Prisoners of Permissiveness

(A Landlady's View)

5 March 1972

I am one of those landladies who doesn't put "No Children" in her advertisements -- and believe me, if you miss out this familiar prohibition, you might just as well say "Residential Play-Group" and be done with it! Because that is what you will get!

Please don't think I'm complaining. I'd hoped all along that it would turn out like this, and I'm delighted that it has. But what I hadn't realized was that this sort of landlady-hood provides a fantastic opportunity for studying, in the most intimate and authentic detail, the different methods of child-rearing practised by the young mothers of today, and the effects of these on the child. I'll swear that the communal kitchen of our household provides more genuine data for the child-psychologist than the most expensively-equipped research-centre in the land! Here, as I get on with the cooking and the ironing, I see a succession of young mothers, day in and day out, in good times and in bad, at their brightest and best and at their worst and most despairing. I have seen cherished theories of child-care crack under the impact of what little Johnnie is actually like; and -- far worse -- I have seen theories held to, grimly and passionately, in the teeth of the most harrowing evidence that they simply aren't working. I have seen the whole gamut of "permissiveness", from total license to near-Victorian discipline -- and I have come to the somewhat startling conclusion that the more "permissively" a small child is brought up, the less freedom he actually, in practice, has.

Let me give an illustration. Some months ago, an attractive, well-educated young woman turned up with her two-and-a-half-year-old son, whom I shall call Peter. Peter was a strong, energetic little boy, and within a few hours of his arrival he had overturned all the pot-plants, had brought the bathroom mirror crashing down almost onto his own head, and had yanked all the books out of the sitting-room bookshelves and scattered them on the floor. Mrs X. (as I shall call Peter's mother) was horrified. She was a good-hearted girl, anxious to please, and with profuse apologies she ran around putting things to rights after her son. But I noticed that she did not reprimand him, or try to impress on him that he mustn't do this or that: and later that evening she explained to me that she believed in freedom for young children, and in particular that a child should never be made to feel that he had been "naughty". But not to worry, she told me: in future she'd "see that" he didn't behave like that again.

And I suppose she did, in a way; but at what a cost! A cost to Peter, I mean, not to me. Because this was how she set about it.

Her first action was to fix a bolt high up on the door of our communal living-room, so that Peter couldn't get in by himself and get at the books and the plants again. (It also meant that he couldn't get at the cupboard full of toys I keep in that room for tenants' children, but that was just too bad.) After all, he could still play in the garden. Well, fine -- except that he insisted on rushing about all over the flower-beds: and so Mrs X. (being just as distressed as I was at the sight of the dying flowers) decided that he shouldn't play in the garden, either, unless she could be out there with him.

And so now the front and back doors were barricaded against Peter, as well as the sitting-room door. Soon the stairs and landings became too hot to hold him, too, because of the high windows he persisted in pushing dangerously open. Inch by inch, crisis by crisis, Peter was being edged back and back, until at last his little bedroom was the only place he could be safely left on his own, with door and window locked. In the name of Freedom, he had become a prisoner in an 8 x 10 cell! For his own safety's sake, he could only be allowed out at such times as his mother or one of the rest of us had time to follow him about, watching his every movement like prison warders!

Peter may have been an extreme case: but over the years I have watched many a young mother in the throes of this same dilemma, trying to reconcile her beliefs about "Freedom" with the actual, practical facts of existence; and, watching them, I have come to the conclusion that the only practical alternative to "No!" is a degree of supervision so wearisome and so galling (to child and adult alike) that it reduces a child's life to something not much different from that of a chronic invalid. You see, it's not as if "permissive" mothers are really prepared to have their child do absolutely anything. If they were, I suppose the freedom they believe in would be real, though it would be bought at the cost of constant risk of death or grave injury to the child. But, of course, ordinary, loving young mothers like Mrs X. are not prepared to face this alarming logical conclusion to their beliefs. They want their child to be safe as well as free; they even want him to be liked: and in order to achieve these modest aims, it seems to me that you have to do one of two things: either you give a child the concept that some things are "naughty" (that much frowned-on word!) or (as Mrs X. did) you reduce his environment to something so narrow and so carefully-supervised that he can't be "naughty". As we have seen, the trouble with this is that he not only can't be "naughty"; he also can't experience independent, unsupervised play, or personal adventure of any kind.

People often say that over-permissively raised children are "insecure"; but I begin to wonder, is it really "insecurity" that they suffer from? It looks to me, from my kitchen-eye-view, more like sheer lack of normal stimulation and variety of experience: a lack inexorably brought up by the narrow, impoverished environment that is all one can safely allow to a child who doesn't understand "No!"

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