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When my children were babies, I was so absorbed in their daily lives, that I couldn’t imagine them being any different age.
Memorably, when Son was about 6 months old, a zoo we used to visit almost every week announced that they were going to open a sister attraction in 2010. I quickly did the maths and marvelled – in 2010 my son would be 6 years old. SIX!
I looked at his chubby limbs, squashy adorable face, at the cute vests hanging on the washing line, and I simply couldn’t picture such a time ever arriving. What would he look like when he was 6 years old? How would that round face with the rosy cheeks and toothless grin have changed?
Nope. Impossible to envision.
The funny thing is, my son has hardly changed since he was a baby. Even at 12, you’d instantly recognise his face in baby photos – much to his chagrin… though he does now have teeth. Whereas my daughter’s face seems to change every couple of weeks. If I see pictures of her from Christmas, she looks so much younger, even though it was only 4 months ago. Sometimes, she turns her head, I catch a glimpse of her profile, and she looks so grown up that I catch my breath.
It’s terrifying, sobering but also magnificent.
Dealing with babies is hard. Absolutely no question about it. It’s like being plunged into a foggy chaotic maze – you have to grope your way out of the maze with your eyes closed, hefting 16 bags of awkwardly shaped bundles, accompanied by the constant sound of screaming. Oh, and there’s a lion chasing you. In a tornado.
Even so, I’m starting to sense that the hardest part of parenthood is yet to come… but stealthily approaching.
This bit is different. After spending a decade holding my little ones close, doing everything for them, helping them succeed and keeping them safe inside the circle of my arms, I think I’m going to turn everything on its head.
The next bit is about letting them go, giving them freedom and trust, making them do things independently, and watching from a distance as they fail. And I sense that I will find that excruciatingly difficult.
As a parent, watching your children fail will be one of the hardest things to witness. And yet, without learning HOW to fail, how will our children be equipped to deal with real life? How will they learn to pick themselves up, to find the positive in a disappointing situation, and above all… to keep trying?
In the same way that mother birds will not help their chicks as they hatch - for the chicks who haven’t needed to push and struggle through their shells to freedom will never be robust enough to survive – I will need to take a step back, even when my children fall from their heavily organised paths.
This is probably harder for some parents than others. I am definitely NOT a ‘tiger mom’, despite my genetic predisposition to ‘tiger’ characteristics. I have always tried to achieve a balance between giving my children guidance and the benefit of my experience, and encouraging their ownership and self-motivation regarding whatever activity they are involved in.
However, I AM controlling in my own way. You only have to look at my clenched fists while the kids decorate the Christmas tree to know that. I have steered them, and made decisions for them, and rescued them far too often for their own good.
One time I stood my ground, and I’m pleased now that I did.
I started teaching my son to play the piano a few years back. It seemed like the perfect thing to do – after all, he was musical, we had a piano, and I was a piano teacher. Ideal!
Generally my son and I have a great relationship – we are cut from the same cloth, enjoy the same things, and have a similar sense of humour. We can sit together in companionable silence for hours, reading a book, or work contentedly side by side on a lego project.
However, the instant he’d sit down on that piano stool, and I tried to put on my teacher’s hat, everything went t*ts up.
He would get frustrated and impatient with his mistakes. I would lose my cool the 32nd time I had to remind him how to finger a D major scale. His face would close up and a mutinous frown would cloud his brow whenever I suggested an improvement he could make. I would hear my voice turning shrewish and shrill when he crashed his fists down on his legs after making the same mistake for the umpteenth time.
He turned into a sulky, unreasonable, unrecognisable boy.
I turned into a tiger mom. Or is it a helicopter mom? Some such mom, anyway. An annoying one.
I threatened to stop teaching him. He accepted…then changed his mind, obviously conflicted inside.
It puzzled me, this transformation. Why was he so reluctant to do something that I was SO SURE he would enjoy?
I thought about it for a long, long time. Eventually I realised that playing the piano was the FIRST thing that he had tried to do which wasn’t instantly successful. Unlike all his other endeavours, playing the piano was going to require an unprecedented level of commitment. He would have to practise every day to strengthen his finger muscles – there was no other way; there are no short cuts to learning an instrument.
Understanding this helped me to deal with the problem. I explained my revelation to him, and I told him that it was absolutely imperative that he came up against these brick walls early in life. I reasoned that most children experienced them at a much younger age, because most children found every developmental stage challenging – eating, dressing, speaking, reading, writing, drawing, using scissors – and were therefore better equipped than he was at dealing with failure.
As always, when faced with logic and a sensible examination of the circumstances, he accepted the situation and agreed to keep trying. He moved through a couple of grades, passing with flying colours, and can now read music fluently – a skill that has unlocked all sorts of opportunities for him.
Failing is such a contentious issue for people with high expectations and ambitions. It is unbelievably terrifying for some, because it is UNKNOWN, and of course, fear of the unknown is paralysing and pervasive.
I spent most of my life scared of failing. Getting 99% in a test felt close to failure, because I could only see the 1% that I hadn’t managed to achieve. It changed my behaviour – made me cautious, anxious, stopped me from taking the risks that I needed to progress further.
It was only recently that I realised this wary attitude was hindering me from reaching my true potential… and was therefore causing me to fail EVERY DAY. That realisation was an epiphany. It suddenly freed up my thinking, allowed all the tension I’d been holding for decades to dissipate. I had nothing to lose if I’d already been failing myself.
So I started to try.
I would dearly love my children to reach this understanding much earlier in their lives – not in their forties, like me. If that means I have to chain my hands to my side when I want to help them, then that’s what it will take.
Learning to fail might possibly be one of the most useful and enlightening skills they will ever learn.