Sunday, September 24, 2006

Great Expectations

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The controversy around Steve Irwin continues.

Firstly, there were the less than kind (and unsolicited) comments from the person I shall forever think of as 'Germaine Sodding Greer' (apologies but blame Bridget Jones).

Then there were the mutterings regarding Terri Irwin's decision to talk to a woman's magazine.

Now talkback radio is awash with discussion about the authenticity of the eulogy delivered by Bindi Irwin at Steve Irwin's memorial service and the pressure being placed on this child to carry on the work of her father.

Alison Garton, a professor of psychology at Western Australia's Edith Cowan University, has come forward to express concern following Bindi's appearance at the memorial.

"She's obviously a very poised and mature eight-year-old, but I think some of these public statements are probably a bit extreme in this point in time."

Newspaper reports focused on Bindi with headlines such as 'The Future of the Dream' and 'The Little Wildlife Warrior'. Even John Stainton, Steve Irwin's manager, predicted Bindi's fame could exceed that of Steve's in five years.

It does sound a little overwhelming. The danger of setting up such high expectations is that failure to meet them can have a devastating impact on the child.

Of course, these are extraordinary circumstances. Bindi hasn't led the life of your typical 8 year old. She's been around her father's work all her life and was already filming her own television series.

But still, too much?

Easy to point the finger when this situation can just as easily be mirrored in our own lives. We all have hopes and expectations for our children. It's natural. It's where we cross the line between encouragement to gross intervention that it becomes problematic.

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald this week covered the issue of parents doing homework on behalf of their children. Such behaviour illustrates the practice of what has become termed the "parachute" parent, who rescues their child from difficulties.

"The message parents send when they do the work for their kids is, 'You can't do it well enough, I'll do it for you'. It's producing some very anxious children."
Elbie Van Coller, school counsellor.

Then there's the infamous sports parent. We've all heard stories like this.

This past Friday, I attended my daughter's first sports day.

She's only small. I'm not in the least athletic, apart from unravelling a chocolate bar (I hold the world speed record). I had no major expectations and said all the right things about 'having fun' and 'just giving it your best shot.'

Then, suddenly, she was coming first and someone was yelling rather loudly. I was shocked to find it was reserved British me, up on the chair, screaming at the top of my lungs.

I surprised myself and not in a good way. I was, of course, otherwise well-behaved (as in I didn't trip up her nearest rival) but I could suddenly see how easy it could be to morph into a pushy parent.

Professor Garton makes a very valid point if it's generalised beyond the Irwin family. We all need to manage our expectations of our children. Me included!

Postscript: My colleague, Alison Tuck, a child psychologist, also posted on this subject here.


Cartoon from Sydney Morning Herald
Psychologist voices Bindi Irwin concerns
Stop doing the homework, overzealous parents warned


Sarebear said...

I would hope and suspect that her mother is making sure people near them don't pressure Bindi in any way, I would hope. From what I've seen of the little girl, I'd suspect that her fearlessness in speaking up, and being forthright, comes from her father, and that she really wanted the world to know what she had to say.

It's hard to say, really, since I don't know them, and since she and her father and family were so much in the public eye, but since that was so much a part of her life, I'd say her euology was much more a normal part of her goodbye to her father, than such a public speech in front of so many, would be for the average joe on the street's child.

I hope the media keeps their distance and lets the little girl and family grieve in peace, except as they choose and desire to make their feelings and wishes known.

Alison said...

As you know, hp, I don't want to get involved too much in this. Being a child psychologist myself 'n all. Alison Garton (nice name, I must say) raises a worthy concern of course. But Bindi, for my money, can do whatever the heck she likes.

In a 2003 interview on Denton's "Enough Rope" Steve Irwin spoke of his daughter. He described a kid who was just like himself when it came to animals, but "smarter".

If there's any debate about this, it should be on how many, many, too many families (subconsciously) put way too many expectations on a child. Bindi's family shouldn't be the scapegoat for what is very much a human tendency.

A child who wants to speak at their father's memorial really needs to be respected, whatever the content of the speech may be. I'm sure A. Garton is of that opinion, but let's not get carried away.

Good post too by the way.

healthpsych said...

Hi Sarebear,

Thanks for the comment. I think Professor Garton makes a valid point but one that should be extrapolated beyond the immediate circumstances and this particular family and has more purpose in general terms. This situation and this family are really rather extraordinary.

Hi Alison,
Thanks for commenting. I agree totally with what you say and I have modified my final statement because it seemed misleading. My point with this post is that this is something all of us parents, in varying degrees, have the potential to do and the discussion should not be focused on the Irwin family in particular.

Sarebear said...


healthpsych said...

Woops? No need, Sarebear.i agree with everything you said. :)

Dr. Deborah Serani said...

Yup, making sure we don't "project" our own issues into our children is SO important. Very good post, my friend!

jumpinginpuddles said...

couldnt give a rats flying butt what our kids choose to become as long as it isnt illegal and isnt hurting the world then let them succeed at their pace in their time.Heres to the garbos of the world!!!!!!

fjl said...

As if Bindi's not already coping with an impossible loss! It's displaced public grief gone mad.

healthpsych said...

Hi Deborah,
Thanks for visiting.

Hey JIP,
If only more thought like you!

Well, there's quite an element of that unfortunately. :(

Dreaming again said...

My step father died when I was 14. I wanted to say something at the funeral. I begged to be allowed to be one of the ones who read a eulogy.
I was told no, that's for the adults to do.

This little girl has been in the spotlight from birth (literally, camera's came and saw her in the hospital when she was born!) and it may very well seemed natural to her. They were a public family.

We won't know till she's an adult if this was her idea or not. But if it was hers, to have not allowed it, would have been far more a tragedy than anyone can imagine.

A little girl needs to be allowed to tell those who loved her father, why he was HER Daddy.

healthpsych said...

Agreed, Dreaming Again. This isn't an everyday situation. Thanks for dropping by.