A friend and I were talking the other day about our sons who are the same age and soon will have to choose what kind of studies they want to do for high school. Here in Norway, they can choose to go the ‘regular’ pathway that can lead them to university, or they can choose to learn a profession and come out being able to work. The latter is, of course, less prestigious than acquiring a university degree, but a good option to those who either have a clear idea or know well their skills, or who are tired of so much theory at school and want to do more practical work throughout the three years of high school.
My husband and I believe that, if our son chooses to choose a profession oriented pathway, we will support him. She is of the idea that her son (and our son) should choose the pathway that allows them to go to university. She has good arguments, and I don’t disagree with her, but what triggered this post was what she said at some point:
‘I want my son to make choices that will allow him to do something with his life in a way that is as painless as possible.’
Or something like that. Her argument is that, if they choose the profession pathway, and they change their minds in some years and want to go to university, it might be too late for them to study for and pass the exams required for those who don’t follow the ‘regular’ pathway. Valid arguments.
Can we really prevent our kids from experiencing pain?, and maybe most importantly, should we prevent our kids from experiencing pain?
The answer, is of course neither yes nor no. It is our instinct and to a certain degree our duty as parents to protect our children as much as we can, but lately, I keep thinking that this well-meant attitude might harm our children more than help them, and what is more, will exhaust us, because lets face it, no matter how much I try to keep pain away from my kids, pain will reach them at some point. Pain is part of life.
How can we harm our children by protecting them from pain? Well, it is through the experience of pain that we learn resilience, patience and perseverance. It is through painful situations that we often grow because we are pushed to take a self-check, to evaluate our situation, to learn and move forward. Maybe the key is not to spend most of our time and energy preventing our kids from making mistakes, but rather create a relationship of trust so when they make mistakes, when life gets tough, they know they can get through it by their own strength, and/or get our support if they need it to gain the strength to stand up on their own feet again.
Don’t misunderstand me, I do want my son to make choices that allow him to live a happy and meaningful life, and I do say my opinion whenever he is about to make a choice, but I also try very hard to remind myself to let go of the need to control him. I have to accept that he needs to make his own choices and deal with the consequences. I just hope that the day he makes a mistake or a choice that brings pain to his life, we will be able to support him in a way that helps him reflect, grow and move on.
I see it as a teacher too. I am thankful that I teach in times where we have a lot of focus on students’ social and emotional well-being, but I also feel that sometimes we feel obliged to micro-mange them to avoid emotional distress. If football games during playtime get too rough, we ban them. Parents contact us often when their child has had a conflict with another child often with the expectation that we will ‘fix it’ without the kids being involved to ‘avoid the distress’ caused by heaving to deal with the situation.
Although I understand the intentions behind this kind of expectations, I think that kids need to experience all sorts of emotions and learn how to deal with them. Both their own emotions and other people’s emotions. Maybe instead of banning the football game, we can have the necessary conversations – over and over again – to help them reflect on what went right and what went wrong, and more importantly, how they can do better next time. We help the students better by creating the space for them to talk and find common ground, and understand how they feel and how their peers feel. Maybe sometimes kids need to find their own solutions without adult involvement.
If you’ve been around for more than twenty years, you would agree that in life, we go through phases, some phases are more painful than others, but often, the most painful ones bring also a lot of growth. I teach students between 13 and 16 years old, and many changes happen during those years. Some teenagers go through tough periods trying to figure out who they are and what they want. It is painful for them, and often even more for their parents. The parents that suffer the most are those who try very hard to steer their children into a specific direction believing that that is the right direction. Or being overly worried about their child’s confusion. What I often observe from the outside is that the kids that have been raised with a set of clear values, that have parents that are present and available, manage to go through and beyond phases of confusion and pain and grow from them. It requires patience, resilience and perseverance from both themselves and their parents.
Reflecting about this, I have made myself some mental guidelines as a mum and as a teacher that I try to follow:
- Walk the talk. Live my life as much in line as possible with what I believe in. Accept my mistakes and grow from them. Reflect with my children about them. I don’t need to pretend that I am perfect, or devoid from emotion.
- Be mindful of how I react when my children make a mistake. Try to show understanding and be open for discussion instead of being judgemental.
- When appropriate, share my views or opinion on something, explain why I think like I do, but make it clear that the choice is theirs (and hope for the best).
- Remember that each one of my kids is an individual with their own path to walk. Be supportive, be present, but not controlling.
- Help them go through difficult emotions. Explore and accept the pain to then let go and learn from it.
- Keep learning together with my kids how to better support them in their own path. After all, parenting is all about learning by doing.