Let me start this week’s essay with a lovely quote from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibrain.
And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, “Speak to us of Children.”
And he said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
In recent essays I have shared with you some of my thoughts on parenting. I suspect that competent parenting has more positive impacts on society than almost any other endeavour. Now as I have remarked previously, the quality of our parenting seems to be dwindling because of a number of societal influences.
Don’t get me wrong. There are still many marvellous parents who unselfishly nourish their children and guide them competently into productive lives.
But unfortunately, it seems to me that there are growing numbers of parents who seem to have neither the skills nor the desire to ensure their children make a positive contribution to our society.
The proliferation of dysfunctional families means that many parents have no good role models for parenting themselves and often children are brought up in households where one parent (most often the father) is missing. I am probably old-fashioned and politically incorrect, but I can’t help but believe that the lack of positive male role models for boys is particularly deleterious to their upbringing. Combined with this, the fact women dominate the ranks of primary school teachers, means that many boys are not exposed to competent, well-functioning males for most of their formative years.
Mind you I know of many fine women, and some men as well, that have reared families single-handedly with good results.
But I have elaborated on these ideas in previous essays, so I won’t bore you by going there again. I don’t want this to be a didactic treatise on parenting, because as my wife and children would attest, I am not the perfect father either. So it is just my intention to share with you some thoughts that have come to me on this most important subject. I write them down in no logical structure or order, but just as they come to me.
Good parenting is without doubt underpinned by maternal and paternal love. Fortunately, as Richard Dawkins has argued in The Selfish Gene, most of us are genetically wired to love and nurture our children. In the immortal words of the good Dr Phil our love for our children (and indeed our spouses) should be unconditional in so far as “there should be nothing you are required to do to earn it and there is nothing you could do to lose it”.
This simple philosophy is the most important step in establishing a child’s autonomy.
Unfortunately many parents use the withdrawal of regard as a weapon to coerce their children to conform to their desires. Furthermore they use their own confected suffering as a tool to get their way with their children. How many times have you heard statements like these:
‘Don’t fight with your sister Tom. You know it makes me angry.’
‘You make me so depressed when you don’t do your homework.’
‘I’ll never be happy while you’re so thoughtless of other people.’
‘You really frustrate me when you don’t pass your exams.’
‘You make me feel I am a failure as a parent when you don’t bring your
‘I am very disappointed in you. You ought to show more self-control’.
‘It really upsets me when you say things like that’.
So what is this teaching your children? Unfortunately it is teaching them that they are responsible for your emotional state of mind which is a false and destructive premise. And I am not seeking to blame parents for this aberrant behaviour because it was no doubt demonstrated to them by their own parents.
And subject to this conditioning children are going to grow up believing that their well-being is dependent on the approval of others which leaves them in a parlous position.
My youngest son is autistic and as a result has some difficulties relating to others. When he was young and I asked him to do something he didn’t want to do, I always insisted he comply with my request. When he completed the task he would ask, “Are you happy now?” My response was invariably, “I was happy before!” It is important for your children to understand that they are ultimately responsible for their own feelings of well-being and consequently you need to demonstrate that their behaviours are not responsible for yours.
But as I have written before, unconditional love is a safety net for your child. We don’t learn much and we don’t achieve much in this world without taking some risks. Our children will be unlikely to take risks if they know that they will be punished or derided by their parents for their failures. Unconditional love provides the insurance for them to take the measured risks we all must take if we are going to develop our potential and engage the world productively.
I am grateful that my parents provided such a safety net for me. I had great admiration for my father. Whilst he had only the most basic of educations, he was competent in many ways that I am not. But his outlook, just like that of all of us, was limited by his circumstances. When it came time to leave school he suggested I should do a trade and he assured me that a tradesman would never be short of a job. But I won a scholarship and decided to go to university. The scholarship combined with the paid work I did on university vacations was sufficient (just) to be able to leave home to go to university. I was the first person in my family ever to aspire to tertiary education. In fact prior to my senior year when about three of us went, I only knew one graduate from my high school that went on to university. Despite this (to them) alarming career choice, my parents continued to be supportive.
(In retrospect I am disappointed I didn’t get a trade. I missed out on being a member of the CFMEU, AMWU or whatever!)
Another useful lesson in parenting is to learn to understand the wide range of normal behaviours that people demonstrate. You must accept that just because your child shares your genes they won’t necessarily adopt the same behavioural patterns that you do. What’s more it is likely to be destructive if you insist that they do.
Sure, as a parent you need to ensure good manners and appropriate behaviours so that your child can make their way productively in society. But if you are optimistic and your child is pessimistic, you are tidy and your child is messy, you value order and process and your child is vague, dreamy and creative, don’t believe that they should be required to emulate your behaviour beyond the modicum necessary to relate with others and make a contribution to the household.
Good parents value the different attributes of their children and encourage the natural development of those innate traits. My older son likes order, fairness, and respects authority. These are not traits that I would claim to exemplify greatly. Yet in his role as a teacher they earn him respect. His pupils know exactly what he expects of them and he is consistent and fair in the way he treats them, which ensures his classroom is orderly and his disciplinary actions reasonably accepted. I am pleased and gratified by the praise the parents of his students relate to me.
It is unfortunate that some of us as parents can’t relate with our children as wonderful young people who need our nurture but as objects that are instruments to use for our own personal satisfaction. Such parents end up trying to live their lives vicariously through their children. It is not just that they want their children to do well but somehow they want their children to plug some of the gaps in their own lives, to realise the ambitions they never achieved. Some of us mistake this for love when it is really a pathetic parasitic dependency.
Now some have challenged whether the application of unconditional love leads to indulgence of our children. And of course they are wrong!
To begin with, when we are creating a sense of our own identity, a young person seeks the approval of the significant people in their lives. A mature adult should be more robust than that and have gained an understanding that, in the long run, they must seek to practice their own guiding principles to achieve a sense of well-being. Some parents do not attain that level of psychological maturity and unfortunately seem to need their child’s approval at all times, rendering discipline difficult. Consequently everything they ask of their child becomes negotiable. I see a lot of this in families. Children need to know that some parental demands are not negotiable. Parents need to understand that having clear, consistent, non-negotiable rules will actually improve your relationship with your child in the long run. It is inevitable that children will test their boundaries. And it is appropriate that parents gradually expand that envelope as children learn to accept more responsibility. But you are not promoting the welfare of your children if, in the face of their whining and wheedling and sometimes tantrums, you withdraw your responsibilities as parent to allow your children to do as they want to avoid confronting their temporary unhappiness.
I know the good Dr Phil won’t mind me sharing with you a story he told at many presentations on parenting. (Forgive me Phil, if I get the details wrong but I believe I have the essence of it.) Phil’s wife Judy was preparing dinner, when their son came to her and asked could he go next door to play. The lovely Judy responded that she would prefer that he stay home as it would soon be time for dinner. But the son wasn’t satisfied with this response so he continued to nag his mother. Finally she relented and in exasperation said, “All right then. If you must, go next door to play.”
At which time Phil appeared and said to his son, “Where are you going?”
The son replied, “I am going next door to play.”
Phil responds, “But I heard your mother say a little while ago she didn’t want you to go next door.”
“But she just said now I could.”
Phil turns to Judy, “Is this true?”
Judy responds, “Yes. I changed my mind.”
Phil quizzes Judy. “Do you really want him to go next door?”
“No, I guess not. I’d rather he stay here until dinner is ready.”
Phil, in his inimitable way, says, “Jude, you didn’t change your mind. You just changed your mouth!”
He then goes to his son and admonishes him for nagging his mother and insists that he should stay home.
Once parents allow their children to negotiate out of important parental directives, then everything will be challenged.
I have a wonderful niece who has two lovely children. Her father and I were sharing a whiskey with her late one evening last year. It was after a family funeral and her young son was with us as well.
She told us a story of going to a friend’s place one evening for dinner. When it came time to eat, the host called her child to come to the table to eat. The child was playing an electronic game of some sort and refused to come. My niece was embarrassed by the ensuing fracas with mum trying to coax the child away from the game.
After she had told the story, she turned to her son and said, “What do you think would have happened to you if you would have behaved like that.”
Very matter-of-factually he just said, “I think dad would have stomped on the device, thrown it in the bin and then said calmly, ‘We should go and have dinner now.’”
Many of you might not agree, but I think that is probably an appropriate response!
Another mistake that parents make is to believe that just because their young children can speak, they can reason. This leads to the unseemly situation of parents trying to debate with their two year old children. Children are generally not capable of abstract thinking until they are seven or eight. Therefore it is fruitless trying to convince your toddler what is the appropriate thing to wear, what is the appropriate food to eat, or whatever. It is useful for you to tell them why you are making such choices, but rather fruitless to debate it with them.
There is no doubt that parenting is not an easy skill. It is unfortunate that many children are born without their parents giving any great thought to their responsibilities in this regard. Our maternal and perhaps lesser so, paternal instincts provide some guidance. Obviously, when we look at the fate of children of dysfunctional parents this is not enough.
But can there be anything more important?
Conventional wisdom would say that parents are there for their children whatever the circumstances, and rightly so. But in my life there have been many occasions that my children have provided succour for me in the times of my deepest despair.
And I rejoice in all the words of Kahlil Gibran’s wonderful parable. As a father I have no desire my children be like me. I want always to give them my love and I will share my thoughts with them if they wish. I want them to be who they are rather than who I am. And I do indeed hope that they dwell in the “house of tomorrow” instead of being locked into my history and experience.
But that doesn’t reduce our responsibility as parents. There is no doubt in my mind that we must strive to provide a secure and loving environment as the most important aid to childhood development.