Don’t Antagonize your Audience

Have you heard of John Marsden? He’s a magnificent Australian author of teen fiction. His series which starts with “Tomorrow When the War Began” is probably his most famous. Over the years (since I was a young teenager) I have somewhat idolised him as having a great understanding of kids – maybe especially kids who undergo some kind of trauma. Marsden is also a teacher and a headmaster and has started up two high schools in Victoria which follow his particular ideas about teaching.

Yesterday I listened to John Marsden being interviewed by Richard Fidler on Conversations. Of course, it’s only an hour and I guess he doesn’t get to choose the questions or how they are phrased but I’m afraid I didn’t come away quite as full of praise and good feeling as I hoped.

I think it’s important to state up front that I am a parent and the podcast is entitled “John Marsden’s manifesto on teaching and raising children”.

I actually agree with most of Marsden’s ideas. I think kids should be active, should play outside on natural terrain like rocks and trees and hillsides, should gradually be given more and more independence and responsibility to act on their own without a parent hovering. I think kids should be allowed to play in situations which may cause injury although, as a mother, I am always aware that the discomfort and inconvenience of any longer-term injury will largely fall on me. And I don’t think it’s healthy for a child to be raised thinking they are perfect or angelic or whatever it is Marsden thinks is commonplace.

So it’s not Marsden’s ideas I found objectionable. What I object to is the tone of his discourse, the self-righteous outrage. I just read an article in The Guardian in which he refers to “toxic parenting” and how he thinks it’s “doing significant emotional damage”.

What I couldn’t gather from the podcast was whether Marsden had gone to any effort to understand the parents he is criticising so roundly. I am happy if he wants to be an advocate for children. That’s lovely. But I don’t think he can be so negative about parents unless he has actually tried to empathise with their lot. Here are a few things which were not mentioned in the podcast which I think are fairly significant:

* There is already LOADS of pressure out there on parents to conform to certain expectations in society. Parenting is watched over by the whole world, perhaps especially schools. I am told what to put in my children’s lunchboxes. I am instructed on screentime. I am told when my children must wear hats and sunscreen. I am emailed if my child is not clothed appropriately for the weather. I don’t say this is all bad. But it is a symbol of how things have changed since I was in primary school. In preschool, parents/carers are expected to stay for 15 minutes at the beginning and do puzzles with their child. Parents/carers are expected to meet their child at the door of the classroom until at least the end of kindergarten. This is all dictated by the school, not by the parents.

* Since child psychology became a thing, oodles of books have been written and social media is awash with forums and advice and criticism (not that I participate anymore). Just this morning my good friend messaged me a meme which reads:

How To Be a Mom in 2019

Make sure your children’s academic, emotional,

psycologlocial, mental, spiriual, physical, nutritional

and social needs are met while being careful not to

overstimulate, underestimate, improperly medicate,

helicopter, or neglect them in a screen free, processed foods-free,

plastic-free, body positive, socially conscious, egalitarian but also

authoritative, nurturing but fostering of independence, gentle

but not overly permissive, pesticide-free two-storey, multilingual

home preferably in a cul-de-sac with a backyard.

Also, don’t forget the coconut oil.

Of course, it’s poking a little fun but it’s also a comment on what mothers (or, I would say, parents) are faced with in a world just desperate to tell them how to raise their children. I heard an awful story (about a friend of a friend) of a poor mother trying to get her autistic son (aged around 14 or 15) out of the car and into school. He absolutely refused get out of the car. The mother pleaded and begged and cajoled. Finally, she told him she needed to go away and take a few breaths to figure out what to do (she had to be at work) and she shut the car door and walked away. Somebody witnessed this episode and called child services. This somebody, whoever they were, could not have known that the poor boy was autistic, could not have known that the father suffers from terrible depression and can barely bring himself to interact with his children at all, could not have known that she has no extended family to fall back on in her home city. Do you think having to answer to child services and have her home inspected was useful and informative to this mother? It’s easy to judge without asking questions first.

* Media. Media has changed so much in the last 15 years. Everything is available almost instantly. We hear about everything bad that happens in our neighbourhoods. Parents live in fear of their child being abducted, abused, or assaulted. This fear may be irrational but it isn’t the fault of parents that it’s there. I tell other parents how our two kids sometimes head up to the local playground by themselves for 15-20 minutes. It’s about 300 metres away and they don’t walk on or near any public roads. But nearly every parent says to me “I wouldn’t do that. I couldn’t do that.” In fact, I’m almost expecting backlash from making this statement in this blog.

* I am lucky enough to be a stay-at-home mother with no pressure to go back to work. But I am unusual among my friends. Most households I know have both parents working a large percentage of the week. Most families I know have to work to pay off big mortgages. If Mr Marsden reads the news, he knows that salaries are not going up enough to keep up with inflation. He knows that the housing market is under threat of tanking. I can’t defend all parents on decisions they make about money but I don’t think it’s, economically, a very comfortable time. I mention this in reference to blanket statements he made about “what children do in the afternoon”. Some families are lucky if they get to be together for the afternoon.

* My understanding is that John Marsden’s schools are quite pricey. It is therefore not surprising that they attract wealthy parents who (having selected an expensive school) then have high academic expectations of their kids and the education system that will look after them. I have family in a wealthy part of Sydney and they report similar attitudes to what Marsden speaks of: So many parents saying “my child is gifted”. But that’s not a fair representation of the middle class. That area is full of Mercedes, Jaguars, Teslas and Porsches. If Marsden thinks this is a fair snapshot of middle class Australia, I don’t quite understand where his amazing books came from.

The name of this blog came from a great Youtube Video that my brother-in-law sent me. It’s a retelling of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The basic message is: You don’t preach at people. To have any hope of changing their minds, you lead them on a gradual, staged journey to show them your perspective and the reasoning behind it.

I understand that Mr Marsden has written a book and that I have not read that book. However, based on what I heard on the Podcast and what I read in The Guardian, I am not persuaded that I want to read it.

Parents don’t need more preaching, Mr Marsden. Like anybody, they need some understanding.

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