When I was at school, I dreamed of being a writer. I still do.
I have worked as a secondary school teacher for the past 18 years and can usually identify the children that read and those that use and have used their imaginations to create their own unsupervised games and stories to find solutions to problems by the way they communicate with their peers and teachers.
The projection of other people’s expectations onto us is commonplace. Our parents, teachers and other caregivers often set ideals by which we should our lives.
These are their ideals.
In childhood we can aspire to meet these ideals as we are socially conditioned by our parents to be ‘good’, be it with excellent exam results, by being seen and not heard, by being pretty or thin, by following their faith, football team or political stance, by marrying someone of whom they approve, or by hiding our emotions or sexuality, for example.
Our early lives can be shaped by such ideals and we can be rewarded for meeting them or punished when we do not. The issue is that when social norms are set for us by others in childhood, we can forge on into adulthood trying still to meet these expectations as this is where we think praise and love is derived. This is not the fault of our parents – they do the best they can and more often than not, they are following the example set by their parents before them. Largely, they mean well as they feel that they are setting what they believe to be socially acceptable boundaries for their children.
I am an advocate of guiding and setting boundaries for children, but when it comes to dictating perceptions and setting assumptions about the world around them, I am afraid I am not.
If parents teach their children that love, attention and praise come only from meeting their ideals, they will never allow their children to grow into the person that they can be. In some ways parents that do this consistently condemn their offspring to a life-sentence holed up in Plato’s cave:
This impacts the way in which their children interact with others, it influences the partners that they choose, the career path they follow and the books and newspapers that they read. Parenting is not about creating a ‘mini me’, with parent and child being carbon copies of each other.
To allow self-knowledge and development to occur, we need to ensure that we do not project too rigidly our assumptions and perceptions about the world onto our children.
Children need to make mistakes, think, reflect and learn by themselves if they are to become resilient.
The world in which they will grow up will be very different to ours and they will need to have flexibility and fluidity of mind to push forward and cope in circumstances unexperienced by us.
Through my years of working with children and their parents and care givers, I have found that the children that go on to be well-rounded individuals in later life are those who are guided but not shepherded in a particular way.
If children see and experience kindness, vulnerability, commitment, someone trying hard even if they may fail, courage, gratitude and acceptance, they often are able to navigate adulthood more seamlessly than those children who are not exposed to such virtues.
In addition, children who are raised to be curious about the world around them, those who are encouraged to question and think critically, and those who are given opportunities to express themselves creatively and encouraged to solve problems tend to be more robust than those who are overly protected by their care givers.
Young children that are given the opportunity to be bored find ways to create their own fun by using their imaginations. Children that are transported by their care givers from one supervised activity to another after school and at the weekends often struggle to amuse themselves when they are not being told where to stand, how to think and move. Sometimes they can also struggle to form meaningful connections with others as their interactions and ideas are all structured by adults. In such scenarios children rarely have to find a solution or think as this is all done for them and paid for by their care givers.
There is indisputable value in helping to nurture a passion, sport or other pursuit in a child, however this needs be balanced out with time for the child to play alone or play in a free manner with their peers. It is also important not to live vicariously through one’s child by pushing them into sports or other pursuits that we like or wish that we had been good at.
Children need guidance but they also need to be allowed a degree of freedom to allow them to be themselves and grow into the person they can become, not the person the parent wants them to be so that they have something to boast about to their parental peers.
Children are not reflections of their parents and care givers, they are their own person with their own minds.
So much emotional and psychological damage can be done to children by their care givers, even those who think that they mean well. Taking a step back and thinking about how we speak to and act around the children in our care is key. It is easy to repeat the behaviours that we experienced in our childhoods from our care-givers, even if we found them to be negative.
Take a pause and think about how your behaviour as a care giver or teacher might impact both positively and negatively the emotional and mental wellbeing of the children in your life. Think about the way you speak to yourself and them, think about the way you may react in anger, with oppressive sympathy, with strength and courage – your children are watching you for their cue. Children do what we do, not always what we say.
Doing everything for one’s child and covering up for them when consequences for their actions and inactions are deserved can make the child incapable of functioning and completely unprepared for adulthood. Sometimes parents and care givers feel that if they let their child make mistakes and go off into the world without them, they will no longer be needed. In this instance, such caregivers and parents incapacitate deliberately their children for their own ends.
Parenting is tough and no one gets to tell you the 100% fool proof way of approaching it. That said, healthy detachment from one’s offspring and charges in the classroom is actually positive and enriching for all parties if personal development and growth is to occur.
My youngest daughter is 11. She loves writing stories and too dreams of being a writer (and a horse rider, dentist and ice skater) when she is older. Happily, last year she parked her ambitions to be a penguin on weekdays and a butterfly on weekends.
Creative writing is fantastic for developing a child's self-expression, creativity, empathy, imagination, confidence and communication skills. If your child is interested in writing, do not be tempted to correct the spelling. They must be free to express themselves without fear of being corrected. If they have painted a picture, try not to offer too readily a description of what it is. Instead, ask them if they can tell you a bit about it. This will save upset in the event that you say "What a lovely butterfly!" when the child has actually painted something else.
For ideas or writing prompts, I use this site and like this one for a more interactive approach. Here are some examples from my daughter during the three UK lockdowns - I have thought that creative writing, the making of living fairy gardens (and then writing about the adventures the fairies were having while she slept) and reading the most brilliant magazine, Aquila, enabled her to escape into a fantasy world at times, but also allowed her to take time to reflect on her own life:
My daughter had note pads but the pages and space were not suitable for her needs. She then wrote on scraps of paper, but these were soon lost. I decided to try to tackle this problem by creating my own range of story writing jotters and notebooks for children.
The notebooks are 8 x 10 inches which means that there is room to write. The margins are also wide ruled, making the writing process clear for young writers...but in the spirit of letting our young people freedom of expression, anything, quite frankly will do.