Before I had children of my own, there was a TV family that I loved to watch. They were the Waltons, a perfect family who were poor in possessions but rich in love. There were seven children and a mother who looked as if she was into meditation. Or perhaps it was the rarefied air drifting down from Walton’s mountain where the family lived that kept Olivia Walton calm. She floated through life without, as far as I could see, a care in the world, a meal to cook or a dish to wash. That lady never looked frazzled, No one raised a voice in that household and if by chance someone stepped out of line the father and mother and sometimes the grandparents who lived with this remarkable family, would sit that errant child down and gently lecture it. Those lectures had an amazing and immediate effect for the better as they would have to be, given that their story was limited to one hour blocks. I’ve used that technique myself, but not having a script to follow I wasn’t sure at the time whether or not my words had hit their mark.
Life is a messy hotch potch of gritty reality and endless disappointments. In real life I was often drained of all energy, juggling as I was my household chores, child rearing and work commitments. My lectures took time to sink in. Decades went by before I knew for sure which of them had been successful. But I persisted because the other option would have been to smack and I was even less sure that smacking taught anyone anything. However, as children are experts at pushing their parents’ buttons the lectures were sometimes given through gritted teeth.
Although I didn’t know I was doing it at the time, I raised my children on the philosophy of ‘do what I do not what I say’ that was passed down to me by my parents. I had the occasional glass of wine or something sparkly on special occasions. My grown up children drink in moderation, but I can’t take credit for that as I am what is called a one pot screamer. One drink and I’m ready to curl up somewhere and sleep things off. I did not smack because I knew that those buttons I mentioned would lead to anger and lack of control; and I don’t swear. That last took a conscious effort and a lot of work to get right. It was smoking that tripped me up.
‘Don’t ever smoke will you?’ I asked my five year old son. I thought it might be a good time to begin the brainwashing process. ‘Smoking makes your hair and your skin and your clothes smell. And your breath will stink.’ David was all wide eyed as he listened to this.
‘But you smoke, mummy’, he said. And I had no come back. All I could say in response was ‘That’s why I’m telling you not to start, Dave, It’s awfully hard to give up once you begin.’ But I could see he wasn’t having it. It took years of trying and backsliding before I finally managed to stop.
Parenting is like any other profession or skill. If you want to be good, practice at it. There are lots of mistakes to be made but the many successes more than make up for that. A first born child is like the pilot of a new series; you fly by the seat of your pants, hoping all will turn out well. By the time you get to the second child you’ve got some of the kinks worked out and the bases covered, but by then you know that it is still a work in progress.
Parenting is a stop-start, learn-as-you-go affair. Despite the available literature, no one set of rules will fit all occasions and cultures, there is no definitive parenting manual to work from. And don’t expect the parenting fairy to visit you on the birth of your first child and endow you with the requisite skills. There are some resources you can take advantage of. Talk to friends who have been there before you, or to mothers groups. How our mothers raised us can be a good guide. But what if you don’t have a mother to refer to? Mine didn’t; she had to start from scratch and hope for the best. In the end I took some of what was on offer, added my own traditions to them and made them work for me.
As for the Waltons, perhaps I’m being too harsh on them. There might have been a back story we were not meant to be aware of where the Waltons struggled like the rest of us, got things wrong and occasionally lost their cool. Maybe the audience was meant to suspend disbelief, take a break from reality and let itself be entertained by the fictitious but perfect Walton parents raising their perfect children on at the foot of their Mountain in the fictitious Jefferson County.