Sorting out Seniority

The moving tale of Christian the Lion was awarded a full hour of a primetime documentary slot this weekend, testimony to its consuming human interest forty years after two Aussies adopted the lion as a cub. In 1969 they had made the crazy decision to rehome the baby lion, which they had seen for sale at Harrods' zoo, and kept him in an upstairs flat for a year, feeding him day-old steaks from a local restaurant, and exercising him in a London cemetery. He was safe and affectionate, but as time went on he grew too big and strong to sustain this lifestyle, and Christian was taken to George Adamson's conservation compound in Kenya. ,There he prepared to be released into the wild, even though he and his family had been in captivity for five generations. A year after they returned to London without him, his friends Ace and John went back to Africa to see how he had got on. To their surprise Christian not only remembered them, but greeted them with gentle enthusiasm, leaping up on his hind legs with his forepaws round their shoulders, and nuzzling their faces.

I had read the story some time ago, and we had watched a fuzzy version of the heartwarming reunion on Youtube, but the longer version of the tale was amazing. I was not the only one in the room with moist eyes. But what caught my interest this time was the extra detail about the process of acclimatising Christian to life in the wild. Under the wise eye of George Adamson - known to the world through the movie Born Free, the true story of Joy Adamson and Elsa the lioness - Christian was introduced to Boy, a senior male who led a pride of lions based in the reserve area. The two males first interacted through a wire fence, and it was clear that Christian, who had not met another lion since infancy, knew instinctively that there were matters to be sorted out here. The two growled and postured, and in time were allowed into the same enclosure. John and Ace watched in trepidation as Boy leaped onto Christian, seemingly intent on a kill. But nature had equipped the younger lion for just such an encounter, and still growling and spitting, he rolled onto his back taking a position of submission. The hierarchy was established and the boundaries clear; Boy and Christian became great mates and we saw wonderful shots of them hunting and feeding together, the old boy showing the young one how to do lion-life the African way. After Boy died Christian took over his role as leader of the pride.

The reason this "sorting out of seniority" caught my attention was the connection with the fuss in the newspapers and on talkback this week about New Zealand's so-called "antismacking' legislation, passed into law two years ago. That bill removed from the Crimes Act the statutory defence of "reasonable force" to correct a child, meaning there is now no defence for the use of a smack for the purpose of correction. An amendment specified that police have discretion not to prosecute where the offence is considered to be inconsequential. Two years down the track the evidence is inconclusive as to whether this is in fact happening. What is to happen is a Citizens Initiated Referendum which is meant to ascertain the degree of public support for the ban on parental smacking. I signed the petition asking for this referendum, but its unclear wording, and the fact that results are in no way binding on government, suggest it may be a rather pointless exercise.

I signed it however because I believe that the option to make use of a parental smack is still useful tool in the hands of adults. Ric and I raised four children in the eighties, a time when most parents chose to use an occasional form of physical chastisement. As practising Christians, we were offered helpful training in our churches, much of which is even more relevant for parents today. James Dobson for example, taught the distinction between childish irresponsibility (eg when a clumsy toddler drops their food from the highchair) and wilful defiance (eg when that same child as a preschooler throws food at the parent). Dobson also made use of the notion of "moulding the will without breaking the spirit." Discipline was clearly understood as a means of lovingly setting boundaries, and "training the child in the way they should go."(Proverbs 22:6) If we used physical punishment, we learned not to do it out of our own anger, but in response to a breaching of a boundary. I learned to handle discipline issues myself, and not use the threat of "wait till Daddy comes home." (That separates the disobedience too far from the consequence, and sets Daddy up as the Bad Cop). We also learned that a smack is best administered on the bottom, where it hurts without wounding; in some cases a smack could also be on the hand, but never round the head. These sensible boundaries meant that our children were raised to know the parents of the family are the senior members of the hierarchy, and that they decide when a boundary needs to be enforced. They knew - because they were told often - that discipline of children is an important aspect of loving them.

Looking back, I have no regrets about this judicious use of the parental smack. We did use a wooden spoon, supposedly because that meant our hands were only used for kindness, and I'm not sure if that was a good idea or not. It certainly meant that they became conditioned by the sight of the spoon - or even the sound of a rattling the kitchen drawer - and complied without the spank having to be administered. This training took firm hold in the early years and I think I only ever had to smack a school-age child a few times. But when you are at home with four stroppy youngsters, who between them have ten possible constellations of interpersonal conflict, you need more than words at your disposal. We did use time out, deprivation of treats and various other mechanisms, and these days as a grandmother, when I mostly only have kids here one at time, such methods are enough. But I feel aggrieved that my adult children can no longer legally make use of the firm but fair spank on the bottom that served us well as parents.

Christian the lion integrated successfully back into the African jungle of his ancestors because he accepted the authority of his seniors. Children today are often raised to believe there is no hierarchy in a family, and they have the same rights as the adults in our community. Children do have rights, and need to be protected from exploitation or abuse, but they also have a right to a childhood where loving adults take responsibility for guiding their behaviour and preparing them for integrating into the wider community. They are precious gifts, but they are not naturally wise or obedient. I hope today's parents, like the leader of the pride, can show their young ones how to do life, and find creative ways to mould the will without breaking the spirit.

To Chew Over: How were you disciplined as a child? Has this impacted your attitudes to parenting today?

I had the meanest mother in the whole world.

While other kids ate candy for breakfast, I had to have cereal, eggs or toast.

When others had Coke and candy for lunch, I had to eat a sandwich.

We had to wear clean clothes and take a bath.

We had to wash dishes, make beds, learn to cook and all sorts of cruel things.

I believe my mother laid awake at night thinking up mean things to do to us.

She insisted upon knowing where we were at all times.

She had to know who our friends were and where we were going.

She said if we were to be gone an hour, that we better be gone one hour or less, not one minute more.

I am nearly ashamed to admit it, but she actually struck us.

Not once, but each time we had a mind of our own and did as we pleased.

That poor belt was used more on our seats than it was to hold up Daddy's pants.

Can you imagine someone actually hitting a child just because he disobeyed?

Now you can begin to see how mean she really was.

But you know, out of us four children, we all got a good education and none of us have ever been arrested, divorced or beaten his mate.

She forced us to grow up into God-fearing, educated, honest adults.

Now, I thank God, He gave me the meanest mother in the whole world.

adapted from Bobby Pingaro.