Last week, Transition Newcastle and the Family Action Centre hosted a parenting forum on “Raising Resilient Kids for a Better World”. The main speaker was Anna Campbell author of “Honeycomb Kids: Big picture parenting for a changing world… and to change the world” who was then joined by a panel of local parents: Tricia Hogbin (Little Eco Footprints Blog), Margo Mannix (who is also a clinical social worker) and me. Phil Ashley-Brown (from our local ABC radio) chaired a Q and A type session for about 45 minutes. We were quite happy with the interest – 80-90 people showed up on a fairly cold evening.
It was great to think about how we can raise our children to be contributors (not just consumers), who care for the environment and the well-being of others. Cathy and I have two daughters – Jasmine aged 11 and Alexa aged 8 – both of whom are beautiful girls – and so these are issues close to our heart.
We want our girls to be caring kind people, who think for themselves, care about the environment and social issues, and who not caught up in materialism and consumerism. It’s really not all that much to ask! Clearly there is no fail safe method and it’s way too early to tell what sort of adults they will become, but we are impressed with the people they are now. We are trying to lay a solid foundation for them using a variety of approaches.
We often have conversations with them about a wide range of topics so that they are used to thinking about issues around them; so we can raise alternative to some of the dominant messages they receive from media and other sources, and (let’s be honest) so we can plant some ideas in their thinking.
When we watched the final of The Voice the other day (we do watch commercial TV) we used it to discuss sponsorship and advertising. At one stage Cathy asked them, “Why do you think they drag shows out like this and make them much longer than they need to be?” Jasmine suggested, “So they can get people watching for longer and put more ads in.” She is thinking about things and is learning not just to take things at face value.
Just after the final, Media Watch (one of my favourite shows) looked at product placement and used the Voice as an example. The girls were in bed by then, so a couple of days later we watched it on iView and used it to talk about how companies try to sell us stuff, not just through ads.
One time when Cathy was walking to school with them, they had quite a long discussion about credit cards and how they can encourage people to buy things they can’t afford. We aren’t trying to talk them into refusing credit cards, but want to demonstrate ways of using it wisely. We have a credit card, but always pay the full amount off by the due date. (It’s so annoying when we have been a day late and been hit with interest!)
Avoiding branded products
We try to avoid buying branded things for the girls (e.g., from their younger days things like Dora the Explorer school bags, Wiggles yoghurt). One time in the supermarket – when they were quite young – we asked them whether or not they thought Wiggles yoghurt would taste any better? (They realised that it wouldn’t.) So we talked about why a tub of yoghurt might have the wiggles on its packaging.
At times it is quite hard to avoid brands – but with some shopping around we can normally find alternatives.
As you probably gather already, we put quite a bit of effort into helping Jasmine and Alexa to be aware of how we are encouraged to buy things. When we watch TV we quite often discuss ads.
“What’s this ad trying to get us to buy?”
“An air conditioner!”
”Do we need an air conditioner?”
Of course there are times when a we do actually need, want or like what is being advertised (e.g., ads by Oxfam) – but that’s OK. At times advertising does provide useful information, and we are willing to acknowledge that. We just don’t want them to watch ads without realising the ads are trying to sell us things.
I think we could do more to talk about the strategies used by ads to try to sell us things. Maybe they are old enough to watch some of the Gruen Transfer episodes.
We try to share parenting. Cathy works from home (mostly in an unpaid capacity) and so she is around more, but we both take our parenting responsibilities seriously. I should say, here, that I don’t help Cathy with the kids, nor did I help her with them when they were babies.
If I had “helped” her, it would have suggested that she had prime responsibility and I was her assistant. We both looked after and cared for the girls – I didn’t “help” Cathy. Before Jasmine was born, we were very clear that it was a joint role. This meant that I needed to show initiative in caring for them – which most women agree with and support. But Cathy also had to accept that I was an equal parent. She couldn’t expect that I would always do things the way she wanted. She couldn’t think she should have the final say. She couldn’t tell me what to do and how to do it. (I think some mothers find giving up this control much harder.)
At times we do things differently and at times we don’t totally agree with how the other does things. Sometimes we talk it out and come to some agreement (especially with major issues) but other times we accept that we do things differently. It doesn’t seem to worry the girls.
As a father, I think this approach is important. Dad’s need to take responsibility from day one (including doing the yucky jobs like changing pooey nappies). But mums also need to allow the dads to take responsibility and not to tell them how to do everything. I’ve often seen women tell men off for doing something the “wrong” way, and then they wonder why dads don’t show more initiative.
Encourage them to think for themselves
We want them to have lots of practice at thinking things through. Clearly we are doing a lot of guiding at the moment, and will continue to present our beliefs, but this doesn’t mean that we want to them to blindly follow our lead. At times we try to present different perspectives fairly – although if we disagree with the perspective we will normally explain why we disagree.
Cathy and I are atheists, but we hope they grow up with an understanding of, and respect for, religious beliefs. They’ve gone to church with my parents and to other church events with some of their friends. We’ve genuinely asked them whether or not they want to go to scripture or not, and support general religious education in school. (I must admit that we are pleased that Jasmine prefers to attend the ethics classes which, in my book, teaches them how to think rather than what to think).
We do the Santa and Tooth Fairy thing – but they both know that they are just pretend games. We didn’t tell them that they weren’t true, but encouraged them when they worked it out for themselves. (In a future post I’ll have to tell how Alexa worked out the truth about the Tooth Fairy).
Give them practice at making decisions for themselves
Closely related to thinking for themselves, we want Jasmine and Alexa to have plenty of practice at making decisions for themselves. I think it is so important that they can make good decisions and that they (and us) have confidence in their decision making. Cathy and I won’t be around all the time to guide them in their decisions. If they haven’t practiced making decisions, I don’t think we can be surprised when they make poor decisions as teenagers. This doesn’t mean that everything is open slather. We can provide scaffolding for their decision making as they grow. When they were very little, we might present them with two or three sets of clothes and ask them which they wanted to wear. Of course we only presented things we were happy for them to choose. When it was time to get out of the bath or time to leave the play ground, we sometimes ask them what we would count up to or how many more swings they could have. (They very rarely, if ever, abused it. I can’t remember them ever saying something like 100). At dinner we sometimes list six or seven vegetables and they can choose which three or four they want to eat.
We also let them make bigger decisions too (and not just what to buy me for my birthday!) As I’ve mentioned we have let them decide whether they go to scripture or “non-scripture” at school. When mum died last month (at home) we discussed whether or not they wanted to see her body. They had the final decision and we emphasised that whatever they decided was fine. (As an aside, I was inclined to encourage them to see her, and Cathy was inclined to discourage them. In the end we didn’t encourage them in either direction but talked about how some people found it helpful to see a loved one who has died, and how others were glad they didn’t. They both decided not to see her.)
As they grow older they will make more and more decisions – some of them we will agree with, and some of them we won’t. At least we will know they can think through things. At the moment we are having to decide what high school Jasmine will attend. She will have a big say – we recognise that we will have a large influence on her decision. This is one of those decisions where our approach is basically that you make you decision, and then make it the right one. There is no way of telling which would be the “better” decision, so once you have made our decision, our approach is to do our best to make it work. We will also point out that if the decision doesn’t work out as we thought, we can then make some decisions about what to do about it.
Encourage them to have a sense of humour and to be able to laugh at themselves
Both girls have a good sense of humour and we actively encourage this, and we want them not to take themselves too seriously. Laughter and joking around plays an important role in our lives and hopefully this will help them to keep things in perspective.
Lead by example
Of course, the girls are watching us lots. Our actions speak louder than our words. So we try to live ethical, caring lives. We are actively involved in our community, we try to be welcoming and to be generous with or time and home, we volunteer at the school and with Transition Newcastle, we watch what we buy. We are far from perfect role models, but hopefully they will be picking up some useful lessons from seeing how we try to live our lives.
Keep a book of sayings
One of the things we are really glad we have done as parents, is to keep a book of funny things they say or do. We have an old exercise book in the living room and every now and again they say something and we write it down. It is very easy to do, and the girls love reading it. For example, when Jasmine was 4 ½ she came home with a picture in browns, dirty oranges and black. She explained, “We used yucky colours because it was for our dads.”
When Alexa was coming up to four, I was at the park with them and an adult friend. She asked Jasmine if she wanted a push.
Jasmine: “No, I can push myself.”
Alexa: “I can do it myself – if someone pushes me.”
It is so easy to have a book like that, and if you get in the routine, you will have some great memories.
It seems to me that parenting is a continual process of letting go. As our children grow up, we need to step back more and more and help them take control of their own lives. We can lay a foundation for them, but they are the ones who will create their own lives. One of the main things I will take away from the forum was a great line from Anna.
We are not raising children, we are raising adults.
How do you try to encourage your children to be caring, socially aware people?
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