25 Oct Parenting: Learning to be honest about the messy reality of life.
I have thought a lot recently about how to enable my kids to move from the ‘infant’ part of their childhood into their teenage years. How to begin to prepare them for greater independence. How to teach them to think and act for themselves and make good choices that reflect their values.
I have thought a lot about where those values could come from and how it might be possible to instil values that will serve them well, that will give them a happy and peace-filled life.
I think this may be impossible.
I cannot guarantee they will immediately pick up healthy values, I cannot guarantee they ever will. I have very little power in this situation.
But I am trying to move from a parenting style that has been fairly protectionist in outlook, to a parenting style that is more engaged, more transparent.
When they were little I shielded my children from the horror of the world. I turned down the radio or changed the channel when a report about the war in Sudan, or the refugee crisis came on. I didn’t want my children’s delicate and impressionable minds filled with images of babies washed up on beaches, of earthquakes and tsunamis. I wanted them to be able to be children. To have years free from the worries of the world.
This was not a bad policy. Although it may have been a little extreme.
But now my children are growing up. It is important they begin to learn how to engage with the world. They need to know the reality of what is happening to other people in other places, even if it is confusing and painful, even if it makes them upset or frightened. They need to see the truth that they are unbelievably fortunate. They need start to think about how to act in a way that is considerate and responsible, in a way that is aware of the reality of being alive here and now. To not start to teach them about the complicated reality of life would be to cosset them, to wrap them in cotton wool. It would be America in the Second World War: protectionism for their own comfort and security.
And sure, it would protect them, but it would also separate them. It would create a culture and expectation that is not healthy or outward looking. It would not teach them how to be citizens of the world.
It is hard to change my stance. They are still my babies and my reflex action is to want to shield them from the messy parts of life, but I know if I do this I am not giving them the tools they need to live. I am not teaching them how to question, I am not showing them how to engage and wrestle with the difficult things of life.
I am also showing them a very skewed image of what the world is like. I am in danger of infantilising them.
And no one, absolutely no one, wants toddlers forever.
But all change is bittersweet and as we voyage out into new territory, the safe place we are leaving behind looks so appealing, so enticing.
Teaching our children the reality of what it is to live in a broken world is not just about global issues – it is also about the difficulty of living in community and being honest about our own weaknesses and struggles.
Recently we have had cause to explain to our children that even grown ups can fall out and not all friendships are smooth sailing. We have tried to remain generous and open-minded. The kids have, on the whole, responded brilliantly to this unexpectedly changing landscape.
Hopefully through this situation we are opening their eyes to the reality that even amongst good people who love each other things can be difficult. Maybe we are even showing them how to navigate relational challenges.
Maybe not. If it turns out we have handled it really badly hopefully we will have another conversation about how we should have managed this tricky situation and maybe they can learn from our mistakes. They are certainly learning that we are fallible.
Many months after all her friends were bought them, we eventually allowed our eldest to have a phone. She isn’t allowed to take it out of the house and she isn’t allowed to take it upstairs. (We are a little bit Victorian like that). We are trying to talk a lot about how we, and others, use technology and to try and make decisions together about how, as a family, we will navigate this next season, without allowing the internet and all its contents to rush like a train through our household.
(*not her phone – we are not that cruel).
We are trying to show the kids that the ability to communicate and access information is a gift, but one that has to be respected, because like all powerful things, it can be harmful.
So far, so good.
(In a couple of years I intend to write a post about all the things we have got wrong in raising teenagers, fear not, I have no assurance of any success in this arena.)
For now though, my eldest talks to me about the text messages she has received and how they make her feel. We talk about FOMO and how to be proactive, not reactive. We talk about how to navigate the complex friendships of twelve year olds, the competition and heightened emotions.
And it is not just the kids who need to learn how to engage.
(*not my baby. A quick cuddle with my gorgeous nephew.)
At the dinner table, the one time of the day we all sit down together, I am trying to be more deliberate in my conversation. I am starting to share honestly about my day, not just ask and hear about theirs. I tell them about the decisions I am making in my work, about my struggle to be disciplined and I ask them for ideas and suggestions. I am trying to be honest about my failures and my successes.
This is pretty tricky actually. Harder than I expected. For a long time I wanted to keep a bit of my life back for myself. To have some stuff that was just for me. It was a way of staying sane. If I held a portion of me back, in my marriage or with my children, then I wouldn’t feel completely overwhelmed by their needs and their ideas.
I think I thought it was the only way to retain the essence of who I am.
But I am learning how to reveal my whole self to Matt and the kids, to show them the things I find hard and to share my plans and dreams with them. This is a conscious decision and is not without its challenges. As I have learnt to look after myself I have also had to re-address my behaviour with my nearest and dearest. It is no longer essential to keep a portion back for myself, I don’t need to be protectionist about my own self. I am learning to engage and offer all I am. It is a slow and ungainly process.
If this blog post feels unfinished, that is because it is. This is a work in progress. We are. But we are putting one step infront of the other and learning and trying and failing, to love each other better and share our lives better. To move from protectionism to engagement in all areas. Wish us luck.