Two ways to travel: first class and with kids

Anyone who weighs in upon the delicate subject of children must do so, while not with trepidation, at least with some badge of authority and certainly with discretion. The matter is a highly sensitive one, reflecting as it does so emphatically upon the authors of the cause. Being as I am an inveterate bachelor it may surprise you to learn that I adjudge myself an authority upon the subject of children particularly in the context of their relationship with their parents. While I say this tongue-in-cheek, there is nonetheless more than a particle of truth in it. Many of my friends do of course have children and as a result I have an inevitable acquaintance with what goes on between them. The parent-child relationship is made all the more poignant for me because I have not lived with my parents since the age of thirteen when I was sent to boarding school (my parents were 3,000 miles away and I visited them twice a year, Christmas and summer holidays); and thereafter it was University residence, followed by a fraternity at law school, then a Don at Devonshire House, University of Toronto. Having had this sizeable and uninterrupted detachment from my own parents undoubtedly prompted my keen interest and curiosity in the parent-child relationships which I regularly observe. I suspect too that the standard business of what I call “psychical distance” (that is, the characteristic of being removed from the centre of the action) enables me to see more clearly the reigning features of association between parent and child.

By way of introduction to this heady and highly complex topic, first let me say unequivocally that having children is to my mind an unimaginable and inescapable reality. I say this not by way of disparagement but rather as testimony to the decisive rank of the subject. There are many challenges in life which one can either safely or cleverly ignore, disguise, side-line or hide. Children are not one of them. Nothing so categorically assures the removal of any sheen of luxury or other deception from one’s life as the presence of children. Aside from the obvious physical connection (the fact that children can stay at home for a very long time), the spiritual and emotional ties which insinuate the relationship are not to be diminished. I suspect a parent never really surrenders his or her concern for one’s child even in later life. Children are as well in a perpetual state of want, food, clothing, shelter, money and naturally the latest technological devices. It isn’t long before the chirp for a tricycle becomes the howl for a car.

The standard of conduct between parent and child has unmistakably modified over the past four decades (when my friends began to marry and have families). Initially the British model of hands-off association was customary, the spin-off of the days when nannies tended to the needs of the little ones. Metaphorically the relationship between parent and child was essentially laissez-faire subject to the often unspoken rules of the house. As an illustration, it was rare at that earlier time to see fathers embrace their children, particularly their sons; and the lack of physical contact was reciprocated in kind by the children. Distance was the preferred and mandatory default. We have since progressed to a more touchy-feely era likely prompted by the public display of affection now so common on the sports field, that former bastion of jock-ness.

Where the going gets really hard-hitting for parents is when the child reaches the late teens. This is when the parent has all the disadvantages of child rearing and none of the advantages. No longer do the children wish to be with their parents, preferring instead to cavort with other youngsters whom the parents invariably consider to be a bad influence (and whom the child considers to be a more reliable source of acumen and solace). The child may as a result be suspected of dabbling in stimulating beverages or nefarious combustibles, and may even take the liberty of staying out all night or longer without explanation or apology. Communication is at a halt. It is at this juncture that the parent seriously considers cutting the kid off or throwing him out of the house altogether or both. Any hope the parent might once have had for the success of the child in life is finally dashed. It is however at a juncture such as this that it is expedient – nay indeed mandatory – to recall that most of us earned our wings by doing more than hanging about the nest. As well the distended view of the world reminds us that one way or another mankind evolves in spite of the superficial shortcomings of the very people who represent our future as a species.

At times spats surface which suggest that a father prefers his daughter to his son. This is not an uncommon occurrence, but there is a reason. Like it or not, the prejudice towards the dominance of the male prevails. This is a two-pronged fork particularly with the educated male. In what are considered “higher” classes of society, diligence and industry are greatly valued; whereas in so-called “lower” classes conformity and adjustment are the favoured posture. The late teens are a time when the son has little inclination towards industry or conformity, the lack of which predisposition triggers in the mind of the father an immediate confrontation. The daughter by comparison has not yet espoused the need for such independence (though it will naturally follow in time). As I have so often counseled my distressed parental friends on similar occasions, it is far too late to do anything but capitulate. Harkening back to my personal experience, I am convinced that by the time a child reaches the age of thirteen he or she is virtually beyond anything but instruction by example. To imagine the parent has power to mold the child is a fraud.

I want to emphasize by contrast that I do not sanction a parent’s complete disregard for the child’s well-being. The inability to govern a child’s behaviour does not mean that the parent hasn’t valuable wisdom to share with the child. The trick is to distinguish between obligatory sanctions and meaningful advice. Anything that begins with “When I was your age…” is quite incorrect. What I believe is required is an acceptance of the child’s behaviour and then an examination of the ramifications of it, whether the enquiry is directed to the choice of friends, the selection of a course of study or a proposed financial decision. Removing the parent’s involvement from being delimiting to the more expansive arena of dialogue should allow the child to enhance his or her own conclusions in addition to relieving the parent of any concerns about not helping his child.

It has been said that the most frightening realization of a child is that he or she may become just like his or her parents. Until that awakening occurs, the parent does well to concede the obverse that “what’s bred in the bone will out in the flesh” (Robertson Davies). The similarity between parent and child is far more than a possibility; rather it is to be expected. It is for this reason for example that grandparents are so fond of the quirks of their grandchildren; a generation has been skipped and there are others to blame.

Whatever the outcome of a parent-child relationship it is certain to be singular. Both parties to the relationship have to learn to accept the limitations of the other. There is no perfect kid any more than there is a perfect parent. For someone like I on the outside of it all, there is a great deal of hand-wringing and apprehension associated with the parent-child relationship. The dichotomous nature of the relationship perpetuates the inherent qualities of the parties. If either party chooses to jump ship the ensuing voyage may be other than first class.