Shoot him with a gun, then invite him to dinner

When our daughter was about six years old, we always joked she was so pretty we’d already have to start saving for a shotgun for when the boys started visiting. One day, she asked me seriously what we would do if a boy showed interest in her when she’s older. I replied we’d invite him to dinner, so Dad and I would be able to assess him and get to know him before he can date our daughter. Her four-year-old brother, who’d half listened but didn’t catch all that, asked her what Mommy would do if a boy wanted to date her. She said: “She’ll shoot him with a gun, then invite him to dinner.”

This is a family classic joke, but it also shows the mindset we were in at the time. Our circumstances led us to reevaluate our life, beliefs, convictions from the foundations up, and the attitudes behind that joke are among the foundations that were rebuilt.

Believing your job is to protect your daughter is to believe she is not able to protect herself. I’m not talking physical protection, I’m talking a kind of oversight of every decision, every relationship, insisting that you have authority and the final say over her movements – as in, she has to ask your permission to go here or there. That sends the message to her that she is incapable. The sad thing about psychology is that being bombarded with the message that you’re incapable can make you incapable. When you are constantly told in myriad little ways that you can’t, you are likely to believe you can’t, therefore you can’t.

Instead, I know my daughter is a capable, intelligent person. She has no curfew and we make no demand that she report her every move to us, because we trust her judgement, and even if her judgement is faulty, she will never learn to improve it unless we give her space to make mistakes. Our one and only demand with our children is that they make sure their mobile phone is charged and on at all times. That way, if we worry, we can contact them, and we often do just to say hi, if we haven’t seen them for a few hours and want to touch base. Our job as parents instead is to be there, whenever they need us, to listen without a breath of judgement ever ever no matter how stupid they may have been. This is critical, because if they fear they may be met with anger, “how could you”, blame, or a rant about how much their actions are now going to inconvenience us, they will keep things to themselves which will do much more harm without our help than with it. We work hard to stay neutral, even at times when we feel shocked or think they may have made a silly mistake. That way we create the best possible chance that when they need us, our children will come to us and ask for help.

That last sentence refers to children rather than just our daughter, because that’s the other thing: we treat all three our children exactly the same. The only variations lay in responses to their level of ability and responsibility when they were much younger. Our rule was that the price of freedom is responsibility. So when they were in their pre-teen and early teenage years, moving slowly from the age-appropriate, necessary control we exercised as parents to the greater freedom of approaching adulthood, they earned our blessing to go about unsupervised in return for showing they were responsible enough to do so. The rules were and are no different for our daughter. We stopped treating her differently from her brothers because we want her to go into the world used to equal treatment with the men around her. In this house, we strive to not normalise inequality.

We also consider our children’s sex lives utterly, utterly their own private business. To me especially this is incredibly important. When they decide to first experience it, how, where: all their own business. If one day we were to suspect or accidentally find out they’re having sex in our house, as long as they are respectful and discreet I don’t care. Their rooms are their space, their privacy sacred. I would much rather our kids have sex in such a controlled environment, and use protection, than try desperately not to be normal human beings and then cave in to natural, normal, healthy urges in an uncontrolled, unplanned, unsafe environment. Again, I of course demand respect for the fact that this is my and Micky’s house where they also live: discrection is just good manners. But if by accident we become aware they’re sexually active, it is NONE OF OUR BUSINESS.

The critical ingredient here is openness. We have never treated sex as some taboo subject. It has always been private, but not shameful. Especially as the kids got older, we emphasised that sex is an adult thing you should engage in when you’re ready. It’s like driving: you need some maturity to handle it, because it can have some serious consequences, and necessitates remembering responsibility at a time of high emotion. Virginity is neither a sacred gift to treasure nor a burden to try and get rid of as quickly as possible. It is actually quite a stupid term, if you think of it, because we have no similar term for people who have not experienced fulltime work yet, or haven’t travelled alone yet. Sex is a very similar experience connected with maturing and being able to handle greater responsibility. We emphasised the need to use condoms, and were frank about both the beauty and the possible negative consequences of sex. Those times the kids approached us with sex-related questions, we again worked hard to always respond with zero judgement, with love, acceptance, and assurances that they are okay, this is just an aspect of humanity we learn to manage as we grow.

To those parents who argue that they merely react with disgust and condemnation when finding out their child has engaged in sex before marriage, or at an age the parent deems too young: firstly, how in the name of all the gods do you expect your child to flick a switch in their mind on their wedding day and suddenly do a 180 on years’ indoctrination that their natural urges are disgusting and wrong? Also, who are you to judge when your child is old enough for sex? Age alone cannot be an indicator, and you do not have the right nor the insight into their feelings, thoughts, and emotions to be able to judge on their behalf. You do not own your child, and if they make this decision and regret it, your job is to be there to comfort them and assure them it is just like any other mistake: if you slept with someone and realise it was too soon, you don’t have to sleep with anyone again until you feel ready. They are not going to share these feelings and doubts and regrets with you if they know you’ll explode, so your actions will leave them adrift and without support at the time they need you most.

Where alcohol is concerned, we have been frank with the kids that it’s a great thing to have in moderation, but easy to sneak into addiction. We have also been frank that while nothing excuses crime, and you are never responsible for being a victim of crime, it is a fact that being drunk makes you more vulnerable. You can reduce your vulnerability if you don’t get blackout drunk. Again their use of alcohol is their decision, and the most we do is to share our thoughts and beliefs about it with them. Drugs, too, we have been very frank about the negative consequences, and this is important: we have done our research so that we base our advice on fact.

Finally, this is a big deal: I strive to never, never lie to our kids. I am horrified with these “awww sweet” stories of silly lies parents tell their kids. For instance, I read the funny story the other day of parents who told their kids the car goes faster if you sit quiet and still. Ha ha ha, so funny, except you have taught them not to trust you. More extreme was an acquaintance who went to the ridiculous length of flying her child to Lapland to meet “Santa” when the child started suspecting it’s a myth, to extend the child’s belief a little while, preserve the magic of childhood a little longer. What the actual fuck! How is that child supposed to ever trust what their mother tells them, ever? Because she demonstrated that she will lie and lie and lie if she feels the child believing a certain thing is best for them, even if it is not the truth.

It all comes down to control. Parents must cop on that they do incredible damage if they try to control their children’s lives. Control is necessary when the child is very young, but it is a necessity that should never be extended beyond what is healthy. Like wearing nappies: totally, yes, it is necessary, but keeping a child in nappies when they have reached a stage of being capable of doing without them is harmful. Keeping control when the child is mature enough for responsibility is the same thing.

Dear Dundalk*, why do you hate children?

I am still shaken as I write this. I still see the nose of that car stopping no more than a metre from impact. I still hear my own angry voice shouting, swearing, gesturing to the green pedestrian signal, through which one car had already breezed, before this one, too, ignored traffic rules, and almost smashed into Adam.

As we walked on into the park, trying to process the shock, I knew probably those who witnessed the incident would be far more concerned that I dared shout and gesture like I did, it was just my dog that was almost run over, after all. Nobody would listen to my argument that the driver no doubt didn’t sit in her car, see me and my dog waiting to cross, and decide sure it was okay to run us over. No, she simply ignored the red light because she was careless, because she didn’t think. Nobody would think it could just as easily have been my child. Nobody would likely know how frighteningly often this kind of thing happens, because everybody who saw this happen was a driver, very unlikely to walk and cycle as much as I do, and see first hand how dangerous Dundalk’s cavalier approach to driving is.

I knew complaining would most likely garner nothing more than a shake of a head, tsk-tsk, it’s a disgrace, so it is, and then anyone who might have listened would carry on with their lives as before. Dundalkers would continue to claim to love their children, claim to put their children first, while driving with little regard for traffic rules, making cycling and walking dangerous. Parking their fat, lazy butts in cycle lanes. Smashing bottles in those same cycle lanes. Making parents fear for their children’s safety too much to let them walk or cycle, instead dropping them at school in their cars, poisoning the air those same children will breathe all day, depriving them of the most obvious chance to exercise and reap the near endless list of benefits that exercise will bring: move from home to school under your own steam.

Ah, we love our children, until we are asked to love them enough to sacrifice our convenience so they will have clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, a planet remaining when they are our age which is still fit for human life. Until we are asked to suffer some inconvenience, show some patience, so infrastructure can be provided to make cycling a more attractive option. Until we are asked to sacrifice ten more minutes to walk or cycle with them to school instead of driving them as they sit passively in the back seat, getting fat, sick, and stupid.

When you strip away the bluff, we love our children, all right. But we love our cars much more.

*If you read this and go: “Hang on a minute, how dare you, I walk everywhere/cycle everywhere/walk my child to school/drive like a saint but am too scared to walk or cycle because of what you describe here,” you are obviously not the part of Dundalk I’m referring to. And you should join me in my outrage at the status quo.

Parents are people, too

I am continually astonished at how, around me, I see people fail to identify children as fellow human beings. Teachers and parents routinely talk to and treat under-eighteens in a way they would never, in their wildest dreams, dare to treat people the same age as them or older. Adults approach young people from a position of “I should control you” rather than a position of respect for their self-determination as starting point, with interventions and interference a regrettable necessity (and I believe when children are not in their teens yet respectful control is neccessary – they must be secure in the knowledge that you’ve “got them” and ambiguity on your part is disastrous, but that’s another story). Societal rules made to try to avoid problems encountered in the past savage the rights of those under the age of eighteen. A child in this country can’t even seek advice or help without their parents being notified. How helpful is that, if your overwhelming problem is that you feel your parents control and monitor your every move? Surely even the act of asking for help is a private matter, can nobody understand the depth of violation it is to force people to share that?

I believe cases where teenagers are depressed, or do dangerous or reckless things, should always first be inspected for a sense of lack of control over their own lives.

I also believe that too many teenagers show the same staggering contempt for their parents, not viewing them as fellow human beings but instead thinking of them as something else, somehow. Some kind of other species. As much as your parents may have contributed to that view by casting themselves in such a role, here’s a piece of advice: overcoming that skewed view of your folks is called growing the fuck up.

If you want to be treated with respect, then treat your parents with respect. And with respect, I mean understanding that they are fellow human beings who are doing their best, who are living life to the best of their ability. Yes, people do exist who take pleasure from others’ misery, but chances are your parents are not among those twisted people, and in the rare case that they are, your understanding of the brokenness involved will be a foundation stone of the solution.

If you want your parents to realise and understand the pain or frustration they cause you with certain actions, then grow the fuck up and truly try to understand what your actions do to them. I am generally a very strong person, but let me tell you, my children are like a raw nerve connected straight to my heart. Nothing can either paralyse or move me like a threat to their wellbeing. Have you ever stood somewhere with all your weight on one foot, and someone came up and pushed behind your knee? That sudden collapse gives you some idea of what it feels like: you can have walked through fire in your life and think you can handle anything, then someone somehow reaches your children and you are nothing.

Especially if you are still living in your family home, you are like your parents’ hearts, walking around outside. Of course they’re nervous, anxious, because nothing can hurt them like seeing you get hurt. Imagine if you can let them know you understand that, as a starting point in a conversation about more freedom, more trust to be responsible out of their sight. Imagine how much more willing they may be to give you freedom if they know you understand what it costs them to do so.

If you want your parents to be kind to you, to do nice things for you, why don’t you start. Say one nice thing to your parent every day, and mean it. Think of one kind thing you can identify that you truly believe about them. And if you go: “I can’t think of a single nice thing to say about my parent” the problem is with you.

Ha ha, you’re poor!

A good while ago my youngest forgot his house key when he went to school, and had to wait a while at our door for one of us to come home and unlock. Our house is right beside his school so the kids leaving for home were streaming past. When a fellow student saw him there, he asked Nic whether this was his home. When my fella confirmed that yes, it was, the fellow student replied: “Ha ha, you’re poor!”

Nic didn’t tell me about it straight away. He’s like me, needs time to digest stuff that happened before he can decide how to feel. As it was, he wasn’t upset, it was just… weird. What did I think?

Well, I’m afraid it’s true, our house looks shabby. The window frames, sills and electricity box all need painting, it’s single panes rather than double glazing, and a few other signs point to the conclusion that we’re not exactly the Gates family. However, as I explained to Nic, the child’s statement was confusing, it needed clarification. What is poor?

Because while with me being a student we are indeed not rolling in money, our bicycles and cycling equipment are collectively probably worth more than a lot of people’s cars. Micky has top notch climbing equipment, a number of good quality hiking rucsacks, a good quality family tent, and a good quality two-man tent. We could have chosen to spend that money on the appearance of our house instead, but we didn’t. So are we poor compared to someone else in a fine-looking house who doesn’t own these things?

Is rich or poor what your bank balance is? We choose to remain as debt-free as possible. So another family, who chose to borrow money so as to make their house look fantastic, are they rich compared to us? Is it okay if there’s a minus in front of that bank balance, as long as it’s a lot of numbers?

Poor doesn’t even clarify whether we’re talking about money. You can have a poor life, and I most certainly don’t think we have had a poor life. Micky and I have had amazing experiences, have seen sights and sounds in our love of outdoor pursuits which most people never will. I have cycled along a quiet road with cows galloping beside me on their side of the fence. I’ve eaten a sandwich with about twenty of them staring at me (why is it that when I try to think of my most awesome cycling experiences cows come to mind?). Micky has glided up rock faces and stood on mountaintops, swum in clear lakes and seen the world from a place you can only reach through near heartbreaking effort and the sweet elation of attaining your goal. The kids are getting ever closer to having the freedom to travel as Micky and I have been privileged to do. Jonathan is about to visit South Africa, Lara has been to Ranafast twice. Is that poor?

Poor can also refer to ability. We are all above average intelligence, the children instilled with understanding that this alone will not get you places. They work hard and that hard work yields great results. This is a privilege, because there are other kids who work as hard or harder but don’t get the same yield. We are rich, blessed, privileged for the genetic lottery that has instilled in us this brain power.

We are rich in love and happiness. I am humbly grateful for a wonderful relationship with each of the children, free so far of most of the stereotypical strife between parent and teen. Is that poor?

So we had this really wonderful, thoughtful discussion of what precisely poor is, what it means, and I ended it with: “Anyway, Nic, you may be poor, but at least you’re not an arsehole.”

I think we handled the whole thing well.

What did you expect?

It’s all over the news in Ireland this week: a scandal erupted when undercover journalists recorded instances of unacceptable treatment of children in day care.

I really hope this will lead to radical change, or at least the beginnings of radical change, because the current state of affairs is a recipe for disaster. It is increasingly difficult for families to afford a fulltime parent, there is zero priority placed on making it possible for parents to work flexibly so as to share parenting duties, early childcare has been allowed to become a private, profit-making industry, untrained people are allowed to work in these centres for minimum wage: HOW COULD THIS POSSIBLY GO WRONG?!

But can I sum up the problem for you in one, single word:

CHILDMINDER.

Right there is a summary of everything that’s gone wrong here. You can mind a pot on the stove to see it doesn’t boil over. You can mind a car to see it doesn’t get stolen. The very concept of “minding” a child shows the scale of the ignorance we are all guilty of regarding the vital, crucial importance of early childhood.

And don’t make the mistake of thinking my view that all young children should have a fulltime parent (or a parent, fulltime) means I think we should go back to the days when women were “encouraged” by discriminatory laws to stay home and “mind the kids”. What I am advocating is a radical change, where parenthood is respected and recognised as the crucial difference between a successful and a failed society. Laws must be made to help all parents continue a career part time if they wish, enabling them to make minimal or no use of of outside help – nobody, not even a loving family member, is ever, ever going to ineract with your child like you do, and that unique interaction is vital to the optimal development of a human being*. If a parent wants to make parenting their only career for a decade or more, this must be a valid, respected choice, and arrangements have to be made to reintroduce these parents into another career or a previous career when the parenting needs of their families change. While we’re at it, parent training should be a given, not some weird new thing. Not all parenting skills come naturally, and the way your mam did it is not necessarily the best way.

We need to start talking differently, too: a parent who chooses to be a career parent does not leave the labour force, they redirect their energies. Start in CSPE classes in school, teaching children the most basic education and psychology that will help them see viewing the care of a young child’s needs as just “minding” is a damaging, dangerous mindset.

I suspect that what will happen in reality is that calls for increased funding will be made: society will work to make it more possible for parents to leave their children with others and go do some other job, rather than radically restructuring everything so parents can parent without having to feel they leave adult life behind, without totally sacrificing enjoyable careers, without accepting financial hardship as the price to pay for being career parents.

Childcare should be a respite, not a necessity. The primary carer for any young child should be their parent, or parents. Until we understand and make that possible, we are going to keep throwing our hands in the air over a startling number of problems in wider society which can be traced back to our contempt for parenthood and early child education.

 

*Please don’t get cross with me or feel this statement attacks you if you didn’t parent fulltime. Optimal means the best possible, and none of us ever attain that, but it is vital that we aim for optimal, because we will always strike lower than we aim. If we aim for adequate, we’re in trouble.

How to get rid of unwanted toys

Most of us are familiar with this problem: your kids’ toy boxes or even their whole bedrooms overflow with toys. Junior has outgrown a lot of these, but any effort to get rid of the excess is met with absolute horror. You’ve tried to convince Junior that other little ones need and would love those toys, but Junior is still too small to understand, or sets aside too few for giving away. What to do? Try a magic box.

When my friend Heather had this problem, I made a story for her children, which you can find below. You’re free to use these images, though in all honesty I slapped them together on Inkscape in record speed, so they’re not great, but they did the job for Heather’s little ones. In addition, I got a document box, though any box will do. I painted the box with some African-ish patterns, because I am South African and thought it would be nice to give the story an African flavour. The African aspect is also sufficiently mysterious to add to the excitement.

Heather then read the story to her kids, and lo and behold, there was the very magic box they’d read about. They filled it with toys they were prepared to give up – you need to make sure they understand these toys will not come back, so there’s no drama later – and because of the excitement of the box, they put much more into it than they would have otherwise. The youngsters went to bed, of course Heather emptied the box and replaced all the old toys with two brand new, small toys. She had time while the kids were asleep to decide which toys to donate to charity, and which to store. The point is, their toy boxes were much less stuffed, with zero drama.

I hope this will help someone out there!

PS – The text should be written in Century Gothic, as it is the closest to the “nursery school script” which children are exposed to first when they start reading. Also, you can colour in the pictures, or if they’re older, they can do that themselves.

PPS – The images have no background colour, sorry about that. I put them into a Word document, which of course has a white background by default. Hope it works for you. Continue reading