Last week I woke my two eldest children (aged six and nine) at midnight to watch a soccer match between Japan and Germany in the World Cup. It was a bad idea, and I’m a bad dad. The tiredness-induced meltdowns later that evening were monumental.
This morning we watched Australia v Denmark on delay. I lied and told them it was live. Lying to your kids is fine. Go Socceroos.
Our kids have been begging us to watch the World Cup for weeks, and despite the punitive time differences and relentless schedule we’ve decided that denying them the chance to watch the world’s best players in the world’s biggest competition would neither significantly affect their long-term academic success, nor resolve labour and human rights issues in the Middle East.
So each morning we find ourselves in the small hours, cheering together as a family, knowing full well that each moment that passes will be repaid later with the significant drama only supremely tired children can produce.
We all make sacrifices for our children’s interests, and my kids are sports mad. They recite stats and players from teams in countries I’ve never been to in leagues I’ve never heard of. They describe to me the build-ups to goals Lionel Messi scored before they were even born. When Australia plays Argentina on Sunday my household is going to be an absolute wreck.
They do sport six days a week. SIX. That’s nearly all the possible days. There are also four different forms of dance and music, and so between the soccer, karate, tennis, swimming, breakdance, cheerleading, Saturday language school, piano lessons, pick-ups and drop-offs, I’m more Uber driver than parent.
I’m aware that this is a problem of my own making. I’ve never once suggested any of these activities to them (or worse, pressured them to participate), but I’ve not discouraged them either.
There’s no government mandate that forces me to enrol my children into every extra-curricular activity that happens to pop into one of their inquisitive but entirely ridiculous brains but I am, for better or worse, an acolyte of The Cult of Encouragement.
What if, by denying their chance to follow their interests, I deprive them of becoming the next Cristiano Ronaldo, Li Cunxin or Mozart? Surely Ronaldo’s dad has no end of stories of taking his gangly kid to training, day after day and night after night, just like I do for my children. At least this is what I tell myself as I sit in my car outside a karate dojo while my children are inside, potentially becoming whatever is the karate equivalent of Mozart.
This is the problem with parenting. Our main job is to prepare our children for adulthood, and this constant state of looking forward leaves us fixated on the future.
What’s the endgame of it all? If these efforts don’t produce a Ronaldo or Karate Mozart, is it all for nothing? For every Ballon d’Or winner there are billions of children who sport leaves with no tangible success whatsoever.
And if it’s not about achieving tangible success, are we doing all this for the intangibles? For resilience, the benefits of dedicated practice, and an appreciation of both their bodies and art?
My problem with that is that this is still looking at childhood through the lens of the future – effort now, benefit later.
What if parenting isn’t purely transactional? A kid can go to soccer training because kicking a ball with your friends is fun, not because they’ll one day play for Australia or because the act of kicking in a social setting is teaching them some valuable life skill.
One of the tenets of modern parenting is to let children be children. It’s good advice. I know plenty of adults, and most of us are pretty boring.
I want my children to enjoy childhood, and I want to enjoy my time with them as children, not as some incomplete prototypes of the adults they’ll ultimately become. We shouldn’t spend so much time thinking about what or who or how they’ll be in adulthood, or whether waking up stupidly early to watch Australia beat Argentina is a responsible thing to do. (It’s not.)
We adults think about the future all the time because we don’t have as much of it anymore, but our children have futures in abundance. So much, in fact, that they barely give it a passing thought at all.
Adam Liaw is a cook, writer and broadcaster. He has written eight cookbooks and is host of nightly cooking show, The Cook Up, and the podcast, How Taste Changed The World