Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Aspirational parenting

I read an article in the Guardian yesterday by George Monbiot that made me stop and think. The first thing that I stopped and thought was the same thing that I always stop and think when I read an article by George Monbiot and that was "Oh do shut up George, you're talking utter nonsense again". Makes you wonder why I've read more than one or two of his articles doesn't it? However, on this occasion my eye-rolling despair lasted only as long as reading the headline

Aspirational parents condemn their children to a desperate, joyless life.

And given that it's a sub-editor that's usually responsible for the headline on the Graun, I think I might, on this one, rare, occasion have to not disagree with George.

Once I got round to reading the actual article I was reminded afresh how much I loathe the competitive nature of so much that happens with parenting. And I was appalled, depressed and slightly sickened by some of the things he talked about. The very idea that people start coaching their children when they're toddlers, hot-housing them, force-feeding them knowledge and information and skills to try and make sure they get ahead. I was reminded of poor little Bertie in Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street novels, a six-year old boy with a domineering and misguided mother who inflicts saxophone classes, Italian lessons, psychoanalysis and pink trousers on her son, despite his desire to join the boy scouts and hit things with sticks. Those were works of fiction, written to raise a laugh. Admittedly they're funny because we (almost) all know parents who possess some of those traits. Parents who start their little darlings on piano lessons when they're three and ballet and tennis and horse-riding and all the rest. But Bertie was an exaggeration. Wasn't he? It would appear not. It would appear that there are actual human beings in this world who pay someone to coach their child in the right skills to be admitted to the right nursery. Or pay someone simply to identify the right nursery for ensuring their child starts out on the right path to the right university. Whatever right means to the kind of people who do this.

I hate people. I hate the idea that there are small children out there who want to play and giggle and be loved and have a sense of worth that isn't related to whether they've achieved something. Who want to be secure in their parents' love and approval irrespective of whether they can correctly decline their Latin nouns aged three. I hate the idea that there are parents who already have fixed and concrete ideas about what university counts as good enough, what career is good enough, what salary, what car, what house, what material possessions are adequate before they will deem their child to have succeeded.

Which sort of, in a roundabout way, brings me back to the headline, and my initial disagreement with it, and my own aspirations for my LittleBear. Because of course I have aspirations for him. Hopes. Dreams. I'm only human, and I don't think there are many parents in the world who don't want the best for their children, who don't aspire to something "better" for their children than they have. It's what that "better" is that makes the difference though, isn't it? Just because you have an aspiration or two doesn't necessarily mean your child is condemned to some sort of joyless existence. You could aspire to joy after all, couldn't you?

When BigBear and I were expecting LittleBear, we talked about what we wanted for our unborn child, what was important to us, what we hoped for. And we both had the same basic hope. Our first hope was that our child would be born healthy. Nothing more. Not exceptional, just whole and pink and perfect. And after that, the thing that we both want, more than any other is that he feels loved and has self-confidence and a sense of self-worth.

As you may have noticed from some of what I've written here, I'm perhaps not over-endowed with confidence in myself. And, it would be fair to say, BigBear is not exactly overflowing in the self-confidence department either. And therein lies the "better" that we want for LittleBear. We want him not to suffer from the fears and anxieties that have beset us. I'm sure he'll have his own fears and anxieties, and I'm sure that it's not entirely in our hands what happens in his mind. After all, we both had loving parents and we both ended up the way we did anyway. But that doesn't mean I can't aspire to have a more psychologically robust child than I have ended up myself. It was that hope that, slightly indirectly, led me to my course of CBT...

... I sat in my doctor's surgery, crying, as seemed to be the case rather often at the time. And I looked at my beautiful boy playing with toy cars on the floor and sobbed, "I just don't want him to grow up like me. I don't want him to think he's a failure. I don't want him to hate himself." My delightful and sympathetic doctor looked at me, somewhat bewildered and asked, "How long have you felt that way about yourself." And thus I ended up getting some help to stop feeling "that way"...

So, yes, of course I'd be delighted if my boy goes to a "good" university, or is a talented musician, or a skilled sportsman, or indeed excels in any field. And yes, of course I will nurture and encourage him to make the most of his inate talents. And I'm sure I'd be proud of him if he had a "successful" career. BUT, what I really want is for him to find a path through life where he feels fulfilled, where he is rooted to his own life, connected to people who love him and who he loves, where he does something that inspires him and satisfies him, where he has a sense of his own worth, where he is confident in the validity of his own feelings and able to express his own opinions. Where he is happy, secure and loved. I hope to give him as much of that as I can, to lay a foundation on which he can one day build his own life.

Every night, as I kiss my LittleBear good night I say "Night night, sleep tight, Mummy loves you lots and I'll be right here if you need me" and my LittleBear always replies "Night night, sleep tight, LittleBear loves you lots and I'll be right in my bed if you need me". I will hold true to my promise as long as there is breath in my body. But I know that the day will come when my LittleBear won't any longer be in his bed if I need him. And I hope I have the strength to let go when that day comes and let him find his own way, his own life and his own joy. That's what I aspire to.

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