Sunday 17 October 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Niño, deja ya de joder con la pelota/Niño, que eso no se dice, que eso no se hace, que eso no se toca. (Boy, stop annoying me with that ball/boy, you can't say that, you can't do that, you can't touch that)

"Esos Locos Bajitos" - "Those Crazy Little Ones" (Joan Manuel Serrat)

When did some of us, parents, stop having fun and start freaking out? Was there a time, place, date, when we said: "Enough's enough, baby is not baby anymore, he/she is growing up, I'd better apply to Parental Anxiety School before admission is closed"?

I was recently at the pictures with my wife, our daughter and our son. He actually went on his own, having stayed the previous night at his mate's. There he was, a pre-teen, slowly waltzing his way into thirteen, surrounded by four or five kids his own age without a care in the world. And yet I felt anxious. He's not wearing his jumper, I thought. My wife told me to chill out, don't spoil it, please. I muttered something to myself, something to do with colds, with his asthma, with looking after himself, but deep down I knew I wasn't right.

There's a big difference in how my wife and I approach our children's upbringing. I am, or rather, have become more overbearing. She is more laissez-faire. I tend to shout too much, get all worked up and think of harsh punishments when things don't go according to plan. She, on the other hand, tries to reason out with our kids, getting them to analyse what they've done wrong and how they can make amends (although occasionally she also loses her rag). Eventually I have come to adopting her method, but it's still a steep climb for me. I have an inkling as to why it's such a struggle, but based on my own background it shouldn't be so. I was given free rein when I was a child, with a lot of strings attached, mind, but I had more freedom than my sister-cousin who was six years my senior and living in the same flat. When I look at a photo like the one that adorns my post today (taken from Concurso 2009 Magazine Digital) I'm usually transported to a very contented existence when play was my eternal companion. Following this logic I should be as relaxed a parent as my spouse is. But no, I'm not.

There are a couple of factors as to why: one is migration and the other one is environment. The former can better be explained through the process an immigrant undergoes when he or she settles in a different culture and his/her existence is only made up of the present and future they chisel out in that nation. No past (except the one lived through conversations with other people, or exposure to art and/or the media) sometimes means that an uneasy feeling of not knowing creeps in. This is quickly followed by a certain paranoia when children arrive. It's that famous parental sixth sense. We smell danger everywhere, even when there's none. The second element is intricately linked to the first one since my surroundings are far from the tourist-friendly perspective people have of London. I live in a rough area with a high percentage of crime and unemployment. And although I love my barrio, I'm pragmatic enough to realise that when my children start going out on their own, I will be watching the clock anxiously and counting the minutes and seconds as I wait for them to come back home after a night on the town.

I would then like to believe that I would have been more lenient and relaxed about my children playing outside, for instance, had they been born in Cuba. I would like to think that just like I did when I was a kid, they would have been hanging out with their friends from dawn till dusk (after doing their homework, of course). The truth, however, is that I don't know whether I actually believe that scenario myself. Because being a parent is tough. There are never any easy answers to the dilemmas you encounter when raising a child.

Take a recent predicament. My brother-in-law was in town with his daughter. Both my children wanted to see their cousin and uncle, of course. But neither my wife nor I could drive them to their Nana's (where my wife's brother was staying). My other half suggested that we let our nine-year-old daughter go with her brother on the bus. On their own. That paranoia I mentioned earlier made an unwelcome appearance all of a sudden and I remember standing in our bedroom in a cold sweat. Our darling daughter? On a bus? Alone? No, not alone, my wife corrected me, with her brother, who, by the way, had just travelled on the Underground by himself a few days before. I forget now how many times I said no, only to give up at the last minute and admit (reluctantly) that at some point, one day, she would have to take a bus on her own. And if not now, when there would be an adult waiting for her at the other end, then when?

I'm aware that my worries are shared by almost every other parent out there. A cursory glance through Mumsnet, the UK's online meeting point not just for mums but also for anyone interested in parenting, is awash with examples of mothers and fathers' concerns. What I've also found out is that my anxiety might be rooted in a different phenomenon: the disappearance of the last vestige of childhood in me. This is a situation, which, if real, is very mortifying. After all, I've always believed that I still have a bit of that inner child, so necessary in austere times. For instance, sometimes I think I haven't yet lost the ability to observe the world as if I had a pair of new eyes. Curiosity still gets the better of me, without the fear of losing six extra lives (which I haven't got, anyway) or being confused with a small domesticated carnivore purring its way around Londontown. But I've come to realise that by restricting my children's freedom I'm neither putting myself in their position, nor in the position of a younger self many years ago.

Lou Reed sings humourously in "Beginning of a Great Adventure" the following lines: "I'd keep the tyke away from school and tutor him myself/keep him from the poison of the crowd/But then again pristine isolation might not be the best idea/it's not good trying to immortalize yourself". You're right, Lou, it ain't right, mate, to create a second you. That's why I prefer Joan Manuel Serrat's approach: "Nada ni nadie puede impedir que sufran/que las agujas avancen en el reloj/que decidan por ellos, que se equivoquen/que crezcan y que un día/nos digan adiós" ("No one or nothing can stop children from suffering/or the clock's hands from moving on/or kids from making their own decisions and mistakes/or from growing up and one day/ bidding us goodbye"). Still, though, I have kept my application form to the Parental Anxiety School fairly close, just in case. Or even better, under Michael Gove's new guidelines for "free schools" I might even create one such establishment myself. Care to join me, fellow parent?

© 2010

Next Post: "Venti" (Review), to be published on Tuesday 19th October at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. I enjoyed this post ACIL. What good advice. I too have to remind myself that I was a child once, growing up in Kenya - in a much 'safer' environment. My husband has the laissez-faire approach in our household and I aspire to achieve his level of what he calls "Faith."

    Now that you've taken that first step, allowing your daughter to take the bus; I wonder what you think about putting her on a plane as an unaccompanied minor? When our darling daughter was 8, she flew via US Virgin Airways from NYC to Heathrow - unaccompanied! I am shuddering as I write this. That was before 9-11. And a few years later, she and our two wonderful sons flew unaccompanied from NYC to Nairobi, via stopovers in Europe. Also pre-9/11.
    Faith. Indeed.


  2. Great advice! My son is grown, but I have six grandchildren, and sometimes I will just start worrying, are they safe? Prayer helps me, as I remind myself what Serrat says more eloquently. Good post.

  3. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  4. Magnificent. You managed in one post to explain the competing forces for parents, children, and immigrants. And at the same time, you made evident the power of love and of the willingess to grow. Heartfelt. Well reasoned. Touching.

  5. You’ve done a wonderful job of describing the contradiction of being a parent and worrying about behavior that you enjoyed as a youth.

    Yes, I worried more about my children when we were living in London. I’m not sure if that was due to the immigrant experience or just knowing the appalling stats. The previous teen resident had been mugged, and we ended our six month stay with a break in. I don’t think you are being paranoid. It’s one thing to take a risk your self, another to feel responsible for the child that is taking that risk.

    Still, what I loved about my childhood in NYC was the freedom to roam. By age eleven I was walking to school on my own and taking a public bus to the Upper West Side to go horseback riding. I suffered through some verbal abuse for walking through that less than savory neighborhood in jodhpurs but nothing bad happened. As a teenager I went club hopping and to bars with my friends downtown. No parent would allow that now. I’m actually blogging about this on my next post – we’re on a similar page.

    My own children live in a safe college town in Maine, but I have other worries. My son is learning to drive! It only gets scarier. The trick as a parent is to prepare your child without transferring your own anxieties to them.

    It sounds like you have a really good partnership with your wife and that your impulses to be cautious balance out her leniency.

    Sorry to be late to visit – my life is insanely busy this month, even on weekends.

  6. I'm not much of a worrier -- perhaps because of the fact that my oldest child is disabled and so much of her disability has been beyond my control. Every now and then, though, I am seized by an almost existential terror --

  7. Dear Cuban,
    I'm starting my own family soon, and thinking about parenting a lot lately! It terrifies me to think of the decisions I'll have to make for my children and always wonder should I have been more lenient or more restrictive? But I think about my own upbringing where I was so protected by my parents, and I wish I had made more mistakes and been more self-reliant sooner. My first flight by myself was at 12, and after that, there was no stopping me!

  8. Pobrecito, it is rough for Scorpio dads. My Scorpio father never stopped worrying about me until I had married a Scorpio who in turn does all the worrying for him and me. I'm like you wife when it comes to my kids who are also at that pre-teen- trying out freedom age. I like to think that I am still very connected to my inner child and childhood but it doesn't stop you from worrying, especially in big cities. I'd like to think that you'd be more relaxed in Cuba, Cuban children are famous for ther joy, which I believe comes from a nurturing environment that lets them explore. Not too sure about exploring London on the tube. I'd freak out too.

  9. I'm not a parent, but for the first time at the moment, several of my friends are currently pregnant or with newborns - it'll be interesting to watch them develop over the years.

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  11. Oh, poor Cuban! You're in a serious sweat over this and I don't blame you.

    I think that life has become harder for parents over the last few decades regarding this issue. It used to be that children could play outside all day, hop on and off buses, bike everywhere, go to the cinema by themselves and there was no issue. Because what danger could they possibly be in?

    But these days we know more about the ugly reality of the communitee we live in. There are websites we can go to where we find out how many pedophiles live on our street. There are highly publicized kidnappings and trials of people (who seem so normal) committing the most awful child abuse. We have worldwide stories of trusted people - such as priests in the Catholic church - sexually abusing children. Everywhere we turn there is potential danger to our kids and it scares the crap out of us.

    Our faith in our neighbours and clergy and teachers and babysitters is at an all time low. So don't be too hard on yourself for being paranoid.

    At the same time, a lot of the danger is sensationalised by a narcissitic media that is only interested in ratings, not rationality. They encourage fear and even mass hysteria, to the point that parents can't be sensible about letting their daughter ride the bus.

    A little trust in our children's judgement, as well as good old fashioned common sense, will help. As long as you've given your child instructions about what to do on the bus/train/school/street, and have informed them of possible dangers and what to do in those situations, they'll be fine. Our kids are more street smart than we give them credit for. And if we shelter them too much then they won't develop the skills they need to survive in this big bad world when they're adults.


  12. Many thanks for your kind words.

    Yes, I think that the Zodiac has a lot to answer for. :-) I am a control freak when it comes to parenting.

    Society has changed and I wasn't here when the changes started in the UK. Hence the double-whammy: a lot of catching up to do and raising a couple of kids on top of that.

    Many thanks for your feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  13. We have that weight of parenthood even when they are grown and out of the house. The more paranoid we are as parents, the more anxious our children become. It's a difficult balance, as you aptly explained.

  14. It's difficult, but if you are too overprotective they are not prepared for the real world when they become adults.

  15. As a parent, I SO relate to this post, Cuban! It is such a fine line between being restrictive and being prudent, isn't it? But then, as adults, we've definitely seen more than our children, and so are more cautious. I think we need to learn to forgive ourselves our paranoia -- the trick is to strike the right balance. Sigh! If only there were a formula!

    Having said that, next time I'm about to say 'no' to my child, I'll definitely stop and think some more. :) Thanks!



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