Tag Archives: parent

Notes on parenting

I had a suspicion that how I parented my child as a toddler would have a lot of impact on how things went in his teens. There are similarities – the sudden increase in options and personal power, the need to test boundaries, the hormones undermining common sense… I thought how we handled that when he was small might be key in what came later. He’ll be eighteen this year.

I thought back to my own teens and to the things that made my friends miserable. It was all about the need to be heard and taken seriously, to have your feelings respected. How much we wanted not to be told that we did not know our own minds. How we wanted our emotional attachments taken seriously, our ambitions, distress and frustration as well.

So I started along those lines when he was small. I asked about preferences. I asked him what worked for him and what didn’t. I heard him out, and if he couldn’t have things his way, I explained why. I told him he was always entitled to ask questions, and always entitled to an explanation. I promised him that if I claimed I knew best I would produce some evidence for this. I made sure that what he felt was factored in, and that he knew he was being heard and taken seriously. I promised that I would only order him to do something if it was an emergency and he had to do what I said right then with no time for explanations. Which meant that if I gave on order, I expected it to be followed unquestioningly.  There have been a few instances of physical peril, and I have never abused that deal.

We’ve always negotiated. I’ve always been in charge because that’s what it means to parent a young human. He’s always had the definitive say on how he feels about things, what he wants and doesn’t want. Of course along the way we’ve had the odd strop over things that didn’t seem fair, and I’ve stopped and talked through why they might be fair after all, or why they might be shit but that’s how it goes sometimes. That being an adult means taking responsibility for the dull things, the crappy things, the things you don’t want to have to bother with and that your freedom and your responsibility are closely interlinked.

He’s never rebelled against me, because there was never much authority to rebel against. I’ve never claimed to know what was best for him, I just advise based on what I do know. We’ve got this far with no blazing rows, no angry outbursts from either of us. Neither of us has said anything we have any reason to regret. I’m really proud of that, and of the kind of relationship we have at this point in his life.

With university on the horizon we’re negotiating the next set of changes, working what he needs to know, clarifying what he’s responsible for and what backup will be available.

It would be easy to run roughshod over the ideas, feelings and preferences of a child. It is often more convenient to ignore that sort of thing. It may be satisfying to the parental ego to take total authority, demand obedience and assert control, but these are, I feel certain, the things that pave the way to an angry, fight-laden teenage. Respect is something we learn, and being respected is a really good way of learning how to respect others.


The politics of childhood

Apparently UK education minister Michael Gove thinks children should have much longer school days and much shorter holidays to bring us in line with Hong Kong. He’s also a fan of rote learning and filling children’s heads with ‘facts’ – names and dates from history and the such. Childhood can be a loaded political issue. I note how much this Gove policy resembles the attitude of early Maoist China to children. That stemmed from a deliberate intention to break family units and make everyone more engaged with the state. So, what’s Gove’s agenda, you have to wonder?

What is childhood for? Obviously children need to grow up into functional adults. They need life skills too. I would argue that developing the ability to learn, reason, analyse, research, create, innovate and the such is the best education a child can have. The world changes all the time. The young person who can flex, learn and adapt is the one who can do best for themselves and their communities. Knowing historical dates and spurious statistics won’t do you any good in the real world.

The Victorians romanticised childhood, and did away with labour for children, taking them out of the workplace and putting them into schools. But, what is education for? Is it simply to keep children out of the way while parents work? Is school there to train the employees of the future, or should learning be more about developing rounded, functional people who are capable of thinking? I don’t think the latter precludes going on to be economically successful. I’d say there’s a case that it makes for a better, smarter, more flexible country having people educated that way. It doesn’t give you cogs for your machine, or people trained to serve and obey. I have to ask, what is the Tory agenda here? I think it’s all about serving the minority at the expense of the majority.

As a Pagan, I feel strongly about creatures being able to live freely in their natural habitats. I include humans in this. Humans are not meant to be battery farmed any more than chickens or pigs are. We too need fresh air, freedom to move, time to rest. Adults and children alike should not be pushed towards ever longer work hours just to serve the corporate machine. It is a morally wrong approach. Humanity does not exist to serve GDP.

As a parent, I want to spend time with my child. I want to talk with him, play with him, share life with him. I did not become a parent with a view to handing over my child to the state and hardly ever seeing him. I suspect I’m not alone in this. Back at the last election, the Tories talked about championing family life. Well, if you want family life, you have to have time for it, and longer school hours, longer work hours doesn’t achieve that. Tired people falling into bed do not have a family life. This is not a move towards a better work life balance.

Stressed, overworked, overtired humans who lack for social and emotional contact are more likely to become sick, depressed and dysfunctional. School is tiring for young humans whose bodies are growing and changing all the time. They need periods of rest, they need unstructured time to learn and grow properly. If we go the Gove route, we will not beget success. Instead we’ll be saving for a long term crisis in mental health and social cohesion.

Hard work should only exist where it furthers human causes. We are not here to make other people wealthy. We should not sacrifice our lives to the insane, dysfunctional and wrongheaded dictats of a ruling ‘elite’ that seems to have no grip on reality whatsoever. It looks like children are the next targets or their insane and toxic policies. We have to fight.


Letting them fly

All fledglings must at some point leave the nest. My son was telling me this morning that when it is time for bear cubs to go it alone, the mother bear chases them up a tree and then abandons them. He said he’s glad he isn’t a bear! For him, it’ll be a slower, more gentle process over the next eight years or so, but it is a process we have most definitely started. This week he’s away on a residential thing with the school, having adventures. By slow degrees, he will learn to leave the nest and fend for himself. My definition of being a successful parent is that I will get him to the point where he doesn’t really need me anymore.

There is a lot of similarity between teaching and parenting in this regard. Getting it right means getting them to the point where you wave them goodbye and watch them strike out into the world. Students and offspring alike must not be under your sheltering wing forever. The trouble is, keeping them there can be really tempting. It is very human to want to be wanted, to need to be needed. And so we can easily hang on to children, and students because we like the comfort of them being there and needing us. It can tempt us to hold back a few things, to not tell them everything, so that they still need us for a few bits and pieces. It’s not the right way to go.

In many ways students are easier, because they are more readily replaced. Most of us, on waving the newly adult offspring goodbye, are not going to go and create a whole new person to replace them with. Some of us will get a puppy instead. Students tend not to be around for so long in the first place – perhaps a few years. That makes the letting go easier, and if you’re any good as a teacher, the next one will turn up soon enough.

It can be tempting, with students, to take them on when they aren’t right for us, or to try and keep them once we find that we aren’t the teacher they need. Saying ‘there isn’t anything I can usefully teach you’ is hard. Having a whole flock of students feels like kudos, feeds the ego, helps us feel important and worthwhile. Pushing just one away feels like admitting defeat, or being a failure. It isn’t. Failure is keeping them when you can do them no good.

Of course once you’ve got a child, you’ve got a child and this is a very different scenario most of the time. It’s much less usual for a person to have to consider that they cannot parent the child they have in the best way. But it does happen. Seriously physically disabled children, or ones with profound learning difficulties can be more than it is feasible for a parent to manage. Sometimes what you need are professionals who do not have to manage things 24/7. I can’t begin to imagine how hard and painful a decision that must be to make though. There are the parents who fail so badly that social services intervene and tell them they can have no role in the child’s future. There are also the parents whose offspring reject them. That can happen at any stage in life, and as they get older, if we have messed up, they are more likely to flee from us.

What of the parent who tries to hang on to the child they are unable to properly take care of? We may feel every sympathy for them, may pity their problems, recognise their grief, but it’s not enough. Regardless of the age of the child, no amount of thinking you love them justifies trying to hang on to them when they really need to be somewhere else. It’s far easier to recognise when you aren’t the right teacher for the job than I imagine it must be to recognise that you aren’t the right parent for the job.

Getting trained as a teacher isn’t difficult, but how many of us are trained as parents, or know where to go for help when we can’t manage the workload? It’s one of those issues where I can see the problems all too clearly, and the solutions seem hard to imagine in the context of the kind of society we have.


To those who will inherit the earth

I had one of those parent jobs this morning, the sort that you know is coming, but dread. There are so many things in this world that it is horrible to have to explain to a child. However, I don’t believe on fobbing them off with half-truths. Once a person is able to ask a question, they need to hear an answer. This morning it became necessary to point out that the world is not an inherently fair or just place, and that the people, bodies, institutions we should be able to rely on to treat us fairly, are not always reliable. It didn’t come as a shock to the lad, I think I was confirming what he’d already suspected, but it’s better to talk about these things.

So we talked about institutionalised racism, which he thinks is crazy because people are people and judging them on skin colour is stupid. Allow me a moment of happy pride over this. We talked about the history of laws, and where they come from. Because go back a few hundred years and in most of Europe, there wasn’t much legal protection for poor people against rich ones. The UK was better than average. We talked about the way in which the crimes of poor people still seem to be taken more seriously than the sneakier financial and environmental crimes of the wealthy. We didn’t get round to huge corporate tax dodgers, but we could have done. We talked about libel laws, and how your likelihood of being taken seriously depends on how rich and famous you are. To be poor and maligned is still to be maligned. It is a life no less damaged.

There are a frightening number of things around us that I can point to, to illustrate institutionalised stupidity and unfairness. Of course he needs to know, this is the world he is poised to inherit, the one he’s going to need to survive in. The odds are increasingly stacked against the poor. The desire of consumerism still gets priority over the needs of the environment.

What I feel is overwhelming shame. This is the world I get to pass on to my son. Ugly with corruption, cruelty, and systems that cannot be trusted to deliver fairness. And ok, most of this I have not created, or planned or supported in any way, but how much time have I spent trying to make it better? Not nearly enough. Every day there is something in the news where the short-sightedness, the inhumanity, the greed and horror of human choices shocks me. And no doubt my child too, because he’s listening. A bus full of people who, between them, didn’t have twenty pence to save a girl from a ten mile walk at three in the morning. She was attacked as a consequence, by a guy high on cocaine. The small evils we commit against each other on a daily basis go to make up such wrongs.

The latest one to be grating on my nerves is this: Plans that mothers who defy court orders over access to their children, be punished by having their passports taken away. On the grounds that it’s not fair to the child to be denied access to a parent. If a guy doesn’t want to have anything to do with his children, he’ll still have to contribute financially, but he can walk away. Never see them. There are no suggested sanctions to make reluctant fathers see their kids. It’s not a gender thing. Reverse who has the kids and it still holds up. We collectively abuse the parent who undertakes to do the parenting, and let the one who is disinterested do as they please. That’s no kind of fairness or justice.

The temptation is to keep my head down and not fight the many wrongs that I run into. The fear that I live with is that by protesting, I will draw adverse attention. What, after all, is to stop any of these systems from crushing me? If I call a government body out over unjust behaviour, what is to save me from unjust treatment at their hands? And yet, to stay silent, to refuse to notice, to keep my head down, is to tacitly support any wrong I turn a blind eye to. We have a conspiracy of silence. All of us. For the sake of a quiet life, an easy life. We don’t complain, we don’t draw attention to ourselves, we don’t invite the unfairness we know perfectly well is out there, to come round and pick on us for a change.

Dear children, this is the world we have contrived to make for you. We are poisoning it, and many of its structures are corrupt. Close your eyes and ears, pretend it’s all shiny and happy. Don’t look at anything that hurts. Play this game instead. Watch another TV program. When you get older, you can use alcohol to blot it all out.

And they all lived happily ever after.


The challenges of peace

I’ve never been interested in the kind of peace that comes from burying your head in the sand, or from accepting oppression. These things can look like peace, might even feel like it, but they aren’t true to my Druidic ideals and I try not to go there. That said, there are so many things I cannot fix and have to let go of, because if I took their absence of peace into me, I would go crazy.

It’s one of those curious ironies that the quest for meaningful peace can call for some serious bouts of equilibrium shattering. Steeping way outside my comfort zone seems to be a regular feature. I’ve had a dose of that already today, in the ongoing saga of trying to deal with things between my son and his father. This is not new. I’ve been trying to speak for my son all his life, to explain what he thinks and wants, to support him in getting where he needs to be. For me, this is intrinsic to parenting. How it works, varies, and depends a lot on how people see me. For some I am, or have been, the pushy, demanding mother, over reacting, over emotional, putting my own feelings onto my child and demanding attention through him. I mentioned dark reflections yesterday, and those words have been painfully hard to hear over the years. I’ve heard them from the child’s father, and the child’s father’s girlfriends, from teachers and other professionals. Arguably people who all had something to gain from disbelieving me. But I’ve also found plenty of teachers and other professionals  who recognise my lad, understand how he feels, embrace and celebrate what makes him different, and do everything they can to enable him to flourish. It may not be a coincidence that I’ve never had any negative feedback about me, there.

The teacher who blamed me for my child’s distress belonged to a school that went on to send one boy to a special needs school for his behavioural issues, and did not recognise that the other child in the scenario had autism. He’s since got the much needed diagnosis. Maybe if they’d listened to my concerns rather than telling me I’m hysterical, three families would have had the support they needed, rather than leaving them to struggle unrecognised. Peace comes at a price, and often the price is a willingness to sacrifice peace. I’ve gone off at a tangent a bit here.

It’s very hard remaining peaceful, or working for peaceful outcomes when you are hearing things you do not want to hear. It’s easier to reject the message bearer, devalue or demonise them so that they can be safely ignored. It is not easy to take a good hard look at yourself, question your own motives and assumptions, and consider that you may be the one who got it wrong. Of course, in a scenario where one person will do just that, and the other cannot hear they are less than perfect, there tends to be a resultant culture of blame that has nothing to do with who is right, and everything to do with who is self critical and able to bend. In conflict situations, rare are the times when any of us couldn’t have done a better job, one way or another. Sometimes the better job would have been to leave sooner. There is a kind of peace that can be held by believing that you are never wrong and never need to change, but it’s a fragile, unhealthy peace that takes you further and further from consensus reality.

I wrote some words today. They are not new words. They are variations on words that I’ve been saying for all of my child’s life. This is what he needs, how he feels, what he wants. If those words were listened to, it would serve to help the person I like least in the world. But it would also help the child, and that matters more. The quest to bring peace into his life, brings serious disquiet and challenge into mine. But one day, he will reach the point of being old enough and wise enough not to need me to do this for him, and hopefully by then he’ll have enough of an example about what true peace looks like, what is worth fighting for, what should be forgiven and what is just human, that he can go out there and do a good job of things. Got to be worth a go, that.