I left school and home when I was 16 because I’d been recruited by The Scotsman as a trainee journalist. I had only two weeks to get ready. Then my Mum and Dad drove me to Edinburgh where I had arranged a place to stay. First thing on Monday morning I went to the newspaper office, and so my career journey began.
Not once was I anxious about leaving home and starting work. Not once did I think I might not be ready for all this. Why not? Because my parents had done a good job. They’d loved me, provided for me, protected me, patched me up, forgiven me, encouraged me, believed in me, and much more. I had as solid and secure an upbringing as any child could want. So, excited and confident, off I went to change the world…
I’ve often thought and talked about parenthood down the years. Sometimes that’s been with parents anxious because a child has fallen into bad company, or developed dangerous habits, or lacked any idea about what they’ll do with their life, or is no longer talking to mum and dad. But most conversations about parenting have happened while counselling young adults, or people in mid-life, who are trying to resolve issues that should never have existed in their lives. Their issues related to things their parents did or said.
Before I write more about parenthood, I need to say three things.
First, I recognise not everyone wants or can have children. If you’ve longed for children, but it’s been impossible, my heart goes out to you. And please don’t read any further if this subject makes you unhappy.
Second, some children will become great intellectuals, engineers, doctors, lawyers. But not every child. For all sorts of reasons some don’t have the same advantages as others. I value them just as much. They may not design the next generation of space rockets, but they’re amazing people with exactly the same worth as anyone on this planet.
Third, there are many models of family life today, not just Dad, Mum and children. When I refer to dads and mums I mean those who occupy those kinds of parenting roles. This blog is about parenting, and is not the place for comment on the variety of modern family units. Please forgive me if my language is clumsy.
So I’ll now share principles of parenthood I’ve learned. My list isn’t exhaustive.
I’ll start with one big statement:
The goal of parenthood is to move your children from complete dependence as infants to full independence as adults.
The first part of that statement – dependence – is self-evident. Alison and I left the maternity hospital with our baby son, got back to our tiny flat, and realised this little boy was completely dependent on us for everything. It was an awesome thought.
The last part of my statement – about children reaching full independence as adults – needs a couple of explanations.
One, I don’t mean ‘independence’ in the sense of losing touch or losing affection. We have four children, and we’re all great friends who don’t hesitate to say ‘I love you’ and spend time together.
Two, by ‘adults’ I mean ‘mature adults’, people who can manage their lives and relationships, and make good decisions about what they believe and how they should live.
The most important aspect of my ‘goal of parenthood’ statement is that it describes a transition from helpless infant to competent grown up. I’ve heard people with young children say, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they just stayed the age they are now?’ The answer is ‘No! That would be dreadful. They’re not meant to stay four or eight or ten. They’re meant to grow up.’
But that idea wasn’t shared by one neighbour. With great delight, she told me how her three sons’ marriages had all ended in divorce ‘and now I’ve got all my boys back with me’. Clearly she’d never wanted to let them go, and I came away from the conversation wondering how much – consciously or unconsciously – she’d undermined their marriages.
Parenthood is about moving helpless infants to mature adulthood.
Towards that goal, here are principles of parenthood that I believe matter.
The foundation that supports everything is love. When parents love their children – enthusiastically, joyfully, thoughtfully, unconditionally – children feel supported, protected, valued and free to express their creativity and individuality. Their self-esteem is strong, and thus able to deal with disappointments and failures. They don’t question their worth, because worth was built into them from their earliest years.
When it was cuddle-down-and-go-to-sleep time for our children, I’d sometimes crouch beside them and whisper, ‘I’m proud of you. Not just what you do but the wonderful person you are’. Usually there would be a gentle smile, and they went off to sleep feeling good and feeling important.
Realise that who you are has a great influence on who your children become. Ask a school teacher if they affect children’s lives more than educationally, they’ll agree they impact their behaviour, their goals, their beliefs. ‘But,’ the teacher will add, ‘nothing like as much as their parents do’. That’s true. Those in parenting roles model attitudes, behaviour, beliefs, love, hope, values and much more. A child sees or senses what you think, what you value, what you aim for. You may not intend it, but you can’t stop it.
I was around 55 when I first realised how like my father I was. I was 5 foot 8 inches (173cm) in height; so was he. I wore size 8 shoes; so did he. I had begun to ‘thin on top’ in my forties; so did he. And it wasn’t just physical characteristics. My Dad played golf; so do I. My Dad was proud to be Scottish; so am I. My Dad hated making tax returns; so do I. My Dad was stubborn; so… !
Like father, like son. Dad died 23 years ago, but much of him has lived on through my brother and me.
Children are unique, not clones. But, in many ways they will grow up to be like their parents, and that’s a sobering responsibility for those raising them.
What parents say can never be unsaid. Lydia was in tears while we spoke. She’d never felt accepted by her parents, especially her father, and tried and tried to win his approval. But nothing she did ever met his standards, and sometimes his rage erupted. ‘When I was eight…’ she began, hesitated, but finally got the words out. ‘When I was eight, my father said, “I hate you and wish you’d never been born”’. I was stunned. How could any parent say that? But Lydia’s father had, and the wound never healed.
Since then I’ve found Lydia’s experience wasn’t unique. Others have told me their parents spoke near identical words to them. With some ‘I hate you’ was shouted in a moment of extreme rage. Others were told it over and over, often in a chillingly quiet voice. Those were evil words, weapons of abuse that hurt their children for the rest of their lives.
Vicky’s situation was different but equally bad. Her university friends were worried about Vicky’s mental state as she waited for her end of first year exam results. I met with Vicky, and spoke encouragingly, but it was obvious I wasn’t getting through. Suddenly she started crying and said, ‘My father has told me I can’t ever come home unless I’ve passed everything. He doesn’t want me back if I’ve failed any of my exams.’ Those words from Vicky’s father – whether he meant them literally or not – were destroying her.
The good or bad things parents say have life-long effects on children.
Your dream job isn’t your child’s dream job. Neither of my parents pushed me towards any particular career. The nearest my father came was airing his idea that banking was a safe long-term career. He didn’t press it. I’m glad he didn’t because banking would have been a terrible choice for me: a) I’m really bad with numbers; b) about 20 years later, the banking industry slimmed their operations and shed huge numbers of staff. My parents would never have thought of journalism. Nor would they have imagined I’d go to university. Nor become a minister, nor director of an international mission agency, nor president of an American graduate school. I forged my own path.
But some parents do shape their children’s choices. One medical school issues this warning for potential applicants: ‘Some medical students are expected to follow in their parents’ footsteps, or at least their expectations… Before you spend a lot of money, time, and effort on medical school, do some soul-searching to make sure it is you who wants this.’*
That’s a good warning. I suspect some parents nudge their children towards the career they wished they’d followed. That’s not wise, and not fair if their children find themselves in the wrong career.
Apologise when you’ve said or done the wrong thing. I confess there were times when I lost my temper and shouted at my children. I frightened them, and as soon as I calmed down I apologised. Of course I should never have been so angry – I wish it had never happened. But the apology at least told my child I knew I was wrong. More than once my apology was met with, ‘It’s okay Dad…’ Which is very humbling.
I don’t believe I’ve ever pretended to my children that I was right about facts after realising I was wrong. But some people have a hard time admitting errors, especially to their children. Perhaps they want to maintain an image of infallibility. But the truth is this: children don’t lose respect when someone admits they were wrong; they do lose respect when someone won’t admit they were wrong.
Don’t be naïve about your children. Several things can be bundled under this heading.
First, of course your son/daughter keeps secrets from you. I listened as Jean assured me her 14-year-old Janey told her everything.
So I asked, ‘Jean, when you were 14, did your parents know everything you did and everyone you met?’
‘Certainly not!’ she replied, smiling grimly at what her parents would have thought.
‘Is it not likely, then, that Janey tells you as much as you told your mum?’
Silence. Point made; point taken.
Second, your child isn’t always a paragon of virtue. When the Scout Leader says Archie was smoking behind the building, he has no motive for making that up. The argument ‘Archie would never do that’ won’t impress him.
Third, most children aren’t academically smart in all subjects. It’s inevitable they’ll do less well in some. American teachers told me stories of parents insisting their child shouldn’t have been given a ‘B’ because Tanya is a ‘straight As’ student. But, at that time in that subject, Tanya was a ‘B’ student. To argue otherwise was to do Tanya no favours because she may simply not be clever in that subject, and pretending she’s better than she is denies her the help she needs to improve.
Children must be allowed to be children. They’re not 3-year-old or 5-year-old adults. What we expect from them should be age appropriate. That’s why the old saying ‘children should be seen and not heard’ is cruel. So is assuming they won’t scatter their toys everywhere. Or that they’ll always be back from playing with their friends exactly when told. And so on. They’re children, just children.
Children must be given the chance to grow up. Henry was telling me about his three-year-old daughter, and said he couldn’t imagine letting her go anywhere on her own.
‘You mean, not until she’s older?’ I asked.
‘No, I can’t imagine ever letting her go someplace by herself.’
I didn’t argue with him. But I was surprised and concerned. As I said in my ‘goal of parenthood’ statement, every child must move stage by stage from being helpless to being competent. That can happen only if they’re gradually given more responsibility. Each parent’s job is to judge the pace of that transition, and it’s tricky. Often there’ll be anxiety. But for every risk of moving them forward too fast, there are alternative risks by holding them back.
Remember you matter as more than a parent. Life with children can be all-consuming. Perhaps our job takes us away for hours every day, but everything else is about being mum or dad. Sometimes –after children have left home – parents still address each other as ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’. But we’re more than that. Hopefully we’re still in love, and enjoy being together. And we have intellectual lives, social lives, sporting lives, community lives. Or, at least we should. We’re not failing our children if we find time for these things; we may be failing ourselves if we don’t.
It’s a wonderful thing to have children. We focus on the challenges of bringing up kids, and people love to tell us scare stories about how hard the next stage will be. But – despite the exhaustion, exasperation, uncertainties, self-doubt – children are a great privilege and joy. My heart goes out to those who’ve found it impossible to have children, and to those for whom the burden has been too great. But let’s not lose sight of the thrill of seeing young lives grow and become good people who will make this world a better place through what they do, who they influence, and, hopefully, by being your best friends always.