Thursday, March 15, 2007

Autonomous life

I've been reading and thinking recently about the extent to which schooling affects people's whole lives, especially regarding lifestyle and career choices.

I wonder if careers advisors know how powerful they are. At my statutory careers interview, aged 16, I was given the choices: A-levels, BTEC or full-time job? My O-level results were good, so I was advised to stay at school to do A-levels, "And then I might be able to go to university and get a really good job." And if I don't want to stay at school? "Well, there's always further ed college.." And if I don't want to do A-levels? I recollect this answer clearly: "Your life chances are greatly reduced without them."

My life chances? What, I'm going to die if I don't take them? Of course she didn't mean that. She meant my life chances in terms of money, position and promotion. This was a girls' grammar school in the early 1980s, where cookery and childcare lessons were still on offer, but the more intelligent girls were expected to study science and maths instead and we were all made to write essays on single motherhood, with those who painted the most gruesome picture of it given the highest marks. I wrote about a young woman living eight floors up in a decrepit tower block, (lift broken of course,) complete with ubiquitous heavy shopping and screaming children. I was asked to read this out to the class. Twice, in case someone missed it the first time.

Yes, the real lessons we were being taught at school were:

  • People need lots of money in order to be happy.
  • People need challenging, well-paid, full-time careers in order to gain intellectual fulfilment.
  • Parenthood is hard work and is certainly not fun, interesting or pleasureable.
  • Single parenthood is hell.

  • - and I've proved all of the above wrong, in my life so far.

    Of course, they didn't teach us...

  • The phenomenal depth of learning that can be reached though free-range study.
  • The sheer pleasure of being in control of one's own time.
  • The intellectual stimulation that comes from young children and observing how they learn and react.
  • The unsurpassable, empowering, rewarding joy of bonding with one's new baby through attachment parenting.
  • That the pride a parent feels in its offspring's achievements is worth far more than money.
  • That, if you learn to manage finances, then 'just enough' is all you'll ever need.

  • Perhaps they didn't know.

    My sons now, aged 16 and 18, have avoided the statutory careers interview. They won't be persuaded to talk to careers advisors - not because of anything I've said, because I haven't talked to them about that. They just seem to be instinctively averse to the idea.

    Tom went to work for our local builder again yesterday: this happens from time to time when the builder is short of men and Tom is short of money. The builder offered Tom a full-time job again: well-paid, with accredited training, and Tom politely declined again, saying he liked his time to be his own. So the builder offered Tom regular part-time work, which he again declined for the same reason. So the builder offered to let Tom completely dictate his own terms of employment, and Tom said: "This is fine: just ask for me when you're short of men, and if I'm short of money I'll come." He prefers to spend his time working on his own game designing projects, and he doesn't need a lot of cash.

    Ali is doing volunteer work at the Buddhist centre again today. He's learning to cook, clean, work in the garden and he's also been fixing their computers. There's no money involved of course, and it's a beautiful place, with a relaxing peaceful atmosphere. He relates some conversations to me sometimes, that he has with the people there. They certainly make him think. He arranged the volunteering entirely by himself, only mentioning it to me afterwards in passing. He was going to go and help out at the RSPCA too, but changed his mind when they said he'd have to have a tetanus vaccination. His decision, of course. Not one in which I had any input whatsoever.

    So am I worried, that my boys aren't studying for their A-levels? Applying to colleges and universities? Working out how to earn or make lots of money? Absolutely not. I'm delighted and relieved that they're staying in charge of their lives and refusing to be seduced by offers of money, security and structure. They don't seem to make fear-based decisions, they don't mindlessly follow the crowd and they don't care what anyone else thinks. They will ask for advice on their terms, when they think they need it and then listen respectfully, but still make up their own minds.

    I'm incredibly proud of them and the way they're turning out. They're going to continue to own their lives and follow their interests and passions, come what may, which is all I've ever wanted for them.


    Blogger Tim said...

    You made me think of: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"

    10:37 am, March 15, 2007  
    Blogger Gill said...

    Wow, yes!

    Jefferson was home-educated until the age of 9, I see ;-)

    12:26 pm, March 15, 2007  
    Blogger Allie said...

    That is good to read. I sometimes wonder how it'll all go for our kids. I spent so much of my youth in pursuit of qualifications - just for the sake of it. It's hard to imagine how things will be for my kids if they don't do that. Guess I'll just have to wait and see.

    6:54 pm, March 15, 2007  
    Blogger Gill said...

    They're just all so sure of what they're doing, Allie. If I'm ever tempted to start being worried that they're drifting, I just go and spend five minutes talking to one of them, and then I re-discover that they have this quiet confidence that makes it impossible not to trust the process.

    7:30 pm, March 15, 2007  
    Blogger Ruth said...

    "re-discover that they have this quiet confidence that makes it impossible not to trust the process."

    Same here Gill. My eldest is doing what he wants and he would never have pursued history if he had stayed in school cos he hated the way it was taught there. My 16 year told me she knows she will know what she wants when the time is right but it isn't yet:) If she was still in school she would be under pressure to "do something" even if it was the wrong thing.

    7:45 pm, March 15, 2007  
    Blogger Gill said...

    Yes, I'm thinking that it's vitally important for them to have this time to wait and see what feels right to do. I definitely feel that this time, more than any other, is not a time to put the pressure on them. It wouldn't make sense for me to start doing that now. And there's no need for it anyway.

    7:54 pm, March 15, 2007  
    Blogger Louise said...

    I love the fact you have been there and done it with your kids, completely autonomously. It really gives me strength Gill xxxxx

    9:51 pm, March 15, 2007  
    Blogger Gill said...

    :-) I know what you mean, Lou - it is a bit of a scary leap in the dark when they're younger, isn't it? I remember being 99% sure I was doing the right thing, but that 1% gave me nightmares!

    Fear not: they'll be fine. You're giving them freedom to think, to study and learn properly and to develop their own unique identity and opinions. I think it's the very best thing a parent can possibly do for their child.

    6:59 am, March 16, 2007  
    Blogger skypainter said...

    Fantastic post Gill (as usual ;-)) I am going to print it off and share it with my family xxx

    8:29 pm, March 16, 2007  
    Blogger Gill said...

    Thanks Manda, you're very kind ;-)

    12:39 pm, March 17, 2007  
    Blogger Adele said...

    This is so wonderful to read! :)

    Your sons sound like wonderful people. I bet you are very proud of them indeed! :)

    What you say here sounds like my idea of a success story, and I really hope that my children are as fortunate.

    I don't want my kids to live by my dreams for them; I want them to live by their own. But if I do secretly nurture hopes and dreams for my kids (and I think most of us do) they are these:

    I hope that they will be able to live their lives their way, and not feel like they have to live up to anyone's standards except their own.

    I hope that they will take what they can out of life, and not feel like one minute is wasted time.

    I'd like it if they could reach their deathbeds (and I very much hope that this won't happen until they are old ladies) and be able to reflect on their lives and say "Yep. On the whole it was a damned good experience, and I thoroughly it!"

    I couldn't ask for more than that. :)

    12:20 am, March 18, 2007  
    Blogger Gill said...

    Adele, I am! :-)
    And yes, my sentiments exactly :-)

    10:25 am, March 18, 2007  

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