3 September 2010

Start early and never stop

I often write here about building up our stockpiles, creating gardens full of fresh vegetables and making, rather than buying, many of the requirements of a simple home. One thing we also have to be mindful of, and this is one of the most significant parts of our lives, is to nurture and support our families, and be the kind of person you want them to be. We have to build our families too.

My children are now 29 and 30 years old. Both have settled down with beautiful, caring partners, both are ambitious and have good jobs and both are the kindest and gentlest men you would ever care to meet. They make me one very proud mother. The past week of reading about nappies/diapers, and how to wash them, made me realise that a lot has changed in the 30 years since I was a young mother. But I am happy being at this end of child rearing, seeing my boys fully grown, out in the world, functioning extremely well in a competitive and sometimes hostile world. I'm not saying that we were perfect parents, but we did enough right to get a wonderful result, twice.

I think children learn a lot when they gather with the family around the dinner table. This is the one part of the day when everyone can sit and relax, talk about what happened that day, and listen to what everyone else did. This is the time when we show, rather than tell, what our family values are. It's important. If you don't take the time to reconnect everyday, children drift off in their own world. We need that time to let them know they're an important part of the family, you support them and if they need help, you're there. It needs to start early, from the time they're eating from a tiny bowl, and continue right through until they leave home. Each stage has its own unique lessons, each stage prepares for the next. There will be requests to sit in front of the TV and to eat in their room, but the answer to that should always be no. They don't understand the significance of the family gathering until they're older. No phones or iPods at the table. No disruptions. This family time comes first, no exceptions, all else can wait. That 30 minutes can make or break a family.

I think I was quite a strict mother, but in some ways I wasn't. I had rules for TV, movies and books - I had to approve them all, and there were time limits. I was involved in their school, was on the P&C, I knew their teachers, and let their teachers know I was involved. I knew their friends and welcomed them into our home, but was very careful about where they went in return. We took them travelling a lot, we went camping and on road trips most school holidays when Hanno could get away from work. I never threatened something I wasn't prepared to carry out. I surprised them with some freedoms they didn't expect and angered them by not letting them do other things. All the time, they knew they were loved and supported in their interests. During their teenage years, when all the normal drink and drug issues emerge, we got through them and came out the other side, stronger and closer. Even now, we have a very strong relationship and they talk to me about all manner of things. I'm not sure what the key is. I guess it's love and being strong through the tough times, while knowing when to lighten up and loosen the controls, and always, always, being there to listen with an open heart.

Remember that you have to change as a parent along the way. You will get nowhere fast if you try to parent a 13 year old in the same way you parent a nine year old, or if you expect a three year old to behave like a 7 year old. And time is important too, theirs and yours. Don't over schedule them, running around to after-school activities most days of the week will tire everyone, including you. Children need a lot of time when they can just play and use their own imagination. Structured events and activities block that from happening. Give them the gift of free afternoons when they can make a fort out of a sheet or hike in the National Park with their friends when they're teenagers.

As I get older I understand how undeniably crucial the family unit is. It's not only important that we build strong families of decent, competent, intelligent people for our own family's sake, we need to do it for our country's well being too. Children who have been nurtured by a loving family and have seen active parents working towards a greener and simpler future have a better chance of doing that themselves.

And while it takes a fair amount of money to raise children, they don't need to see that money but they do need to feel loved and appreciated. There are many things a child can do without, and you don't have to fret if you can't, or don't want to, supply iPods, phones, fashions and computers, but never be ungenerous with the love. Children want their parents' love and attention more than anything else. Acceptance, kindness and love delivered in full measure, consistently, over the years, builds character and confidence in a way no product ever can. The trick is to start early and never stop.
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