zig-zags: finding your own path

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We’re in the middle of one of our marathon painting sessions. “Mummy, zigzags are pretty, aren’t they,” my young daughter says, as she swipes her brush up and down over the paper. What results is a zigzag of truly magnificent proportions, but one that also veers wildly off one edge of the paper and on to the table. She grins up at me and I sigh. Mess and creativity seem to always go hand in hand.

But I can’t help but agree with her. Something about the sheer unevenness of her zigzag is immensely appealing. I look at my own page, which, as usual, is covered in one of my carefully constructed patterns consisting of even blocks of colour. The edges might be neat but there is not the slightest big of edginess to my artwork. I hope that as my daughter grows she manages to retain some of her desire to just see what happens, to not keep within the lines, to try an alternative or to look at a splodge of paint that accidentally drips from her brush and turn it into a purple monster instead. I want her to learn to see the possibility and not just the rules.

And I fervently hope that the same happens as she works her way through the school system and beyond. As it is, I have to restrain myself from steering her too much. Should I be doing intensive English reading and writing with her now or wait? Should she have already started piano lessons or wait another year? And what if she doesn’t make it into the academic programme at secondary level at the first round? Is that our cue to bring in the tutors or should we back off and let her develop at her own pace?

It’s hard to resist the call of convention and to step off the path. But it’s almost just as hard to remain on the path but take your own sweet time, dreaming a little here, trying something there. As a primary aged child I always knew I would go to university upon finishing school because my parents told me so. But now, many years later, I find myself reluctant to tell my daughter the same thing. Does it really matter if she doesn’t go to university straight away? What if she never goes at all? Will her world stop spinning or only her mother’s?

We live in an age of new and disappearing careers, debt, delayed parenthood, delayed or immediate gratification, celebrity, extreme poverty and extreme wealth, and just about anything else you can get your head around. And I personally live in a world where I know of many people who started out on the conventional path – university, first job, second job, marriage, kids, promotion and so on (in whichever order) but who got derailed on the way or simply jumped off to find something different. Regrets? Probably for some, but I also know that for a few their regret is that they clung so long to what they thought they should be doing.

So how can I then tell my daughter that the conventional path is the one towards which she must work? And what right do I have to speak for her anyway? It’s hard to resist the pull of what I ‘should’ and therefore what she ‘should’ be doing. When other kids her age are playing the cello or doing ballet, learning tennis or golf, or going to intensive language programmes I start to experience a small niggle of worry that I’m not doing the right thing by my daughter. Will it be my fault that she eventually languishes in a second rate job, no prospects and no drive? Is getting her to do those worksheets every day the only way to give her a solid foundation on which she can continue to build, as she moves her way up and up?

As I look at my daughter with her paintbrush I think of some of some of the kids I used to work with in schools when I was a careers counsellor. No-hopers, some of them would have been called. One school was for kids considered disadvantaged, including some fresh out of juvenile jail, on drugs, on the streets, or simply lost to the system. But nearly all these children developed, sooner or later, the ability to make their own decisions, to forge their own paths. Some went on to university, some to technical or vocational colleges, others to apprenticeships, and others to a whole range of different work experiences. It might have taken them a bit longer, but in the end they’d taken ownership of their decision-making, calling the final shots themselves.

Running into some of them in the years since then has only reinforced my belief that we should be allowed take our time, and that the most valuable lesson we can teach our children is that there is no one way to do things. The world won’t stop spinning, and our path will be all the more interesting for it. This is when I think of some of the students I worked with in a university, coming to me because they found themselves in courses in which they had no interest, pushed there by parents focused on doing the right thing by their children. But here they were, enrolled in expensive degrees and loathing every minute. Courses such as engineering, law and medicine might suit some students down to the ground, but just because these are the more lucrative and ‘safe’ careers does not mean they will suit everybody. I shudder to think of my daughter doing something for me and not because she wants to do it, even if I know she has the aptitude to succeed.

As I look back at my own career path I can clearly see the twists and turns. No, I haven’t been in juvenile jail, but I’ve changed countries twice, been self-employed a few times, gone back to study twice, changed careers, and not one move do I regret. How boring, I think now, if I had stayed on the path on which I took my very first step. And while I still would like my daughter to be secure and successful, more than anything I want her to have the satisfaction of knowing that she is the one picking and choosing and even creating the paths upon which she will eventually tread.

Now my daughter puts down her brush. Her painting smock is even more colourful than when we started and one sleeve is actually dripping red paint. With a big smile, she holds up her picture for me to see. “This one’s a present for you, Mummy, because I know you like zigzags.” And yes, I do.