How can we save our chil­dren? Smack them

The psy­chol­o­gist and fa­ther of four is un­der fire for sug­gest­ing par­ents need to get tough to re­gain con­trol of their kids — and that in­cludes us­ing cor­po­ral pu­n­ish­ment

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features - ARIC SIG­MAN

DR ARIC Sig­man has found him­self mak­ing the head­lines re­cently. Con­tro­versy has been rag­ing over one par­tic­u­lar as­ser­tion in his new book, The Spoilt Gen­er­a­tion, which has been caus­ing

Guardian read­ers to get more than a lit­tle hot un­der the col­lar. The ve­he­mence with which he has been at­tacked has taken Sig­man aback, es­pe­cially given the fact that his views would not have made the front page of a syn­a­gogue mag­a­zine 40 years ago. Yet now his as­ser­tion that par­ents should be left to de­cide whether to smack their chil­dren or not is in­cen­di­ary.

Sig­man freely ad­mits to smack­ing his own chil­dren (he has four be­tween the ages of six and 19), but he does make a dis­tinc­tion. “I’m only talk­ing about a slap on the wrist — a ‘potch’ to use the Yid­dish term. It’s a mild smack on the back­side hand de­liv­ered out of love and con­cern, and per­haps Jewish anx­i­ety, over a child’s well-be­ing. There is a huge dif­fer­ence be­tween a par­ent who punches his or her child across the face or hits them with a belt and one who slaps them on the hand when he sees them reach­ing for a hot burner.”

Sig­man, a Fel­low of the Royal So­ci­ety of Medicine, talks about when his then 33-month-old son was knocked down and badly con­cussed af­ter run­ning into the road and be­ing hit by a car. He as­sumed that the trauma of be­ing knocked over would dis­suade his son from re­peat­ing the ex­er­cise. He was wrong. “No sooner had he re­cov­ered than he saw some­thing over the road that in­ter­ested him and ran to­wards it. I told him to stop, I ran af­ter him, grabbed him and gave him a whack on his back­side ac­com­pa­nied by a good shak­ing and topped with a gen­er­ous burst of men­ac­ing shout­ing.” His child has not run into the road since. How­ever, Sig­man adds that his ac­tions could have led to his ar­rest. Twenty-three coun­tries, 18 of which are in Europe, would con­sider his method of dis­ci­plin­ing his son a crim­i­nal of­fence.

Sig­man, who was born and grew up in the United States but has lived in Bri­tain since 1973, is at pains to point out that he is not nec­es­sar­ily an ad­vo­cate of smack­ing. What he is con­cerned about is that moth­ers and fathers re­cover the art of in­stinc­tive par­ent­ing — that they set bound­aries for their chil­dren and en­force con­se­quences, whether this be a slap on the wrist or a frozen sal­mon down the trousers (an­other, al­beit bizarre, form of ad­mon­ish­ment oc­ca­sion­ally ad­min­is­tered by Sig­man when his chil­dren mis­be­have). “A few years ago I wrote a book about the bi­o­log­i­cal ef­fects of too much TV on young brains. When par­ents con­tacted me, I dis­cov­ered they were scared of telling their two-and three-year-olds they couldn’t have a TV in their rooms. I re­alised that this was not about tele­vi­sion per se but rather a prob­lem with show­ing au­thor­ity.”

Sig­man adds that, in his opin­ion, we have be­come con­fused about our role as par­ents. “I hear celebri­ties and even mem­bers of the royal fam­ily say­ing that their six-year-old daugh­ter is their best friend. It is an im­pos­si­bil­ity to be best friends with your chil­dren. Those two things are mu­tu­ally exclusive. Try­ing to be friends with your chil­dren is a way of cop­ping out of be­ing a par­ent.” He feels that moth­ers and fathers have dif­fer­ent but com­ple­men­tary roles. He thinks that the mother should be at home dur­ing the early years of a child’s life and that fathers should not at­tempt to be what he calls “as­sis­tant moth­ers”. Parental roles are not in­ter­change­able for him.

Sig­man, who, as a part-time ses­sion mu­si­cian dressed ca­su­ally in jeans and T-shirt cer­tainly does not come across as the Vic­to­rian fa­ther some have ac­cused him of be­ing. He loves the fact that he pre­pares nearly all of his fam­ily’s meals at home in Brighton and fetches his chil­dren from school. As far as he con­cerned, he is es­pous­ing, not “tra­di­tional val­ues“ with all the po­lit­i­cal bag­gage they in­volve, but rather “time­less prin­ci­ples”.

He also feels that Guardian read­ers should be sup­port­ing him. Af­ter all, he blames cap­i­tal­ism for fall­ing stan­dards of par­ent­ing.

“For the sake of the econ­omy, it is use­ful for peo­ple to be per­suaded that there is no dif­fer­ence be­tween putting your chil­dren in day­care or the mother looking af­ter them at home. If you also per­suade so­ci­ety that males and fe­males are in­ter­change­able , you then have a sit­u­a­tion where ei­ther the mother or the fa­ther or both can go to work, which boosts the econ­omy, cuts the price of labour, and suits our ‘me me me me’ life­style. Gov­ern­ment doesn’t want to pay ben­e­fits.

“I’m afraid that when you have chil­dren, self-sac­ri­fice reigns. Peo­ple as­sume that they should re­tain a sim­i­lar stan­dard of liv­ing when they have two young chil­dren. It would never cross their mind that they could trade in stan­dard of liv­ing for time. Peo­ple do not want to hear that.”

He also feels that fa­ther­less­ness is hav­ing a huge ef­fect on the emo­tional health of our chil­dren. And he does not feel that it is feck­less men who are to blame. “Af­ter three years of sep­a­ra­tion, al­most a third of fathers never see their chil­dren. The es­tab­lished idea is that men aban­don their chil­dren, but men are eas­ily cut out of the equa­tion. Moth­ers can move away and make it dif­fi­cult for fathers to see their chil­dren.”

If Bri­tain is get­ting par­ent­ing badly wrong, Sig­man can point to cul­tures where the fam­ily is still val­ued — places like Iran and North Korea. “Yes, the axis of evil,” he laughs. “I’m sure your read­ers will be hor­ri­fied, but I think the Ira­ni­ans are re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to Jewish peo­ple. They don’t drink, food is cen­tral to their lives and moth­ers rule the do­mes­tic sphere. In North Korea I found that the chil­dren were hap­pier and be­haved bet­ter than ours are.”

He also feels that el­e­ments of Jewish cul­ture are good for par­ent­ing. “Fam­ily is cen­tral in Jewish cul­ture. So is food. In­tu­itively, Jews think that chil­dren who sit around the din­ner ta­ble with their par­ents fare bet­ter than those who don’t. Well, they are right.”

Aric Sig­man in Bor­neo. Stricter par­ent­ing in the de­vel­op­ing world cre­ates hap­pier, bet­ter ad­justed young peo­ple than in Bri­tain, he says

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