Ten years. Four kids. Five homes. Seven lessons learned.
Ten years ago today my son Matthew arrived into the world. As I made the kids a special celebratory pancake breakfast this morning (complete with chocolate milkshakes and a special operatic rendition of Happy Birthday) it dawned on me that it’s also ten years today that I became a mother of four kids. So I thought the occasion of young ‘baby’ moving into the ‘double-digit’ age was a good time to reflect on some of the lessons I’ve learnt since..
Lesson #1. Forget perfect. Too often we parents beat ourselves up with the guilt-stick, in our efforts to be a perfect parent. But here’s the deal – you are not the perfect parent. Neither were your parents (and see, you turned out okay… sort of.) So don’t even try to be. Focus your efforts on making sure your kids know they are loved, listened to, and don’t need to be perfect for you to love them (though you may not always like them.)
Lesson #2. Laugh often. Every busy home will have many moments of stress when plans for apart, homework gets lost (or stolen… yes, would you believe there are “strangers” who love to steal math homework?!) and everything descends into chaos. Adding a big dollop of humor to such occasions can diffuse tension like a magic wand and make all the difference in the world, particularly on those days when the kids want to strangle each other, or you want to strangle them.
Lesson #3. Encourage their individuality If we are going to teach our kids to follow their dreams, we have to first teach them to move beyond fear of criticism and rejection – it starts with encouraging them to express their individuality and engage with those around them from a place of self-confidence, rather than self-consciousness. Of course I’m always drumming into my kids to be polite and respectful (partly because it gets them more invitations to play dates), but as I wrote in Stop Playing Safe, if you place too much emphasis on ‘what others will think’ you set them up to have others opinions run their lives. In the end, it doesn’t matter what others think as much as what you think about yourself. I don’t care if my kids are the fastest, smartest, or first at anything. I do care (a lot) that they’re confident to express their individuality and march to the beat to their own drum.
Lesson #4. Share your struggles & sorrows. In the process of writing my last two books I got dozens of rejections letters and emails from publishers. Each came as a blow. I’ve also had lots of potential opportunities fall apart. On top of that I’ve lost my youngest brother (Peter) to schizophrenia three years ago and my oldest (Frank) became a paraplegic after a nasty accident two years earlier. Whether personal or professional, I haven’t tried to hide my heartaches or disappointments from my kids but have used all of them as an opportunity to teach them lessons about resilience, about life’s rawness and the importance of acknowledging what upsets us but not letting our struggles and setbacks define us. I see teaching my kids resilience as one of my most important roles as a mum. In today’s competitive, accelerated and anxious world, they will need plenty of it.
Lesson #5. Apologize. As fun-loving as I “try” to be, at the end of the day when I’m totally spent (or in the middle of relocating home/state/country, which I’ve done a lot of – just couldn’t fit ‘3 countries’ into the subject line!), my patience and humor can wear thin. So thin in fact that I have been known to yell at my kids for simply leaving a plate in the sink, rather than putting it in the dishwasher. Yes, bad mother – I should be encouraging any responsibility at all! I’ve also been known to forget picking up my kids from basketball practice, drop them at the wrong soccer field, forget a special assembly and buy the breakfast cereal they’ve all told me they hate (major drama!) On these occasions, I’ve learnt there is no better response than to simply fall on my sword, apologize for my failings and ask for forgiveness. It’s my hope that, over time, they will learn that it’s okay to mess up. It’s how we ‘clean it up’ afterward that matters more. Oh, and not making that same mistake twice.
Lesson #6. Let them make their mistakes (small ones). There’s a lot of talk these days about helicopter parents. I’m not one of them. That doesn’t mean I’m not involved in the truly important things, but I have no idea what project’s they have to do, or when they are due. As I tell their teachers, if they get an A, it’s all-them. If they get a D, it’s all-them too. Of course sometimes there are tears because I haven’t helped them like “all the other mums who really love their kids do,” but it’s my hope that in the long haul, they will be able to manage their lives much better than they would have otherwise. As I said above, I don’t care so much if my kids win the prize for ‘best project’ (which is lucky, they rarely do.) I care that ten years from now they can be discerning in their decisions and willing to put in the effort and take the courageous risks needed to succeed in the bigger game of life.
Lesson #7. Give Bear Hugs. Okay, so my fifteen-year-old son Lachlan isn’t huge into bear hugs anymore, but I often stop him mid-way out the door to shoot hoops, wrap my arms around him before can escape, and give him a huge bear hug and let him know how proud I am of him. I do that to all my kids. While I don’t always get a big hug back (though often I do), I think that there’s something special about physical touch – about holding someone in our arms, about being held. And even if they don’t overly enjoy it, I know that it makes them feel loved anyway. While we try to eat together every night, it doesn’t always happen between business travels and kids sporting commitments. So some days, as we race from one place to another, those few seconds of hugging may be the only time we truly connect. Kids learnt to be emotionally and physically affectionate by experiencing it. And in the end of the day, when we look back on our life, our family and what truly matters most, connection is what it’s all about.
Of course I could keep going now that I’m on a roll, but frankly, I’ve got other things to do… like leave my (relatively) tidy office and enter the ‘less than tidy family room’ to remind my precious yet extraordinarily messy cherubs to tidy their room, finish their homework and give their mum a hug… or else. Whatever parenting ‘expert’ said bribes and threats are ineffective, or just shouldn’t be used, clearly didn’t have kids. Well not four of them anyway!