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Spare the rod, spoil the planet


Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author, architecture critic and essayist

View more articles from Elizabeth Farrelly

Pain from life's knocks or a parent's love is essential for a child's development and might help save us all.


<em>Illustration: Kerrie Leishman</em>

Illustration: Kerrie Leishman

A plague of unwhacked children. Is it possible that, in an array of future threats that includes climate change, financial collapse, sprawl, greed, war, pestilence and famine, humanity's primary problem will be none of these but, rather, the global generation of unwhacked children?

''You all did perfect today!'' The nice young swimming tutor, waist-deep in water, farewells his preschool flock. It's not true of course. They didn't all do perfect, and none of the adults present, neither parents nor teachers, believes that they did.

It's a typical bunch of kids - some athletic, some weedy, some plump, some hopelessly timid. None of them can swim. One or two did reasonably well, considering. Most were (by definition) average and a couple, including the one who screamed steadily throughout, were appalling. Yet everyone present colludes in the lie, believing it to be for the best. Best, that is, for the children.

This has become the prevailing educational dogma of our time. Pain of any kind must be avoided, at all times and at all costs.

High school science is taught via the baking of cookies, literature by watching movies and maths by playing animated video games. Many schools, many parents, believe it is ''cruel'' to reveal children's marks to the class. Fine for everyone to know who's the best swimmer or footballer, but when it comes to Latin verbs or differential equations, evident inadequacy could be scarring.

If it's not altogether fun and feelgood for the kiddies, it's not acceptable. In many ways this might be seen as democracy's inevitable endgame, but the unspoken rationale goes something like this:

One. Happiness is more important than anything; more important than goodness, decency, wealth, duty, achievement or knowledge. More important even than friendship or love, which matter only insofar as they bring happiness.

Two. Our primary job, as parents, is to maximise our children's future happiness.

Three. Future happiness builds on present happiness.

Four. Present happiness requires self-esteem, maximum pleasure and, as nearly as possible, the absence of pain.

Pain prevention therefore becomes the parent's paramount task.

This is fascinating. To most of us, now, it will seem obvious that minimising our child's pain is a primary parental role. Yet this only shows how complete, and how quiet, the revolution has been.

To some extent it's territory explored by Christos Tsiolkas's book (and TV series) The Slap. But Tsiolkas' interest is primarily in the personal and interpersonal ramifications of the physical act; relationship stuff.

What if it's bigger than that? Much, much bigger? Political, environmental, spiritual? What if the proliferation of the unwhacked affects the very future of civilisation?

(I should add at this point that I use the term ''unwhacked'' in part as a metaphorical shorthand to capture all those whose childhoods have been quilted by the various forms of pain-avoidance. I should note, too, that my own children - my own parenting - are by no means exempt. Indeed, it is my own experience of hedonic parenting that provokes my curiosity.)

Traditional modes of child-rearing have depended largely (and at times almost wholly) on the choreographed application of pain - humiliation, criticism, deprivation and actual, physical contact.

We are appalled. We see all infliction of pain, especially on children, as cruel and wrong.

In this we are influenced by two centuries of literature, from all the evil authority figures of Victorian reformist novels (Dickens's frightful Mr Creakle and Charles Kingsley's cruel schoolmasters and ''doctors who give little children so much physic'' they should themselves be bled, dosed with calomel and have their teeth pulled) to Roald Dahl's Miss Trunchbull, who discus-throws kiddies by their plaits or shoves them in the ''pokey''.

The inheritors and perpetuators of this save-the-children movement were, of course, the baby boomers, parents of today's young teachers (including my swimming tutor). But to Victorian evangelism the hippie ''just-add-water'' attitude to child-rearing admixed a further, crucial ingredient.

In baby-boom peacenik philosophy - I use the word loosely - the anti-cruelty push of the 19th century evangelists was entwined with a Voltairean naturism; a noble savage philosophy that flipped nature from being humanity's perfectable project to being, in its raw state, the supreme good.

Civilisation flipped conversely, from being the ultimate goal to becoming itself a liability, viz. Paul Klee's desire to ''unlearn'' drawing, Ivan Illich's best selling Deschooling Society and so on. It was a Wordsworthian inversion of original sin: that we come to earth ''trailing clouds of glory'', from which our birth is ''but a sleep and a forgetting''. This puts appetite, not truth or goodness, on the tip of society's arrows.

It's an idea that the reformers would not countenance. Kingsely's children's tale The Water Babies doubled as an anti-child-labour tract, a critique of simplistic scientism and an argument for Darwin's controversial evolutionary theories.

Yet Kingsley rejected outright the idea of gratification as a path to goodness, or even happiness. In The Water Babies, a group of humans called Doasyoulikes degenerate, precisely because they do whatever they wish, into gorillas, losing the power of speech and eventually being shot by explorers.

In rejecting both wanton cruelty and wanton gratification, the 19th century reformers drew an elegant distinction - between pain inflicted for the pleasure or betterment of the inflictor, and pain inflicted for the good of the subject (or victim).

I see your incredulous response. Most of us grew up ridiculing the idea of good pain, and the bottom-smackers adage, ''this hurts me more than it hurts you''. In what world might pain benefit the victim?

Well, in our world. The real world.

As functioning adults we frequently distinguish between bad pain, good pain and pain that is morally neutral. Bad pain is destructive - as when you hold your hand to a flame. Morally neutral pain has no lasting effect, for better or worse - such as exercising stiff muscles already stiff from overuse, or walking up a ladder barefoot, or even the pain of childbirth.

Good pain, however, is that pain necessary to some greater goal; yoga, for example. Study. Piano practice. Obeying the boss - or God, if you're religiously inclined. Calisthenics. Dieting. Staying sober at lunch in order to pick the kids up from school. Any of the dozens of daily moments when we enact the unwished for some greater good.

Yet when it comes to disciplining our children, this is a distinction we often fail to draw. People presume that the refusal to smack - the determination to shape the child using carrot only, no stick - reflects, if anything, excessive love and concern for the child.

You see people in the local park, pleading with their pets, arguing with them, telling them that barking at the neighbouring poodle is not nice. The dog remains unrepentant, unreflective and untrained. Parenting, similarly, it seems to me, is a form of Stockholm syndrome, where the bond itself depends on benign but unwavering control being from the same hand.

The historian Barbara Tuchman famously blamed the Middle Ages' tolerance of cruelty on the huge rate of infant mortality and parents' consequently low emotional investment in childhood.

Many have disagreed, but Tuchman's theory suggests that perhaps we have moved to the opposite extreme. Perhaps our extraordinarily low infant mortality has produced an over-investment in childhood and an extreme reluctance even to contemplate inflicting pain, even in the child's interests.

Yet it is still possible that some pain - some level, some kinds, carefully applied - is in the best long-term interest of the kid.

Parental discussions of the smacking question are informative on this point. Many people's biggest objection is not that smacking might hurt or damage the child but that to do it feels bad. To hit a child in anger feels brutalising. To hit a child coldly, without passion, is almost worse.

Force Majeure's wonderful Never Did Me Any Harm at the Sydney Theatre Company this year wove real voices together into a side-splitting exposé´ of parenting neuroses.

''Whenever we did it we'd feel quite upset,'' says one. ''You actually find yourself disliking a three year-old … but we had a lot of trouble disciplining Jimmy cause … he can really push our buttons … ''

So is the anti-pain, anti-danger push in fact pro-child, or pro-parent? Was the bottom-smacker's old hurts-me-more-than-it-hurts-you adage actually accurate? Is smacking actually worse for the parent than the kid, and is this why we oppose it?

Is the urge to cosset our kids truly about their happiness, or our cowardice?

To some extent the answer depends on whether childhood pain, in any of its forms, can be a force for good.

Let's be clear. Pain is not always good, for adults or children, even in the long-term educational or spiritual sense. Sufferers of chronic pain are often worn down or destroyed by it, with no pay-off enlightenment. But it is also true that what might seem intolerable suffering at the time can turn out, in retrospect, to have been profoundly formative and fortifying.

This is the substance of the old proverbs and cliché´s, our old scoffing-posts; what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, all that. But what if they're true?

Some experts argue that, for boys in particular, a short sharp smack is greatly preferable to an hour's parental talk. But that's still measuring pleasure, not benefit. Yet, even when the pain is more intense and prolonged, even when there is genuine damage, the outcome can be good.

Fiona Scott-Norman's recent book, Don't Peak in High School, documents the (to us) counterintuitive phenomenon whereby pained and difficult childhoods - flavoured by bullying, loneliness, misery and even abuse - often generate wildly creative and successful adults.

Of course it's impossible to demonstrate the causality in these things. But it is at least plausible that early hardship might build spiritual or moral muscle - resilience, at the very least. That those evil teachers and doctors of history weren't all sadists; some, at least, were genuine educators.

The converse is clear; sparing the rod can spoil not only the child - brattishness, obesity, overweening entitlement and depression - but also the planet.

Many psychiatrists say their waiting rooms are lately filled with young adults who suddenly realise they're not in fact geniuses and the world is not their oyster. Shattered, thus, they want instead to die.

I sympathise. Truly. But the planetary consequences are bigger still: excess entitlement, widely spread, can only exacerbate appetite-driven climate change.

Children who grow up with unearned self-esteem will not only cope less well with crisis when it comes, but will by their behaviours increase its likelihood and intensity. Triple whammy.

Perhaps we'll stop short of Jonathan Swift's proposal for ''preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country … ''

''I have been assured,'' says Swift, ''that … a young healthy child, well nursed, is at a year-old a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled … ''

But maybe the odd smack?

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