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Desautels: Let's talk about raising kids

“To my parents – who held me close but never fenced me in.” - Polly La Barre
Nanny_ and Pops with 3 Grand Girls

There is little doubt that the raising of children is an art form. It is all about balancing powerful feelings with a judicious measure of rationality. You must ensure that kids feel loved, at all times, while being taught manners and values.

They must also be given the freedom to express themselves and realize, that one day, they will be making their own way into the world… with the insurance of knowing there is always a hug waiting for them at home… and parents who are watching them with loving eyes from afar as they grow and take flight.

Child rearing is also a craft that requires discipline, skill and consistency along with pragmatic advice that is sprinkled with words of wisdom and warmth.  And never forget encouragement.

Whatever their accomplishment(s), however small, provide applause and further inducements to experience new things, tackle new goals and visit new places. All of the above needs to be done with subtle assurance and in a nuanced way. Raising children is a delicate, precious undertaking.

Of course, one danger is to be over-protective, the opposite of which, no reliable oversight, is far more dangerous. Sure, some guidance is required in this critical function but be careful about over doing it. 

You don’t want to be like the infamous “helicopter parent” that hovers over a child to everyone’s detriment. Give your child some breathing room! As the Scottish writer, Kenneth Grahame, said “the strongest instinct is to impart information, the second strongest is to resist it”. Beware.

It is so easy to be an overbearing parent. The temptation is always there but if you’re not careful you’ll end up smothering your child. The result will either be a timid adult, subservient to associates and bosses, or a rebellious, rootless teenager that bolts from home.

There is a time for rearing and a time for staying back…it is for the child to do the reaping from all they’ve been given.  And, above all, avoid living vicariously through your children! Let your unfulfilled dreams stay as part of your baggage (and nightmares), and not transferred onto unsuspecting children.

Some people argue that all this fuss over raising children is misplaced anxiety. After all, as some scientists argue, our destiny is pre-determined by our DNA. It is said that our genes determine our abilities and character, with consequent strengths and weaknesses, both physically and mentally. There is a lot of truth to this theory… perhaps half of it is true. 

The other part of the equation regarding a child’s destiny is purely environmental – and that’s where parents are the most influential factor.  The quality of childhood parenting has a profound effect on outcomes… we know this to be empirically true.  Children raised by abusive parents are more likely to suffer as adults and often exhibit abnormal behaviour. The opposite is also true – children from enlightened and loving parents are more likely to excel in life.  Outcomes are linked to environmental influences… maybe more than we think.

Some scientists are beginning to think that our genes are not the development “dictators” they were once thought to be. In a recent article (Globe & Mail, 26/1/13) Ivan Semeniuk, after extensive interviews with researchers, concluded it’s not genes that are paramount, rather it is “the quality of the nurturing environment, often through the presence or absence of stress, can determine whether a genetic difference actually matters”. 

This article goes on to quote Dr. Marla Sokolowski of the University of Toronto, who specialized in genetics and behavioural neurology: “The genes, in a sense, are listening to the environment”. It would seem our genes need encouragement and nurturing. It takes the right circumstances to trigger a happy result. Thus parenting becomes even more critical…knowing and fulfilling the needs of your child is your task.  

The conclusions by researchers about the added importance of the environment creates an interesting paradigm.  Parallels to gardening, as an analogy, are irresistible.  A seed placed in bad soil struggles to grow and often withers and dies. A seed put in rich soil, fertilized and watered, will usually thrive. 

This whole comparison between child rearing and gardening reminds me of a Hemingway observation that may also contribute another important ingredient to raising a well-adjusted child and then adult. A little spice added to the recipe of success.

“They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us, but it always seemed to me that in those who make jokes in life, the seeds are covered with better soil and with a higher degree of manure”.

We all know that humour is a great companion in life, a gift and a balm for the soul. What we do not know is its potential role in parenting. A house full of laugher could be the final piece of the puzzle in the fine art of raising great children.

When you can make jokes about family life and its many ups and downs it helps to give perspective. I think it also encourages an optimistic attitude towards the future which is hard to contain.

Bob Desautels is a successful restaurateur, author of two books and former professor at the University of Guelph’s Bachelor of Commerce program.

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