I once forgot three of my son’s verruca appointments in a row. After missing two appointments, I wrote myself a large note and placed it in the centre of the table. However, someone passing by needed paper and tore it in half, reducing it to a small note. Someone else, in an unprecedented fit of tidying, threw the small note away. All might still have been well (I had been chanting verruca, verruca to myself throughout the day) if our youngest son had not just returned from his primary school residential. As we sat round the table, listening to the gorier details of his week away, the time slipped past…
I got a somewhat tart reply to my letter of abject apology but at least they didn’t strike us off.
We all have our ideal of parenthood and none of us, even the most organised among us, ever live up to it. What makes it more difficult is that not only are we surrounded by people who appear to be living up to the ideal (think facebook photos of smiling children gazing at nature) but also there is a wealth of advice and ideas around that will supposedly help us get there. There is an implicit suggestion that the ideal is achievable.
The Diocese of Ely is keen to promote a Way of Life (http://www.elydiocese.org/way-of-life) and has included resources for a Way of Life for families. It’s well intentioned (though I am baffled as to why something entitled “a Way of Life” only includes six sessions!) I am sure there are families that will enjoy using the materials and get a lot from it.
But it would never have worked for mine.
There is something about its approach that is just too formalised. I could not put my finger on it until someone commented that it “sets up an ideal of what parents are supposed to be able to do with their children that for me felt like an oppressive and unachievable ideal.” For the more chaotic family (like mine!) it would be yet another parenting failure alongside not getting out the door without shouting, allowing my daughter to live on cheese triangles and raisins, and failing to read bed time stories.
So what might have worked for us?
We never had formal prayer sessions. However, we did pray when the occasion arose – about people or situations we were concerned about. We prayed in the car, the bath, walking to school. It wasn’t every day or at a particular time. If we didn’t pray for a few days, I didn’t feel guilty. Sometimes I prayed, sometimes they did, sometimes I prayed silently. One Lent we actually made a paper chain of our prayers, a link a day. We never managed to repeat this but now I might think about using symbols (candles, leaves etc) in prayer.
I don’t like reading aloud, I am a storyteller rather than a story reader. I think now that I could have done more storytelling with my children, playing to my strengths rather than my weaknesses. We did have Bible story books and other books which we shared, though not on a regular, formal basis.
It never occurred to me to try these ideas (http://www.spiritualchild.co.uk/home1.html) but I would now. Victoria Goodman has suggestions for toys, symbols and puzzles that will enrich children’s play and create focus areas around the house. I would include putting up pictures (changing them every now and then) and playing music, including Christian music and pictures. I’m not sure it matters if the children don’t react.
When my two older children were very small, about three and two, we let them wander around a friend’s field, while we sat in the garden and watched. We could see them at all times, but they were free to explore by themselves. We also let them experience “freedom” at the local recreation ground, on beaches and in the grounds of stately homes. Sometimes they came back to us with things they had found, usually a variety of sticks from smallish twigs to large logs…
We always had art materials and dressing up clothes around… Also lego, knex, other construction toys and the freedom to play outside. After watching the children in school creating worlds with the Godly Play stories and other three dimensional items (like felt squares, wooden rainbow and shimmer stones) I would now add these.
The ideal family sit down for all their meals and talk… They share their stories of the day, their highs and lows, in precious family time together. The less than ideal family manages this some of the time/occasionally/never. I’m not a fan of over directed conversation with a series of themed questions so my own experience varies: monosyllabic responses, long justifications for being vegetarian, school worries, discussions of free will at 1.30 a.m… I found the car was usually a good place to talk, especially with one child at a time.
Church and community
When my children were small I took them to church. It was far from ideal – the vicar’s wife tried to offer story and colouring in the cold cramped vestries; often they had to sit through the service. When the vicar and his wife moved on, we took the opportunity (with their blessing!) to set up the family service in a different kind of way. It is worth looking around for a church that will suit your family and accept all your children, whatever their personalities. Alternatively look for a church that is open to new ideas and ways of doing things so that you can work towards the kind of church that will include everyone…
My children occasionally came up with ideas, some more sustainable than others. As a ten year old, my daughter and her friends planned to save the planet and actually held fundraising events for various causes (with significant help from the adults!) My best suggestion for this is to encourage it if it happens and you feel that you can cope with it! (We had ten years of three vegetarian children…)
I could have done more with my children when they were small, I’d like to start again and be more experimental! I try (and mostly succeed) in not feeling too guilty. Looking back, it is easy to forget the stresses we were under ourselves – the appointments for the disabled child, the aging parents, the frantic busyness of daily life…
Life is never going to let up long enough for us to achieve our ideal and now I no longer want to. The journey is far more interesting…