Friday, February 6, 2009

The beauty and pitfalls of free will

When I was much younger, before I got married, whenever I read in the papers about delinquent kids, I would tsk tsk over the way they were brought up, how they probably had no parental guidance.

Now that I'm older and hopefully wiser, I realise that things are never that simple. Don't be mistaken, of course upbringing plays a tremendous role in the way a child thinks and acts. But it is not everything. You see, there's the little thing called free will that makes us humans so unique. A child has his own character and personality in a way that makes it impossible for us to completely dicatate the way he turns out just because we did Step A to Step Z. In other words, a child is not as predictable as a factory by-product.

This explains why a child with loving, sensible parents can turn out to be a black sheep, and another child with as rotten a childhood as you can possibly imagine can still emerge as society's hero.

To me, understanding this concept is important for healthy parenting. It means moderating expectations, adapting parenting methods, and being able to step back and accept that beyond a certain point, it's out of our control.

Again I stress, I'm NOT saying that child-rearing methods are irrelevant - they are incredibly important. If you constantly imbibe your children with good values, equip them with the skills to think and live independently, and demonstrate your love and support unconditionally, you are much more likely to have well-adjusted individuals on your hands.

But moulding is not the same as making. The parenting manual doesn't come with a guarantee. Sometimes, I read about parents who go through such angst because their kids get into trouble and they blame themselves: "Maybe if I'd spent more time with him", "Maybe I should not have allowed him so much freedom", etc. Perhaps those are valid points. But it could also be a case of the child, despite knowing the ills and consequences, deciding to exercise his own will in choosing the path less straight.

Conversely, there's the other group of parents who's ever so ready to pat themselves on the back for their wonderful children. Yes, your kids may be polite, well-behaved, charismatic (and brilliant to boot) and I acknowledge that you likely had a big part to play in that. But before you swipe all the credit, pause to consider the possibility that perhaps you were blessed with kids who were more pre-disposed to such traits to begin with.

There was a Christian father (whose name I can't recall) who wrote about how he and his wife had always congratulated themselves on having raised three great kids and couldn't understand how other parents could let their kids run wild. Then they had another (unexpected) child and this child turned out to be uncontrollable. From the start, he was a rebel - anti-conforming and anti-authority. In the end, he turned out to be a fine young man, but it not before causing much heartache to his parents.

From my own experience, I've learned to adjust my methods and expectations to suit the temperament of each of my kids. Lesley-Anne was a dream to bring up because she's amenable, quick to learn and conscientious. For the first three years of her life, wherever we went, family, friends and strangers would sing her praises saying how well-behaved and bright she was. Enough to boost any parent's ego, eh?

Then Andre came along and he was, well... different. Mind you, he's not bad or anything but he's your typical do-now-think-later boy. When we went out to restaurants, we often ended up apologising to the waiters for the mess he would leave behind. He would get into scrapes because the consequences didn't occur to him at that time.

To this day, I'm convinced (and thankful) that God deliberately gave me two children who are completely different in personality. Imagine if my second child was another Lesley-Anne - I might be tempted to attribute their "goodness" to my superior parenting skills. It would also make me much less empathetic to other parents who struggle to raise their kids right.

The idea of free will is beautiful because it's what makes us special as human beings. For parents, understanding free will doesn't give us the excuse to do wrong by our children, but hopefully, it serves up a dose of humility - to know that we are ultimately not the authors of our children's lives.


eunice said...

Many parents I know equate free will with little or zero discipline. I worry sometimes that I'm stifling Sean by being so strict with him.

I've met many adults who tell me harrowing stories about what horrors they were as kids (gangs were involved)and they have turned out OK. My husband believes that somehow children will mature and grow up OK. He tells me this when I'm being very hard on Sean.My concern (pessimist that I am) is that you can't leave it to chance. I have eased up on certain things but there are some areas that are non-negotiable eg manners.

monlim said...

Yup, free will shouldn't be used as an excuse for parents to leave them well alone. That's why I feel values are very important when the kids are young because after age 11 or so, they have their own minds and will do their own thing. We just have to trust that the values we've taught will keep them straight.

Alcovelet said...

Monica, that gentleman is Dr William Sears, and he wrote this book called The Fussy Baby Book. I have it! I totally believe what you wrote, because I'm starting out with an Andre, so no such illusions that I'm the perfect parent! To me, parenting is a humbling experience, when you realize you can do so little to change the personality of even a little child. But I wouldn't have it any other way!

Or is that my serotonin talking ;)??

Alcovelet said...

And I totally agree - if there's one area we can leave a mark on, its values and it's cousins, manners and respect for others. What better time to inculcate values and appreciation of positive things than when they're young and impressionable? Cindy mentioned something yesterday that was so sensible that I had a slap forehead moment - why introduce negative role models in books when they're at such an impressionable age? Very Charlotte Mason too, I might add.

monlim said...

Ad, I know what you mean. As new parents, we always start off with these lofty ideals. But once we get a little 'un who doesn't act or think the way we think they should, these ideals quickly get shattered! As you say, parenting is such a humbling experience :)

petite fleur said...

I agree wholeheartedly as well esp with that last comment. Before I became a parent, I used to say "I will never shout at my children" haha guess how many times I do that a day now.

Remembering this free will is also important whenever I find myself criticising somebody else for their parent methods - every child is different & every child respond differently.

monlim said...

Mei: You are so right! Reminds me of this mum I met recently who said before she had kids, she had a neighbour who was always yelling at her kids. She told her husband what a horrible mum that lady was. Now that she's a mother of two, she says she has turned into that neighbour!

tjmummy said...

I have 2 andres. Maybe to punish me for thinking how terrible other parents are in the past, especially when they let their boys run wild in public. Or to let me finally understand their position.

Why do boys not be able to keep still? Even when he is eating his rice with a spoon, his head is still, but his whole body is moving. Waist, bum, feet, the other hand. I cannot understand that. sigh.

monlim said...

TJmummy: I think it's some genetic deficiency, the same one that makes them dislike reading, prone to all kids of annoying habits and able to produce disgusting noises and smells from all crevices!

Anonymous said...

Hi Monica

Recently came across your blog and your articles give much food for thought - am not a real follower of blogs but I have really enjoyed reading your postings. I have two girls - the younger one (5yrs) who is like an "Andre" - very happy-go-lucky ..not a care in the world...cracks us up...and my older daughter (turning 7) who is so very different - she's a quick learner with a great memory. However, she has a sensitive nature, moody at times and has difficulty adapting to any new environment.
I think we are blessed have children which are poles apart - it makes us appreciate their strengths n weaknesses and I wouldn't have it any other way!

monlim said...

Anon: very nice to have you on board, welcome!

Your kids sound exactly like mine! L-A is sensitive and resistant to change too. You're right, having 2 completely different children makes us appreciate their strengths and weaknesses better. It also makes the parenting adventure more fun!

Anonymous said...

Realised I didn't sign off - how rude of me ! :)

Looking forward to sharing tips with you on how to parent our children. How do you deal with your daughter's sensitivity ? I am sometimes at a loss - the start of this year was super stressful for her (and the mommy) - new school (P1), new sunday school class...the adjustment for her was tough...we are still coping but this month's a lot better. Like just last week she mentioned she didn't want to go for her CCA anymore 'cause the coach "shouts"...sigh...


monlim said...

Jo: I will be posting something on the sensitive child sometime but need to gather all the info first, might take a while. Do look out for it ok?

I empathise with you cos L-A is super sensitive. Like yours not wanting to go for CCA, L-A has refused to go swimming ever since her dad "yelled" at her once in the pool. That's more than a year ago :(

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