As a dad, the greatest parenting lesson I’ve ever learnt was one my kids taught me

·5-min read
‘My five-year-old showed me that young people do not need to be drilled with the right thing to think or say. They see things clearly, with pure logic’  (Joe Clapson)
‘My five-year-old showed me that young people do not need to be drilled with the right thing to think or say. They see things clearly, with pure logic’ (Joe Clapson)

I think it is fair to say that all parents with young children at home spend pretty much every single day telling their offspring what to do. That’s not a bold statement, it’s just true. Otherwise, simple (yet vital) requirements such as getting out of the door to get to nursery, school and work just would not happen.

A key component of any parent’s job, therefore, is to tell their kids when to get dressed, when to eat, when to go to school. We are essential in the role of timekeeping and preventing the daily logistics of a home from falling off a cliff.

As co-line manager of three children aged nearly two, just four and almost six, I am starkly aware that without pretty strict parental direction, two or more of the household would never wash or eat nutritious food. Sometimes I might be included in those numbers when the system fails.

However, while I am certain that I need to direct logistical operations to ensure their survival, I have become very aware that it is misguided and wrong for me to just tell the kids what to do all of the time.

Put simply: I learn a lot from my kids. When I stand back and listen, or simply watch the small people, I gain so much. And I’m not talking about gaining joy from heart-melting moments like when the baby says “Da” for the first time; or when the middle child says “I’ll give it a whirl”, just like I’d say. I’m talking about stepping back and realising that not only do they not need me to think for them – but that their approach works, often better than mine.

A three-year-old’s way of doing something might be very frustrating to watch – almost painful – because of how long it takes. But they’re in no rush. So why are we? After all, it’s just a piece of Lego – so why get stressed out about where it goes? These tiny people are happy with the process, and there is no final “objective” other than to enjoy the game.

They are curious and enthusiastic, even when doing the same thing. Day after day, kids find excitement in the mundane.

I am confident that the majority of adults believe that their age and experience gives them the licence to force their wisdom onto children. I remember being at school and just assuming and accepting that all teachers knew everything about everything, because they were adults. But when I was thrust into the role of “teacher” during the Covid chaos of homeschooling, it hit me that I was learning more from my five-year-old child than she was learning from me.

Initially, I delivered the school-provided daily lessons in maths, phonics and literacy in a somewhat dictatorial style – thinking “she’s only five, I’ll need to spoon-feed the work to her”. For reception-aged kids like my daughter Alexa, this was only term two of big school; so in my mind I “knew” that the concept of school – and understanding how to accept formal tuition – was a giant thing to take on.

Of course, learning brand new things like counting and spelling require assistance, and it is often a case of right and wrong – with lots of wrongs at the beginning until it clicks: the numbers start adding up and the words start making sense. But these are binary issues.

It was on the wider questions, which required (as adults might term it) “lateral thinking” that I was given a sharp lesson. On one particular day, I was excited to give an inspirational lesson on “why it is important to be different”. I had ideas on explaining race, diversity and interests – all pitched at a five-year-old level. I was prepared for her attention span to fade, and I’d already decided that I was going to insist that she listened to me because of the subject’s importance.

I started by asking the headline question, without any preamble: “Why is it important to be different?” But I wasn’t expecting this answer: “Of course it is important to be different, daddy. We are all born different, so it’s okay to be different.” I fought back the tears.

She continued: “I have friends who have different colour skin to me and some people sound different. But, you know what – I think everyone on the planet is special.”

So that was me done. In a simple, two minute interaction with my five-year-old, I realised that young people do not need to be drilled with the right thing to think or say. They see things clearly, with pure logic. And I’ll never forget what I found my daughter writing on a scrap piece of paper: “Step one. Life isn’t all about whining or laughing at people / Life is about having fun and playing with people.

“Step two. Be kind to people / Why do you think you have to be kind? Because you will be a kind person / Otherwise you won’t be a kind person. And life is about loving.”

Kids don’t care what people might think of the cape they’re wearing to nursery, coupled with shorts and wellies. They aren’t too shy to tell someone they love them. They speak with absolute honesty. They have no agenda. They adapt to change. They embrace difference. They live to be happy in the moment. Us adults have a lot to learn.

Joe Clapson is the author of The Diary of DaddyShortLegs: Experiences of a Dad at home with his baby

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