I’m writing this at 6:20am on a Friday in January 2021, before anyone else is up. I realised on my way downstairs, as I passed his room, how proud I am of my eldest son. Last night when I was putting him to bed, he asked me what thing made me happy today and what thing I was looking forward to tomorrow.
I told him and then asked why he’d asked.
‘It’s so boring at the moment’ he said.
‘We’re living in lockdown, again. If I don’t think about good things, I just think about how boring everything is. And then I get sad and grumpy and more irritable.’
He’s 12. And I am proper proud of him right now. What a great way to handle the situation. I can’t wait to tell him when he gets up.
I think he told me that last night because his younger brother had a big cry about how boring and dispiriting it all is.
‘I wonder what it would be like if I didn’t exist for a while’ he said. ‘I could just reappear again when all this is over, and we can see people again and go out properly.
He’s 9. And I felt so glad that he’d told us how he was feeling, coming to us and letting it all out.
I haven’t written about this for a while, but it’s something I make a point of in every dad workshop I do. It’s feels particularly important right now. Childhood is the time when children build their understanding of the world. They try things out, learning about what works and what doesn’t. Then, in adolescence they go out into the world and put all that stuff to the test. Some of it works, some doesn’t. They learn more and revise the models in their brains and build new ones on top of the ones they laid down in childhood.
Childhood is the time when children form the structure of their relationship with their parents too. They learn how much to share and rely on their parents, based on the reactions they get. In childhood, (3–12), the stakes are pretty low. They might risk hurting themselves falling off their bike, but their bodies will likely heal. They might lose friends because of their behaviour, but they’ll make more.
In adolescence the stakes are higher. Our kids are no longer little. They are no longer inhabiting a world of mostly our making. They are making their way in the world, trying to achieve independence. They travel further afield on their own. Later they start to drive. They experiment with different things — social media, the study of different subjects, different substances, and certainly their sense of who they are and their self-worth. The stakes are higher, but they’re still children. They still need guidance and help, but it’s harder for them to ask, because it goes against the task of achieving independence. Remember back to your teenage years and think about the things that now, as a grown up, you’d talk through with your parents, but back then you didn’t. There’s quite a few, right?
If my youngest hadn’t let those feelings out, where would they go? He’d have bottled them up. They’d have spilled out in a way that seemed angry. He might have harmed others, he might have harmed himself. He might have compared himself to others in the house and drawn the incorrect conclusion that he was the one with the problem, because, on the outside at least, everyone else seems to be doing fine. ‘Maybe it’s me- I must be bad or broken’, he might conclude. This path isn’t one I’ve just made up, it’s a bit of classic if you’ve experienced any depression, or read about it. He turned to us and we helped him step away from that path and see the bigger picture.
That’s why I’m proud of him too. I told him last night.
If I only achieve one thing as a dad, I know it has to be creating the kind of relationship where my children come and talk to their parents about what’s going on in their lives, and how it’s making them feel. The kind of conversations that solve big problems, or make them easier to bear. The kind that, when they fall (and they will) allows you to catch them.
And strangely, this lockdown living makes that more possible. We’re all hemmed in. We’re all feeling bored and frustrated. So we can talk about it with each other, parents to children, and children to parents. Doing that means modelling the kind of behaviour we want for them. Like my eldest managed last night. Actions speak louder than words, as the world is reminding us right now, with mortal clarity.
This post was previously published on The Shadows.
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