Showing Up for Children
“Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable, but it is the way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting tomatoes, apples and pears.
Show them how to cry when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.” ~ William Martin
Last week’s three-day immersion with a mixed group of teenagers at the beautiful Doon School campus was heartwarming in so many ways. On lushly cared for grounds that gently carry the weight of hundred-year old bamboo, lychee, jackfruit and eucalyptus trees, and in hushed spaces inside the red bricked library and music rooms where we worked while the rain fell in buckets outside finally cooling down some very parched earth, those young faces drew me in to their inner world. We talked, played, danced, laughed and cried. We shared stories that were somehow made special and powerful in this space: theirs were lived experiences in the present; mine were older, deeper memories I’ve spent a lot of time unpacking; and finally, my own children’s stories that brought smiles all around and lit up my heart with love in the telling. Briefly entering their world in such depth was delightful. And yet, while I left warmed to the core, I was also deeply saddened by some of the conversations with children who were already learning not to trust, not to connect, not to speak up, not to show their feelings and not to follow their own dreams. Since then, I’ve been thinking of what it really means to be a parent and what it means to show up for your children. Because that’s how they learn to show up for themselves.
I grew up alongside my own two boys. Even writing that sentence makes me wonder how I ever brought them up. At barely 20 years of age, all I had was an abundance of love, an ocean of faith and the fiercest need to keep them safe. I didn’t always succeed at the latter – little boys have the strangest accidents mostly involving a lot of blood and a lot of stitches – so teeth got snapped falling off beds, big toes suddenly got dislocated in the park, heads got bashed on the corner of swimming pools and ligaments got torn on squash courts. We had all our deep conversations in the car on the way to tennis/squash/football/swimming, or in the kitchen when I was baking double chocolate brownies for them; and when they lectured me for lecturing them, we sang out loud the latest Backstreet Boys hit song, joyous at just the lightness of being. We wept together when our beloved dog Simba died and laughed together at Tinker and Tanker’s antics in their favourite bedtime story book every night. Sharing silly memories of those days still makes us smile. I met them with honesty, every time, because it was important for me to be that way. In learning to stand up for them, I learned to stand up for me too. And then they learned from that, later, when my marriage ended and it became even more important for me to show up for them in ways that were still new to me. Somewhere in those years, I remember realising that I was learning to be a mother from them and that I was never going to get it right. Fortunately for me, my wonderful boys were okay with that. They still are. So am I.
In showing up, I don’t think I ever worried about the how. Common sense helped more than books and magazines on parenting, and whenever I was in any kind of doubt, I just went ahead and did what my heart told me would work even if it didn’t make a lot of sense at the time. And yes, it took courage and lots of effort. What I learned along the way was to always:
Be present for your children: Whether you’re playing with your kids, studying with them, talking to them or entertaining them, pay attention to know what’s going on: really listen to what they’re saying (or not saying), to the kind of language they’re using to express themselves, to the questions they’re in and to their thoughts, emotions and moods. Stay curious and compassionate about what they may be drawn to, who their friends are and what sort of conversations they’re having and why and you’ll learn much about how they’re growing and learning. You’ll learn what they think and feel, about books and music and school and relationships and peers and parents and other fun quirky things you never imagined knowing about. You’ll discover who they’re becoming.
Acknowledge what they feel: And don’t be afraid to explore what that means with them. When we dismiss, ignore, disapprove or berate our children for feeling angry, hurt, sad, upset, we’re only teaching them that we’re uncomfortable with their feelings, and to push them away, to label them as “bad” and to begin to bury them inside. And we’re telling them we don’t care enough to listen. And then they don’t feel safe enough to share how they feel with us, as they grow older. So meet them where they are, not where you are. Part of the magic of talking to those children last week was how easily they shared their joys, sorrows, confusions and fears – all it took was a space we offered where they felt safe to talk, safe to trust. And remembering it was about them, not us.
Remember they learn from you: Your intention as a parent is important. However, your behaviour is all your children will see and hear. And if that doesn’t match your intention, well, they won’t trust it. So be mindful if you’re using language that is judgmental, unkind, dismissive, careless and confrontational. If you want to set an example for your children, you have to live it first, in your life and in your work. So find out what it is that you care about being, doing and knowing to help them discover their own journey. Show up as a parent, not as a friend. Which is a little harder because it’s about their needs, not ours. It’s not about looking good or doing anything and everything for them. It’s about being who they need us to be and acknowledging our own boundaries as a parent. That’s how you keep your self-respect intact, teaching them in turn what that means.
Teach them possibility: And what I mean by this is to be careful of labeling children in any way that might limit that possibility. That can happen when a) we judge children with a trait or quality that becomes an identity for them, a mask behind which they learn to live; or b) we make life/career choices for them, in keeping with our need, not theirs. Too many kids last week expressed fears about choices that might be wrong for them, of expectations they had to live up to, of not knowing how to handle mistakes and failure. In not letting them live life fully, our own fears show up. Instead, gently sort out the confusion that all this can cause in young hearts and minds by empowering them to make their own choices, helping them to ground those decisions and to be responsible for what they mean. And don’t forget to share the magic of discovery and possibility on the way, which is a little like when Peter Pan says, “Take the second star to the right and go straight on till morning”.
You’ll show up again when they fall, which they’ll do. As they’re meant to, like we did. To be shaped by life. As we are. The extraordinary will take care of itself.