in general life, but it comes at a cost – lower self-esteem, less internal happiness when they reach a goal and resentment towards their parents.
And don’t this country’s wellbeing statistics stink of deep-seated issues with our youth? The worst teen suicide rate, the second highest bullying stats of 54 countries, and year on year, there’s an increase in Kiwi children being prescribed antidepressants.
But the tough truth about tough love is that when love is given with conditions, it doesn’t really feel like love at all. It feels like a tool and sadly, it doesn’t seem to be one that’s really working for a large chunk of children in New Zealand.
…this rings true with my own view of many parents I’ve seen and runs counter to my own view of how I interact with my daughter.
Life is pretty brutal and hard a lot of the time, and needlessly adding to that in the form of tough love for our children seems at total odds with what our role as parents should be, and when you consider the appalling suicide rates for young people in NZ, I can’t see how tough love is anything more than adding to those problems rather than removing them.
We seem to think in NZ that tough love will give our children discipline and resilience and respect for authority, but why make their existences one second colder or harder than they should have to endure?
When it comes to our kids, I honestly think kindness, love, humour and warmth is what’s needed, I just can’t see tough love as any part of that equation.