NICOLA MILLER: Preparing youngsters for what lies ahead

Columnist Nicola Miller
Columnist Nicola Miller
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“We all have our own circadian alerts that tell us that a particular time of year has come to an end and for me, Summer draws to a close when our garden spiders go from silent watchfulness to skittery anxiety as they make a rush for warmer climes inside our house, abandoning the billionaire sized web-mansions they have been constructing outside for dark corners and discreet nooks.

And the start of Autumn is further marked by the exodus to school of tiny children in their tiny uniforms, dwarfed by new backpacks, scattering along the roads of our town as the leaves will do a month later. Then there’s the intake of college students, loping about supermarkets and department stores, trolleys piled high with box fresh frying pans, toasters and sacks of rice and pasta and their departing gap year friends, arms flung around each other in the pub as they say their goodbyes and fly off to warmer climes and adventures. So for me it is not Spring that heralds new life, the unknown future and fresh is Autumn.

When our children are very young we know so much about their lives- they even come with a little red or blue book that details every illness, every milestone achieved or not as the case may be. When we are at work and they are in daycare or school, we get diaries and letters and artistic ephemera produced by our children, written by their caregivers and teachers, telling us the stories of their time away, what they ate, when they slept, who and what they played with and how. The blank spaces are so few and as our children leave for college, apprenticeships and new jobs, to Australia and America, off building schools in Peru or moving up from primary to secondary enjoying school trips away and sleepovers at friends, we start to lose this first hand narrative of our children’s lives and have to rely on them to colour in those gaps for us. However they are often too busy living. And this is how it should be.

During the Renaissance, less assured artists showed their dislike of the empty space on the canvas by cramming it full of unnecessary details. Known as the ‘Horror Vacui’ (fear of the empty space) it was not embraced as an equal part of life’s rich tapestry, nor valued for the essential thinking space and opportunity it actually was. A lack of embellishment and detail equated to a life devoid of vitality and imagination in their eyes of the Renaissance artist and these blank spaces caused dissonance and artistic insecurity.

As parents the impulse to try to fill in our own Horror Vacui appeals and certainly modern life can condition us into imagining the worst rather than the better. We may hover like helicopters over our children, monitoring their whereabouts and any desire to let them run free, untrammeled by scheduled activities is then constrained by our fear of what might, what could happen to them. And who’d really blame us for this? Think of the last time you lost sight of a young child- what filled your mind? Nothing pleasant I imagine.

The world presents us with a smorgasbord of horrors to choose from - many far worse than what our already overworked and fertile imaginations can conjure up. We see the scary unknown blank space of childhood and young adulthood ahead and we look for ways to mitigate this. Our love and concern can thus result in a battle between our impulse to eliminate all obstacles in the way of that happy childhood whilst keeping life busy and pleasantly challenging enough to prevent boredom and frustration. Those rocks along the path need to be big enough to be fun to scramble over but not so large that falling off them leaves the kids with a head injury. It gets exhausting doesn’t it?

That friend of mine whose daughter has just flown off to Australia is wise enough to avoid reading the lovely Bill Bryson’s writings on that venerable land because he does become amusingly obsessed with detailing all the ways in which Australia tries to ‘kill you’- from Box Jellyfish trailing metres of venom laden stingers to prime ministers disappearing from her wave assaulted beaches during their swim - take your pick. My friend knows that her Horror Vacui manifests itself with thoughts of libidinous Aussie surfers pursuing her lovely daughter, exploitative minimum paid work and her unprotected skin curing like a side of Suffolk bacon under that remorseless sun and so she works hard to instead fill it with thoughts of opportunity, adventure, frequent skyping and her daughters excited face.

Bryson also touches on the wide straight roads that cut across this huge and ancient terrain, traversed by lorry drivers who often nod off tiredly at the wheel because there is nothing to distract them and keep them engaged with the world around them . However town planners have it right- break the blank space of that long road ahead with features that relieve monotony and ensure the traveller retains his or her focus and attention- nothing to shock the traveller so rapidly that they swerve into a ditch but enough to keep their eyes on the road and half a mind on the fact that sometimes life throws you a curveball. There is much to be learned from this simple metaphor for parenting.

Parents of these children - brave new explorers of primary school playgrounds, staff rooms in new jobs, traveller hostels and college campuses, should not advocate the mapped out, straightforward and unchallenging highway, but instead learn to live with a future filled with space, empty of what we can possibly know in advance- a future that holds sharp bends, roundabouts and stray kangaroos wandering across the road.Through this we instill resilience, adaptability, a young adult possessed of eyes wide open and brain engaged; primed to see the world as a place of wonder and possibility, better able to cope with some of the darker stuff.”