A Huffington Post video project called "Talk to Me" is encouraging conversations between parents and children. When my 19-year-old daughter asked me if I would have done anything differently as a mother, it flagged up a worrying aspect which, like a remote pandemic that hits one's neighborhood, has turned into a reality.
As parents these days we are torn between the need to nurture our young children as healthily as we know how, while accepting that random determinants can define personal issues and struggles unique to each and every one of them. It's tough because every cell in our body wants them to be happy, whatever that entails.
Facebook postings extoll the greatness of our children, each new achievement vying for the attention that others draw to their own causes, start-ups and personal profiles. It is understandable; we are proud of our kids, as we should be. Negotiating the ruts of childhood and early adulthood, from socialisation to academic achievement and finding love is a tall, trepidatious order.
Many of us like to think of ourselves as being outside those whirring blades of a helicopter when it comes to piloting our children's trajectory. We rise above that parental 21st century syndrome which, when unleashed, pipes Henry Kissinger's last tome on world strategic thinking into the nursery, and blasts Mozart out of the car stereo while the toddler slurps on a probiotic, green weed smoothie on the way to fencing practice in Mandarin.
So most of us fall into the parental grouping somewhere between dereliction of duty and Tiger Mom. We laughingly remember our own parents' credo of child rearing -- there was none. We were sent to play outside until hunger set in (good for food foraging), and then to return outside until it was dark (great for night-time vision and a sense of direction). So when it was our turn to raise our children we realized, unconsciously perhaps, that rearing based on benign neglect was not enough, however much our parents loved us.
But this has left us scratching our heads in confusion as to why our kids -- nourished with love, attention and support -- are emerging with psychological and emotional issues that could just as well fit into the category of early years of trauma or abandonment.
"She had a wonderful childhood so why is she self-harming at 26?" A dinner guest admitted to me the other night. "I mean, she was loved and we were a close-knit family, and she was such a happy child... ?"
I have nodded with comprehension at parents whose thoroughly independent teenagers have been crippled by homesickness at university, and by an inability to see beyond disaster, while being overwhelmed with thoughts of hopelessness. It seems that the bygone era of non-existent texts, Skype or Facebook slackened the umbilical cord naturally. Today, every SMS is like an SOS and it appears as if every other young adult at college is on medication of some sort. The "A" element of our children's type stands for "anxiety."
I wish I could laugh it off and say that their ache to come home was just a sign, after years of teenage moodiness and know-it-all put downs of increasingly self-doubting parents, that they appreciated us after all. Yet the severity of their disquiet is troubling and, most importantly, we can't fix it.
Have we, as well-intentioned parents, become their enablers, preventing our children from fully developing their own coping skills? We tied their shoelaces, grabbed the large juice carton from their shaky fingers, shoved trapped, wriggling arms into small coat sleeves when dashing to the bus or car for school, and then raced home in the middle of the day to pick up and deliver a forgotten homework assignment. Everything they drew, wrote, danced, played and sang was a "great job" (though with an artist mother, mine soon knew to ask, "Worth framing?" for full approval of a masterpiece).
Our children could run before they could walk. Their own way of figuring stuff out should have meant tripping up, but we intercepted them by breaking their fall. Did we, out of blinding love and some degree of hovering, raise our kids in captivity?
A young skin needs to thicken, and with social media contributing to teenage fragility, judging itself by the manipulated images of the apparent perfection of others, it is subject to continuous bruising. I pray that genes and positive role modelling will open an eventual path for our vibrant children that allows them to be ok with themselves and with life.