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Sunday, 25 October 2015

Parents - teach your children the art of being alone

I love my own company; many writers do.

I said to someone recently that I felt it was a learned skill and it is, because there were times when I couldn’t stand to be by myself. Those were the times when I dumped myself on my poor mother or sister. There was a difficult period in my life when I would pick my 4 year old up from school and trail my whole tribe around to my sister’s house most days of the week. With four children under 4 it wasn’t a happy time and I’m still amazed my very forthright sister didn’t say anything about my constant visits at the worst time of day for someone with two children of her own. Any mother understands the misery of the 4pm demon. As the clock ticks round it’s the golden hour for grizzling, fights, tantrums and unreasonable behaviour as tired little bodies look for sustenance and relief from busy days packed full of activity. With adult children now leading wonderful lives of their own I’m still left with the 4pm legacy and find myself cringing as it arrives, imbued with a sense of grumpiness which seems to come from nowhere.  

I was a loner at school but not by choice. It was just easier. In a school where most people carried knives by the age of 13 and knew how to use them, it was safer to have nobody around me to mask the threat or join in. At university I had good friends but they came and went with the advent of unsuitable boyfriends and only one remains in my middle age.

Life tries to teach us to be content in our own company but we resist, plugging the gap with anything we can to avoid its lessons. We’re fools. We crave five minutes peace and then waste it, worrying, complaining, seeking busyness or other people and crying we’re bored. Fools

I tried to teach my children to be content with themselves and respect time as something to be valued and not killed, but only their imprint on the world will tell if I succeeded. I encouraged them to seek time alone and when they were lonely, tried to help them embrace it. When isolated as very young children in busy playgrounds, I sent them to catch fairies and hunt unicorns, feeding imaginations which had the power to create company and fill empty voids with better than this world has to offer. I knew they’d need that skill many times over. And they will.

I still remember those empty months after childbirth when my husband went to work and left me alone with my eldest daughter. She couldn’t talk back and tell me what was wrong, her crying filling me with a sense of inadequacy and desperation and I craved company, finding it less painful when someone else was there. I walked miles pushing her pram, finding something cathartic about being outside in the fresh air. But I was still alone.

Emigration put me back there, only this time my husband was at work and my children at school. The 4pm demon brought children off a busy bus nursing different agonies; isolation, friendlessness; loneliness and dissatisfaction. I had to learn to be alone and not waste my life wishing the hours away, knowing one day I might beg for those hours back.


I prayed, painted, studied and wrote. I learned to be alone and found a deep security there inside my faith and myself.

I met a wise lady once who had ten children. While we sat drinking tea and chatting she called to one of her children and patted the seat next to her. The child left her play and ran over, sitting next to her mother, popping her thumb into her mouth and just sitting quietly there. She didn’t demand any more attention than the soft hand on her shoulder and she made no sound. After a few minutes my friend praised her daughter, kissed her cheek and released her to play again. When I asked what she’d done, she said, “I need my children to come when I ask and do it without question because one day it might be important. I want them to sit without entertainment and feel secure in themselves as though it’s normal and my hand on their shoulder reassures them I’m there today. One day my hand won't be there and they'll need to remember that being alone is still ok. Later my daughter will tell me some deep thought she had in those few moments of peace and it may be profound or it might be random; but it will be her thought and not something shouted in her face by friends, siblings, TV or media. When I pat the seat my children know to be quiet and I can take them to church, restaurants and friends’ houses without worrying boredom will make them naughty.”

My friend was interrupted in her explanation by another of her children who sneaked onto her knee and whispered in her ear, “Can it be me next, Mummy?”

I wasn’t sure about her methods and pondered a little while she cuddled her son and fixed his Lego toy. She turned a wise face towards me as he skipped off happily and said something I’ve never forgotten. “I teach my children to be alone and satisfied because my lessons begin in love but the world conducts hers with unkindness, humiliation and fear.”

It strikes me that children today don’t know how to be alone, truly alone without the blare of the TV or the constant thrum of beat music. Computer games and online strangers fill the void and they don’t know what it is to stand in a crowded room with only their own selves for company and feel secure. The 4pm demon has morphed from a creature demanding sustenance and comfort to a raging monster needing constant entertainment. If they’re unlucky, our children will be dragged kicking and screaming into situations which call for self-assurance and a sense of confidence and find their strength in the pit of despair and the palm of misery. Those will be painful times of loneliness, rejection, friendlessness and poverty. Each of those things has the power to drag a vulnerable person down undesirable paths in order to dodge the pain of looking in the mirror and seeing only their own face staring back at them blank eyed and frightened.

Parents - teach your children to be alone, comfortable in their own skin and able to find peace.

Do it before the gravel road of life cuts their feet and makes them bleed on their journey towards peace and self-assurance.

Do it with a kiss and a hand on their shoulder before the world does it with a knife in their back and a blow to their confidence.   

#parenting #loneliness #raisingkids