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February 2, 2010

The Generation Gap

The Generation GapNot so long ago, Paul and I were privileged to spend an evening with Jamie (our son) and a group of his peers which proved to be a fascinating experience. As a Mum, I had all the usual motherly wishes that it would be a really successful event for Jamie and, as an individual, I realised I was watching events unfold from 'an outsiders' point of view which gave me a huge insight into Jamie's own world...something, I suspect, parents rarely get to see once a child becomes an adult. Funny how the tradition of having one face for friends and another for family never wanes from one generation to the next!

Paul and I already knew some people there and we were introduced to new faces as they arrived. As the evening progressed, I began to feel a little out of kilter but, for the life of me, had no idea why. Now, looking back, I believe I was experiencing another unexpected life-lesson...

There are times when a generation gap cannot and should not be bridged!

As teenagers and young adults, we are determined to create our own place in the world; determined not to become an extension of our parents but an individual in our own right. One of the ways to do that is to cross over some of the boundaries, or break some of the rules, set by our parents. Each time we do this, we feel stronger, more confident and, sometimes, a little superior. However, whilst our focus is drawn to the need for making our stand, we often miss the paradox that is simultaneously taking place - the fact that, in the process of 'breaking away from convention', we are inevitably creating OUR OWN set of boundaries and rules for OUR OWN generation. Amongst our peers, we celebrate our triumphs, commiserate our defeats and each time we do we reinforce our own 'acceptable' conventions within our generation groups. At our peak, we are the new wave; the cool, hip, happening generation; we have achieved the ultimate; we have broken with old traditions and old society and created a brave new world for the future! Life is just amazing and incredible...way beyond anything our parents could ever have conceived (another irony in the making)! We ride this wave feeling almost euphoric, and usually indestructible, until one day we hear the patter of little feet ourselves...and the cycle starts all over again.

During the 1980's, when Jamie was born, there were a number of growing trends, brought about by the 'do-gooders' of the day, aimed at new parents - specifically young mums - who were made to feel inadequate in their new roles if they chose to stand against these latest 'What's best for baby' concepts. Concepts such as breast-feeding your kids until they leave home and realising your role was not about being a good parent to your offspring but doing whatever it takes to be their best friend! I know...ludicrous on both counts...but trust me, as a young new mum desperate not to make the same mistakes I believed my parents made, it sounded perfectly reasonable! Fortunately for Jamie, the breast feeding had to stop after a few weeks as my milk was way below par so he never had to endure the humiliation of swinging from Mums 'snack-bars' in the playground at lunchtimes and I was spared the pain and mutilation that bizarre practice guaranteed! However, the best friend concept didn't die the early death it should have done. Looking back, I find myself cringing at some of the things I did and said through those early years. Ironically, my 'best friend approach' was balanced out by disciplinary actions imprinted on my psyche by my parents! Of course, I had no idea I was 'following in their footsteps' until I gained a little more wisdom.

Before Jamie was old enough to deftly swap roles with me (as I have seen so many children do with their parents around the ages of 8 to 12 years), I had lost interest in the 'best friend' concept and was far more concerned about HIS future and HIS ability to function in the world around him. I had also 'wised up' enough to remember that, as youngsters, best friends have a tendency to tell each other what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear.

Suddenly, parenting was not an easy job! It would be so much easier for me to 'go with the flow' and behave like a best friend...but this wasn't about me. This was about Jamie and once I realised that my role as a parent had nothing to do with my desire to liked, loved or even adored by my son and everything to do with guiding and helping him grow into someone who would not only survive in the big wide world but would be able to truly ENJOY his life, it began to get a little easier. I now had an invaluable tool for helping me make those tough decisions...would my choices help or hinder Jamie's future?

Of course, it's not always as black and white as that, but so long as I answered the question honestly when it was asked, it went a long way towards clearing the justifications that were always on hand to lure me into that comfortable place of 'non-responsibility'.

As the years rolled on, I became painfully aware of how powerful teaching by example really is. I had always sown seeds whenever the opportunity arose but no matter what or how much is said to a child as he grows, he will always learn the most from the examples he sees around him. Jamie was seeing both positive and negative examples which only served to confuse him. As I became aware of his confusion, I knew I had to make some very difficult and painful choices. I also knew that I would never forgive myself if I allowed his future to be damaged by pretending (or believing) things would sort themselves out - something I had been doing for far too long.

When Jamie was 14, our family structure changed. A large amount of 'negative influences' no longer had a daily place in our lives. We couldn't cut them out completely and I never believed we should - from a distance, they would be as beneficial as the positive ones. Sometimes you need to see wrong to understand the value of right. The missing negative influences were soon replaced with a whole heap of new positive ones - and so began the infamous "Period of Unrest" that many will be familiar with!

Change is something we only welcome if it is our choice. Whoever we are, if change is thrust upon us by another, our instinctive reaction is to fight it. Children are no different. Children want to feel safe, protected, secure. Family change, whether it is the death of a parent or through separation, takes that safety away and fear is the result. The world is a HUGE SCARY PLACE when you're a young, vulnerable, in-experienced human being who (even though it is fiercely denied!) still depends totally on the two people you have unquestioningly trusted from day one of your life. No wonder you are going to fight tooth and nail for that safe place you have always known!

I cannot move on from this point without acknowledging and expressing my absolute admiration, respect and love for my partner, Paul, who, at times, found himself in the midst of a war zone yet, despite his lack of parenting experience, was always able to provide stability for Jamie and much needed support for me. Make no mistake; life would have been far tougher through those years without his love and understanding.

It was a tough time for us all but our only option was to work our way through it and deal with each stage on it's own merit as and when it arose. I had no pre-emptive plans or ideas and, looking back, I'm glad I didn't! Apart from being impossible to predict the future, the amount of energy required to try is just a complete waste of life. I simply stuck to my, so far, trusty decision tool, continued to sow seeds and trusted that the abundance of positive influences in our lives would, over time, become the safe and secure place to be - but above all that, I believed in Jamie.

Needless to say, Jamie is now a happy, healthy, well balanced young man who is taking life by the throat and putting his mark on this world. His confidence and self-esteem have really developed over the last few years. BUT, I really do believe this could never have happened if I had followed the 'do-gooders' advice and spent his life trying to be his best friend. He would find his own 'best friends' - what he needed was a guide; someone who would be honest enough to tell him what he needed to hear rather than what he wanted to hear; someone who would say 'No' when he couldn't; someone who would be consistent, no matter what, so he wouldn't have to try and resolve the confusion inconsistency creates. He needed PARENTS!

My strengths as a parent came from the boundaries and rules I created with my peers when I broke away from those set by MY parents - the ones THEY created when they broke away from those set by THEIR parents. It is a natural cycle which I truly believe, if allowed to follow it's natural course, gives more hope for our future. Jamie must create his own rules and boundaries amongst his peers which will, when the time is right, blend with the ones he has broken free from and afford him the opportunity to raise his own children honestly and according to his beliefs.

So, as I say, there are times when the generation gap cannot and should not be bridged. If a parent tries to be their child's best friend, they run the risk of blurring the lines that youngsters needs to see in order to cross them and find their own place in the world; they run the risk of making it impossible for their child to have the courage to make and stand by their own decisions when the time eventually arrives - and, believe me, that time WILL arrive one day.

I am not Jamie's best friend - I am his Mum. That is who I am and, more importantly, it is who Jamie will always want and, on occasion, need me to be.

I believe being a parent is THE most important job I have ever had in my entire life - so why on earth would I settle for anything less!