Kids are one of the most beautiful and life changing gifts a person can receive – so pure, so bright, so mouldable. Like with any relationship in life though, it’s a two way street. As parents, there is the potential for us to learn as much about ourselves as our children can learn from us. I say potential, because to learn anything, one has to be open to learning, and more importantly has to be of a state of mind that there are more questions than we will ever have answers.
The fact is, we all have so much to learn – and we always will. Kids are just one more vehicle through which we can experience growth and personal development – they allow us to see the World through eyes less distorted by our own perceptions, bias and prejudice. It’s true that we can all live vicariously through any other being – assuming we practice empathy – but when we do so through our children we find that everything is heightened as a result of the deep emotional and spiritual connection we forge with them over the years. Children provide this opportunity like nothing else can – they came from you, and so in a lot of ways, they are you, and this is what facilitates one of the most honest mirrors known to man. To look into the eyes of another and every ounce of yourself reflected unapologetically – the good, the bad and the ugly. It forces us to face ourselves in a very real and unescapable way, breaking down the barriers of perception we have built up over time, and showing us who we really are; whether we like it or not.
One thing I’ve come to realise about the parent-child relationship over the last 30 years is that it’s the small things that really make the difference – both for us, the parents, and for our children. There are things that I remember from my childhood, experiences I remember being so poignant and powerful in the lessons they taught me as I was growing up, that my parents have absolutely no recollection of whatsoever. They had no idea at the time how powerful those experiences were for me, and to this day they still don’t. They raised me, they went through everything with me, yet they live life oblivious to the things that were so monumental in shaping the man I have become.
An example of this is when we were all driving with my mum in her car through Shrewsbury; I remember the scene like it was yesterday. The harsh wind blowing ferociously that day, the grey skies above us, and even the detail of the black Ford Granada we were traveling in. We were approaching the main island by Morrisons on the other side of town, and I remember seeing a man fighting against the wind as he tried to make his way towards a less favourable part of Shrewsbury. He didn’t look anything special, but I remember him vividly, wrapped up warm against the cold and trying desperately to eat a pastry he had obviously just acquired from the local store. As we approached the island, he was on the other side, and so I had a perfect view of what was about to unfold. As I watched, I saw the wind take hold of the man’s pastry, and send it flying over the low white picket fence that ran parallel to the pavement along which the man was traveling.
I remember my initial reaction, and the life changing intervention that followed – something that shaped my thinking in a way that would never leave me.
My reaction? I laughed. I thought it was hilarious – it was like something out of a comedy sketch – the way the pastry sailed up into the air, and over the picket fence to crash unashamedly into the grass on the other side. It was a nothing event that provided some entertainment on a routine drive through town.
Then my mother stepped in.
Noticing the humour I found in the situation, she quickly interjected with one simple sentence – “You shouldn’t laugh, that might have been the last piece of food the poor man could afford – he may have spent his last pennies on that pastry, and now he’s lost his meal to the wind and may not eat for the rest of the day”.
Those words smacked me in the face like a freight train. As I turned those words over in my mind, I came to realise how selfish my reaction was – lacking in both compassion for others and empathy. I also realised very quickly that the assumptions I had made around the man’s situation were ignorant and childish. I felt ashamed of myself, and quickly became emotional as the full realisation of how poisonous and lacking in compassion my reaction to the event had been.
I showed no emotion. I said nothing. I sat in silence, deep in thought for the remainder of the journey, turning my revelation over and over in my head, trying to make sense of why I had reacted the way I had, and how I needed to change my way of thinking to become a human being that I, and my mother, could be proud of.
For my mother, it was a simple off the cuff remark disseminating values embedded in her from years earlier – formulations of her own experiences and perceptions of the World. My parents have been through their fair share of hard times, no money and praying that the fumes left in the fuel tank would get us to school some days – so this level of compassion and empathy for others came from a deep and personal place, a place that came forward to correct me in my way of thinking when I violated those core values of being aware that we should never presume to know what others are going through, and to always have an open mind driven by compassion. The most important part of the lesson? To always ask, what else could this mean? Never assume.
My life changed forever that day, in that moment – yet my mother has absolutely zero recollection of it whatsoever. It was a special gift that life delivered for me that day, and I am so grateful that my mind was able to see, comprehend and assimilate it – so many people are blind to such things, and their growth stunted as a result.
There are many events like this that I can remember from my childhood, and I have since raised other examples with both of my parents and amazingly they don’t remember any of them. But that’s okay, because those lessons were tailored for me, and me alone – they had their own lessons to learn, facilitated in different ways, but just as powerful nonetheless.
The point I want you all to take away from this is that you have no idea the power you hold when it comes to the way you interact with others – particularly your children. The smallest things will shape their hearts and minds for the rest of their lives, and you will have no idea when it’s happening. Be diligent. Understand the power you wield as a parent, mentor and counsellor. Be extremely self-aware, and be forever conscious that even the smallest things you do can and will shape those around you in profound ways that you will likely never know. You must always make the effort to consider how your words and actions are perceived by others, and what that means for them in their lives – never mind your intentions or the meaning you attribute to what you say and do; it’s not about you.
We all perceive things differently because we’re all individuals – we are all unique. This is important to understand and keep at the forefront of your cognition as you make your way in life, as it will help you understand and appreciate the power you hold in your actions and words.
If you are a parent, or you have plans to be one, you must make a special effort to understand this – it’s so easy to lose that all important self-awareness after a long and stressful day at work, or a challenging day trying to juggle managing the home and the trials and tribulations of our kids, but when we lose sight of the effect we have on those as impressionable as our little sponges we run the very real risk of affecting the way they think and feel about themselves and their peers for life. Damage once done can be so hard to put right, so make sure you live and act with compassion, empathy and a sense of humility towards all those you touch – whoever you are, you are an influencer of others. You might not feel that way, but trust me – you really are.
So, always reflect, and always ask yourself – what else could this mean?