The art of parenting
Part of the art of being a parent is letting go.
But there needs to be contact too...
I walked into the playground and gasped. There was my daughter being held upside down by the ankles, being tickled by the new gym teacher. He put her down and bounced boyishly up to me. ‘They love it,’ he confided. ‘We all get on so well. Not that I stand for any nonsense. They know better than to try to get on the wrong side of me, oh yes.
I looked at my daughter’s face, red with reined-in tliry, and then at the young teacher, as naive and soft as a marshmallow. He obviously hadn’t a clue. Making contact with adolescents was beyond him.
But was it beyond me too? I wonder if parents worded as much about making contact with the younger generation in the past - or whether it’s a result of the accelerating pace of life and all that. Even in Shakespeare’s time, young people were considered difficult by their elders: ‘I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty,’ says a character in The Winier’s Tale, or that youth would sleep out the rest, for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting… ‘But Shakespeare sounds quite cheerful about finding young people a pain. The difference seems to lie in our modern anxiety to get the relationship positive.
I decided to ask the experts. I talked to social workers and psychologists who had particular experience of working with adolescents - including inner city delinquents. Their advice, I must admit, struck me as sound; I pass it on, and hope it helps.
‘Faced with raw adolescent energy,’ said one of the psychologists, ‘the temptation is to duck. There are three usual ways out. One, to abnegate responsibility: that was the permissive, Sixties option. You don’t do the kids a favour, leaving them with no guidance, no boundary lines.’ Sounds familiar: the rock-musician friend of one studiously liberal family l know has just produced a hit record complaining about parents who aren’t strict enough.
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.
‘Option two is to play God. Be authoritarian, draw the boundary lines so tight that the kid has no room to move, to find his own values.’ That’s a familiar scenario too, the excessive social control we all love to hate.
‘And the third option is to seduce. Wooing the kids to like you, so that they end up taking care of your needs instead.’ That’s what the gym teacher was doing: no way would my daughter have protested - not because she was remotely afraid of him, but because he made his need for approval so plain that a child halfway sensitive would feel bad about hurting his feelings.
Permissiveness, bullying. manipulation - they’re all cop-outs, So what do you do?
Everyone gave similar answers. Be who you are, straight, but without imposition. Don’t fake it - even if your response doesn’t chime with the calm omniscience you imagine a parent should always have. If you have confused or angry feelings, for instance, you haven’t ‘failed’; include these feelings, don’t push them out of court. The denial of half your feelings leaves you only half-real. It’s hard to make contact with a person who’s only half there.
A friend of mine has recently been in a dire state - having just discovered his teenage daughter on amphetamines. Distressed about her condition, guilt-ridden that it’s his fault, he has been frying every approach he knows to win her back from her addiction - gently, understandingly. She thaws a bit, slips back again. He tries again, They’ve been dancing an elaborate and tentative dance for weeks. Then the other day, faced with another apathetic ‘oh I don’t know...’ from the girl, his patience snapped. ‘You stupid **** girl!’ he shouted. ‘Don’t you see what’s happening?’ He stopped horrified at his reaction - and realised they had finally made contact.
It’s like teething rings for a baby, I suppose. A teething ring that melted in the mouth wouldn’t help the baby cut teeth. Or like arm-wrestling. If you give in at once, the adolescent doesn’t have a firm surface to shove against, to grow muscles on. If you pin her arm down too hard she never has a chance to grow muscles, at all. And if you let her win too easily, to be a ‘nice guy’, you cheat her of her moment of empowerment, you take the credit for her win.
The answer seems to be to wrestle with conviction plus love - and the wisdom to see that the next generation needs to be the victor one day, for both your sakes.