Are your kids rhubarb or corn?

I was scheduled to speak to a bunch of trainees at the Police College about parenting. That would normally be excellent except my lecture was preceded by one from Nigel Latta. He, of course, was brilliant and funny and I was afraid I would appear very dull by comparison. Nigel was finishing his talk and he said, “Your next lecture is on parenting. Don’t worry about it. It’s all down to genetics.” Thanks, Nigel. Great intro. Just what I needed to prime my confidence. But I have a sneaky suspicion there is quite a lot of truth to what he said.

For a long time I thought that parents shaped their children. I believed that we coached and mentored and disciplined them into the adults they eventually become. I now wonder how correct that is. I look at my three adult children – they are so totally different. (They are also totally wonderful, but that is a father’s opinion). I have a serious oldest son who wants to change the world, a brilliant daughter who loves business and science, and an artistic youngest who lives in a world of music and philosophy. If I was such a key factor in making them who they are, how did they end up so different from each other? If I was shaping them, did I have these shapes in mind? No. They just ‘turned out’ that way.

The gardener is important, but I cannot turn a marrow into a cauliflower. I have to discover what it is and then work with that. As our different children showed their areas of gifting, my wife and I were able to encourage them specifically – sport with one, music with another, and so on. At times our emphasis would go in the areas where they were not naturally gifted. A child might not be talented in maths or English, but you can usually encourage them toward some basic competence at least. I now see that my role has been more of a gardener than a craftsman. It is like I was given some packets of seeds, but the labels had come off. I planted them and nurtured them all the same but after a while, I saw that some seeds came up as beans, others as watermelons, some as corn and so on. When I knew what I was growing, I could start to cultivate them appropriately – staking the tomatoes, training the vines, lifting the rhubarb (real gardeners would have better illustrations than me).

A big part of the pleasure of parenting is just discovering what your kids are made of. By all means fertilise their good character and weed out their negative habits, but stand back and discover who your children really are. You will have – and should have – dreams for your kids but it is far more important to let them have their own dreams. More and more of who your kids are becoming is revealed year after year, so make friends with them – over and over again. Make friends with your toddler, and then again with your school-age child, your adolescent, and your young adult. They change and change and never stop changing, and so the discovery process never stops either.

As Nigel said, and I concede, genes account for so much of our children’s abilities, temperament and other attributes. Genes provide both the individuality and the similarity, but the gardener provides a ‘quality’ to his ‘produce’ that cannot be explained by DNA. If your children are great at sport, that might just be genetics. But if they are sportsmen and women who are also kind, well-mannered and self-controlled, I am prepared to applaud the gardener. We work with whatever the genetic shuffle has dealt us, but the work is important.

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John Cowan

Writer, speaker and broadcaster, John Cowan shares his insight and opinions about the latest in parenting and family news in New Zealand. Hear John speak on radio stations every week throughout the country and regularly on national TV.  Follow @JohnCowanNZ on Twitter

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