A parenting lesson, which a conversation today brought back to me and which I thought I’d share.
Back in 1998 when we visited friends in Bahrain, the Lawyer, aged 8, was heavily into Pokémon – the soft toys, the cards and the Game Boy games (blue and red, if you recall). I guess it is only the preteens and their parents of those times who will remember the fascination and sheer overwhelming bloody horror of the marketing that swamped us following the release of the games and all the clutter and hoopla that accompanied the launch – given this was just after those ghastly Tamagotchis had ruined our lives – you had to ‘keep them alive’ – oh how I wanted to drown the little bastards – all this seemed to be, back then, the stuff of parental nightmares. I wonder what the equivalent is today?
Anyway, there was something about that trip – a longish break from work, two long haul fights and a lot of down-time – that gave me the opportunity to do something I would never have seen myself doing in several millennia and still don’t really believe I did – I took over a Game Boy hand set, plugged in a Pokémon Blue cassette and played the game from start to finish, going up the levels until I had completed it. My chosen Pokémon was Charmander who evolved as they do, though I cannot recall into what. Some memories are happily blocked out. I became obsessed with, and obsessive about, it – when one of the hosts’ children found the handset and was on the verge of resetting it to play the game himself I nearly killed him. It took me something like 25 hours 47 minutes and 12 seconds (I don’t remember exactly) to finish it and, well yes, I was just a little chuffed with myself. I was 42 years old and should have joined Pokémon Anonymous (‘My name is Geoff and I’ve not evolved for three months’ – cue cheers).
My comeuppance came in 2000. Pokémon, The Movie – a quite ghastly piece of cinematic anime – was followed swiftly by Pokémon 2000. By now we were in San Francisco (we travelled – what can I say?). On one wet day we were with a group of friends and fractious under twelves who were so hyper that the only way to stop the National Guard being called out to stop the riot was to offer them their choice of film. Yep, unanimity to see Pokémon 2000. Each parent looked at the other briefly and then looked away. Into the howling silence the Textiliste offered ‘Geoff likes Pokémon. He played the game from start to finish’. Oh how they cheered, how they whooped and hollered. Such was the outpouring of goodwill that the reinforced Special Relationship and the Blair/Bush lovefest were the inevitable consequences.
I sat through 114 minutes of torture – who needs extraordinary rendition when Hollywood can do this to you? The San Francisco Chronicle wrote: ‘If you have to go see this film, take your tax return and a torch – it’ll be more fun’.
I survived with the love and support of my family, a lot of counselling and copious slices of cake. I blocked out Pokémon from my life. Well until that godawful Pokemon Go phase but let’s not go there…
Or at least I thought I had. Wind the clock forward to 2014 and I found myself helping fund a piece of fan fiction anime for my Nephew…. another post probably… during which I embedded in YouTube. Research, you know? When clicking through it I came across a post by IntrovertJapan on the subject of high quality fan based films of Japanese anime and computer games. It included a fan based film trailer for a live action Pokémon Movie. With a degree of trepidation I clicked on it. Brilliant. It’s dark, moody and grim and uses Pokémon for the equivalent of cock fighting within the backdrop of illegal gaming. I would happily see this movie. I feel cured, vindicated (no, that’s tosh) but certainly a tiny weeny bit better about my lost day and a bit while hunched over that Gameboy console and then in that dark picture house.
And the lesson? Redemption comes via a Youtube clip on the internet? Don’t play with computer games because you don’t know where that addiction might lead?
No. It’s because thinking back to 1998 reminded me of something. In part it’s about letting children have their own childhood and not involving yourself in it too much. By playing that game I wanted to know what my children were doing, partly to help them but partly to be a cool dad. My father never ever tried to be the equivalent of cool. We, the Archaeologist and I, were allowed our own space to be us – doing stuff our parents wanted nothing to do with. Today we want to be our children’s friends and to monitor and regulate in the name of safety and being great loving parents. And that’s kind of ok (even if we risk bringing up overstimulated children who are incapable of dealing with boredom – the subject of another post maybe). But it seems to me that the closer we get in those early years, the more important it is that we prepare ourselves for the inevitable time when we are pushed away. My parents were never pushed away – they didn’t see the need to be so close in the first place.
There are a lot of dictates around today about how to bring up your children and one of them is that once your children start senior school (in the UK at 11) it is essential that you retain the ability to influence them. You can control them, for sure. Limit their hours on the computer, filter social media etc, keep them indoors via groundings or whatever. But physical control isn’t what we’re talking about. Laying down the law isn’t the same as having influence.
At primary school you drop them off and meet them at the school gates, having had a good debrief on the who’s and what’s with other parents. You organise their playdate and often accompany them, getting to know the parents. If you want it that way, they know little to nothing but your (and their teachers) views on the world.
From 11 it all changes. They want you nowhere near; they want to travel to and from school without you (or if it is with you, without you talking). They want to go on new playdates ( now sleepovers) with people you don’t know and whose parents you don’t meet. Now if you collect them, you wait outside in the car until they emerge, or, better, round the corner and out of sight, all the time wondering if you’ll be arrested for kerb crawling or casing the joint. You’re given a list of topics to be avoided at parent’s evening and what you can and cannot say in front of their friends. You can proffer advice with little hope of being listened to.
And it’s critical you are listened to. Always has been the case but it feels like, today, it’s more critical. There have always been weirdoes, it’s just we know more about them and feel we have less control over how they can inveigle their ways into our children’s lives.
We want to have that dwindling influence. And you know what? There’s an answer, a simple way that avoids massive fights and sulks and yet allows you to nudge and direct albeit in a sneaky, underhand and, yet often wholly effective, way. You make those friends of theirs, those sulky miserable teens of other parents, as welcome as you can. You become as cool to them as you can. You welcome them into your house, opening your fridge to them (it worked with us, both boys and girls). You undermine (but just a little) their parents’ rules on drinking Pepsi after nine, or watching GoTs or whatever it is. Because those friends have the influence you lack. They are listened to. And because you aren’t their parents, with all the accompanying baggage, you are given a fair hearing. And messages that your own children will simply not hear from you they will hear from their ‘bezzies’.
Sure it isn’t fool proof; there are friends you really don’t want them to have and it gets pretty tricky with boy/girl friends and your food bills do mount alarmingly but it’s a tactic and as with all wars you need a strategy to fight a long, bloody but effective rear-guard (and be under no illusion – you are on the back foot throughout all this time).
It’s hopeless isn’t it? Bah, bloody teenagers. It does end because one day they will have the same revelation that Mark Twain had so many years ago:
“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
And then they ask to borrow money….
And you know what’s keeping you sane? It’s the thought that the point will come when they will discover a universal truth that is hidden from us as children (and even if we are told it, we wouldn’t believe it). One day, assuming they live long enough those awkward, loveable, irritating, reliable, opinionated, stubborn founts of wisdom – aka your parents – will overnight become your children. From telling you how to drive they become incapable to buying a car without your say so; from expressing their exasperation at your wasting money on an indulgent holiday, they need you to approve their holiday plans; from proffering all sorts of gratuitous and intrusive advise about you home-making choices, they want you to decide if they should sell the house and how to invest the proceeds.
And if there’s one sure fire truth it’s that, if we think it’s difficult to influence our children when they’re 13 to 18, it’s near impossible when they’re north of 70.