Long-haul parenting

Hannah Dickson spends an hour with Diane Levy

I’m considering renaming this column Story time with Diane Levy. Diane has a delightful habit of weaving stories into our conversation that help the topics we discuss become less about theories and principles, and more about real life.

We’re not long into discussing the idea of how parenting is best viewed as a long-term project, when she starts telling a story she read years ago. It went something like this. A man is walking along the road and comes across a very stressed-looking stonemason who was working terribly hard, banging away at a piece of rock and getting increasingly disgruntled. The man asks, “What are you doing?” The stonemason replies, “I have to carve out this stone. It’s back-breaking work and I do it day after day.” The man continues along his way and comes to another man who is working steadily, looking neither happy nor unhappy. He asks him what he’s doing and the man replies, “I’m working on the stones that will shape a building.” The man comes to a third worker who is whistling and hammering away at a piece of stone. He asks him what he’s doing. The third man replies, “I’m building a cathedral!”

Raising a child from babyhood through to independence, says Diane, is a little like a building project. Much like the attitude of the labourer chipping away looking stressed and disgruntled, a lot of our work as parents can seem tedious and back-breaking. “Some days are stained-glass windows, and some days you’re building the pipes for the sewer,” says Diane. “Both of these are necessary for a cathedral.” Just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, raising a responsible, independent adult with values and virtues, doesn’t happen overnight. We are parenting for the long haul. The tough parts of the job are an inevitable part of creating the final product.

The trick is not to get bogged down by the relentless side of the job and to focus on the long-term goals. Diane points out that any job has got its mucky bits, the bits that drive us completely crazy. Why should parenting be any different? The trick is to savour and enjoy the gorgeous moments when they happen, celebrate the successes (both ours and our children’s), and acknowledge that the good and bad moments are an equally valid part of being a parent.

“Some of the tough stuff in parenting, is the most valuable stuff we do,” says Diane, recalling when her son was a teenager and had just got his driver’s licence. “Within a fortnight he had managed to chalk up an $80 speeding fine and do $400 worth of damage to someone’s bumper,” Diane remembers. “We fished him out and paid both, then told him he needed to pay it back. We said, ‘Any money you earn or are given is 50 percent yours and 50 percent payoff.’ We kept a little notebook – sometimes when I ticked off the next $5 I’d go off and have a quiet cry. But he did pay it off. Years later he said it was one of the best things we ever did.

That’s the long haul. We were teaching two things. One, we are here for you and will fish you out of a hole if we can. Two, we will let you learn the lesson of the experience, and we will try and set it up so it is reasonable.”

Everyone in the Levy household felt good when that lesson was over and the little notebook could be retired. Which, funnily enough, brings Diane on to another story. This one is about the legend of King Solomon and his ring. The story goes that one day King Solomon asked a craftsman to make him a ring inscribed inside with some words. These words were to be a reminder for him in good times and in bad times. When he finally picked up the ring, it was engraved, “This too shall pass.”

Diane says the message in this for parenting is twofold. Those tough days that you think will never end – actually will. In the same way the good moments will pass too, so don’t wish them away! “As parents, sometimes we’re in survival mode, and sometimes we’re in appreciation mode. We can switch from one to the other in a moment!” We only have to look at toddlers to see how this works. “Bless them,” says Diane. “They can have the biggest wobbly of all time, but as far as they’re concerned, when it’s over it’s over.”

Undeniably, it can be hard accepting that your cherub is back to angelic status. “But when they’re over it, we’ve got to get over it too. There’s no point in being cross with them for another two hours.” The tantrums may be all but over by the time you reach the middle years, but your major challenges in this phase are likely to be centred on the struggle of getting them to do their homework and chores. “The tension here is between seeing something as a good learning exercise for them, and asking whether you have the energy to teach it.”

Diane is a great believer in being kind to ourselves. This is why she recommends starting the school term off with two charts. One lists what is in the school bag every day and the other lists the variances for each day. Then all a parent has to remember is which day of the week it is! “If children are too lazy to check the chart, let them carry the consequences – most of the time. The tension here is that sometimes they need rescuing and that’s okay too,” she says.

“It’s the difference between the scratch that will heal and the cut that will need stitches. If they will learn from the scratch, you let it happen and you pick them up afterwards. If it’s going to be a disaster, you rescue them.” It’s all about scale, and keeping that long-haul focus. “If they have forgotten their football boots at practice for the eighth time in a row, let them find out what happens. If they have been working on a project for three months and forgot to take it that morning, hand deliver it.

“And then sometimes you just help them out, because you are the parent, not the matron at boarding school.” And Diane’s advice for coping with a really tough day? “Go in and look at them when they are asleep – whatever their age. That’s when you remember why you had them.” Great idea. Pop in and see just how beautiful your cathedral is becoming.