Almost twenty three years ago, right after I’d given birth, I was handed this slim pamphlet that started with how I couldn’t hope to mold my child. I remember one phrase, which is still stuck in my craw: “Your children aren’t yours. They’re the sons and daughters of the future.”
At the time I wasn’t sure if the nausea was from that sentence or from the morphine they were pumping into me, (because I had a massive uterine infection, due to three days hard labor.)
Now I’m fairly sure it is that sentence.
There was a comparison to children as arrows, shot from a bow, and you couldn’t control how they flew.
Right now I’m seeing every competition archer among my readers (and my husband used to be one) cringing and going “what do you mean you can’t control it?”
Actually the arrow thing is a good analogy. Yes, part is how you shoot it, and part is in the wind, and the way it plays, and…
In the same way, some of your kids’ traits are genetic (a lot of them surprisingly so. My second child is exactly like my dad, and my older child has a way of reminding me of my paternal grandmother, who died a year after he was born.) and some of them will be upbringing. And some of them you can’t control.
For instance, in making me who I am, there are genetic traits – I come from a family of singularly stubborn people and terribly stubborn women, and also of people who like telling stories. On both sides – but also the place and time I grew up in, and incidental things in my upbringing. Given my temperament, if I hadn’t been sickly at a time when the society hadn’t yet processed the existence of antibiotics, for instance, (and so where quarantine and bed rest were strictly enforced for anything more serious than a sneeze) and therefore spent days upon days alone, in a room that didn’t even have a window (it was a shot gun apartment. The bedroom was the middle room) I probably wouldn’t have started by telling stories to myself and ended up reading voraciously. I’d have been out hiking, or climbing walls or something.
And while a lot of what I learned was from my mom and dad, from my grandmother… a lot of it was also incidental. If my brother hadn’t been ten years older than I (just about) and an engineering student when I was a pre-teen, I’d probably never have discovered science fiction. And if I hadn’t discovered science fiction at that crucial time, I wouldn’t have ended up being guided in a lot of my thoughts on society and the world by Robert A. Heinlein. And I wouldn’t be here, now.
Now, none of those influences accounts for me as I’m now. Not even Heinlein. After a while, you raise yourself. And no, my parents could not control how I’d react to the states, or the closed shop market of SF/F ten years ago, or— Any of that.
However, my parents could – and did – give me certain principles. My dad’s was probably mostly “Never cry. Legionnaires don’t cry.” I don’t know how long that saying passed father to son I the family – and dad could see no reason his daughter shouldn’t be equally stoic – but there it is. There was a warrior ethos there. Even if you’re bleeding from both knees or if – as I did at eight – you just fell from a cliff (Dad and I used to go cliff climbing) and scraped your back raw; you might be in pain, but if you’re still on your feet, don’t cry and snivel. It doesn’t make it better and it distresses others. There was also dad’s strong abhorrence to lying (I get a special dispensation for telling stories. I hope.) If you did something awful, it was better to fess up. And you treated your friends and associates fairly. If someone was your friend, or if someone had done you a kindness once, they’d need to do something fairly horrendous for you to ever turn on them.
Then there was mom who instilled in me the idea that you try your best. You always try your best even if you work yourself into the ground. If you can, you do. If you can’t, you still give it a try — as hard as you can.
And grandma with “to stop is to die.” You keep trying, no matter how many times you’re defeated. And if you heart breaks, you continue working from your gut. And also, you look after the weaker: cats, children, lost animals, strangers. You look after them, because you’re stronger, and that makes it your obligation. You don’t pass the buck. You don’t take the animals to a shelter where they might get killed. You don’t send the starving stranger to the curate or the civil authorities. You set the table for the ragged man and treat him as an honored guest. And you take in the poor dumb brute animals and look after them, and if you can find them a home, you make sure it’s good. Because you’re strong. And so it’s your duty.
Those are lessons you don’t lose. Mostly given by example. If I’m ever tempted to betray someone, I can see dad’s eyes, and feel him glaring at me across the ocean. And though grandma is gone, if I fail to help someone – or something – in need when I can, I can hear her clucking her tongue.
What I’m trying to say is that the children might be the sons and daughters of the future. They will – if everything goes well – see times you don’t know, in ways you don’t know. But how you fire that arrow is important. What you can give your children in guidance, and more importantly in example, is as important as your genetics and maybe more important. Because people aren’t dumb brutes.
I find it particularly interesting that the “let them go, you can’t control them” instruction was being given to beginning parents in the early nineties. It wasn’t as if we lived in a Victorian society where “honor thy father and thy mother” was graven law, inside every public place.
Was it an attempt at making child rearing a “public” thing? Certainly we withstood a lot of push for us to put them in daycare starting at three months and give them “quality time” an hour or so a day.
And certainly the dream of public child rearing, collective, has been with us a long time, by people who think society would be better improved by standardizing their principles to everyone.
I even understand – all too well – that if I had been in a traditional job, I’d have had no choice. Many people have no choice.
But that is the impaired situation, not the one to be elevated to ideal. Even in that situation, you can usually block a lot of time for your kids.
Maybe it’s me making a virtue of necessity, but we didn’t give our kids much quality time. What we gave them was quantity time. I didn’t drop everything to play with Marsh. Oh, okay, fine… there were rousing games of dinosaurs versus army men, but only when the alien dinosaurs invaded (it was this pack from the natural history museum… never mind.) Sometimes. But most of the time, he played in the office, at my feet, while I worked.
And Robert would sit at my research desk and do his homework.
I sort of kept an ear out for them.
I continued keeping an ear out for them – and that I could have done even if I’d worked. – it requires finesse and reading between the lines, but you can figure out if one of their friends has a flexible relationship with the truth, and if another is leading them into trouble. You can guess when the kid has decided not to bother with… oh, math. And you can redirect.
I remember the thrust of that pamphlet was that you couldn’t. If your kid decided to join a gang, it wasn’t your fault. And if your kid didn’t want to finish high school it wasn’t your fault.
Part of it seemed to be to absolve parents from even trying.
I wonder how many people overwhelmed by life (and we’ve been too, a few times) took this as an excuse to just let go. To let the kids grow up however. “It’s not my fault. They’re the sons and daughters of the future.”
Fortunately, I remembered dad and my mom and grandma. Mom never told me that in so many words, but I knew that if I brought home less than a B I’d have to sleep outside with the cats. It was sort of understood. Since I was by nature a slacker, and kept an sf book under my geography textbook, and wrote snarky remarks on the side of my economics test (Well, the teacher WAS a Keynesian) if my mom had decided I was “the daughter of the future” I’d probably have dropped out of school in fifth grade and now be a factory worker in Portugal.
So my kids got that same kind of floor put under them. “You’re expected to learn. You’re expected to work hard. No, you’re not expected to do the best you think you can. You’re expected to do the best I KNOW you can.” Robert still shudders when he talks of me standing behind him while he wrote an essay and saying “You’re not illiterate. Watch verb concordance.”
And part of it was… that quantity time. Not just the time while we worked, but we dragged them with us on things that interested us. It was at a lecture about Mars that number two son fell in love with aerospace, for instance. And we’d sit around reading together. And we took them with us to lumberyards and groceries and talked. And of course, if they were headed down a dangerous path we headed them off.
Are we to credit or blame for everything they are? Of course not. And we do know parents that tried their best, and yet … well, particularly when impairment or mental illness intrudes, you really can’t help the result much.
BUT for most parents, you can. And it’s not a matter of being your kids’ best friend. That’s silly. They have best friends. You’re supposed to be their parent, mentor and example. You’re supposed to say “here there be dragons” and “here there be meadows of great beauty.” You share more of the reasons with them as they grow, of course, but they’ll get a lot of it even without your saying why or how – from how you behave.
They’ll surprise you. You’ll find they develop talents and notions you never saw coming. That’s part of the fun.
And as they grow as adults, they’ll change and move away from the roots you gave them.
The arrow will fly through the air influenced by a lot of things, and well away from you, till you can’t see where it lands – but you gave it that first impulse. And you made it. It’s your arrow.
You’re not supposed to shoot blind and then say “it wasn’t my fault” if it doesn’t fly at all, or if it kills someone.
Just because you don’t have complete control, it doesn’t mean you have no control.
My children aren’t the sons of the future. They’re my sons. And I did my best to make sure they had a future.
Because that’s my job. That’s what parents do. Grandma told me so.