In July, I posted about doing my first triathlon next year, and since then I’ve been learning to swim front crawl. Boy is it slow going. But today I had a second swimming lesson, with a new teacher. It was great, but it seems I have already picked up quite a few bad habits – legs, arms, breathing. Trying to correct them was hard. And that was only the start of the journey.
Four recollections floated into my brain while ruminating on my lesson.
The first one was: Yesterday was our school parents evening (aka afternoon – in no-one’s book but a teacher’s is 3-6pm evening). I noticed the new Early Years curriculum for 0-5 year olds included being aware of and able to articulate one’s own strengths, and recognising those of others. How much have I talked to 3.5 year old Littlest H about his strengths?
The second was a conversation with my daughter at bedtime yesterday, the eve of her 6th birthday. I told her how much I loved her and what a good and lovely person she is. She paused and said “Not always, Mummy.” I wasn’t sure if she meant I don’t always love her or she’s not always good, and as we cuddled and I said I always love her, she clarified “Yes Mummy, but I’m not always good.” (No-one is, I replied)
The third was a recent occasion when I heard her refer to herself as being useless at something she was trying to do. And the final one was another conversation we had yesterday when I asked her if her friends had noticed her ‘I’m 6’ badge at school. She said “Yes, even XXX in Apple class. You know, Mummy, XXX isn’t very nice to me. At lunchtime she is rude to me and laughs when I hold my knife and fork a different way round to everyone else.”
What do these have to do with either bad habits dying hard, or my swimming lesson, you may ask. Well, as I went to bed last night, I found myself wondering if I spend enough time telling my children what amazing people they are – their characters, not just their achievements. Do I do enough to build their self-esteem and self-worth, and to help them be strong enough to feel that being different is okay?
And following from that, am I in the habit of giving my children the best of myself, or do they more often get what’s left of myself? Do I treat them with respect and kindness as the default, do I use language that builds their self-worth, even when managing their behaviour, and do I role-model the way to treat other people, including those you love? I wonder. Sometimes I feel the worst of myself comes out with those with whom I am closest.
I recently posted about ambition vs happiness, saying that striving to be a good parent is a given once you are one, not an ambition. Yet, with an ambition I have set for myself like learning to swim front crawl, I prioritise practising, I pay for an expert to watch me and offer me ways to improve, I am patient with myself as I know it will take time and effort and I won’t be great to start with and maybe not at all. When I have a bad session, I try not to give up, I shake myself off and say, well Annabel, you still went and you’ll just have to try again next time.
Oh to apply that process to parenting. There is no teacher or learning environment, only real life doing, supplemented by watching others and occasional reading of parenting books, usually when things have gone seriously awry. Parenting can’t be separated from rest of life and put in a box to pull out and ‘practise’ at certain times. And yet, as a person who has always responded best to learning in learning environments, that is what I could do with. Constantly evaluating and thinking about how I am parenting when I am in the thick of it is tough. And yet responses to situations quickly become habit. Often in fact, a bad habit that I know will die hard. To kill it off properly will take the same, or more, mental and physical effort as I’m applying to learning to swim.
So how can I work harder at parenting and while I’m doing it, arm our kids with a thick enough hide and strong sense of self-worth so they can handle being picked on?
As with so much in life, to some extent they just have to experience it and grow in their confidence to take teasing or jibes in their stride. But I also think as a parent I can help. Having an open ear to hear when they are telling me something where I can help reinforce a strong sense of self. Asking questions about how they think they handle situations and helping them develop different strategies. Gently teasing them to build their resilience. Telling them not just how much we love them, but why we do – what about them and their characters. Not using damaging language in anger, frustration or impatience that make a specific instance of behaviour sound like a damning character flaw – “You’re so clumsy”, “You never think” “Why are you always so impatient”. Ensuring I’m careful with how I talk about myself – not saying I’m useless at things in a typically self-deprecating English middle class way.
The past couple of days have not just included parents evening and a swimming lesson, but also a first physio session for a hip injury and a specialist dentist appointment about my gums (nothing like getting old, is there). All have resulted in exercises that require me to learn new habits and break old ones. Perhaps while I’m at it I should throw in a few parenting / personal bad habits, just to get my brain fully engaged. You never know, some of it might just stick.