Sunday, December 07, 2008

Self-directed independence; successes, mistakes and the breaking of spirits

As a parent, when you respect your baby's preferences by feeding on demand, this naturally evolves into a respect for the preferences of that person at every stage of their development. So you get used to taking them seriously and developing a kind of synergy in decision-making. In this way, I've learned a valuable lesson: the natural organisation of groups is egalitarian, not hierarchical. And I wonder if people who work to impose and/or maintain hierarchical, power-pyramid structures on society might be people who didn't have their preferences respected as children or babies. In the UK I think it's tragically rare - even viewed as bizarre - for parents to organise their lives around their children's preferences. Surely that produces spoilt brats? Little Hitlers? Surely you've got to break their spirit early? Show them who's boss?

That "break their spirit" idea makes me feel like weeping, because - as any parent of any toddling child knows full well - it's no exaggeration. Breaking their spirit is exactly what you have to do if you want to impose your will on your child. This little new person, who is still essentially a baby in many ways, just beginning to learn about the world and has such an unquenchable thirst, such a raw passion for learning about it, must be forcibly put back in the box: tied down, strapped in and otherwise restrained, For It's Own Good.

I am speaking through experience. That kind of parenting happened to me, and I passed it onto my first children to some extent. A young mother, barely into my twenties, nobody had taught me any other way of parenting. Nearly 20 years ago, there wasn't the raft of books or magazines about alternative ways of doing it then. There was no internet! No message boards, blogs, websites..

But I can't blame external factors nor be too hard on myself. I was doing what most parents strive to do: the best they can for their children given the experience, circumstances, time and patience available. In 1991 there were three boys in my full-time care: a stepson aged 7, my oldest son aged nearly 3 and my younger son aged about 1½. I was 23, and trying my best to do my best for them all, but not really knowing how to go about it.

I did a lot by instinct, but I shouted too, and I didn't listen enough, and I used threats and rewards to try to stay in control of events and behaviours. It felt wrong, but I didn't know any other way. The children and I - specifically my own children (it was harder with my stepson, for whatever reason, and I still feel I made a complete mess of his upbringing) sort of worked it out between ourselves, but I think it was Ali's (the 1½ year-old) unbreakable spirit that taught me the most. Tom was yielding: Ali was not and met my immutable stance with his own equally unmoving one. But when I yielded, he would soften and co-operate too. Eventually I realised that we actually could all be on the same side, and we haven't really looked back since then.

The three girls coming afterwards have benefited from this realisation and had their preferences almost completely respected - whenever I possibly could - throughout. So what are people with unbroken spirits like? What's the difference? Primarily, I'd say it's in their natural integrity. They can't be made to behave in a certain way or to comply with arbitrary set rules. Threats and rewards don't work on them. So are they wild, wilful? Out of control? Absolutely not. They're logical and self-contained, with their own internal, strong system of ethics. Considerate and thoughtful, they weigh up their own decisions carefully. They are in charge of their own thinking and less the victims of external environments. I doubt they could be bullied, and I equally doubt they could become bullies.

They're not angels with halos or anything, but they're certainly different. And I'm still not a perfect parent: I'm still subject to exasperation, exhaustion and the snappiness that goes with it. But remembering that we're all on the same side usually resolves the situation. (If I'm not on their side, who can be? If the children and I are at loggerheads, what of their relationship with the rest of the world? What of mine?)

That long rambling précis leads me onto describing some recent and current incidents in some of my children's lives: landmarks of their development: examples of another phenomena that I suspect unbroken spirits share in common: self-directed independence. It's true: when they're free to make all their own choices, children really do carefully regulate the stages of their own separate interactions with the world. I find it an amazing thing to observe and I feel deeply privileged to be able to do so.

When my six-year old says (as she did last week): "Today is the day I'm going shopping on my own," I feel both awed and scared of the process. I had to respect her position, but I couldn't help voicing some misgivings. Was she really old enough? What if something unexpected happened? How would she deal with it? I hovered outside the shop, 'helpfully' pointing out the stack of baskets, unable to resist the silent providing of parently input even through a soundproof pane of glass.

If I hadn't done this, would she have gone without a basket and decided to carry her items in her hands instead? Would she then have avoided knocking a bottle of vinegar off a shelf with it, panicking, dropping said basket and running out of the shop in tears of horror? Did I, by going on about "dealing with the unexpected" generate a self-fulfilling prophecy? Or would it have happened anyway, and was this one of those inevitable mistakes she needed to learn from? I suspect it was a mistake we both needed to learn from. Learning doesn't stop with the onset of adulthood, does it? Parental and childhood development goes hand-in-hand: a mutually beneficial (or otherwise) process.

A couple of days later, she had a totally different and more positive experience in a different shop. It was during 'normal school hours' and the assistant met us with a barrage of questions: "Why aren't you in school? Are you ill? Having a day off for some reason? Going to the doctor's? Am I being nosy? Sorry."

Lyddie calmly waited for her to finish and then clearly stated that she was home-educated. "Oh, that's good," said this talkative lady. "I like the sound of home education. It sounds much better than school.."

Outside, I said: "You don't have to answer people's nosy questions if you don't want to, you know," feeling that she might be getting weary of forever being asked.

"I know, but I wanted to," said Lyddie. "I want to tell people, to make sure they know about home education then maybe they won't ask the same questions the next time they see a child out of school."

Well, it shut me up..

The baby wants to do as much as possible by herself on her own terms and she desperately needs to be a productive member of the family unit. She was delighted yesterday when I remembered that instead of being irked at her dragging her little chair to the work surface to 'help' me make her sandwich, we could make it together. I'll never forget my great grandmother doing this with me when I was about the same age, or perhaps a little older. You can put your hands over theirs and spread butter together, can't you? And get filling and do the same, and fold and cut the bread in the same way. Our baby was delighted to be thus involved in the process of preparing her own food. Soon, she'll be making her own sandwiches.

Already she helps with the laundry, passing items of wet clothing one at a time from a basket for me to hang on our creels. I never asked her to do it, but it's been happening for about six months or more now. She likes to "set the table" too, counting knives and forks out of the drawer. "One, two, three, two, three, one..." It was only last week that she was counting everything in ones: "One, one, one one.." (As Tom said: well, it worked for the Romans..) Every day, it seems another number is added to the repertoire of her understanding. I think she reached four yesterday.

The process doesn't stop when the child is 16, 18, 19 years old. I could blog forever about the teenagers' self-directed independence and my corresponding lessons in respect and restraint. Tom's about to start his own business and I'm fretting, like when Lyddie went into the shop: is he really old enough? What if something unexpected happens? How will he deal with it?

Of course he's old enough: they all are. He even takes advice in a way I'm sure I never did at 19. He even takes it from his younger brother, who is fretting along with me and coming up with a fresh list of "things Tom needs to ascertain" before the venture begins. Parameters to be set. Principles to be established. Methods to be adopted. Of course, this won't be just Tom's business - he's starting with three willing, cheap (free) helpmates. I'm mostly concerned with getting the figures in order: having run businesses in the past, I understand the importance of setting up a designated box/account for tax and NI. 30% of everything earned has to go in there, the detail of payments and receipts to be worked out later. Tom knows (I've told him often enough) that the taxman can bankrupt him overnight and still demand - and extract - payment.

Is this self-directed independence on Tom's part, with the rest of us clucking round him like worried mother hens? Hmmm. Probably not..


Blogger emma said...

Great post, Gill.

And bravo to the 1.5yo Ali. I have so much admiration for the tiny children who simply demand to be parented respectfully and will accept no less.

4:12 pm, December 07, 2008  
Blogger Gill said...

Thanks Emma. Yes, bravo indeed!

7:13 pm, December 07, 2008  
Blogger Riaz said...

It's all Victorian. Many common British attitudes and ideas on how things should be and run today were formed in the Victorian era. Just like the state school system I suppose.

9:12 pm, December 07, 2008  
Blogger Gill said...

Yes, and the Victorian era was born out of the Industrial Revolution.. which nicely finished the job of the Enclosure Acts, didn't it?

I'm trying to think where I read that last week, but failing. Signs of the Times, probably.

6:32 am, December 08, 2008  
Blogger Riaz said...

Something that concerns me is that this recession could make Britain resemble Glasgow in the 1930s. Glasgow was one of the finest pieces of Victorian ideology and infrastructure in the world. A city where most people earned their living by working for an employer, mainly in shipbuilding and manufacturing, and few people owned land as they rented their property. When the shipbuilding and manufacturing industries collapsed during the depression it created masses of unemployed and landless people. Self sufficiency and independent living was not an option. The Enclosure Acts and similar legislation prevented a return to the land.

12:58 pm, December 08, 2008  
Blogger 'EF' x said...

Great post, I have to come back and read it again. I was wincing at a few sentences that brought stuff up. I am on the cusp, i step in when I feel I have to, I regret it half the time and see that I had to the other half and that it worked out.

If I took my kids seriously all the time I would be in the nuthouse or prison before long I suspect, or just dead from exhaustion on the floor.

I respect them, but my limit is when they are asking of me (in facilitating terms) what would normally be required of a large family or tribe or community, and it has taken me years to start to forgive myself for not being able to take them seriously all the time.

I think I was a little the other way round to the way you are (as in you started out a bit strict ;) When I first had babies, and had two under three, I was utterly against any impostion on the kids, they were free to decide everything, from what they wanted to do and when to if we were going to keep arrangements or not.

I have become steadily more tight as the years go by and I don't see this lessening before they are not so dependant on me to pick up pieces.

I think a lot of parents have to shout and threaten and not allow their kids what they want in terms of self direction not because they have chosen this (what educated or creative parent wants to shout?), but because they themselves have a lot on their plate and their lives simply don't revolve around the kids, their lives revolve around surviving. *shrugs*

A couple I knew were working themselves ragged just to make the mortgage payments, the kids were missing the father in particular, the mother said to the father: "You are missing their childhoods." Knowing full well there wasn't really any way out of him working so much because she could only work part time. He said: "Well, they will miss a roof over their heads and a warm bed and food at night more."

Which is true. Sharp, not very giving, but true all the same.

Being homeless with kids is no fun, and I also believe this is a lot of the reason why parents get ratty and have no energy to consider their kids in a very giving and patient way. At the end of the day, many parents find themselves deeply involved with just paying bills, their time is already 'spent', they are tired big children themselves and their basic needs are not being met. This way of being a parent can and does eclipse the initial plan to be wonderful parents. If all we can do is to just keep things running, well, does that make us any less than considerate?

I often have to sit down with our kids and give them the answer "no" and then give them the "..and I will tell you why.." and then give them the..."...but jeez, I can understand why you wish it could be different.." We do our best, we listen and learn, but at the end of the day we don't fit in in the autonomous parent crowds because they see us as way too 'too'.

I prefer to understand that parents doing the strict thing love their children as much as parents doing the more gentle thing.

And what I have noticed as far as the 'end product' goes (happy adult or non happy adult) is that it really doesn't matter what the upbringing was (strict or otherwise). Some of the most well balanced people I have met have had simply atrocious times as kids, but came from loving families who did what they did because they cared, a lot.

I think that is the key, it isn't what we do, or why we do it, but the way we do it. LOL, blimey.

But then, like I said, I did start out being absolutely 100% dedicated to the complete opposite way, my experiences were not as positive as yours have been :) A lot of that must have been my attitude, but also, I can remember reaching a point where it was them or me.


And without me, at this stage, there really isn't much for them.

12:17 am, December 09, 2008  
Blogger Gill said...

Riaz, those Enclosure Acts were a complete stitch-up, weren't they?! Easily on a par with some of the breathtaking stuff that's going through now - if not worse. Yes, definitely worse. I'd love to see them repealed.

EF, I see what you're saying and I agree - good enough parenting is good enough. A roof over their heads and food in their bellies is the most important thing. None of us can be perfect parents and nor should we beat ourselves up trying. That's something that took me years to learn!

Yes, I used to be quite a tight disciplinarian - especially with my stepson. I was scared, I think, of what might happen if I loosened up the reins a bit. It was a good thing the marriage split when it did and he chose to go off and live with his dad aged 12, with hindsight. That wasn't ideal either, but at least he had some freedom and I had chance to work out what kind of parent I really wanted to be with my own children.

It hasn't been perfect, no way, but having the time with them has helped, as has being on my own with them so that I wasn't trying to deal with another adult's issues as well. You're right - stress and pressure doesn't help, does it?

"And what I have noticed as far as the 'end product' goes (happy adult or non happy adult) is that it really doesn't matter what the upbringing was (strict or otherwise). Some of the most well balanced people I have met have had simply atrocious times as kids, but came from loving families who did what they did because they cared, a lot."

I'd go with that too. Like I said in the post: "what most parents strive to do: the best they can for their children given the experience, circumstances, time and patience available."

I think anyone who comes from a childhood in which they knew their parents cared a lot will probably turn out ok, don't you? The ones who flounder are the ones who don't know that, because it probably didn't apply in their case.

"I can remember reaching a point where it was them or me."

LOL yep, I reached the opposite point. Then again, I've reached a few such points in my time, of various descriptions and tangents. I'm sure all such points are of immense value, and completely necessary.

12:41 am, December 09, 2008  
Blogger Augustin Moga said...

Great post! I enjoyed reading it.

I'd have a question: What is it with the Romans and the one, one, one counting? Is it just about the Roman numerals, or is there something more to it?

Just curious, 'cause I also noticed my daughter sometimes counting things by saying one, one, one...

7:11 pm, December 11, 2008  
Blogger mamacrow said...

thank you so much for this post Gill. You have no idea how timely it is!

Thank you especially for this bit - 'And I'm still not a perfect parent: I'm still subject to exasperation, exhaustion and the snappiness that goes with it.'

and all the comments - great.

I'm still torn between what I aspire to and what ends up being reality sometimes.

i'm still muddling through, doing my best and leaving the rest I suppose. Unfortunately my perspective often hinges way too much on how much sleep I've had - or hadn't, as the case may be.

and my life is such a house of cards sometimes - going reasonably well till one more pressure is the final straw...

10:46 pm, December 11, 2008  
Blogger Gill said...

Hi Augustin,

I'm not sure how old your daughter is, but mine seem to have straightforwardly been able to count with more numbers the older they get.

So, with our baby, what was "One, one, one, one.." a few weeks ago, is now: "One, two, three, four.." - usually! (Often with glitches.)

Mamacrow, sleep is often the difference between ordered peacefulness and manic chaos here as well. It's difficult just now, with everyone suffering from various degrees of colds, etc.

7:45 am, December 14, 2008  
Blogger Augustin Moga said...

Hi Gill,

My daughter will be four next April. She's actually able to count up to 12 in English, and up to 10 (but always skipping six) in Romanian (my mother tongue). However, almost always after we play with numbers for a while (like counting fingers, or cookies, or whatever) she reverts to the one, one, one counting. I'm not quite sure why. (But I have a theory: A while back when she only knew about one -- a single thing, and two -- anything more than one, at some point she started saying one, one, one while pointing to her fingers one by one. At which point I think I said something like: "You're right! This is one, this is another one, then yet another one,...". And I guess, she got the idea that as long as she points to each item and says one, she can't be wrong.)

Anyway, I was just curious about the comment Tom had in regards to the Romans' way of counting. Apart for the Roman numerals, is there anything special about it?

8:07 am, December 14, 2008  
Blogger Gill said...

Funny how they often skip the same number, isn't it? With Lyddie it's 13, still.

Counting in ones.. you've got me thinking, now.. it's binary, isn't it? The building blocks of computer programmes and - arguably - life, the universe and everything! A switch is either on, or off. A cell is either open, or closed. These states combined determine everything else, don't they?

I don't know if that helps, but it was where my thinking went. ;-)

9:11 am, December 14, 2008  
Blogger Augustin Moga said...

Re: Number skipping -- well, she only skips six in Romanian, not in English. What's even more funny is that a few months ago, when she actually made the leap from one/two to more-than-two, she used to count up to ten (in Romanian) skipping seven. Somehow she self-corrected that (guess Snow White had something to do with it :-)), but right away she started skipping six. Have no clue why...

This morning, though, she did correctly answered six, when I asked her what comes after five. (And then hesitated to say seven to what comes after that...) We were talking about our cat's age...

As for binary... Hmmm... Is not quite the same thing... As you said, binary is good to talk about "something" ("on", 1) or "nothing" ("off", 0). My experience, however, is that kids have a little trouble grasping the nothingness; far quicker they got the idea of countability, that things could be counted (and that there's such a thing as "one" and "more-than-one").

4:30 pm, December 14, 2008  
Blogger Gill said...

I wonder, then, if she's somehow associating the assignment of numbers to items in counting, with positions of priority? If they're items she's equally fond of, she perhaps doesn't want to think of them as having different numbers?

8:37 am, December 15, 2008  

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