First published in The Jakarta Post Weekender, August 2011 issue.
Parents got the message a while ago: “Because I said so” just doesn’t cut it anymore. Gone are the days when an authoritative word from a parent could put an end to an unwanted conversation. Every “why” that issues from a child’s mouth now needs to be followed by a clear and often lengthy explanation, … followed, in the natural order of things, by another childish “why” and a parental sigh.
I’ve heard the justification for the shift a million times: “Kids today are so different. They question everything. They know what they want and stick to it. They are exposed to all sort of stuff through friends, media and Internet. They don’t respect their parents the way we used to do with our parents.”
Is this really the case? As with most things, perhaps the answer lies between yes and no.
Granted—we never had all those electronic gadgets. Back then, used cardboard boxes, plastic toys, dough, crayon, paper and whatever we could scavenge in the garden or around the house as our toys.
And granted—television, the Internet and consumerism were not as aggressive and intrusive as they are now. The neighborhood and school grapevines were about as far as our social networking went.
Also granted—the education system has (slowly) shifted to allow children to be more creative and assertive and to grow according to their years. Many mothers and fathers work full time and do not spend as much time with their children as in previous generations.
Yes, the conditions have changed. Still, behind all those gadgets, malls, words, and brands, I believe, lies a child. Beautiful little humans with all the familiar basic needs and desires to express themselves, to be accepted as they are and to be loved unconditionally.
Different modes, perhaps, different ways, certainly, but the essential human needs and desires remain the same. Despite all the arguments and rebellion, the cries for a new ipad or blackberry and constant nagging for a holiday abroad, the truth is, the basics are the same. Nothing beats a parent’s warm hug, sincere smile, available ear and encouraging nod. This remains true no matter what.
Interestingly, the main difference between now and then is that social changes have forced parents to look deeper and really listen to their children and respond accordingly. We have no choice.
It has become more obvious that as parents, our task is ”simply” to facilitate, to accompany, to guide our children so they can choose wisely according to their values, needs and conditions—not according to ours.
And so we listen to our children and give them our time. We discuss with them, not tell them, what they really need and what their options are. We go where they go, read what they read, and play what they play – as far as they allow us to do so (same-age friends are often preferred to parents). We position ourselves as friends and parents interchangeably, as we realize that it is the best way to approach them and keep them close.
But if we are really honest with ourselves, isn’t this also what we, as children, had long desired from our parents as well? Haven’t we secretly (or not so secretly) wished that our parents too would listen to every plea that we made when we were children, however sheepishly we made it? The difference is most of us weren’t so explicit about it as children nowadays are. We did not know we could be.
So maybe we recognize our children’s needs because those were—and are—our needs too.
Part of growing into adulthood is forgetting that it is okay to be unique and honest, that it is all right to express anger and sadness, and that a smile can come spontaneously from the heart, not because it is a necessary act of courtesy.
The desire and need to love and be loved unconditionally, to be accepted, to express our self are just as strong now as they were then when we were children. We just do not realize it, most of the time.
So instead of—or rather in addition to— rearing a child, we are actually nurturing ourselves. As we allow our children to grow true to their own selves, so too do we allow ourselves to be who we are. Parents and children grow together, forming a real partnership whose bond is stronger than any other bond in the world.
Indeed, the tables have turned. It is children who teach adults how to be. It is they who open our eyes to new ways of navigating through this ever-changing world. Let’s be honest—even on a practical level, they are often the ones who show us how to use the latest gadgets and inform us of the hottest trends.
Their enthusiasm, curiosity and spontaneity, unthinking remarks and moves are so delicious and often contagious. We admire these in our children and we thank them for reintroducing these to our lives. Let them be as they are, because what they are is precious.
Nevertheless, the question remains of whether our realities allow us to thus embrace our children’s self-expression—and our own, for that matter. The next time a child says, ”Mom/dad, I think I want to quit school and learn to dance. I just want to be a famous dancer”, how should we answer?
Not that easy, is it?