It takes a village

WARNING: this may include an element of smug mumminess – it is not normally something I feel that comfortable in engaging in so forgive me – it hopefully has some level of creative (?!?) purpose.

It’s that time of year again – the summer holidays are finally in sight and I for one can’t wait. I feel so tired that this afternoon I have had to crawl into my bed and have a little afternoon nap. So roll on 7 weeks of not having to make pack lunches (I can’t even put into words how much I hate making pack lunches!!!!!), not racing out the door each morning checking the right clothes are being worn and that right equipment is packed or the right letter has been signed, 7 weeks of not having to ferry from drama to music to swimming to parties. Yes I will still have to get myself to work but that break from all the rest of it feels like a little piece of heaven, a little piece of selfish heaven.

And with this time of year comes the annual school report – my child is no genius, she is very normal, she struggles with some stuff and shines more in other areas but it bought me to tears. It talked about a polite and delightful little girl, a little girl who was always willing to help, always willing to try new things and always gave everything her best. Obviously you want your child to do well and go out and find their way in the world but to some extent the academic stuff is secondary to me – I want to see kindness, generosity, compassion, a spirit of adventure.

If I am being honest there was a moment of pride in myself – single parenting is incredibly hard at times, its incredibly lonely and it can be scary – you feel solely responsible for the way this human being turns out, there is no-one to share that responsibility, no-one to share the amazing bits or the really tough heart breaking bits. So reading that report made me thankful that despite everything that has happened we are doing ok.

I very quickly got over myself though and started to reflect on the fact that getting Lucy to this point, getting her to year 10 of life in a fairly good state wasn’t down to just me.

I remembered that old African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child and my heart became full as I thought of the village that had helped me raise my child, for all those people that can take some of the credit.

For her GJ who continually goes above and beyond, who makes numerous sacrifices and who quite frankly neither of us would function very well without. For her other grandparents, here and no longer here, who love her so well. For an uncle who has loved her so beautifully from day one, who makes her feel safe and makes her laugh and a beloved aunt who she knows adores her. For her wider family who encourage her, invest time in her, listen to her.

For her “best adult friend” who has been such a steadfast presence in her life, who has always made her feel special and has been so generous in her time and love. For a whole community who have been her family, her places of belonging, who have provided “siblings”, who have helped her create so many happy memories. For her teachers, an amazing teaching assistant who was a gift in a tough year and will always have a special place in our heart. For her babysitters who have not simply come and put her straight to bed so they could get on with their own thing but who have got down on the floor with her, and played with and talked to her and read to her.

For all those who have prayed for us from day one, and have been so faithful in those prayers, people we know and love well, and those we don’t know at all.

And above all for a heavenly father who has poured out his grace time and time again, over and over – my child has witnessed more of my tears than I would have cared for her to see, she has seen me battle and wrestle more than I would have liked, she has seen more loss, illness and grief than most of her peers but I thank God that in his grace he has protected her, he has used those things to shape her in good ways, and that despite my failings, and there have been many, she is a good and happy kid.

This is not something that I talk about too much because on the whole I have found peace with it but there is a sadness at the children I never got to have, those I didn’t get to love and parent. I would never have chosen to have an only child. However I am so thankful that I didn’t get to love just one child I get to love a whole host of gorgeous kids, who I have loved since the minute they arrived, who I have loved watching grow, who I have prayed for over and over, who have made me laugh and cry, and who I can’t wait to watch become amazing adults. For all those conversations I have had with their parents, about their struggles, their achievements, their character, their friendships. I have loved being part of the village that has helped and will continue to help raise them – because what a privilege that is.

This parenting lark is amazing, it’s a wonderful gift, and I am so so thankful I got the chance to do it but I defy anyone to say it is easy, there are moments that lift your heart as high as it can go but there are plenty of moments that break your hearts into pieces, where the tears flow, or the frustration takes you to breaking point (for me it is usually maths homework) but I am so thankful for that village that I get to do it with. I am thankful for that village because in all honesty it would probably be unbearable without them but I am thankful for them because my child’s life is so much richer because of it. Yes she needs me, I am her number one and I am the centre of her life but I can’t give her everything she needs, and the people that make up her village bring her life, and colour, and experience – different things than I can offer her.

So lets be part of the villages of the children around us, invest and love those children, support and care for their parents, pray for those families because there are very few greater privileges.

Teaching our kids to care

If I get to the end of my parenting journey and can say my child is kind to those around her and to the world in general I will feel like I have succeeded. I may be being totally naïve but for me that is one of the most important lessons I can teach her. Most days I will ask her if she has been kind, if she has looked out for people in the playground who perhaps are not always included in the games and who do not naturally have lots of friends around them – she has now reached the age where I receive an exasperated response along the lines of “yes I know and yes you have told me enough already”. Educating the heart is just as important as educating the mind (stolen from a cheesy American website!!).

As part of some research I was doing for work I started to think about engaging children with charity and helping them to learn about our responsibilities as human beings to help our neighbours and those in the world around us – I think in schools it is taught as being a good global citizen.

I guess when it comes to parenting there will be different schools of thought about what we tell our children about the pain and suffering in our world. As parents our natural instinct is obviously to protect our children, and not cause them harm or upset. I personally though am a big believer in being real with them, because the realities of life will at some point affect them personally and I wanted my child to have the tools to cope and I also want her to learn compassion and kindness to reach out and help people around her who are struggling and who are in pain. It is for that reason I have never shied away from letting Lucy visit family members in dementia homes, she has done that since she was a baby and likewise my Dad spent 3 years in and out of hospital for his cancer treatment and she spent a lot of times in those hospitals and maybe witnessed things that she was too little to see – I don’t know. When my Dad died there was no question she would come to the funeral, even though she was only 6 at the time, and we talked openly and honestly with her about the process and what would happen and let her be part of the discussions with those leading the services, allowing her to give her memories and share what she loved about her Papa. My hope is that these experiences will make her more compassionate, will give her understanding and will equip her with tools to take into later life.

I don’t though just want it to be about sensitising my child to pain and suffering in the world but I want to empower her to make a difference, to know she can play her part in making the world a better place and to teach her about the importance of giving so that she grows up to be generous.

Not only that but when I look at what my child has I sometimes feel a little bit sick – Christmas morning in the past has verged on the obscene side and that is without me having spent more than £30 – my child is lucky she has lots of people around her who love her and want to show her that love by giving to her but I want to move away from that “me me me” “I want” expectation to one of giving and generosity.

So I took to our good friend Google to come up with some ideas about how we as our little family can together engage in charity and here’s what I found:

  1. Children learn best by example – model everyday acts of kindness to them. Share your values with them. Whether it be financial giving or smiling at someone on the street, holding open a door for someone else or visiting someone who is sick.
  1. According to a United Nations Foundation study talking to our children about giving is one of the most effective ways to encourage philanthropy and increases the likelihood of them giving as adults by 28%. The study is quick to say though that the way we talk to our children is the key – be specific, don’t just say we give because it is a nice thing to do but talk to them about how their actions affect others and frame it in a way that can relate to. Allow the subject of giving and charity to be part of your every day conversations.
  1. Allow children to be part of the decision making process of who as a family you give to – allow them to hear about different charities and causes and let them make the choice – let them direct the process. The greater their involvement the more they will learn. Make it fun!
  1. When it comes to pocket money (and I am rubbish at this – I so want to teach my child good financial skills but find it a rather overwhelming subject so often put it off!!) give them 3 jars and explain that they can have some to spend, some to save and some to give away. Giving cash can be an abstract concept to children, especially when these days it is often simply an on-line click so think of ways to make that giving practical. Is there an old lady who lives on their own who would be blessed by a bunch of flowers, or could they go with you to the supermarket and use the money they have saved to buy some money for a foodbank?
  1. Create family traditions. We try and every year to make up a box for Operation Christmas Child – we go to the shop together and pick out items, and I let Lucy chose and think about what another child may like.
  1. Set your children challenges – ask them to do something nice for 3 other people every time someone is nice to them – to teach them the importance of giving back.
  1. Giving is not just about money but time too – could you as a family go and do something which will help or bless another person.
  1. Partly because I am marginally OCD before every birthday and Christmas I make Lucy go through all her clothes and toys and decide what she wants to give away – some go to friends others to the charity shop.
  1. Sponsoring a child in an overseas country – that makes it more relatable – one child engaging with another where letters can be exchanged.

Those are just a few ideas that I am going to try and be intentional about implementing but if anyone else out there has other creative ways I would love to hear from you.

A lot of my working life has been about “legacy” and what people leave behind and I have seen plenty of the bad as well as lots of the good but I passionately believe we have a responsibility to teach kindness, generosity and respect to our children. I don’t get this stuff right all or even most of the time but I like to think of it as a work in progress!