“I have to pay the accounts.” “I can’t take a break just now.” “No, not right now – I’m just trying to figure out the Internet banking.” Three times my son asked for a hot chocolate, three times I denied him.
No big deal. My son is resilient and we provide for him as best we can. Besides, he can actually make his own hot chocolate by now. But sometimes our love for our children is like a deferred payment or an unopened letter of warning – we’ll get to it but not right now. And then it’s just a little too late and you’re giving twice as much to get half as much back. He walks out of the shop with an expensive toy, you with an empty wallet and a feeling of disquiet.
Maybe this week, today, just today for now, we should put aside our preoccupations and ask how we can spend more of our time giving children the gifts they need, not the ones they think they want or the ones that will buy us a little time.
Here are ten gifts worth giving:
1. The gift of optimism: hope is hard-wired into the human brain but sometimes we act in front of our children as if there is no hope. Hope helps us, ‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour’, as William Blake wrote.
2. The gift of compassion: to have compassion is to suffer with, empathise with and care about. One of the greatest gifts your child will give you in return is when she turns to you at the traffic light and says, pointing at a beggar, “Why do we have so much and he has so little?” You’ll know you’re both on the right track.
3. The gift of courage: courage is not foolhardiness or impulsivity; it’s feeling scared and doing it anyway. The fireman who heads into a fire to save a trapped person, gave birth to his courage on the childhood swing while his parents watched in support.
4. The gift of humour: being able to laugh at yourself, not take yourself and the world too seriously. Maybe humour is a sign of emotional intelligence, the ability to recognise the underlying absurdity of something, or the change in a pattern. But in the end humour is inexplicable and irrational. Humour connects us to other human beings.
5. The gift of community and connectedness to our families, friends and communities. The sense of belonging and being aware of our connection to people in specific and the world at large is a core component of being psychologically healthy. Our children love the idea of going where the wild things are, but they also love to come back to their families.
6. The gift of competence: when we teach our kids to cook, fix stuff and insist that they do chores and clean up after themselves, we raise ‘kids who can’ and kids that know they can.
7. The gift of conviction: finding meaning in faith, other people, or the future. The existentialist psychotherapist Dr Viktor Frankl, who survived the Nazi concentration camps, said that those who survived the camps, besides being lucky, had something to live for. He famously quotes the philosopher Nietsche who wrote that “he who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” The why might be a relationship, an idea to contribute or a work to create. Our job as parents is to help our children find their own “why”.
8. The gift of curiosity: ‘curious’ derives from the word ‘care’. To be curious is to care about what’s out there. ‘Don’t be so curious,’ we sometimes admonish our children, meaning don’t be interfering and meddlesome, but I’m sure most of us prefer a child who takes things apart and can’t put them together again, to one who is passive and incurious.
9. The gift of creativity: this is not so much about being artistic but seeing old things in new ways, getting things out not getting things right. Our children need to learn to make mistakes, experiment with ideas, and take action. A creative spark can feel like divine intervention but simply waiting for divine intervention is unlikely to lead you anywhere.
10. And finally – the gift of perspective and common sense: to make do and tolerate imperfection. Tell yourself that sometimes it’s okay just to be a good enough parent with a good enough child. Recognise that ordinary, every day things are acts of pleasure. As Piglet says to Winnie-the-Pooh, “When you wake up in the morning, Pooh, what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what exciting thing is going to happen today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.
These are gifts that won’t run out of batteries, get chewed by the dog, lose their wing or sink to the bottom of the pool. They’ll be carried with your children wherever they go, as part of themselves, to be passed on to others, gifts to be shared with the world.