We recently had lunch at the boat harbour and watched a poor helpless seagull attempt to fly with some fishing line stuck around its foot and a rock attached to the bottom of the line. The poor bird just couldn’t get more than 10 feet off the ground, and had to keep returning to rest, never able to fly off and explore the great unknown, or even to find fish for itself.
Can you imagine a bird trying to fly with a rock attached to one foot? Can you imagine a bird trying to fly with its mother hanging onto its wings, pulling it back down “to keep it safe”? How ridiculous that would be!
Can you imagine a teen trying to fly with a parent holding on out of fear of what might happen, or what choices they might make, or what choices other people might make?
I attach a rock to my teen’s foot when I hold on too tightly at the edge of my comfort zone, when I doubt his ability to make decisions, when I undermine his confidence in himself because I don’t have confidence in him. I hold my teen back when I think I know better than he does about his life. I hold my teen back when I care more about what others might think of him, than I do about how he feels about himself.
“Are you okay?” phone calls every five minutes may meet the parent’s need for reassurance, but are unlikely to meet the teen’s need for growing independence.
I limit my close relationship with my teen when I talk to or AT her rather than listen, when I pre-empt what she will say and listen with only half an ear, when I jump in with solutions rather than validating her feelings and letting the solutions come to my teen with my support alongside her.
A child who has a parent hovering and intervening all the time loses the trust that they need in their own ability to navigate this life wisely. They are actually more likely to make mistakes or to have errors in judgement, when they are constantly looking to us for validation, or having us constantly “saving the day” for them and averting “disaster”.
When we react with fear, we instil fear. Or resentment. When we react with calm confidence, and provide snippets of information that will hopefully help them to make wise decisions, they almost always… make wise decisions! If we seek to control their decisions, they are likely to resent us, or lose confidence in their ability to make decisions. When we provide information, they are more likely to use that information in helping them to act wisely. A simple example of this is a parent insisting that their child put a coat on because it’s cold outside. If, instead, the parent comment (authentically, not in that icky condescending parental tone) that they themselves feel really cold and want to put a jacket on, the child is more likely to use that information to make a similar choice.
Many of us are blessed with “experiential learners” who seem to need to experience the impact of their choices to learn what they might do differently next time. But what about a child running into the street, I hear you cry out! I wonder what it was in our collective childhood experience to do with cars and dangerous streets, that causes almost every parent to come up with that as the example of what could go wrong if we start trusting our children.
As the author states in Parent Teen Breakthrough (my parenting teens “Bible”), a teen (or child) is far more likely to accept your loving help and guidance within the context of a loving, respectful relationship, than when the relationship is an adversarial one with power struggles being prominent. The subtitle of the book is “The Relationship Approach”, which is apt because the relationship we have with our teen is far more important than whether or not they “do as we say”. When a loving relationship is the most important thing, and they make a choice that ends up going badly, they’re far more likely to come to us for support and guidance, than if the relationship was more adversarial, and they’d been told a firm “No!” but done it anyway. As they begin to navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of independence, they will have a more grounded confidence and be less inclined to push the boundaries for the sake of it, if they know that we are on their team, fully support them and will be there for them no matter what happens, without “jumping down their throats” if they make a choice that we wouldn’t make or get themselves into trouble.
It is so easy for us to forget what it was like to be a child, to be a teen on the cusp of adulthood. It is so easy to only look at the situation from the perspective of parenthood, with our heightened awareness of our responsibility and duty of care towards our children. It is so easy to forget the carefree nature of childhood, and the desperate desire for autonomy that increases as they move into adolescence (and is often also very present in toddlerhood!) And to forget that a teen has such a strong desire for autonomy that if they feel too restricted and controlled, they are actually MORE likely to push the restrictions and resist/resent the control!
Our teens will benefit from our care and guidance if it is done with love, not control (read the book for some great examples and specifics of how this really can work, and how inappropriate control is to parenting teens!). But how on earth do we live at the edge of our comfort zone without going crazy? It really helps to be honest about our feelings of fear, concern etc. and also our need to nurture and provide safety where possible, but to also listen to their feelings and needs as well! This is another situation where the tool of Non Violent Communication can really help us to provide an environment where the needs of both children and parents can be met, and all feelings respected. I’ll be posting later about the second NVC workshop I did, that will flesh this out a bit more.
I believe that, as unschooling parents, our job is to equip and empower our children, not hover like a helicopter, just in case…. Just in case what? The big baddie grabs them? The car runs them over in the street? They can’t do their times tables? They become a drug addict? They can’t get in to university?
Does it stand to reason that a child with a helicopter parent hovering above them pointing out every little thing, or pulling and pushing at all the right times, is necessarily any more likely to avoid any of the above scenarios? And even if they do come through childhood & adolescence seemingly unscathed, at what cost does their safety come?
Many people seem to assume that home educating parents choose to do so out of a desire to protect their children from the big bad world, and that they severely restrict their access to people and experiences outside of the immediate family and very carefully selected friends. I think, in some selective cases, this is in fact true. And I think that one of our roles as parents IS to provide a safe, protected harbour for our children to call home. But I don’t think we need to lock the anchor into position, and put up barricades around them. And I don’t think that their only experience of the ocean needs to be at the aquarium where they can look at the sea creatures from behind a glass wall.
I think it’s about getting into the water, getting wet, taking the boat out beyond the crashing waves to where the water is deep and clear, and filled with all sorts of wonderful, exciting, and yes sometimes scary creatures! It doesn’t mean we have to send them out alone. It’s usually much more fun together! But there are times when they will want to spread their wings and have a go at flying solo for a while. And I don’t believe that tying a rock around their ankle helps them to fly.
We helped rescue a baby magpie once. We made a little temporary nest in our yard, having been advised that it had probably fallen out of the nest too soon, or had perhaps been pushed out before it was fully ready to fly. We felt like we were doing a GREAT job of being “mothers” to the little bird. And there was quite a few of us, because our children had friends visiting. We suddenly looked up and saw that the mother was actually perched above us on the power line, ready with a worm in her mouth to feed her baby. We slowly stepped out of the way as quietly as a bunch of kids can do, and watched in awe as the mother gently flew down and fed her little one. Then the baby started to hop along on the ground while the mother flew alongside, just above him. It was a truly wondrous thing to watch this mother take her baby home. It seemed it had been indeed too soon for him to leave the nest. But what happened next took our breath away. The mum perched on top of a fence in the laneway, and the baby hopped along on the ground beneath her. Then the mother flew slightly higher to perch on top of a garage and the baby flapped its wings and clumsily hopped up onto a one foot tall concrete edge that ran along the bottom of the fence. Gradually they made it to the bottom of the laneway and the baby was making more and more attempts to fly up to the top of the fence to join the mother. At the bottom of the lane was the tree where the nest obviously was. And this is where the baby really nailed the flying thing. The mother hopped along the lower branches, encouraging the little one to copy. And then suddenly the baby flew right up to the nest and snuggled back in home.
The magpie mother in this story is a beautiful example of the kind of partnership that I’ve seen work so well with connected, loving, unschooling families. The parent is aware, observant, available, hands-on, connected, informative but not manipulative, interested, interesting, honest, trusting, and ready with a worm at just the right time.
Not a rock.