Learning From Our Children

I became a psychotherapist when I was over sixty and I practised, on my own, for the next fifteen years. It was a good time for me to start because I had a wealth of different kinds of experience of both myself and other people. It is not a profession for a young person to do well. We are all so different that it is hard and well-nigh impossible for us to understand situations about which we know very little. Only geniuses like Shakespeare can know that. Trying to put ourselves into other people’s shoes is incredibly difficult. It doesn’t matter how many books we have read and how many people we have met, it all comes to nothing unless we are always listening and noticing what is going on around us. As you will know by now that this is one of the things I enjoy most.

Mothers who spend time studying what interests their children most will soon get to know some of their most important individual characteristics. It is a wonderful preparation for having good relationships with them when they are grown-up. But I have discovered that those who have the strongest wills to get what they want can have very different strategies. They are often the ones with whom we have to be most patient and at the same time very clear and very firm. Children like this need to know when you mean ‘yes’ and when you mean ‘no’ . Give them an inch and they will take a mile. We have to remember that however rebellious the child, the more he or she still needs to feel safe and secure.

It is all too easy to get into fruitless arguments. If you let that happen the child will lose respect for you. The same applies to teachers. I noticed, when I was one, that children are not fools and the teachers they respect are the ones who have strict rules and stick to them.

Both my boys were such in quite different ways. Someone once asked me if I had a favourite child. I thought for a moment and then I said “I like best the one who is giving me the least trouble.” In Victorian days and earlier, obedience and “goodness” were considered as virtues. How wrong they were!

When Quentin was old enough to toddle I took both boys to the club swimming pool. We usually went in the early afternoon when it was nearly empty and easier for me to keep an eye on both. Robin could already swim so I had to place most of my vigilance on Quentin. At one point I was giving Robin a few tips as he was learning a new stroke. He was doing very well. Suddenly I heard Quentin yelling with all his might “Here I come!” He was standing on the top diving board at the deep end. I couldn’t stop him and he jumped off. He couldn’t swim. I was in my bathing-suit. I didn’t immediately jump in, I waited for a few seconds to see what he did next. He rose to the surface, looking jubilant. I waited another couple of seconds and believe it or not, he who couldn’t swim, dog-paddled to the steps and climbed out. I was astounded. He was about two years old.

He stood up and said “Now I am going to do it again!” “No you are not!” I said and he stopped and gave me a dirty look. He didn’t start an argument but I praised him just enough but not too much. I never took my eyes off him when we were at the pool again. However he never tried a second time. It was enough for him to have tried and succeeded.

Quentin and I have certain things in common. We both like to start new things on our own without anyone helping us. The difference between us is that when I jump into the deep-end to start a new business I am always scared stiff. I put myself into the position I want to be in, believing I am right but terrified of going very wrong. We both take risks but Quentin takes greater chances than I ever would. Robin and I also share certain traits. In fact all three of my children get bored easily and we are always coming up with new ideas.

Getting to know them so well when they were children built up trust between us, despite the difficulties of teen-age problems which are inevitable with strong-willed people. Not only did they go through different changes as they learned from their own experience. I also matured and got to know myself better.

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