DEAR JOHN

John Cowan on par­ents as gar­den­ers

Parenting - - In This Issue -

I was sched­uled to speak to a bunch of trainees at the Po­lice Col­lege about par­ent­ing. That would nor­mally be ex­cel­lent ex­cept my lecture was pre­ceded by one from Nigel Latta. He, of course, was bril­liant and funny and I was afraid I would ap­pear very dull by com­par­i­son. Nigel was fin­ish­ing his talk and he said, “Your next lecture is on par­ent­ing. Don’t worry about it. It’s all down to ge­net­ics.” Thanks, Nigel. Great in­tro. Just what I needed to prime my con­fi­dence. But I have a sneaky sus­pi­cion there is quite a lot of truth to what he said.

For a long time I thought that par­ents shaped their chil­dren. I be­lieved that we coached and men­tored and dis­ci­plined them into the adults they even­tu­ally be­come. I now won­der how cor­rect that is. I look at my three adult chil­dren – they are so to­tally dif­fer­ent. ( They are also to­tally won­der­ful, but that is a fa­ther’s opin­ion). I have a se­ri­ous old­est son who wants to change the world, a bril­liant daugh­ter who loves busi­ness

If I was such a key fac­tor in mak­ing them who they are‚ how did they end up so dif­fer­ent from each other?

and sci­ence, and an artis­tic youngest who lives in a world of mu­sic and phi­los­o­phy. If I was such a key fac­tor in mak­ing them who they are, how did they end up so dif­fer­ent from each other? If I was shap­ing them, did I have th­ese shapes in mind? No. They just ‘turned out’ that way.

I now see that my role has been more of a gar­dener than a crafts­man. It is like I was given some pack­ets of seeds, but the la­bels had come off. I planted them and nur­tured them all the same but af­ter a while, I saw that some seeds came up as beans, oth­ers as wa­ter­mel­ons, some as corn and so on. When I knew what I was grow­ing, I could start to cul­ti­vate them ap­pro­pri­ately – stak­ing the toma­toes, train­ing the vines, lift­ing the rhubarb (real gar­den­ers would have bet­ter il­lus­tra­tions than me).

The gar­dener is im­por­tant, but I can­not turn a mar­row into a cau­li­flower. I have to dis­cover what it is and then work with that. As our dif­fer­ent chil­dren showed their ar­eas of gift­ing, my wife and I were able to en­cour­age them specif­i­cally – sport with one, mu­sic with an­other, and so on. At times our em­pha­sis would go in the ar­eas where they were not nat­u­rally gifted. A child might not be ta­lented in maths or English, but you can usu­ally en­cour­age them to­ward some ba­sic com­pe­tence at least.

A big part of the plea­sure of par­ent­ing is just dis­cov­er­ing what your kids are made of. By all means fer­tilise their good char­ac­ter and weed out their neg­a­tive habits, but stand back and dis­cover who your chil­dren re­ally are. You will have – and should have – dreams for your kids but it is far more im­por­tant to let them have their own dreams.

More and more of who your kids are be­com­ing is re­vealed year af­ter year, so make friends with them - over and over again. Make friends with your toddler, and then again with your school-age child, your ado­les­cent, and your young adult. They change and change and never stop chang­ing, and so the dis­cov­ery process never stops either.

As Nigel said, and I con­cede, genes ac­count for so much of our chil­dren’s abil­i­ties, tem­per­a­ment and other at­tributes. Genes pro­vide both the in­di­vid­u­al­ity and the sim­i­lar­ity, but the gar­dener pro­vides a ‘qual­ity’ to his ‘pro­duce’ that can­not be ex­plained by DNA. If your chil­dren are great at sport, that might just be ge­net­ics. But if they are sports­men and women who are also kind, well-man­nered and self-con­trolled, I am pre­pared to ap­plaud the gar­dener. We work with what­ever the ge­netic shuf­fle has dealt us, but the work is im­por­tant.

A big part of the plea­sure of par­ent­ing is just dis­cov­er­ing what your kids are made of.

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