The lost art of under-parenting

LIFE AS I KNOW IT

LET'S be clear. Under-parenting isn't neglect. It's also doesn't mean letting children free-range to the point they become pint-sized Kim Jong-uns.

It basically means not over-parenting.

And boy (girl), there is plenty of that going on.

It's understandable why grass roots parenting seems to revolve around striving to ensure their children have a better life than they had.

People want to feel like they, and therefore their children, are winning at life and things are getting better, not worse.

But in some ways, this approach has backfired.

The main culprit is that children's expectations are at atmospheric levels.

Now we're talking privileged countries here. The kids in the Third World are too busy to be bored or demanding. Carting buckets of clean water 20kms back to the family shack or trying to make a few cents a day by finding things to recycle at the rubbish tip they live on doesn't leave them enough time for that.

So yes, Australian kids. (It's also noted there are poor and disadvantaged children here, but not on the scale as the previously inferred countries as far as this column is concerned).

One of the foundations of good under-parenting is ensuring your kids appreciate how sh*t gets done and where sh*t comes from. It's a coarse lesson but it's better than no lesson at all.

This knowledge of where things come from, followed up with the much more important appreciation of it, extends to just about everything that crosses their paths.

That meal, those toys, the mobile phone, the clean uniform. How it happens and who makes it happen shouldn't be a magic trick.

This doesn't mean they have to bow down every time you hand them a plate of food, just know how these minor miracles keep happening everyday.

Then helping with those miracles occasionally becomes a less combative prospect as empathy and perspective helps to counteract the expectation and entitlement a clean pair of socks can have on a kid if you let it spiral.

It's easy for young people to be blaise about an annual beach holiday or a new car every three years if that's the common expectation being practised. Kids will get excited over an empty cardboard box if presented in the right light. Remember?

Sometimes life is boring and you have to go to boring places. Boredom is a healthy thing to expose kids to. Again, it helps foster traits like perspective and ingenuity. Not every school holiday means an exciting trip somewhere. There is such a thing as a stay-at-home holiday.

Encouraging kids to make their own fun is a quality to encourage not micro-manage. Technology is the cheat sheet our parents may have dreamed of but relying on it 24/7 deprives them of other mind-shaping (and body) activities.

Going outside to play for hours or riding a bike over to a friend's place to hang out until dinner time used to be standard practice before the Apple age.

So was drinking water from a hose or cooling off the same way.

Taking skin off your knee hurt, but taught you consequences and improved your aptitude even if you were too busy bawling your eyes out to notice.

Wearing and using second hand stuff, that looked second-hand, was a rite of passage, not an embarrassment.

Not having enough legroom in the family car was just part and parcel of being a back seat passenger and not having a constant supply of snacks outside meal times wasn't considered cruelty.

Sometimes meal times weren't that special. You ate what the family was eating. On occasion when life got extra busy, you'd get a breakfast dinner. No-one died from malnutrition.

Kids (and the odd husband) might fool you into thinking they are not efficient at helping with grown-up chores because they don't like doing it (who does?). But often they end up enjoying the feeling of responsibility and achievement as well as the interaction with the parent. Of course if they're already teenagers and you haven't tried this yet, forget about it.

Kids are also capable of understanding 'no' and its consequences if it's presented in the traditional sense ie. it actually doesn't happen.

The faux 'no', which means caving in five minutes later, is a seed to avoid cultivating. Exposing them to periodic disappointment is under-parenting 101.

Another seemingly harmless practice is allowing yourself to be interrupted by your children while engaged with another adult in conversation. This child's right to usurp everyone in the room is not a good look when they're 35, so start planning ahead.

Countless exposures to 'I want a drink and I'm going to extinguish your conversation with mummy with it' requests have made a lasting impact on my inner Cruella .

As the parent immediately obliges the child, I imagine objecting to the disruption and ultimate termination of the enjoyable adult exchange by pointing out that unless Junior is crawling Burke and Wills style towards them, to not fall for it. Ah, one day...

Exposing kids to situations that require their patience or empathy, or letting them feel disappointment or learn what gratitude is, doesn't mean you don't love them.

It generally means the opposite, and some day, usually after they leave home, they'll realise and appreciate that too.

Declaration: The author is not a child psychologist but is also not an idiot. Has adult daughter who was often under-parented and they are still talking.