I entered the house to joyful shrieks of kids playing. I’d left them home to go to the supermarket and, after a few days without Dylan, I felt no guilt at leaving them behind to enjoy the trip solo – I may have even dawdled slightly on the walk home! I laughed as I started to make out the game: the youngest shouting profanities to the oldest, in an American accent (that’s only relevant because ‘American’ isn’t our native tongue but it is the language of many an imaginary game at our place). The conversation seemed mainly to be made up of words that my old self would have been shocked to hear coming out of the mouths of children. My children anyway. My old self before I actually had children. The self that I was before I really understood that my children are not mine and I have no more chance of controlling them than stopping a hurricane. Now though, I am able to share their unbridled joy, laugh along with them and even join in. Yes join in! This is what the life my children offer me has really afforded – freedom!
Of course, like most parents, before they’re, well, parents, I suppose I had a vague notion that my children wouldn’t eat spaghetti bolognese on the sofa (let alone mandarins in bed in the middle of the night), watch videos on road trips or in fact interfere with my life much at all. ‘It’ll fit in with us’, I’m fairly certain I said at least once before ‘it’ had arrived. Turns out of course that ‘it’ had her own ideas – like all children do. Like they MUST do. I have a clear memory of the time my first child refused to hold my hand to cross the road stating, ‘if you make me hold your hand, I’ll punch you in the face’. I think I snorted, mistakenly assuming this was a one off – a blip – on my otherwise smooth early transition into motherhood.
‘They need a firm hand’. ‘You don’t need to be their friend’. ‘Children need boundaries’. ‘You’ve got to show them who’s in charge’. ‘You’re the parent’. All these and more have been uttered to me at one time or another. If you’re reading this, no doubt you’ve heard them too. These warnings. They’ve come to be the hallmarks of parenting, these statements of power and limitations.
But what if deep down you want to be a friend to your child? What if one day you know you might in fact be their only friend? Should you still heed the warnings then, that to be a friend to your child is to spoil them? What if constantly setting limits and boundaries actually feels too constraining. Unnatural. What if you want to eat cake for dinner but you’re too scared to break your own rule? I want to tell you that you can eat cake for dinner. You can eat it for breakfast too if you want.
I became interested in the idea of living with values instead of rules, some years ago. I started playing around the edges of this idea but not really understanding HOW to replace the rules with something softer and less definite. Our society is so bound up in what must be done and when, that it can be hard to see where to push those rules – what’s important and what’s JUST BECAUSE. I was lucky enough to have four children who refused to play by rules and so it became a case of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’! I could either spend my days in conflict with small people who had little regard for what SHOULD BE or question what I thought was true and find another way.
I’m aware that there may be some reading this who have no idea what I’m talking about! Maybe you have children who brush their teeth when asked or who get into the car, with their shoes on, at first call. Perhaps your kids happily jump into bed after a story and peacefully fall asleep or leave the park when it’s time to go home without a battle. Possibly there are some among you for whom a trip to the supermarket doesn’t provoke an anxiety attack (you or the kids) or result in children literally climbing the shelves. If so, maybe you’ve never had reason to question the way things SHOULD BE or been prompted to find a different way. This wisdom I’m sharing now might not make sense to you because maybe it’s never had to. I still hope you’ll keep reading though! Even if you don’t have those children that are MORE – LOUDER, MORE NAKED, MORE SWEARY, MORE BITEY, MORE SPITTY! I say ‘wisdom’ not because I am an expert at all – but because I do want to share with you that there just might be another way. A way beyond control. A way to accept ALL of our children – not only to accept but celebrate.
Imagine a life where instead of believing that we, as adults, need to pour our hard earned knowledge into the empty minds of our children, we trusted that babies are born with the knowledge they need to exist in this world. To flourish. To be human. A recent conversation with my third born convinced me that this is indeed true. I’d been moving to this point for a number of years: since I first observed my infant pulling herself to her feet, unaided by me, and then taking her first tentative steps on two feet, also unaided by me; and my second child deciding at around 2 years old that he loved apples and animals – almost in equal measure – and not because I loved them. During a recent woodland walk, my third child revealed to me that he believes that not only does he have a strong consciousness that drives how he thinks and his sense of right and wrong, but that surely humans are born knowing how to be humans – rather like dogs. A dog doesn’t need to be taught how to be a dog. His analogy, not mine. Even though my own thinking had been moving in this direction, it blew my mind that a young child would be able to articulate this so certainly.
It’s hard to swallow, I know, that we may have spent our lives in the pursuit of knowledge only to question that maybe we were born with everything we need! Maybe, if we were to believe that, it might seem that we’d been lied to – that all those years of being apprentices in life were for nothing! I felt the same when I first realised that in fact a baby doesn’t need to sleep 12 hours straight a night!
There are other perceived truths to question. Will children say ‘please’ and ‘thankyou’ if they’re not explicitly taught? Does it matter? Will a child learn to tie their shoes if they don’t go to kindy (the answer to that one is that even if they do go to kindy, they might not learn to tie their shoes until they choose to!)? Do kids need to go to pre-school or kindergarten to learn social skills or is it possible that they already know how to interact with others because they’re born human?
A good place to start, if you’re interested in living a life of less conflict with your children, or the idea of being a friend to your child holds appeal, is to think about how you can stop imposing arbitrary limits. By that, I mean limits for the sake of limits. Or in other words, limits for the sake of imposing authority which is what we’re really talking about. In our family, we have chosen a life where everything is up for negotiation. Actually, most things aren’t negotiated- they just are! And instead of assuming the power because we are the parents, we’ve leaned into the idea that for humans to truly understand autonomy and where our autonomy ends and another’s begins, our children must hold their own sovereignty.
Almost daily another challenge will fall into my lap, daring me to push beyond what I thought was true. Can a child live on oranges and Coco Pops alone? Just how long can one go without a shower and why do we need so many changes of clothes anyway? What are ‘girls clothes’ and ‘boys clothes’ and if we want adults to sit in the full expression of themselves with confidence, why on earth wouldn’t we encourage that in our children?
It’s difficult for us as parents when the role we thought we were undertaking when we embarked on this journey turns out to be something different. Triggering even, for very likely these questions provoke uncomfortable feelings in us, maybe about our own childhood, maybe about other relationships or even about our jobs. If we aren’t here to mould young minds what are we here for? If we aren’t an example for our children to follow, what exactly are we? If actually children already know the answers, what are we to spend our days doing? Imagine a life where we walk alongside our children as their friend and confidante. Imagine a life where the most important lessons actually come from them and we can live in the freedom into which we were all born!