The other night, I was out with BFF1 and BFF2 for dinner. A splendid time was had by all. As we were sitting round the table discussing our respective journeys the one thing we clearly had in common was that our parents had imbued us all with a lack of self-esteem and confidence. This goes along with several conversations with different people over the last few weeks. We might all have different stories to tell and we might all have had differing situations and experiences; we might deal with these very differently but the fundamental common point that we all have is that our parents didn’t give us our self-respect, self-esteem and the confidence to be ourselves. From that leads on all the complications that make life so complicated and difficult but it’s all so simple really.
To quote the poet Philip Larkin, in This Be The Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
The key here is to not hand on your misery to your children, or indeed to anyone else. Counselling in whatever form you may take is all about breaking the chains of childhood, of taking help to choose to not be that way any more, to break free of your upbringing and in turn your parents’ upbringing and forge your own way.
But while I’m trying to break free myself, I’m also trying to do better by my children than I was done by.
So I tell them that I love them, frequently, often and especially after I’ve shouted at them or told them off. Love is unconditional; it’s not about exam results or how well they behave. I love them because they’re mine and no matter what they do they can’t change that. It’s not negotiable and it’s not conditional.
I praise them and admire their achievements, however trivial they seem. That doesn’t mean telling them they’re absolutely brilliant at everything because they’re not stupid. It does mean celebrating their work and accomplishments. One of the most hurtful sights I ever saw in the school playground was some parent binning his child’s artwork before they’d even left the school premises. My children’s artwork and certificates have decorated the kitchen walls ever since they brought them home. They may not be masterpieces but my kids spent time and effort and creative imagination making these and that’s worth celebrating. We take photos of their Lego creations and stick them on Facebook and spread them around. We take pride in what they’ve made, not just in exam results although we certainly get proud about those but about reading, creating, imagining, thinking, asking difficult questions, caring for each other, being considerate. And of course just for being cuddly.
When they say they want to be an astronaut, a professional footballer, a scientist or prime minister, I don’t say that their chances are slim, but that they can be if they are willing to work hard, get fit, keep fit, practice, think, read, eat vegetables, whatever it takes; all they need is determination. Time enough if they try and go down a route and find that they don’t have what it takes to face that reality. At the moment, when they’re young they need the confidence to believe they can do whatever they want to do, that life can be whatever they choose it to be.
I am not at all suggesting that my children are wonderful all the time. They have their fair share of tantrums, name-calling, shouting and swearing at each other. 4son can slam the door louder than anyone else in the family and they all lie occasionally about who broke what where and why. But again I think it’s important to let them know that I still love them even when they’re being difficult, that the two are not related.
My parents did none of this and I find myself jealous of my children as I write this. I’m trying to give them what I didn’t have but wanted. I don’t remember our artwork on the wall, I don’t even remember photos of us as children being up although certainly photos of the grandchildren are now everywhere in their home. Exam results were always criticised for the marks I lost rather than the marks earned. I could do better. Well yes, but when can’t you do better? My parents never told me they loved me and when I did complain about this, aged 16 or so, my mother said “but I thought you knew”.
Sometimes it’s just nice to be told. Preferably on a daily basis.
There you are. I tell my children I love them. I tell them that they’re marvellous and capable. I tell them they can be whoever they want to be and that their strength lies within and if they want to achieve, they can achieve.
I’ll let you know in 20 years whether it’s worked.