The only way I can genuinely teach my children that other people have their back… is when I fail them.
The only way I can teach my children to stand alone, is when I stand aside
The first time I began to understand this, I was at the funeral of a childhood friend. I’d sent my children off to school, totally forgetting to pack their lunches.
I got a call from the school at the wake ‘Tanya, the kids have no lunch, can I organise some tuck shop for them?’
Cue Mum guilt
How could I forget? It wasn’t just that I’d forgotten to feed them. My daughter was on a rare full day at school during her cancer treatment – she was seven and we hadn’t been apart for over six months.
The Mum guilt was crushing, and it was instant
Looking around, there was no appropriate corner to curl up in a ball and begin rocking with guilt and failure.
On the verge of tears all day, they silently started falling.
My sisters, who are very wise, took my flapping hands and held them still and said this.
‘Tanya, you didn’t fail them’
‘Today, you have taught them to ask for help. You’ve taught them that when they ask for help – people give it. You’ve shown them that people other than their parents and their family have their backs. That is far more valuable than a packed lunch box.’
Everyone should have sisters like mine.
I put down the stick I was using to beat myself up with and reluctantly admitted they were right.
Over the next few months I observed how my children rise when I fail them
I realised that every time I fail my children, I am giving them an opportunity.
We can’t be there all the time, we can’t do everything for them
We simply can not remember and predict every little eventuality that may cause them embarrassment, inconvenience or pain.
And here’s the thing – nor should we. Nothing is learnt through easy times except privilege.
Each time we fail our children by forgetting to do something for them, or to remind them of their obligations, or to predict and prevent something difficult – we give them an opportunity
Sometimes it’s an opportunity to self advocate, sometimes it’s an opportunity to problem solve, sometimes it’s an opportunity to ask someone for help, sometimes it’s an opportunity to build a little grit and sometimes it’s an opportunity to learn acceptance.
When I’m very lucky and the mum guilt creeps in, my children hug me and tell me it’s OK and they learn empathy and kindness.
And when we’re really, really lucky and I fail my children, it’s an opportunity for them to learn how to build their own village
Friday just gone my daughter, Lara was at her friends house. I am lucky enough to love this friends Mum, Ella, who parents Lara like one of her own.
Some extended family were over and the cousins were teasing the girls, as cousins often do. It was in a fun way, but Lara was a little upset and took herself aside.
Ella came in to check on her, and Lara was quietly having a little weep. Ella gave her a cuddle and listened as Lara told her that while she looks pretty tough and handles things pretty well on the outside, sometimes inside she feels soft and fragile.
Ella helped Lara feel listened to, she helped her feel seen and gave her such a meaningful experience of sisterhood, that I’m actually pretty grateful there were a few teasing cousins in the mix that night.
Lara won’t remember the teasing cousins, but she’ll remember that Ella had her back.
She’ll remember that being vulnerable in a safe place can feel healing
She’ll remember smiling through tears.
How could I possibly teach her these things without the pain she felt being teased? If I’d insisted on staying around to navigate any friction she may have with new, older people, it would have just been another easy night, fading to nothing in her history.
There would have been no lesson without the pain of being teased.
If I protect my children from all of their pain, they’ll never get the opportunity to learn those lessons and find their own village
Now that they are almost 11 and 13 I’m really pleased they have been finding their own village, rather than just living in the one I’d like to curate for them.
Giving them the opportunity to find people who have their backs, to build those relationships without me, giving them the opportunity to fend for themselves, to ask for help, to organise a school lunch when I forget (the funeral wasn’t an isolated incident) – all these ‘failures’ are teaching my children how to build their own village. They are learning to choose the people who genuinely have their back and how to learn not to invest in those who don’t.
I’m not suggesting that we all go ahead and forget school lunches, and swimming kits, and leave our children to the wolves.
But what I AM suggesting is that each time we feel that Mum guilt creeping into our days.
Stop and flip the coin – look at what your child is learning in the face of a tricky time instead of a smooth road
So, put down the big stick that you’re beating yourself up with. Leave the Mum guilt aside and see that when you feel like you’ve failed, you may in fact have given your child a valuable opportunity to stand alone.