Micro-Managing or Lessons in Life?

For those who have followed Cheeky Kids for a while now will recall that, at times, I share my own parenting experiences as I journey through parenthood, minus a manual, script or even direction signage. While in recent posts I have been concerned with the current education reforms in New Zealand, and to be perfectly selfish, the inevitable impact on my own children, I wanted to return to my roots in this post reflecting on my current parenting experiences. In particular, my experience in having a 15 year old son……

One of the hardest teenage phenomena to keep ahead of is the influence of peers in the way your teenager behaves and operates. To have some influence in this, we decided long ago that our son would not visit, or sleep over at another young person’s place before we had met them, and they had been at our place. We have kept with this as our son has moved into his teenage years. So this weekend we had the experience of having one such friend stay-over, with eye-opening results.

To have another young person in our house who has never been taught that you say please and thank you, that you look at someone when they talk to you, that you don’t try to operate a laptop and headphones at the dinner table while eating, and that you, at the very least, say thank you for staying over at the point of being returned home. That you actually communicate with those around you, at a very minimum. Don’t get me wrong…..I don’t expect this kid to divulge his life story or future ambition…..but for this young person to be so socially disadvantaged when in another persons house had me quite concerned.

Concerned for my own son……thinking that he held this other boy in such high regard. But I was swiftly reassured that our son, too, was concerned with his friends behaviour. We had not even reversed down the boy’s driveway after dropping him off before I was asked (with nervous glance) ‘so what did you think of …..?’ Our son knew. I didn’t have to do any ‘teaching’ of difference…..I merely had to remind what our expectations were if he were visiting another persons’ home…..or even just talking to another human being…..and the lesson was done. By the time we reached home, my son was planning to contact the friends we suggested may be ones more appropriate to see in future.

We do realise that this could have gone differently. That our son could not have seen the inappropriateness of his friends behaviour, and that we would have had to prepare to monitor his friendship with this kid for a longer period of time. That we would have had to carefully mitigate any damage done with their interaction. It is a hard job as a parent to have any influence over a 15 year old. And as every year comes round that influence becomes less and less. So what underlies a parents influence as they mature? What lives in them, as you, their parent, become less influential in their decision-making and social interactions?

The answer came to me when I stumbled across a recent TED talk on the evening following this experience. Jennifer Senior presented at TED recently about the modern day phenomenon in parenting that is anxiety. Anxiety that we are doing it right, doing it wrong, not providing this and that for our children. But ultimately, our biggest anxiety that our children, heaven forbid, will not be happy. Because isn’t that our job, as parents, to have happy children? As a result of this never-ending quest for children’s happiness, we become lost in the search for what will work, what won’t….what is right and what isn’t. We view each situation as a potential risk or reinforcement to our child’s happiness. And in doing so, we often lose sight of the person we are guiding our child to become. Many parents understand that education is the key to our child’s future happiness…..so we work hard to support them in their learning, monitoring homework, attending appropriate meetings at school, ensuring our teen is doing their study to pass their exams etc. But that is not enough. We then worry about what other skills they may need in life, so children get signed up for after-school activities, such as rugby, ballet, piano and so on. We worry about children’s diet, (what to do if my child eats non-organic, or doesn’t eat their vegetables); about children’s health, about children’s social skills, the list goes on. The point is we worry. We micro manage, instead of keeping an eye on the big picture. All of these worries are valid….but perhaps are indicative of anxiety gone too far. For now, we are told by every parenting ‘expert’ out there what good parents do and don’t do. As Jennifer Senior suggests, there is a book for everything to teach our toddler, short of disarming a nuclear bomb.

What did my experience with my teen’s peer reinforce to me? That my child’s happiness is not dependent on whether we continue to allow him to be friends with another boy with such vastly different social skills to our son. We could be so focused on his happiness that we allow him to liaise with this peer without regard for what he may learn in the process. My child’s happiness is more guided when we return to the basics of parenting. It is by focusing on the good old fashioned stuff that has worked for centuries in parenting. Values of life. What is really important. That you treat others with respect and that you will be respected in return. That respect means saying please and thank you, it means looking at someone when they talk to you, it means being respectful of another persons home when in it, and ultimately it means respecting your friend by respecting their home and family. That that is the value of friendship.

Values are even more important than our child’s happiness. For if we, as parents, can impart values that will serve our children’s future, then surely this will ultimately lead to their own, intrinsic happiness….rather than relying on others for some external sense of satisfaction? And really, if we, as parents are so focused on our children’s happiness, then it is the way of values that will ensure our own happiness in a job well done.

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