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.

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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.

On the good ship Your Life

Raising kids is like training someone to captain a very big boat. There’s a lot of theory to learn, as well as a lot of practical skills to master.

If you give the trainee too much control too soon, the experience will be terrifying. Insecurity abounds, manifesting in various ways depending on the personality of the trainee. At the same time you have to start letting the trainee participate in the steering of the ship in very small ways. My dad, a fount of wisdom who in addition to his dad experience also happens to hold a PhD in Education, always said to me when my own were small: no long explanations, you lose the kid after a few words. No abundance of choices, two or three at the most: too many choices make even adults unhappy. Above all, the child must know that they know that they know that you are in control. If you feel in your heart that ultimately you are not in control, they will know it, they’ll feel it, and this will not lead to a happy home.

Next the trainee must be given more and more responsibility and control as they become ready for it. Withholding control of the good ship from its rightful captain when the captain is ready for it, will result in mutiny. Understanding and communication is so vital in this stage. The rule is extremely simple and must be applied consistently: show responsibility and you’ll earn trust, the currency of freedom. This rule works both ways: the trainee must understand that to earn freedom, they must first earn trust. Trust is hard work to gather, and even harder work to regain if it is lost. The trainer at the same time must understand that they, too, earn trust, and are able to lose it. The trainee must be able to trust you to let go when they are able to take over.

Finally, while in the early years a child’s life and choices must be controlled, this control must be seen as a necessary but temporary arrangement. You must always understand that this is not your life. The control in the early years is crucial, it must be firm but flexible (and certainly not too flexible), but it is equally crucial that this control relaxes and disappears as soon as possible. Like training wheels on a bicycle, it must be there for the child’s own wellbeing at first, but it will become a liability if left on the bicycle when it is no longer needed. Once the trainee can steer the ship, the trainer becomes an advisor, who can caution, who can counsel, but who must never take control of the wheel again. Even if the captain chooses to steer the ship into waters you know will be disastrous, you may not wrest the wheel from their hands and try to steer the ship where you think it should go. The captain will never, never simply give the wheel to you, they will always fight for control, resulting in a mess of a course.

Much better to let them know you have no desire to touch the wheel, to earn that trust we spoke of so they’ll listen to your advice and value your guidance. The whole parenting relationship is, in fact, a balancing act of trust between the parent and the child, when you dig to the foundation. And if you look at the bedrock that trust rests on, you’ll find it is called respect.

Dungarees: I has them!

If you’re looking for directions on how to draw a dungarees pattern and sew your own, go here.

Back in South Africa, I lived my life in denim dungarees.  I had long ones for winter, and short ones for summer.  I wore them so regularly that I remember how weird it would feel to have pressure on my waist when I wore normal trousers.  Dungarees are obviously held up by the shoulder straps, and I wore them so much that anything else was strange.

They were too heavy to pack for Ireland, so I gave them all away.  “New country,” I thought, “new dress style.”  That was five years ago, and I’ve been struggling with clothes ever since.

Nothing felt right.  I kept buying this, and trying that, and not feeling really comfortable and natural in anything.  Recently I’ve started wearing the odd skirt and a few dresses again.  Yes, it’s been nice, it feels feminine and flirty to don a shortish skirt and stockings.  However, it still felt as if I was wearing someone else’s clothes.

I realised at a stage that I missed my dungarees, realised what a big mistake I’d made to leave them behind.  I started looking for dungarees here, but no luck.  I could have ordered them online, but with me sometimes wearing a 12, sometimes a 14, I was wary of doing so.  The other thing is that I believe fashion has veered toward tighter fitting clothes.  Even if I checked exact measurements for hips, chest etc. and ordered accordingly, my idea of a comfortable fit might be nothing like someone else’s.

Yesterday, all my problems were solved.  I got a sewing machine.  His name is Harold, and he’s gay*.

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