I am not joking…that was my 6 year old son’s question to me. It was a general chat between us on the way to school, with him saying he’d be a policeman and my 4 year old daughter that she’d still be a princess. My son was disgusted:”You can’t be a princess!” followed quickly by, “What do you want to be Mama?”
It was a moment before my son’s double take. I could see the cogs turning “Oh yes!” he thought, “She’s not going to properly grow up!” What do they think about me I wondered?
This particular can of worms fascinates me. Firstly, how do children measure maturity? I know they struggle with the idea that I had any sort of life prior to their birth. (My daughter who loves a good wedding, asked me indignantly once “When you got married, didn’t you have I (sic)?”) So one thing at the heart of this question has to be their sense of history being totally confused, seeing you only in relation to them. A policeman is a policeman in relation to them. I am a mummy in relation to them.
Secondly, how do they value different jobs and roles. They only conceive of doing jobs whose status is evident to them. They see policemen/women, fire-fighters, teachers, nurses and doctors – interestingly the people pivotal to a community are the jobs most visible to them as children. And those are the jobs they naturally consider.
Thirdly, I wonder how their ideas about the value of different jobs affects how they view their community. I believe we remain a class-obsessed society. Maybe less cap-doffing and curtsying, but there is still a rich seam of prejudice in how we view people based upon their working day.
At the moment, our children see front-line services as synonymous with “grown-up jobs”. They don’t knowingly interact with hedge fund managers or traders. When and why will they start to value those jobs more? That’s where we come in.
At least twice now I’ve had a conversation with other mums where I say I’d be very happy for my son to follow whatever is his latest rescue worker vocation. And on those occasions, my comments have been met by utter disbelief. The thinking was that as both my husband and I have degrees and a profession, it would surely be a body blow for us to see our children in less professional roles.
But I don’t see it quite that way. A fire down the road needs a fireman and an elderly lady with no family needs the comfort of a care assistant looking after her. Yes, being a journalist, a politician or a lawyer may definitely challenge and protect society in fundamental ways (As you’ll see in last week’s blog I feel very strongly about encouraging our children to engage politically. And there are so many other professions which give meaning and focus to communities of course.). What I’m saying is that front-line care should never be relegated to a different class of work: it’s literally “vital” and I expect my conscience would sit more quietly knowing I’d saved lives.
Shouldn’t we be proud our children want to help others? We teach them how central it is as they’re growing up but when we start to actually talk about what they might end up doing, we perhaps show other values pre-eminent in our minds – status, wealth, class? Or simply an important and fruitful frustration with the established systems around us; as long as those frustrations are channelled, then that can indeed be of vital significance for the community.
But when my children ask me what I’m going to do when I grow up, they perhaps think there’s a wider role I should be fulfilling. As a Home-based Mum, I can say we’ve made the choice that I stay at home and explain why we believe that’s an important role.
Since my two children have both been at school I’ve taken on various bits of work, journalistic and teaching, and I wondered how they’d respond to that. My son was very encouraging in an hilariously patronising way. I told him I was a bit nervous about teaching these toddlers some music. He said, “Don’t worry Mama, I think they’ll love it”. Cue I sing him a song about autumn leaves and he says “That’s good Mama!” nodding too seriously!! My daughter said she wanted to come and help and suggested various props I could use. Predictably, she then got really cross when she realised it meant I couldn’t come to the whole of assembly! Interesting. Fine my having another role until it impinges on my role as a Mum.
What am I getting at? I think growing up for the children means having a role; having a clear and respected place in society (preferably with a cap and uniform to prove it). But society so devalues the role of a parent who doesn’t work outside the home. It also devalues front-line services, because of how it pays them and because of how people view those jobs given that they don’t come after a competitive graduate scheme, with a healthy pay cheque and plenty of kudos.
I want my children to value some of the jobs society doesn’t appear to. I want them to value the people in those roles for what they do. I don’t want them to cheapen them because of how society cheapens them.
If my children grow up wanting to challenge the systems that cheapen them, then that’s a bonus. But…challenging them shouldn’t be seen as a superior role to providing day-to-day care which comes at such a cost.
What do you think? In forming our aspirations for our children, to what extent do we a) resist, b) succumb to society’s pressures and expectations?