real life

"I want my kids to have a boring and uneventful life. This is a delusion."

I’ve been reflecting on what gets triggered in me when my kids suffer.

See, I’m a bit of a wuss, really. I will happily give sky-diving, scuba diving – any kind of diving, to be honest – a big miss. I vomit at speed, which kind of put an end to rollercoasters and amusement parks early on in my life.

Even the word ‘adventure’ gives me mild palpitations, implying, as it does, that there may very well not be a warm shower or a cosy bed waiting for me at the end of a long day. I favour ‘luxurious’ as an adjective to describe one’s holiday destination, conjuring up fluffy pillows and the like. Getting caught in a thunderstorm, or in a rip, or fronting up with wildlife of any sort, is not my idea of fun. I do not court danger, nor seek out its adrenalin shots.

Ungenerous onlookers might demote my risk-averse nature to ‘boring’. So, let me be clear: when it comes to my children, this is precisely what I hope for them, a boring and uneventful life. I pray that they never have to flee in the dead of night, watch their homes burn, run for their lives or hide for cover. I would be perfectly happy if they never encountered a snake or a deadly spider. I want them to have the fewest available opportunities to hurt themselves.

Joanne Fedler.

Of course, this is a delusion. I have banned my kids from engaging in inherently dangerous activities. Jordan wanted to play rugby when he was ten and I said, ‘No son of mine …’ Finally, after weeks of nagging, I relented, and a week afterwards he broke his wrist playing tips at a friend’s house. A year later he broke a toe at school sport while mucking around with a friend on the beach.

The following year he broke his tibia and fibula one pleasant Sunday afternoon while kicking a soccer ball around on the field across the road by himself. It is obvious that all the inherently dangerous activities I am keeping him from are far less dangerous than life itself.

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A friend of mine lost his wife from breast cancer when their son was three years old. He allowed his son to ride a bike to school along the busiest streets and even to ride a motorbike. I guess tragedy taught him that ‘protecting our loved ones’ is a fallacy.

Parents like me inch from protecting our kids from ‘the dangers out there’ to an eternal hover. We steer them away from bad crowds and friends with creepy tattoos and eyebrow studs. We encourage them to only date nice boys and girls. We want them never to be stood up, rejected, or have their hearts broken – never to experience loss or pain. We want them to always be happy. We want them to not be human.

The reason is that we have to watch. If there’s one thing worse than suffering, it is watching our children suffer. I would exchange places with a child who is being bullied, who is afraid, anxious, needs an operation or is in physical pain. I would take double to shield them.

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But it’s this squeamishness at witnessing our children suffer that deeply harms them. The Buddha said: life is suffering. So what is it we want for our kids? A different brand? The doesn’t- cause-cancer label? The never-cries-itself-to-sleep kind? The always-gets-what-it-wants sort?

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It’s really our problem not theirs that we don’t want to watch them suffer or make terrible errors of judgement. From where they are, they’re just hungry for life – and as Rilke said, ‘Experience it all, the terror and the beauty.’ Life is full of grace and horror. We deny our kids the full experience of their humanity when we try to pick out the best bits, like the red and black gums from the lolly pack. We can’t stop them from suffering but we can be there for them when they suffer. That’s all, really.

We spend so much of our time excising the pain from life so our kids don’t have their feelings hurt. We julienne moments into little slivers of perfection, we shave off the bitter spikes of truth and leave them with the soft, little artichoke heart of experience. We may even lie outright to ‘protect’ them. It is a mistake. We churn out kittens instead of tigers if we treat them this way. Tiger mothers believe our kids are much more resilient than we give them credit for, that kids can take hard stuff and work through it. They can handle difficult situations and information. They learn that life is problematic at times and that they will need to be good problem-solvers.

I remember once parking my ute, leaving Jordan in the passenger seat, and in a moment of distraction, forgetting to put on the handbrake. I was halfway out when the ute started to roll back. ‘Pull up the …!’ but my vocabulary failed me. In my panic, I couldn’t find the word for ‘handbrake’. But, at ten, Jordan calmly reached out and pulled it up. Just in time to prevent the car from rolling into a BMW parked behind us. Nothing I had done had prepared him for this moment. He had prepared himself. He had it in him to respond in a crisis with calm and intelligence. That moment gave me immense faith.

When he broke his leg, I knew that someday he’d look back and see that he’d survived an unimaginable setback. As it turns out, he made it through the physical and mental anguish of it. With each day he struggled, silently a muscle inside him was being built, one that he couldn’t see or feel at the time, but that someday would be iron-hard. That terrible experience has given him a quiet architecture of spirit, a scaffolding of character that will hold him together when the real shit hits the fan – as it does in every life – and he has to front up to a lost job, a failed relationship or plans in life that crash and burn.

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Allowing our kids to survive intolerable hardship shows them that they can survive. Whatever our kids are going through, we can help them lift their gaze from the mess in front of them to the possibilities beyond: to something that hovers on ‘meaning’. Meaning is a function of perspective. To struggle with all the catastrophes of life is to be human. We are here to help our kids practise being people.

When our kids are little, we have to find a balance between always picking them up when they cry and leaving them so they can learn to soothe themselves. As parents we’re always assessing: pick up or let them learn? When our kids’ distress is beyond their control, we have to come in and help. But many times, they’re able to get over it themselves and our jumping in pre-emptively doesn’t give them the chance to learn those skills.

Psychologist Jerome Kagan encourages parents not to give in to all our kids’ wants and needs. He says this leads to ‘oversatiation of desire’, which is a condition created by having too many of our needs met. Psychologically, this over-pampering disempowers our kids and makes them feel as if they cannot create their own satisfaction but must rely on others for everything.

Another adolescent psychologist I spoke to said teenagers need two kinds of support: self-support (internal resilience) and environmental support (parents, mentors or teachers). They develop internal resilience by being given the opportunity to problem- solve on their own instead of having the hovercraft of Mum or Dad swooping in to solve every problem or crisis that arises (some- times even pre-emptively). They also learn it by having it modelled in their environment (they’re surrounded with adults who are resilient) and by making mistakes and learning through them. But they also need adults who recognise when to jump in and help them out of the forest when it gets too dark and they are truly lost. Our job is to manage our discomfort when they’re struggling, and to become masters of discernment to decide: do I stand back and let them work it out by themselves or do I throw them a lifeline?

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Ultimately, what I want for my kids is for them to know that life will not break them. So, sometimes the best I can do is to get out of the way and let them face whatever is hurtling towards them, to let them bear the impact rather than shield them from the truth or the hurt or the broken bones.

As my friend Gary says, ‘I wait and catch them if they fall. I don’t stop them from climbing.’

This post in an extract from Joanne Fedler's book, Love in the Time of Contempt