The getting and giving of wisdom
Late one afternoon at the weekend I was getting my kayak ready for a paddle around Woody Head. I'm a bit long in the tooth for taking on the Tasman, although I like to imagine I'm paddling through a major storm on my way to NZ as I hit the light whitewater washing over the rocky point. It's the same when I am on my bike and overtake someone out for a stroll with their Zimmer frame: the person becomes Cadel Evans and I am about to take the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. Fantasy is a wonderful thing.
A young man and his son, probably about four, strolled past me and the little boy said, "Look at the boat daddy." The father corrected with, "Canoe!" Then I chipped in with, "Kayak!" I looked up at the young fellow and we both burst out laughing, realising immediately what we had done. "It's a generational thing," I said.
If only passing on wisdom was always that easy. Small children are like sponges and absorb everything. Their parents are gurus of course and I've known kids to argue with their teachers because, "Mum said so!" Even though Mum did in fact get it wrong. Then something goes badly awry at about 12 or 13, or even earlier if they have been eating too many chickens, the child undergoes a transformation from lovely butterfly to chrysalis as the hormones wash through their body.
Suddenly, parents are no longer gurus: they know nothing. It is as if our hard drives have been formatted and we no longer understand anything, particularly them. The delightful child that once told you everything that happened now becomes a closed book, except for the odd grunt and seemingly irrational emotional outburst. I remember thinking at the time that changing their pooey nappies and having ice cream smeared over the back seat of the car was far more preferable to adolescence.
It's quite interesting watching your children, even when they are older and have children of their own, make weird decisions and make the same mistakes that you did. Smart parenting, when we are on the ball, not sleep deprived, drunk or otherwise distracted, involves keeping quiet, watching with baited breath and stepping in with sage words if requested. But it all goes pear shaped when we have a weak moment and the mouth goes into gear before the brain.
In a weak moment in the early 1990s I once ran some workshops for the parents of teenagers. I only did it once and it took me a couple of years and a good dose of tranquilisers to recover. What I found was that these parents, who were clearly having a hard time, had missed the point that their kids were different than before. More importantly something new was happening for their offspring that was profoundly difficult: the transition from dependence to independence and being caught in a trap that was somewhere in between.
What I discovered was that most of the parents were using the same strategies to 'manage' and 'control' this wild animal that they used when the child was seven. What is more they kept doing it over and over again even though it always ended in disaster. I am a great fan of the old Indian saying that, "When the horse you are riding is dead, it is time to dismount."
But we find it hard to give up our old horses, our habits and give in to our fear for our children. That fear gets translated into frustration and the need to control what is essentially the uncontrollable. And telling people how to behave or what to do is not the way to change behaviour: it just doesn't work and in fact can have the opposite effect to that which we desire.
Now, I find the same urge to pass on my unsolicited advice even though the 'kids' are in their thirties. Thank heavens I have learned at least one thing in my life and that is to watch, wait and say nothing - until asked.
Dr Stewart Hase is an Adjunct Fellow with Southern Cross University and a consultant psychologist.
You can visit Stewart's blog at http://stewart