Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Parental angst: A rambling lament

Mental Health Warning, this is a rambling lament. It's about parenting. Read it at your own risk. So, if you are sufficiently vaccinated, here goes.
I'm quite a hands-off parent. And I am speaking only for myself. Except for their studies, I leave them largely alone. Even for their studies, I leave the hard part to my wife, that is, sitting them down and making sure they do their homework. Although I am known as a stern and stiff-necked father, as compared to my wife (who can really have endless childlike fun with them), I do have my outrageous moments with them once in a while. All in all, at 45, and being a father of three children, I am trying my best to raise my children with the usual pitfalls (you can read my previous posts about how I often fail them and myself).
Now, here comes the relevant part of this post. Recently, my children played with my friends' children, and as predictable as the sun and the rain, the children broke into some mischievous exchanges. Then, there were the childish taunting and the tit-for-tat of i-hit-you-and-you-hit-me-back. The aftermath of that was the usual teary complaints to the parents.
As a general rule, when my children complain to me, I would tell them to let it go (wait, that sounds frighteningly familiar). At times, I would wait till we get home and then remind them that this is part and parcel of growing up. I'd also tell them to forgive and forget because children will be children and their parents will deal with them accordingly, and in their own ways. We have to trust and respect that.
Now, when my children are clearly at fault, my wife would step in and demand that he or she apologizes directly and immediately. Thereafter, I will let it go and let it be (hey, that's another familiar chorus). So, between let it go and let it be, I often tell my children that there is ironically no difference between children's tit-for-tat and the adults' arguments, that is, the heated emotions and motives are largely the same, except that adults can be more affected by it. The innocence of a child somehow seems to endow them with this magical capacity to forget about the offence almost immediately. Sadly, it is often the adults who will get more philosophically vindictive about it. As such, letting it go and letting it be can be a struggle for some.

Well, maybe I am different. I tend to let the matter go and then deal with it at a later date (in another way). For example, I regularly jog with my son on the weekends and I use these private one-to-one moments to talk to him and to allow him to share with me how he feels. I am currently sharing with him the golden rule of doing-unto-others. I don't expect him to understand the whole shebang of it but at least he was able to cite examples of how to treat people applying the golden rule. Baby steps I say, baby steps. As we progress, I intend to advance the lesson with Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, and probably sprinkle some basic utilitarianism here and there. Good luck with that, I know. As they say, the greater good is often the greater confusion (that I know too). But I have digressed (...and this was supposed to be my ramblings!)
So, that morning, something unexpected happened. Although there were the usual teary complaints of this-and-that and the children apologized to both the parents and each other, and returned to their play and said their hearty goodbyes, that night I received a very surprising message from one of the parents. It was a long message and the contents of which is irrelevant here. But the point is that the parent seemed very affected and I was speechless, stunned.
Maybe my perception needed more attuning (to grassroot reality), but I honestly thought the hatchet had been buried right after the children re-engaged and played with each other, even more boisterously, that morning. In fact, before the children left, they traded some childish jokes about a hole in the shoe and laughed their way to their parents. We also repeatedly said our goodbyes and that was that. It was perceptively the most amicable departure and we were even looking forward to the next meeting.
So, you can imagine my shock with that message, which has to do with parental neglect.
This unfortunate episode kept me thinking about us parents (and I am specifically veering away from that message). I know we love our children. I know we want the best for them. In fact, we also believe our children and trust that they are decent, innocent and lovely creatures from our passionate loins. And our love is definitely not the issue here (often the issue is the lack of love).
So, my question is: why is it that when it comes to our children we tend to act in a manner that we would readily disavow if the same situation were to present itself to us for intervention when we were without children (or when it is other people's children)? In other words, why are we so vendatta-ish when we pursue the so-called justice for our own flesh and blood and are less so when it comes to other people’s children? (my god, we could even be objective and magnanimous about it – go figure)
I mean, I know of some friends who are awesomely laid back and easy-going before they have children. But when the precious princess or springy prince comes, they mutate to become over-protective, jealously guarded, militantly defensive, and adamantly self-assertive, even neurotic about it. And the worse part is that the friendship for decades could be threatened over an incident at play between their children that were largely unintended. I have even heard that close relatives would turn into sworn enemies over their children's feud.
For some parents I know, a sorry is just not good enough. When the hurt is done (mostly vicariously), it is set in emotional cement. Somehow, something more is expected of us parents in disciplining our kids. Of course, my wife and I will not spare the rod in disciplining our kids. But I for one sincerely believe that kids will be kids just like adults will be adults. By this, I mean that they - being immature - will unavoidably be mischievous, playful, rambunctious, over-energetic, complaining, loud, attention-seeking, self-centered (to some degree), vain (in a cute way), calculative, irascible, irritating, provocative, whining and...I think you get my drift. In other words, they are as imperfect as we are.
So, I often struggle to understand parents who take a playground transgression against their kid too seriously and personally.
Now, my children are no angels. My son is playful and all that jazz. He is also rough and likes to play "fighting". My girl is whiny and she complains a lot. She can also be moody and morose. And don't start me off with my youngest (4 years old). My children also try to lie to get away with wrongdoings. They are also lazy and sometimes rebellious. For this reason, my wife and I have to rein them in, reprimand them, remind them often, teach them to behave, and inspire them by examples. Parenting is in fact a lifetime fulltime vocation. It is not easy that’s for sure.
But what is most rewarding is to see them growing up, making their own mistakes and learning from them, and then becoming parents of their own, and watching them impart the values we have taught them to their children. In the larger scheme of things, we are all learning as much as our children are learning. We are imperfect in our own ways and they are imperfect in theirs. We can't expect them to act like adults and neither do they want to be. Their time to step up to the plate will come and they will confront their own unique set of challenges. For now, as they are growing up, we have to give them space to be themselves, their unique self, and allow them to make their mistakes, and then gently, but firmly, lead them by the hand in the right direction. 

This brings me back to the point of this post. I have learned that our children will disappoint us in the same way that we will disappoint them. It is ironical that what we wish in our children is often what is lacking in our life. We wish for them to be patient but we are impatient ourselves. We wish that they will be honest but we sometimes finesse the truths, offer half-truths to exploit the unwitting and pretend to be what we are not. And we wish for them to be happy and contented but we are often less than satisfied with our own lot in life. This wish-list goes on and on and our flaws taint every item on the list.
So, going back to the incident at the playground and the message from the parent, I think we over-invest in our children. We live out our ideals in them. We see them as adult in a child’s body. We give them more credit than they deserve (or want to). We see in them a glowing part of us. And short of expecting the perfect child, we expect them to undergo accelerated maturity. As such, in our mind, our children are seldom wrong. And they are seldom wrong because we see them with rose-tinted glasses. This is often seldom admitted, but you can ask any parent on a good day about their kid and they will not hesitate to tell you that their children are well-behaved, smarter than average, prettier than most, and they would never lie to them. This is in fact every parent’s wish-list for their child. 

And this is also why parents find it difficult to believe that their kid is the instigator or the ring leader (or is equally to be blamed) in a playground brawling. Sadly, the reality is often far from what we had hoped.

I guess the issue seems to be that our children have unknowingly become the extension of our ego. So any smear on them is perceived as a smear on us. And a taint in their character is invariably a taint on ours. In the same way that we cannot believe we will act that way or say those words, our children likewise will not do or say likewise. They are not only from our burning loins but they are also an inextricable part of us. And being part of us, they are by default as good as us. Again you can see the unconscious playing up of the parental wish-list.

I think I have rambled enough. I have said my peace. I apologize if I have stepped on some parental toes or struck a raw nerve. Or maybe it is just me, and I just have to deal with it in my own way. Cheerz.

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