I have a travel game that I play with my kids in the car. It’s a box of questions that are designed to trigger conversation. There’s the standard fare: “Which smell don’t you like?”, “What sport would you like to be really good at”, “Do you have a joke you could tell?” These are the questions we expect to ask kids. Silly questions, light-hearted questions, questions aimed at their innate toilet humour that we then spend the rest of our time trying to “shoosh” out of them.
Every now and then though, there is a little gem that makes me catch my breath. Questions that get to the heart of who we are and how we both see ourselves in the world, and expose how we interact with others. “Is it easy for you to say sorry?” This was one that struck me between the eyes. It made my heart beat a little faster, I held my breath for a fraction of a second because I knew, deep down, that I—by no means—find it easy to say sorry. I let my temper override my sense of right and wrong. I justify why I have behaved badly by blaming other people, or I simply ignore my indiscretion until it has blown over. It is a rare, and precious thing to hear me apologise. Yet, this is something I expect my kids to say everyday: “Say sorry to your brother”, “Do you have something to say to me?”, “Is there something you would like to say to your friend/teacher/father?”, and the worst, “Say it like you mean it.” I expect them to show contrition and remorse, and to display it openly in a way that I clearly don’t have the maturity to do.
This got me thinking about what else I expect my kids to do, that I, as an adult, am unwilling or unable to do. Their little lives are completely within my control and what they do is contingent on my whim. I’m in a bad mood? “Go and tidy your room”, I snap (no matter how hard their day had been or tired they are). Yet, when I’ve had a crappy day, I flop on the couch with a cup of tea and let the dishes pile up, the washing stay in the basket and the dinner table be covered in books, sauce bottles and the remnants of last night’s dinner. I don’t jump up and clean it, but I often expect my kids to.
I tell them when to wash, when to eat, when to brush their teeth, when to read a book, when to exercise, when to relax, when to work, when to be nice, when to be silly and (usually when I have had enough) when to be serious again. I despise being told what to do (don’t get me wrong, I run a military regime in my house), yet I expect my kids to not only do what I tell them, but hop to attention the instant I speak. Is it any wonder that my ten-year old rolls her eyes, slumps her shoulders and storms off down the hallway? But at the same time, I know that without those constraints—my two at least—would be little more than filthy, feral, eating machines living in a cesspit of despair.
What do my kids think of my (almost always) well-meaning control of their lives? “Whose opinion is most important to you: your own, your parents, your teachers or your friends?” Is that a question I really want to know that answer to? Each morning I parcel my children up and send them out into the world to fend for themselves for the next six hours. I expect them to bring with them the little gems of wisdom I impart. I expect them to continue to behave in a way that I would approve of, bringing with them the conventions, attitudes and beliefs of our home (of me) into their interactions with their teachers and their friends. I inadvertently try and constrain them in an impenetrable bubble so that when they come home the world stays “out there” and they simply return to our little version of the universe. But it isn’t like that. Of course it’s not, it can’t , nor should it, be. That would be an intolerable arrogance on my part. That would be me expecting my kids to be biddable, little versions of me that do what I want them to, regardless of what they think, feel or experience.
I’m slowly (some might say because of naivety, or obtuseness) coming to realise that I need to grow up just as much as my kids do. I can be petulant, lazy, bad-tempered, selfish in just the same way they can. The difference is that I have a power, self-determination and freedom to choose that they do not. No one yells at me if I forget to hang the washing out, or decide I don’t want to play sport today. That’s not to say I won’t throw my hands up in the air when my daughter back-chats me, or yell at them to put their school bags away and their lunch boxes in the dish-washer (God forbid!), but this little game we play in the car— designed to get my children thinking—has forced me to see that their responses and behaviours are so much more nuanced that “good” and “bad”. And while I know it is my job and responsibility to teach them how to care for themselves, to take responsibility for their learning and their future, and to follow through with their commitments and obligations I can’t help but wonder if I sometimes hold them to a higher standard than I do myself.