Tuesday 28 June 2016

How do we respond if our kids choose a different path to us?

I have been very lucky to grow up in a really loving family; a family that loves deeply and cares selflessly. They are good people. My dad can't sit still in my house without finding something to fix for me. My mum scurries round emptying the dishwasher and offering me tea as soon as I've finished the last cup. On arrival at my auntie and uncle's house I am presented with an actual dinner-plate full of cake, all for me, and if I can't eat it all they seem perplexed and ask if I've lost my appetite. My grandma recites silly poems and my nana slips me a tenner to buy sweets (this time for my kids, but I'll be damned if I don't get any cola cubes thrown into the bargain).

They are good people, and I'll defend them to the grave.

Sort of.

Growing up, it was a given that you stuck by your family. Loyalty was of utmost importance – and that didn't just mean favouring them over others – it meant favouring their beliefs too. I wanted to be like them; to impress them; to please them, and so it made sense to believe in everything they said, as I'm sure is the case with most children. Of course, they would never condone dictatorship, nor would they want me to feel under control in any way, but if I ever disputed or questioned anything that came out of any of their lips I was met with dropped jaws and silenced with another dinner-sized portion of cake. It wasn't that they thought me disrespectful, but perhaps they simply hadn't accounted for the fact someone might think slightly differently to them, not least a child in their bloodline. My questions were always met with a defensive argument that never really answered them at all. You don't argue this stuff, this is just how it is.

Growing up in a small town, most people shared similar views about life outside of it. My family never went abroad and they were the first to believe in the scaremongering surrounding visiting other countries. 'Well, I've heard....' they would say, and everybody would lean in intently. Each person would share their own tale of lament about the world; the things that got them angry. They each had a fascinating ability to turn something drab into an epic story that had you either crying with laughter or with utter despair.  I look back on it all with fondness; they left you wanting more of their storytelling and I have taken their love of it into my own life – I love a good story, albeit a fabricated one. And their storytelling talent not only left you amused, but willing yourself to think the same way as them about anything - politics or religion - because there was this feel-good factor in joining in with their side of the debate. It was a lot more fun than the alternative; the tumbleweed of a disagreement or a disputed fact. Is this what loyalty is, I asked myself? Could I still be part of the family and believe something entirely different to them?

Since I left home at nineteen (something that was not the norm for my family and did not come without a challenge) I started to meet people who did not share our point of view. I felt the fight for loyalty rising in me every time someone disagreed with me, like I had to defend my beliefs – my family – to the grave. How could anyone think any differently? Is this not what everyone believes? I wasn't always respectful of other's opinions - sure, I tried to listen, but I always had an agenda. But the more I went on in life, the more some of the things my family believed did not sit right with me. And although those beliefs worked well for them, and although they came from good intentions, they no longer made sense. I had travelled and seen the world (or some of it), I had met people from lots of different backgrounds, I had become good friends with people of different sexuality, race, class and religion. I no longer saw these people as other to me and I didn't see them as people who should be avoided but people I wanted to understand, live life with and learn from.

Of course, I look back and see how my youthful enthusiasm could have come across as naive to the older generations. I hadn't, of course, been through all the things that they had and perhaps I should have listened more instead of trying to find out about life all by myself. I made a lot of mistakes; I trusted people I shouldn't have; I got hurt. But I was exploring life and ideas and I wanted to ask big questions. Sometimes the hurts had to happen to gain full understanding; sometimes I even found myself in the very position of someone I had judged harshly only years earlier. I became a loather of judgemental people, knowing full well that I myself had been one: a recovering critic, humbled by life's events. I learnt that questioning should come before judgement. But whenever I questioned my family's beliefs it felt as though I were sticking a dagger into their hearts; how could I be so cruel as to doubt my own flesh and blood? Do I not trust them? It was easier to go it alone.

So we fast forward fifteen years and I'm faced with a referendum. I explained in simple terms to my five year old what that is and what it means and I asked him for his thoughts on it. He didn't answer but responded with 'what do you think mummy?' I saw the same loyalty in him as I had myself as a kid, desperate to please me with his answer. And with it brings about a challenge: do I just seek to tell him what I believe in order to bring him up with the same beliefs as me (because of course I think they're right, in the same way my family thinks theirs are), or do I present him with options to choose from? And what if he grows up to believe in very different things? How will I respond? Will I defend my view point to the grave? Will I get angry about what I so adamantly believe, or will I swallow my pride and listen before I share my views?

We all have people in our lives that we can't discuss politics or religion with. Perhaps I have been that person myself. As much as we try to have open-minded discussions, opposing views aren't readily welcomed but instead often taken with offence. They are not received as thought-provoking or even challenging, but instead as a means of attack. So we avoid talking about such things in order to avoid an argument and things get left unsaid.

I do not want to be this person when it comes to my own children. I want to be someone they can question without taking offence. This isn't about bringing my kids up to believe that 'anything goes' or not instil any morality or wisdom, what little of it I have. I'm under no illusion that no matter how open minded I try to be, my own beliefs and lifestyle with have a huge influence on them and will largely dictate how they make a lot of their early independent decisions. But should they choose a different path to me, what then? Do I lament over their different choices? Or do I accept that they are very different people to me and cannot possibly think in the exact same way? I hope I can give them space to question my own lifestyle, and in turn earn enough respect to be able to do the same to them. I hope to give them opportunity to debate with me and find out whether my beliefs have depth. Could it be possible to have a healthy banter about the deeper issues in life that can open up more opportunity for truth to reveal itself? Do we need to take ourselves a little less seriously and accept that we can learn things from those younger than us too?

These are challenges I face as a parent – we all do. Perhaps you're a parent of older children reading this and you're rolling your eyes at my idealism; just you wait till your kids are grown. I hear you, but what's the alternative unless we try? We cannot be life long mentors of our children, as much as we would like to be. When a bird flies the nest it does as it pleases. One day they will grow up to be their own independent people, making important choices about life. I hope they still come to me for advice, but that doesn't mean they have to listen to it. It's in these early days that I have the opportunity to shape them and influence them with the things that are important to me; to learn to respect others, to be honest and to be kind. But once they are out on their own in the big wide world, I have no right to inflict my beliefs on them, any more than I do any other adult. I can have open discussions with them or I can choose to shut them down and tell them they are wrong.  

I'm not sure it will ever be easy to hear that our kids have beliefs we don't agree with. And of course, if their belief system has hugely negative implications I hope that I can be outspoken about such things, but this does not mean I can force my way of life upon them in adulthood. Telling someone how they should live is not helpful, but asking questions to glean understanding is on both sides of the relationship.

So, I want to be an encourager of questions. I want to learn to allow mistakes. Most of all, I want to give my children the keys to make good decisions. And what if they still choose things in life differently to me? What if they vote differently or choose a different religion? Then I shall ask them more questions and in turn I hope they do the same. And in the questioning, perhaps there's more chance that truth shall will out for each of us – all, I hope, with good humour, humility, understanding and a dinner-sized portion of cake.

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