Loving too much
Daniel Kish is an innovative and maverick teacher. He is the president of World Access for the Blind. Daniel Kish teaches others how to echo-locate. He has been blind since early childhood. You may have seen the video of him riding a bike on YouTube. He maps out the territory in his mind by making a clicking sound. He lives independently: works, hikes and travels. His radical theory is that in our 'civilised' culture, we are encouraging dependence by the way we assist people with disabilities. I listened to an interview with him on the NPR radio show, Invisibilia. He claims that we are to a degree complicit in an act of infantilising, and another model for assisting those with a disability might be more desirable. When he works with very young children, one of the first things he must establish with the parent or carer is that they do not interfere - this is quite a demand when you are watching your visually impaired five-year-old about to step off the pavement on a collision course with oncoming traffic. No-one was going to let the child jump to his death, but Daniel Kish's point is that we intervene too early. In less extreme circumstances - like climbing trees, riding bikes and other outdoor adventures - he maintains that we have become way too precious about a few cuts and bruises. We heal. There is something shocking that Daniel Kish says. It resonates with me. He says that we love too much, and parental love is an obstacle to growth. There can be no growth without burden, and so, the logical conclusion is that too much love prevents growth. I have been obsessively thinking about this idea over the last couple of weeks.
I grew up in a family in which self-sacrifice was an indication of how much we loved. Every occasion was a possible opportunity to selflessly prove the strength of family love. The currency of this transaction was varied: food, money, and time could all be given up. I am now left with the nagging suspicion that I have somehow been damaged by so much parental involvement. The fact that they drove me to Jazz Orchestra, or picked me up from Choir Practice meant that I missed out on a valuable chance to get the bus and grow. Is this the reason that I feel like such an underachiever? Would my pathological sloth have not set in had I climbed on the bus on a cold dark Monday evening? That baritone saxophone was pretty heavy, but I'd own several properties in the South of France by now, if my parents hadn't taken pity on me, and offered me a lift. I would have learned independence and tenacity.
I probably cooked my first family meal when I was fifteen. I remember it clearly. It was chicken pieces which I ingeniously coated using smashed up salt and vinegar flavour crisps. Up until that point I had been blissfully catered for: five star service from parents who sacrificed their time by coming up with an endless array of different meals; always home-made, always fresh produce, and always - before it became trendy - locally sourced, or grown in the garden. Now I understand that my parents were actually neglecting me with indulgence. They are to blame for my daughter's complaints that I always cook the same stuff. She is five. So it is not generosity that makes her refer to what I do in the kitchen as 'cooking'. I don't cook. I 'prepare'. And I only prepare two meals: baked potatoes and salad; pasta and salad. I blame my parents. My father was a DIY genius. I can't even hang a picture, never mind shelves. His fault. Now my addiction to eBay, Amazon and Ocado is clear. They are online replacement for the parental mollycoddling of my childhood; a love that never ends as long as I can afford to keep clicking on 'Confirm Order'.
It's very hard not to indulge our son. We spend the week parenting remotely. When he is distraught, I send an email to the pastoral staff at school. They are caring, conscientious and brilliant. I don't expect him to initiate the resolution himself - he is only eleven. When he has forgotten something or run out of something, I put a replacement in the post, or rather I get someone from an online retailer to put it in the post for me. Does this make Amazon a surrogate grand-parent? I have an overwhelmingly strong need to show him, in the only way I can, I love him. Perhaps I am cultivating dependency, and denying him the chance to grow.
There is so much that children who are at boarding school have to do for themselves. He packs his own bags at weekends, organises his own laundry, gets himself organised for school and makes sure he is in the right place at the right time. He has now started sewing his own ballet shoes. I imagine that if you are a teacher at boarding school, there is one thing you can be certain of - the children do their own homework without any parental involvement. No spellings have been corrected, no grammar amended, no maths double-checked, or essays pre-planned. By virtue of our absence, our son is having to learn for himself, and with regard to his dancing, I am no help whatsoever.
Still, there is something about Daniel Kish's words that sits uneasily. I worry that I love him too much. When our son next comes home from school, he might be in for a shock. Vegetable stir-fry is one of his favourite meals. He is only home for just over twenty-four hours, but on Sunday, he'll be spending several of those hours chopping onions and red-peppers and washing bean-sprouts and broccoli. Changing my behaviour will mean that his development will not be stunted by too much love. He'll also be doing the washing up.