Sydney Festival: Never Did Me Any Harm

25 January 2012

Set in an Aussie backyard, 'Never Did Me Any Harm' explores the complexities of modern family life.
Set in an Aussie backyard, 'Never Did Me Any Harm' explores the complexities of modern family life.

Emeritus Professor Kim Oates from Sydney Medical School responds to the Sydney Festival production, Never Did Me Any Harm. Professor Oates is also a Council Member of the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect.

"All happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion".

Family life is not quite as simple as the opening lines of the novel Anna Karenina suggest. Many modern families are a mixture of happiness and unhappiness. They deeply love their children and want the best for them. But not all couples have a consistent, agreed approach to parenting.

On top of this, there are the anxieties and pressures confronting modern families: the desire to be a 'perfect' parent; the question of how to protect your children without overprotecting them; how to help them reach their potential without overindulging them and how to discipline them.

This seems to be a particularly middle-class problem. Why is this? Families are smaller, often just one child. Parenthood now occurs later in life, often during an established career so that the loss of freedom associated with having a child may be felt more acutely. Many middle-class families have more disposable income, so that it is possible to spend large amounts of money on their one or two children, wisely or not.

Then there's the pressure to be as good as, if not better than, all the other parents, the exposure to a variety of expert opinions on child rearing (opinions which are not always consistent) and the concern that they may do something which would irreparably damage their child's potential to succeed.

All of these fears and pressures are admirably expressed with great skill in Never Did Me Any Harm, a Sydney Festival dance-theatre collaboration between the innovative dance company Force Majeure and the Sydney Theatre Company.

Over an hour, in the setting of a typical Australian backyard, three dancers and four actors explore these issues in dance, mime and drama, the actors speaking directly to the audience. They present a series of vignettes, at times playing the role of a child as well as parents.

We see the rebellious teenager, the indulgent mother, the immature father and the woman who rejoices in the freedom of not having had a child but then worries about what it will be like when she becomes old and dependent on others.

We meet parents confused about the best way to discipline, a pregnant couple with hopes and anxieties, a woman who gives well-meaning but unhelpful advice about how life will change for the worse once the baby is born and we meet a father trying to understand living with his autistic child.

To research this production Kate Champion, the director, interviewed people of all ages and backgrounds for their opinions about what makes a good parent. It paid off. Through the very effective blend of modern dance, drama, mime and innovative lighting we meet real people with real anxieties. We recognise people we know, and if we are honest, we recognise ourselves. It's not bleak. There are many moments where the audience laughs in sympathy, or in self-recognition.

While most families are a mix of happiness or unhappiness in varying proportions there would be less unhappiness if we stopped trying to be perfect parents. Bruno Bettelheim pointed out that parents just have to be "good enough".

Children are resilient. Parents will make mistakes along the way. They will never be perfect, neither will their children. If, however, their children grow up in an atmosphere of consistent parenting, unconditional love (not having to feel they must earn their parents' love) and clear boundaries where they learn the value of rules and respect for others, that will generally be good enough.

Never Did Me Any Harm runs until 12 February at Sydney Theatre Company, Walsh Bay.

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