by MIA FREEDMAN
I never miss an opportunity to impart wisdom to my kids. That’s how it works, right? You have kids, you teach them stuff you think is important, then they have kids and so on.
With three children ranging from pre-schooler to teenager, my wisdom gets a mixed response. The younger ones look up to me like I’m Nelson Mandela meets Yoda while my 14yo reckons I’m Homer Simpson meets Basil Fawlty. Regardless, I persevere with shaping their values.
Sometimes I feel like one of those tennis ball machines, shooting out rapid fire life lessons about everything from homophobia (bad) to feminism (good). Last week, at the petrol station, my 4yo pointed to a no smoking sign and asked what it meant. Oh look! A wisdom opportunity! “It means you’re not allowed to smoke cigarettes because there’s petrol here and it can make an explosion.” An explosion? That got his attention. I then smoothly segued into a spiel about the evils of tobacco. Pow! Life lesson!
I did the same thing with my teenager recently in the car. It’s the main reason I drive him places; captive audience. There’s a direct trade-off, he gets a lift and I get to impart wisdom like this: “You know, if you’re ever out and a girl is drunk, you want to be the one holding her hair back while she vomits,” I told him recently. “You must never be the one trying to take advantage of her. Because that would be appalling and also illegal.” “Right, that’s it,” he replied through gritted teeth. “Tomorrow, I’m catching the bus.”
The topics I raise are not always serious. “Can you dance?” I asked him one day. “Maybe I should teach you how to dance!” “That’s not even funny,” he replied. “Go away.”
The dark side of parenting hit me – and probably you – like a sledgehammer last weekend when I picked up this newspaper. On the front page was the now famous photo of a small boy holding a sign exhorting unspeakable violence as a baby slept beside him in a pram and their mother captured the happy scene on her iPhone. I felt many things looking at that image. Horrified, angry, shocked, bewildered and desperately sad. What hope did these kids have to grow up feeling anything but hatred for…..I’m not even sure who. The western world? Non-muslims? Police? Australia?
The calls for the children to be removed from their parents though, were as predictable as they were futile. The mother wasn’t committing a crime and you can’t legislate against parents teaching things to their kids, no matter how abhorrent they are. The issue is so much more complex.
Last year, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek account of teaching my daughter this crucial life lesson: Leggings Are Not Pants. I used this anecdote as a springboard into a bigger discussion: what values do we instill into our children and what did our parents instill in us? But many people fixated on the leggings. They were outraged that I would pollute an innocent mind with such extremist fashion doctrine. I was accused of child abuse and I’m not even kidding. This puzzled me. Would the reaction had been the same if I’d shared other style commandments like don’t-wear-socks-with-sandals? Or underpants-go-UNDER-your-clothes-unless-you’re-Superman?
Because that’s what parents do. Imprint our beliefs and values onto our kids. Teach them what we hold dear. I’m obviously being silly about fashion rules because come on, who cares. Other things matter though, they matter a lot. My husband and I teach our kids that everyone should be able to marry the person they love, regardless of gender. We teach them that men and women are equal, that different people have different beliefs about God and that it’s important to respect everyone.
Some people will disagree with this approach. They think parents should simply provide children with information and allow them to make up their own minds. But that’s not always easy or even possible. If you’re devoutly religious and believe it enhances your life, you’ll surely want your children to share your faith and reap those same benefits. If you believe in your heart that eating animals is murder, you cannot in good conscience serve up veal for dinner.
I think the key is to be aware of our power as parents and use it mindfully. Because consider this. If a child saw the media coverage of the riots and asked you, “what’s that all about?” your answer can shape how they see Muslim people.
You can choose to say: “Those bloody Muslims are ruining this country and they should all be sent back to where they came from!” Or you can tell them: “It’s a small group of people who are angry about a silly film and who are behaving very very badly. They may go to jail because you are not allowed to throw things at police or be violent towards other people not matter how upset you are.”
Because ultimately, every parent and every adult in a child’s life has the ability and the privilege to help shape their view of the world. That is a huge responsibility and one we must take care to honour in the most positive, constructive way we can.
What crucial life lessons have you passed on to your kids?
Note: A shorter version of this piece appeared here on Mamamia earlier in the week.