Monday, 21 January 2008

Children learn what they live

Those who know me well know that I often feel the need to talk about stuff, that I have to share experiences to try and understand my feelings, get some perspective and try and find a way forward.

I had an experience today that affected me very deeply, and even though I've already downloaded on a couple of understanding friends and discussed it at length with Beloved, I'd like to share it a bit further. This post is really a record for myself, so I'm sorry if it's rambling or overlong or pointless.

My office is about 10 minutes walk out of Civic (the CBD part of Canberra) and to get to the main shopping area I need to cross the main road through the city. I was waiting at the pedestrian crossing for the lights to change, and noticed that on the other side of the crossing were two women and two children.

One of the women was holding the hand of a little boy, aged about 4 or so. He was clearly trying to get her attention, although she was talking with her companion. She would turn to him every few seconds and say loudly "Quiet!", "Be quiet!" and then finally "Shuddup!". With this last word she reached up sideways with her right leg and kicked him, quite hard, in the back of the thighs, hard enough that he staggered forwards a step or two.

He started crying and his mother dragged him back to her side and turned to continue talking with her friend. I was quite shocked that first, she would quite deliberately hurt her child, and second that she had no issues with doing it in public, at the side of the busiest road in the city.

We all waited another 15 seconds or so for the lights, and the little boy was crying and still trying to get his mum's attention. I felt sick and appalled.

Just as the lights changed and the cars came to a stop beside us all, she turned to the little boy and raised her hand. "Are you gonna shuddup? Just shut the f*** up will ya?".

The little boy cringed away from her, and she said, again very loudly "Come on!" and pulled him across the road.

I had to force myself, after a couple of seconds, to step off the curb and cross the road, walking in the opposite direction to the woman and little boy. I wanted so much to stay on the side of the street and confront her, to say "do you have any idea that how you're treating your child will affect him for the rest of his life?". But then if she had no qualms about kicking, hitting and swearing at her son in public, then she wouldn't take very kindly to being embarrassed by a total stranger.

So I took a deep breath, stepped off the curb and crossed the road. By the time I got to the other side, I was crying. I felt ill. (Can we blame the hormones at this point? Makes me feel a little less silly). I kept my sunglasses on, walked very purposefully the 100m or so to where I was to meet Quilting Mick for lunch, and thought I was doing a fairly good job of holding it together. Until QM saw me, and exclaimed "Oh George, what's wrong?" (clearly not such a good job then). She very kindly listened and sympathised and discussed and distracted me with socks and yarn and noodle soup. Thanks QM. Then I went back to office and emailed Bells, who was sympathetic and understanding and distracted me with the steek jacket. Thanks Bells.

Maybe that mother was having a particularly bad day, and her son's behaviour was the last straw. There are myriad variables and circumstances that I don't know from those few seconds contact.

We've all had those days; I've had countless, when I'm fully ready to give him away to a passing stranger, but I don't kick and swear at PJ. I talk to him sharply, I withdraw my attention, I abandon whatever we're doing and come straight home, I take away things he likes, but I never physically or verbally abuse him. I had the feeling from the way they interacted, that this behaviour was quite usual for the mother and not unexpected by the child.

Perhaps this incident, even though it only lasted about 30 seconds, has affected me so deeply because my hormones are all arse-about, or perhaps it's because I'm beginning to realise how much of a social and economic divide has developed in our country in recent times. So that people who don't have access to resources and facilities (because they can't pay for them) just use the skills and tools they were taught by their parents and peers. (Although I'm sure it's not isolated to the results of 10 years of Howardism in Australia.)

How many people out there are parents, who have no idea how to be parents? Who don't know how to give a child the skills and tools they need to deal with conflict, anger, stress as they grow up? Because they were never given the same skills by their own parents. If they grew up in a household where it was normal to use violence and shouting and threats and anger to solve problems and deal with stress, then they think that's the way to deal with it in their own households. I am coming to believe that children learn what they live.

I worry now that the little boy I saw today will probably be yelled at or hit again today, or tonight when he doesn't want to go to bed or eat his dinner. That when he goes to school he thinks it's OK to hit other kids who make him mad or to throw stuff when he gets frustrated. That he wont have any respect for his mum, or any other women he meets, and so wont tell her when he goes out. That he'll get into fights when he's a teenager, that he'll hate authority and start rebelling by stealing cars or throwing rocks through windows or spray painting the underpass. That he'll leave school early because he doesn't deal with the structure and rules and will only be able to find unskilled work. That he'll wind up getting a girl pregnant when he's still a child himself, and find himself having to work to support a family he didn't want. And that I'll see him in 15 years at the pedestrian crossing, telling his kid to "shut the f*** up or I'll whack ya".

Maybe I'm a cynic, a glass half-empty kind, and he'll be a whiz at maths and economics and go onto to uni and work for an international merchant bank and live on the North Shore of Sydney with harbour views. Or he'll find himself an apprenticeship and train as a builder and make more money than you and I will ever see and marry his childhood sweetheart and have gorgeous kids and love them within an inch of their lives. But it feels like the odds are quite firmly stacked against him, and he'll have to fight every step of the way to break out of the cycle. On the other side of the coin, I know that not every kid whose life takes a rough path comes from a home where they don't have love and support and kindness, and that all the love in the world can't stop them self-destructing. Life is certainly not so straightforward.

Beloved and I work hard, every day, to do our very best to give PJ a safe, loving, supportive and happy environment. Yes, we have boundaries ("the" is not the most used word in the English language: its "no" by a country mile), and we have conflict and we have tantrums and we have meltdowns, but we work really hard to be consistent and explain things to PJ and be firm but fair.

It's hard; every day I question myself and how I'm approaching things; I read books and talk with others and Beloved and I are constantly reviewing our approach. But some days, oh, some days, I am within a whisker of lashing out, through frustration and anger.

But I don't; I never do. I walk away and go to another room and take a very deep breath (or cry or scream or yell at the cat). Even though I realise I am lacking in many qualities I wish for my children, and can't be the ideal parent, I do my best every day to teach the skills they need to navigate through a sometimes hostile and difficult world and find their own path and be happy and safe. If PJ goes off the rails, it will be because he made the choice, not because he had no choice.

Perhaps what hurts even more is that I don't have the first idea how to help kids whose parents aren't able to give them that happy safe place and those skills, or how to help the parents who were never given those things themselves. In a civilised, affluent society, surely there must be something we can do?

But I've already downloaded enough (if you're still reading that is!) and that is probably enough for one post. And I'm crying again so I can't see the keyboard (damn hormones!).

I think I need to go and give PJ a hug (and try not to wake him! Silly Mama!) before I try to forget that there are so many things I can't change.


Michelle said...

Let's just hope the kid becomes the best person he can be, in spite of his mother!

So you are a good egg, George and you have a good heart.

Michelle said...

Erk! That last sentence didn't make sense! Damn nose drugs!

Remove the "so" and it might make more sense - sorry!

2paw said...

Oh that is a horrid thing to see, and you are right, stopping and saying something would not have been hekpful. In spite of our best intentions, we can't compel others to follow our standards. I know, having taught in difficult schools. Often we suspected children were not being treated well, but some abuse shows no physical scars, so all we could really was provide a safe environment at school. You do what you can and hope and trust. Then you do the very best you can in your life, and make a difference there. And you do!!!

amy said...

Oh, Georgie, I'm so sorry. It all gets more intense with those hormones. When I was nursing a newborn, just hearing another baby cry and be ignored would nearly set me to tears. I remember being in a public place and a baby was crying in its infant seat and nobody was picking him up--I could barely stand it. What you witnessed just seems to be a further step on the same continuum, doesn't it? Ignoring the needs of one's child.

As for learning what you live. I can tell you that it's incredibly hard to overcome your "family of origin" especially in times of stress. I wouldn't claim I was physically abused, not at all, but like many people of my generation, I was hit, smacked, backhanded, yelled at, etc. I always wanted better for my kids, and sometimes I am appalled at what comes out of my mouth when I am extremely stressed--the first year after having Nicholas comes to mind, as does this past summer. It is very, very hard to break those patterns, even when you are conscious about it, even when you read up on it. It makes you understand even more how much better you have to do for your own kids.

I've read that instead of chastising a mother in that situation, to offer help. I've never been brave enough to try, though. Except she was with a friend, so that might have been awkward, too. The Natural Child project ( has articles on this topic on this page--scroll down to the four-part bit on "Intervening on Behalf of a Child in a Public Place."

Take care of yourself, Georgie. xo

Alwen said...

Well, it's not just pregnancy hormones, because I'm years past that, and that kind of thing still hurts my heart. All you can hope for is that there's someone in his life, a grandmother, a teacher, someone, who gives him the sense that he is worth listening to.


Bells said...

The story upsets me today as much as it did yesterday. I even had to tell Sean about it. We both rail against that stuff when we see it.

Take heart George - some kids can grow up in that environment and turn out just fine. Some scars and some work to do but they can turn out ok.


Taphophile said...

Doing your best to raise your children well in a loving and supportive environment and doing what is possible politically to make services and skills available to ALL families is all you can do and that is a lot.

TinkingBell said...

Oh it's always so upsetting - but sometimes offering to help the mother or comfort the child 'Having a bad day? Can I helpp?' can be good - the question becomes when do you step in? At what point MUST you intervene? I have been guilty of shouting and picking up Sian in a Ppublic place - when she ran away in a crowded mall and I had Samuel in the stroller - I eventually tracked her down (running round people with a stroller is no fun) and shouted at her while hugging her - I was so frightened she'd get lost or hit by a car before I could reach her - and no-one helped - no-one stopped a 3 year old running by themselves in a crowded public place. Not one person. If someone had helped had caught her or distracted her until I caught up - I would have kissed them!
Help is never unnecessary - and usually not unwelcome!

Rose Red said...

Oh George, it would have upset me too. I agree with all you've said - no-one is perfect and we all behave in ways we'd rather we didn't, from time to time (mostly in stressful situations) but being thoughtful about it, as you are, and mindful of the potential impacts, does tend to minimise those times.

Kids definitely pick up the good and bad behaviours of their parents (I know I have!!) so I hope that that child can break the cycle of behaviours.

The point you make about choice (ie to rebel, or not, whatever) is a very good one.

Olivia said...

What a horrible story. But, it happens, and all too commonly.

A more remote way to do something is to support charities like Barnados - I hope I have the guts to be a 'kids' friend' one day maybe - and others that support struggling families (Salvos, Vinnies, etc).

kms said...

phew. no, not just the hormones. i think this happens a lot to boys even in good families, if you sit and watch the dynamics for a while, they are more likely to be ignored and i think this counts for a lot of male problems with communication. but that generalisation aside, i grew up in a home like that where my mum, newly single, had only the tools she had been taught and she had it much worse than me. i see myself repeating the same patterns at time, and it left a huge imprint, as you know. the self-destruction is the worst. you are at no risk of doing the same to PJ, you and b are loving thoughtful parents and the fact that you think about what you are doing puts you miles ahead. intervention is sometimes necessary but in my experience, shaming the mother in public means the kid pays later. the fact that she may get no help anywhere else (nor even want any) is indeed a sign of the times.

gemma said...

I'm with Alwen.
Never give up the hope that the world can be a better place, and that someone will be in his life who loves him. (and if you are a praying kinda gal, then pray for the family, mum sounds like she needs help too)

Best wishes for your expected new one, and PJ.

Caffeine Faerie said...

Oh hon, *hugs* it's not just hormones. I've been living with those concerns and the realisation that parents affect their children, and the way they do it in public for some time now.

Our next door neighbours have a 2 year old and the mother has just become pregnant again. We know this because the have loud swearing matches at 6am every morning, and their son is potty training at the moment, and, we gather, if he doesn't do something right, he gets smacked. And sworn at loudly. I've been in tears listening to it on occasions, and have been so tempted to call somebody to sort them out - but what can you do? Know that some poor children will grow up like that and renew the cycle, others will grow up and swear that they never want to treat their children the way they were, and make a difference - try and rise above it.

I think of how I was raised and thank my parents for giving me all the opportunities I needed to grow and at the same time all the love and hugs a child (or teenager) could ever want. And now, thinking about when I have my own kids in the future, I just hope that I'll be able to do as good a job as my parents did, especially in the society we live in now.

And I know that you are a wonderful mother now, and will be with your next entry into the world. You and your BB have had the opportunity to travel and live beyond your local suburb and country, and I am certain will allow PJ and the next one to achieve the things that will make them happy. You've got so much to give your kleintjies, and while none of us may be able to save some of those poor kids with bad parents, we can try make it up by being the best people, and parents, we can be. And I know for you, that won't be too difficult.


MadMad said...

Ugh! I felt sick reading your post, and imagining that poor little boy... I have seen a mother whack her child once, at the mall - I was so distressed at the time, I let out a scream, which was not the right thing to do, but I was so horrified. What IS one supposed to do? I am sorry you had to go through this - what an awful, awful thing to experience. I spent the day of my experience exactly the same as you did: thinking, and stressing.

Five Ferns Fibreholic said...

My orginal comment was comforting, thoughtful and full of insight...but the computer somehow lost it.

We can not regulate who may have children and who may not. Unfortunately those who are ill equiped to raise them tend to have them. While the mother (we are assuming this) may have been frazzled and it may have been the last straw, she should have handled the situation like an adult. So it's not the hormones, it was your caring heart.

Kids don't come with manuals and the fact that you are questioning yourself and reviewing your approach means you are trying. You are working at being a parent and parenting your child. And by all accounts, it seems to be working, PJ is and example of what happens when parents take the time and effort to be parents

Jejune said...

Oh how awful... I'm not surprised you were upset. My brother probably started on the road to his early death with abusive foster parents when he was about 3 and 4 ... yes, it has a lifelong impact, that sort of behaviour. Very distressing.

You're doing everything you can to ensure that doesn't happen to the children around you, which is really all you can do. The fact you're even thinking about such things means you're going a great job!

Neet said...

Wow... yeah, I know how absolutely horrible it is to see this sort of thing. I still remember very clearly seeing a similar thing in the Civic bus interchange with a young father and his daughter. I was really upset ! It's hard to fight the desire to pick up the kid and give them a cuddle.
I just comfort myself with the thought that there are 20 toddlers who I DO get to cuddle every day, and provide a safe environment for. Hopefully that will make some small difference in their lives.

It sounds like you are doing a great job with PJ! He's a lucky boy!