Autonomy, Freedom, and Inevitable Rebellion
I think that it was Spider-Man who said: with great power comes great responsibility. This is also true for autonomy. With more autonomy comes a greater responsibility and also, perhaps, a greater degree of self-control.
We have a new system for our son, now that he is nearly fourteen, and again living with us rather than staying at a boarding school: at the beginning of each week he is given a sum of money, and he has to budget for himself. Transport, ballet classes and any lunch, drinks or snacks all have to be paid for from this weekly amount. Our unexpected circumstances have led to a new opportunity - he can learn an important life-skill, And hopefully avoid the mistakes that not having these skills might bring when he is older.
It means of course that he can embrace the dark side. Fast food has been forbidden all his life, and he let it slip the other day that he got a portion of French fries after a class. We have also discovered that he is quite partial to a chocolate brownie now and again as a source of post-ballet carbohydrate. Years of ballet means that taking water with him at all times is habitual - so, we are yet to discover him swigging from a coke can (or anything else, for that matter) - but only time will tell.
I suppose that this is a normal stage of parenting. There comes a point when surveillance - like some neurosis powered helicopter - has to stop. We just have to trust that we reasoned and persuaded enough, so that left to their own devices they won't freak out entirely and submerge themselves in a life of excess. Is there any research to suggest that children who are kept on a tighter leash become more hedonistic and irresponsible in adult life? Or is all the evidence wrapped up in the much quoted marshmallow test - delayed gratification as the secret to adult success. I suspect that if my children are anything like their parents then their ability to delay gratification is not very good.
Apparently thoughts of rebellion are an important developmental stage beginning at the age of eight. It occurs to children for the first time as eight-year-olds that they can cut loose and become free-spirited and independent. I don't mean to brag about how precocious my children are, but evidence would suggest that both of mine had this thought five years early - at the age of three. Both skipped over the ‘terrible two’s’, and became almost uncontrollable a year later. They really seemed to understand that they were individuals who didn't need to tow the line any more - a quality that we have nurtured in both ever since. In fact, such is the anarchic nature of their upbringing, I considered our son’s desire to attend a traditional boarding school based on an archaic and patriarchal model to be an early act of rebellion - we failed as parents by not putting enough rules in place, and his rebellion was to go to ballet school. I'm thankful that this phase has now passed. Now that he has patriarchy out of his system, he can move on to more valuable forms of rebellion.
And with this in mind, a couple of weeks ago, he announced where he had taken himself for lunch in a particularly swanky restaurant. Well actually, as he assured us, he didn't go into the restaurant, but had lunch in a the deli and café which the restaurant owns next door. How much was this beautifully presented tomato and mozzarella ciabatta? We tried not to gasp, and swallowed our potential exclamations when he told us. A deal is a deal. He had budgeted for it, and it fitted into his weekly planning, so it would have been remiss to make him experience any form of shame. In fact, I did the opposite. I congratulated him on his adventurous choice and his ability to handle money. His teenage rebellion is taking an interesting and unexpected shape.
Fathers and Sons - part one
'Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it.'
Shakespeare's Henry IV (both parts) focuses on a father and son who do not initially share the same values. The vicious circle spirals. The father disapproves while the son looks after his own juvenile needs. Each adopts a temporary surrogate. For Henry, it is the impetuous but decisive Hotspur; for Hal it is the cowardly but doting Falstaff. Hal's rebellion burns itself out eventually, and the surrogate father is spurned. Reconciliation plays out at the very last moment. Meanwhile, Hotspur, the surrogate son, has initiated a more official and perilous rebellion - one that involves overthrowing the king rather than simply hanging out with some drunken buffoons.
And so, this is the archetypal model of the universe. The father sets an example. The son refuses to follow it, but discord eventually leads to mutual appreciation. My father worked hard. These were the days before David Beckham taught men how to parent. My Dad provided for us and his provision justified his lack of involvement. He was a loyal employee and honoured the system in which he served; moderate ambition allowing him to climb a certain way up a very particular ladder. He was sociable, well-liked and believed in doing more than his duty. His life depended on a rock-solid faith in an ideology bigger than him. He served an indelible sense of order and justice - a concrete world view.
In my teens I rejected this way of thinking, and I still do. I believe in hard work, but I am an iconoclast. I like to challenge, and refute. My success and my downfall has been caused by the same quality - an ability to analyse with clarity, and when necessary urge for reclassification, regardless of the sanctity of the status quo. I speak the truth - as far as I see it - and I am contemptuous of anyone who doesn't. For me, servile compliance is worthless and expedient. My father practised temperance. I yield to excess.
This is the natural way. It is as it should be. We never argued, but I think we found each other perplexing. We lived our lives as different species - a differing understanding of what it means to be a man. However, my father and I have been robbed of the story's inevitable conclusion. The universe of justice and order, whose principles he served decided to steal his memory, and also his ability to be fully present. Areas of his brain no longer work as they once did. This gross injustice has denied us the effortless reconciliation and appreciation that a father's old age can bring. There are days, now, when he no longer recognises me. This is not the end we had anticipated. I had hoped for a gentle, mutual, long-lasting acceptance. We only glimpsed from afar what we nearly had.
I watch my son in a ballet class. He has a strength and a determination that I do not recognise. He dances with a love that I appreciate but do not fully understand. Perhaps his joining this hierarchical world of ballet is his form of rebellion - conformity is radical when you are raised by individualists. In the last few months he has been changing. There are clues of the man he will become - strong, tenacious, gentle and full of grace. He is taller, leaner and more sinewy. My own process with my father has been regrettably lost. I will retaliate. I will thwart the natural scheme of a son rejecting a father's values. I will seek to understand ballet and be less of a renegade. And we will treasure our collective memory. I will make it something permanent. I will blog.