Saturday, 17 June 2017

Trusting God as we raise our children (subtitle: ignoring the pressures of this age)

I recently saw an amusing quotation on Facebook - it was along the lines of all the things a modern day mother needs to buy, cook, utilise and consider in order to raise a family, whereas 50 years ago, a mother would simply seek to feed, clothe and keep her children safe. I was also amused when reading how the laptop and tablet ban on some airlines has led to an outcry among parents who think it is impossible to travel without some kind of digital entertainment for their children. This blog summarises it better than I can, considering how parents of a bygone age managed without screens.

But this isn't a post about technologies and their pros and cons, but rather a reflection on how we can best raise our families in different settings where there is different availability of resources and activities. What got me thinking about this was a recent trip to my passport country. I enjoyed some activities like park run and heard my friends speak of a recent home education co-op trip to a castle. I saw piles of library books, and enjoyed walking down streets with safe pavements and using safe and efficient public transport. I missed these things! In fact, I wavered slightly, feeling sad that my children do not currently have these opportunities. However, when I reflect on that, I must remember that here we have exposure to a diverse array of wildlife, even in the city. We recently had opportunity to run through a game park with herds of zebra intermittently crossing our path. We spent a night in a rainforest and hiked to a waterfall. We camped beside a lake and lit a bonfire. We are exposed to a wide range of cultures and languages, and live in a climate whereby spending many hours each day out of doors is the norm and never burdensome. Which is better? (I think I would argue that neither is better - each presents unique and valuable opportunity)

I also was reflecting on what parents consider to be 'activities for children'. When I first moved here, quite a few parents mused that, 'There isn't really much for children here'. A friend is leaving an east Asian country for the six week school holidays, because 'its hard to find things to do'. Another friend is prayerfully considering cross-cultural mission but is concerned about the impact it will have on her children, particularly with regard to availability of safe, enjoyable activities and resources for them. I just can't help but wonder if some of this misses the point, and whether the current western cultural view of what is 'good for children' has become incredibly narrow.

For many years, children would help with the family business as soon as they were able to carry out even basic activities - be that farming, sewing, baking, manufacture and so forth. That remains the case in many parts of the world today, where young children take on responsibilities that might astound many in different parts of the world. (I note that this is not always a good thing - young boys herding goats along dangerous main roads is one example, or forced child labour in other places. But that is not the thrust of the statement I am making!) Children can thrive when given responsibility, and we've seen that in our household (I've also been amused by some online arguments about whether children should participate in chores, or whether we should 'let them be children'; it seems these are entirely asking the wrong question because these are not mutually exclusive by any means).

Before modern forms of transport and telecommunications, people would live in much smaller, tighter communities. This need not be a bad thing. Rather than lament that our children may not have exposure to such a wide range of friends as they attend a range of activities, we can be thankful that they have the opportunity to build strong, perhaps more stable relationships. Another aspect of this which has surprised me was the tendency for some people to want to separate our children so that they could 'form their own friendships'. Often it is not seen as healthy for children to play well together across a wide range of age groups, and yet this was considered normal in so many places for so long. Indeed, evidence indicates that home educated children often do better socially because they learn to build a diverse range of relationships. There has also been much written about the fact that children should be given opportunity to be 'bored' since it is then that creativity and team-work often flourish; we'd testify that has often been the case here!

How many toys and games does a child need? I have friends in other countries who have whole rooms overflowing with toys and games, and yet the children can still complain that they are, 'bored and have nothing to do'. Indeed, it can seem that with so much choice, the children are bewildered and unable to focus. Whereas in African villages, you will see children happily playing for hours with a stick and an old tyre, or some other simple game or toy. I think we find a medium approach - yes, we have a train-track and boxes of lego and a few other things, but try and have a 'one game at a time' rule (except perhaps now, where they are building a Duplo camp next to their railway, and there seems to be a very clear aim). There are other parenting articles (for example, here, here and here) which describe what constitutes a 'good' game or toy for a child, but my basic rule is that I want something where they can really use their creativity and imagination - I do not want something that can only be used in one way, for one thing.

When I first arrived here, I confess that I had many concerns about 'finding things to do'. I remember walking along a road, dodging motorcycles which had mounted the basic pavement, and wondering how on earth I would ever be able to move around here with the children. One thing I really miss is public parks, large areas of safe, green space where children can run, climb, cycle and play. Previously, we would spend several hours per day there, come rain or shine. Here, we have had to be more creative. The roads rarely have pavement, the traffic is unsafe, and it is often hot and dusty (you sweat and then get coated with bright orange dust). However we have found some roads in a residential area which are quite green and leafy, are a little wider and sometimes have a grass verge, and where the traffic is less if we choose the time wisely. The children have invented games about being explorers or wildlife photographers, and even have several 'bases' (usually the underside of a bush or the shelter of a tree) where they make camp. They have also become very aware of road-safety and as they get older, I feel increasingly able to relax whilst out there. Now, I don't miss the parks so much (until I make a visit back and see them afresh!). We also have a quiet section of dirt road outside our gate, several hundred metres long. That is perfect for sprint training and playing on bikes, again if we choose the time of day wisely. I look back and the time when I felt such anxiety, and see how God has provided us with what we need - it was not immediately obvious, but with time we have found what we needed.

These are just some examples and thoughts. I know that when moving overseas, providing for our children is often one of the biggest concerns and priorities. At first glance, it can seem that there are 'fewer things for children to do', but I would counter that this need not be the case. It might require a paradigm shift, but even in a bustling city, there can be fresh opportunities. Children often see things differently to adults - I've enjoyed watching my children develop their games and fun things to do.

I want to encourage you that if you are considering cross-cultural work and are concerned about this, that you may well be surprised! Children often do adapt much better than their parents, and pick up language, culture and customs better than adults do through 'cross-cultural training'. You might need to adapt to this - for example, my sons rarely wear shirts, are rarely clean and enjoy eating insects! But they are busy, happy, have built friendships and are developing spiritually and educationally. What else really matters?