Monday, 28 January 2008

Under the Mad Hat's posts on parenting often make my mind work overtime. She put one up recently titled One Kind of Parent I Want to Be. It is a thoughtful, and thought provoking essay. And so I am going to riff off it and write a post about the kind of parent I tried to be, first informing you that my daughters are just perfect adults, of course.

A little bias there? Nah. Not me. Seriously, though, by most measures of success, I think my daughters rate way up there. Well educated? Check. Successful careers? Check. Satisfying family and friends? Mostly. Well rounded? Sports and outdoor activities, check. Involvement in the arts, spotty. Readers, yes. Current events and community aware, yes, in different ways. Contributors to society, yes (they both have a collection of awards and honours). Happy? Some of the time, as I see them. Too busy to draw breath? Yep. Well, so are all of us.

I had a bit of a conversation about this with the YD yesterday because she came out from the city for the day to help her father clear trails. She was talking about being comfortable in the woods, and how a friend of hers with whom she had gone cross country skiing was not because she did not have a sense of where she was and was nervous she would get lost. The YD and her sister, from the ages of eight and nine were allowed to roam loose in the woods around our weekend cabin. We taught them how to find their way, how to make a fire if they needed one, gave them whistles to use if they got lost and, mainly, allowed them to go where they pleased. Later they had a boat of their own that they were allowed to use by themselves (once they passed basic swimming competency level) on the marsh and streams near our property. And they trotted off to play by themselves when they weren't needed for chores.

You see, when they were seven and eight we bought recreational land, built a four season cabin on it and spent almost every weekend there, year round. We started with 100 acres and ended up with 300, including a sugar bush and miles and miles of old logging trails which we cleared for hiking and skiing and JG's ATV and snowmobile. I taught them how to start and manoeuver a snowmobile when they were so small that it took both of them to steer properly. A matter of necessity, as I saw it, because if they were with their father and he got stuck, they would have to be able to get back and summon help. So they learned to love the woods and to love to ski. We skated on the beaver ponds. We hiked for miles. And, because the cabin had no electricity, after dark the amusements were reading and playing games.

It worried me. I worried that they were losing out on the scheduled weekend activities that their peer group was getting -- things like organized soccer. I fretted about their not having the access to the weekend television programs that all their friends would be talking about. I tried to get them the sort of lessons and skill training that I felt they should have, things like swimming lessons, music lessons, Brownies. They got Bible stories but not Sunday School. I also worried that they were missing out on opportunities to learn about the arts -- another area where events often took place on weekends. I tried to get them to concerts, to plays, to show them what was available. We went to see the D'oyle Carte do the Pirates of Penzance, I recall. To see the Lippizaner stallions. Their grandparents took them to a Toronto performance of Guys and Dolls one summer. One girl joined a city wide children's choir which performed some pretty serious music.

But all of this had to be scheduled for weekdays after school, not weekends. They both started gymnastics lessons and for one girl it became a passion. She took it up at school but until she was in secondary school, it was still a weeknight activity. The other girl tried different sports and activities and finally settled on one that could, until she was well into her teens, be carried on on Friday nights. But in some ways, I figured they were losing out, especially on the time just to hang out with their friends unscheduled. And if it happened on Saturday night or Sunday, we did not go.

By the time they were in their upper teens, I felt confident about leaving them in the city if there was something important going on. They got driver's licenses as soon as they could and got themselves to their own activities in my car or by bus. I gave them a lot of independence, in fact. I guess I always favoured letting them do things, from boating by themselves to taking a plane solo to their grandparents' city. They had bikes which they rode through city traffic (my mother was horrified). I never restricted what they read. I tried always to be respectful of their opinions and needs, with varying degrees of success, I suspect.

The limiting factor was that they had to fit their activities and lives into our lives. We did not schedule around them; we did not become parent supporters. Frequently they got themselves to their own activities and, as they got older, did things themselves, singly or as a pair. (They went to Disney World as a pair in their teens on a trip one of them won; wild horses could not have dragged their father there.) I do not know, I will never know, whether I could have done better for them. But that doesn't matter. I think parenting contains a paradox: you only get one chance to raise a child but you get a new chance every day. And so we all have to play it by ear, and to a great extent trust our instincts, our sense of what feels right and of what is valuable. For ourselves as well as for them.


  1. Jen (ponderosa) talked about physical risks vs psychic risks in the comments on my post and I think she was spot on. It sounds to me as if your daughters had a perfect combination of both.

    My daughter will grow up alienated from the land b/c neither my husband nor I are the camping or woodsy types. Sure, we like to hike but getting lost or staying outside overnight? Simply not our cup of tea.

  2. Mary? I think the opportunity your daughters had at that cabin was once-in-a-lifetime. I would have died and gone to heaven if those had been my weekends as a kid.

    So there.

  3. SM, you would have had serious bug bites when you met St Peter. But, seriously, I'm glad you see it that way.
    Mad, that's the point I was trying to make in my discursive way. There are always going to be gaps in the fabric we weave for our kids, mostly because of the choices we made (and had made for us) ourselves and what that made us. I think your programme sounds marvellous, being a theatre lover myself. And I bet Miss M will thrive on it.

  4. We thrived - and in retrospect, would not have changed a thing. Well - the colour TV at Christmas with no power was just darn cruel ...


    Life is also a paradox - we only get one shot (unless Shirley Temple is to be believed), but each day is an endless horizon of opportunity. Sometimes it is just hard to sqint into the sun (how is that for a mixed metaphor.)

  5. Excellent post - I think the decision to have your children fit into your lives makes so much sense. So often these days it seems that families end up the other way around.

  6. you sound like a wonderful mothers, who raised wonderful children

  7. On the 'wonderful children' I will agree with you.

  8. you only get one chance to raise a child but you get a new chance every day. I love that...

    Yep, sounds like you did a fantastic job.

  9. that childhood sounded great. i am trying to preserve sundays at least for our family. no playdates, no errands, no other people at all. just us. hope it can stay that way, but already it is getting hard.

    Running on empty

  10. That's how I want to raise my children. Although I am inwardly cringing at the amount of independence you gave yours -- alone in the woods at 8! -- I hope I have the courage to give the same to mine.

  11. Jennifer, I let them loose in stages. Small increments. Always trying to make sure they had the skills they needed. I did a lot of showing them what and how. And I worried. The boat worried me the most, because I was a lifeguard and I know what strange accidents can occur.
    My mother didn't give me a lot of freedom, so maybe I went too far the other way. But nothing bad happened. Phew!