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