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RICHARD GLOVER: Parents don't punish kids like they used to.

You couldn’t really blame people for their careless attitude to parenting in the ’70s. Many of the mothers and fathers were little more than kids themselves. People married young. In 1974, for example, the average age of an Australian bride was 20.9 years; her groom was 23. Children followed pretty swiftly; the typical first-time mother was 24. Only 16 per cent of the couples had lived together before marriage, compared to 81 per cent now. They may have had a bit on their plate.

Certainly, a common response to the arrival of children was to put them in their place. There were two favourite phrases used at the time: ‘Don’t get too big for your boots’ and ‘No one likes a big-noter’. One of these phrases, or more commonly both, would greet any achievement. The boast ‘I got 99 out of 100 for maths,’ was nearly always met with the rejoinder ‘So where did you lose the mark?’

LISTEN: Richard Glover reminisces with Mia Freedman on No Filter. (Post continues below.)

Bragging was not allowed, nor was any form of complaint. This was true in all homes, but the ban was imposed in a particularly fierce way in ours, at least up to the time of my mother’s departure:

Mum, it’s terrible, I’ve just fallen off my bike and gashed my leg, which is now bleeding horribly.

Well, just think what a lucky boy you are to have a bike from which to fall.

You’ll notice my mother at work: more effort placed in achieving the proper grammatical construction than in fetching a bandage to staunch the Amazon-like blood flow.

Physical punishment was also meted out at a moment’s notice. People would say to their children: ‘Come here this instant. I’m going to wash your mouth out with soap and water.’ Or, worse, they delivered a similar message with plenty of ominous notice: ‘Just wait until your father gets home.’ I have a vivid memory of being at a friend’s house when both these punishments were delivered – the mother wrenching the child’s head towards the basin in the bathroom, before violently inserting the bar of soap into his mouth. Once she’d finished, leaving the boy a blubbering mess, she delivered the coup de grâce: ‘Just wait until your father gets home.’ This, I gathered, would involve the boy being struck repeatedly on the naked buttocks with his father’s belt.

He ended up a car thief. This is hearsay and from thirty years ago, but I believe it.

Image: ABC Books

The parents of this period also made good use of what was known as the ‘cautionary tale’. This was a fanciful story told to children to keep them in a state of docile obedience. For example, a child who complained when his mother used a flannel to clean out his ears would be told: ‘If I don’t clean out your ears, potatoes will grow in there.’ Admittedly, the kids of the time should have questioned the science behind this statement, but – since they were only six years old – they just got on with imagining the potatoes taking root, sprouting, then tumbling out of their ears like a hideous, cancerous growth. Maybe that’s why so many of my generation ended up on drugs: having begun life imagining potatoes growing out our ears, the delusions of heroin and LSD must have seemed like a doddle.

Actually, the potatoes were the least of it. If you were caught picking your nose, you might be told that your skull was about to collapse inwards, due to the excavation of so much of the internal stuffing. I’m all for trying to instil good manners – but really? A collapsing skull? Who’s your dad? Hieronymus Bosch?

Other cautionary tales were less horrific, and possibly in the public interest. I was part of the generation of children told that a certain chemical had been added to all the swimming pools in Sydney. If you urinated while swimming, the water would turn bright purple and everyone would be aware of your crime. I believed this story to be accurate, until, well, I’d rather not say. All the same, 48 is quite an age to discover your parents were filthy liars.

This is an extract from The Land Before Avocado by Richard Glover (ABC Books).

Feat. image: Marco del Grande.

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