Wednesday June 13, 2012
Essence of fatherhood
By VALENTINE CAWLEY
NOTHING changes a man – or defines him – more than fatherhood. To bring a new life into the world is to completely transform the meaning and purpose of one’s own. Before fatherhood, life is lived for Self, by most people, but after fatherhood, life is lived for Other. That shift from Self to Other permeates every aspect of life and redefines its whole purpose and meaning.
Indeed, fatherhood gives life a higher meaning, for it connects one to the eternal future of the human race. To become a father is to begin a process whose consequences may endure for the rest of time. It conjoins one’s own life to all the human life to come. There is something very magical in that, if one is able to perceive its fullness, even for an instant.
I became a father on Nov 23, 1999, to my first son, Ainan Celeste Cawley. I have since fathered two more sons – Fintan Nadym Cawley in 2003 and Tiarnan Hasyl Cawley in 2006. Each has brought new meanings to my life and each has, also, taught me more of what it means to be human. The richest part of my life has been all the years since I became a father – for I have seen, felt and learnt things I could not possibly have predicted.
For me, it is most special to be able to witness the uniqueness of my sons ... the way they think that, I judge, no one else does. It is in unexpected experiences that I find them most telling.
Once, for instance, when Fintan was three, my wife Syahidah placed a cowboy hat on his head and left him to his own devices.
Later, she saw him running around the house from one room to another.
“Fintan, why are you running around?”
“I am trying to catch my horse ... it has run away,” he explained.
He continued to run.
Some time later, he stood still in his room, looking at something that wasn’t there.
“What happened?” Syahidah asked him.
“Oh, I shot my horse,” he confided. “First, I tied him up, then I shot him.”
He was quite satisfied to have solved the problem of the horse that just wouldn’t sit still.
The imagination of a child is most precious – for in the mind of an imaginative child, all is possible. If a parent is open to this imagination, they will find it revives them mentally and shows them things they could not have understood for themselves. It will also lead them to a deeper appreciation of their children and the world that they live in – and which lives inside them. Most importantly, however, it will allow the child the freedom to grow into a creative, fulfilled and happy child.
What is important about this story is not the comedy of it – but how Syahidah reacted. She did what I believe all parents should do with their children; she exemplified one of my principles of parenting: acceptance. The parent should accept the child as they are – and not impose their own views, beliefs, outlooks or purposes on the child. Let the child grow their own vision of the world – and let them have their own purposes within it.
Some parents might have scoffed at the “silly” game their son was playing, with an invisible and unruly horse – but we did not: we accepted that, for Fintan, there was a horse there and he had a problem of how to make it obey him. He solved the problem in his own, rather comical, way.
As has been written before, I am the father of a child prodigy, Ainan, who is now a student at Taylor’s University (Subang Jaya, Selangor) on its American Degree Program. This makes people very curious as to what we did to allow a child such as Ainan to become. Well, as I reflected on the journey we have taken, I came to realise that my wife and I had abided by seven parenting principles:
> The first principle is to listen to the child ... to really listen to what they are saying and not just to pretend to do so.
> The second principle is to appreciate what they are saying, doing and being – to really think positively about it, without reservation.
> The third principle is to accept them as they are, and not try to make them into something they are not.
> The fourth principle is to understand them, as deeply as you can – to really see into them, and try to know, in the deepest sense, why they do, say and feel what they do. Let that inform your every interaction with them.
> The fifth principle is to encourage them to become what you have come to understand they should become. You must do your best to enable them to grow so as to allow their ideal self to emerge, to the fullest.
> The sixth principle is to put the children first, before oneself. This is the principle that requires most sacrifice and is perhaps the most difficult for modern parents. Yet, as I look back on how we raised our children, it is clear that we have put their needs before our own.
After all, we emigrated (from Singapore to Malaysia), just so our eldest son could get a proper education. That, in a way, says it all, about how we parent our children.
> The seventh principle is to talk to them responsively – that is to really engage in the conversation, rather than treat the child’s words as unimportant. Treat each conversation as if it were one of the most important in the world.
As an example of some of these principles at work, I recall a day, two years ago, when Tiarnan was just four years old. We were at dinner, where many a good conversation transpires. Tiarnan looked across the table at me, his eyes intent on understanding something eminently mysterious.
“Where are you from, Daddy?” he began, with evident mystification, “How were you made?”
“I have a mummy and a daddy, too. I was a baby once.”
Tiarnan has rarely seen either of my parents. Thus, he doesn’t think of me as a person with parents.
He was unsatisfied with that. He saw a basic problem with my explanation.
“And them?” he continued, determinedly, “Where do they come from?”
“They had mummies and daddies, too,” I said, to his all-absorbing eyes. “Everyone does.”
“Even aliens have mummies and daddies?” he queried, without missing a beat.
“Yes, Tiarnan, even aliens have mummies and daddies,” I said, reassuringly.
Tiarnan’s tongue grew still. Yet, I could see that his question was not fully settled in his mind.
I let him think on – as any good father should.
● Irishman Valentine Cawley, 44, is a locally based psychology researcher focusing on giftedness. He is also chairman of the Research Committee of the National Association for Gifted Children, Malaysia (NAGCM). He has been a writer, actor, magazine founder and editor, physicist and teacher. Married to Singaporean-born artist Syahidah Osman, he is happiest, though, to be a father to their three sons. He keeps a blog on giftedness at scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com.