Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Sweet dreams are made of this

Emirates Parent Plus. May 2010.

At the end of her first day in grade-I at a local school in China, Ma Xiuxian thanked her teacher and five year-old classmates. A front-bencher, Ma, promised to study hard and contribute to the country. She is 102 years old.

Starting work in a cotton mill at 13, she was married at 18 and has produced nine children, seven of whom she has seen through to university. One would think Ma’s contribution to the country was complete many times over but there seems to be more in her arsenal; and she’s not beginning to hold back now.

For the family, she sold much of her jewellery. For herself, she caressed a dream. That dream has now come true.

This is not something many of us can even comprehend. But ingest this: Ma Xiuxian, at 102, is not just one of the eldest living people on earth, she is its oldest formal student – a first grader with 12 more years of schooling to complete. Her reasons, whatever they might be, can only inspire.

In April 2010, a very old woman created history. She held a dream in her heart and lived it through her children. Nine times over. And when it came to be her turn, it took a century. But it did – she wouldn’t have it any other way. And that’s the point.

Dreams. We all have them. Some, we sleep through; others, we pursue. Still many, we let go of. Opportunity, time, circumstance, intent... familiar words from cocktail evenings and coffee mornings? They make great conversation. They also rule our lives.

But there is another kind of dream: the kind that will not go away. Whether it is a subconscious catalyst or actively sought after, it is what makes us who we are. We can all dream about winning the lottery and never spend another waking moment answering someone else. Or we can master the simple art of persistence and never give up on that one thing that will make us happy for now and pave the path for more satisfaction forever.

We tend to forget this so often. The other day, my son, high on air guitar and out of breath, declared, I want to become the greatest rock star! He has just started guitar lessons and at eight years old, shows immense promise. But tell him to practice his chords and the excuses come pouring out. I don’t want to villianise something as uplifting as music, so, albeit grudgingly, I stop myself. And every time I do, I am painfully aware that I might well be leaving him alone, at a point so close to the line between ‘wanting’ and ‘having’. So close to the point of boundless joy.

We want the best for our children. We also want the best for us. But modern thinkers spend so much advise on ‘not pushing’ and ‘letting them be’ to ‘come into their own’, that something fundamental seems to be forgotten.

To want to succeed, is a basic instinct. We are always pushing the limit. Consider a pair of jeans that will not slide up easily. We tug at it, don’t we. It is in our natural behaviour to try and try. If comfortable, we keep it on, if not, we put it away. We remember to get the next size up when we spot that brand again. Or, in the case of a weight-conscious fashionista, the resolve is to take the self, one size down. Bottom line: we learn.

Think of any task we undertake, however big or small. This is the pattern we follow. No one asks us to stop then, so why are we being bludgeoned with arguments against optimising our child’s performance, specially when that child wants and has it in him or her to excel? At work, that coveted promotion comes by only if the results show cause. That is the universal rule.

The examples are here and now. In doing everything we can to lay out the best for our children and for our lives, the models are already in place. And our children see them all. They can see that we don’t settle for the first choice (unless, of course, that is what we are looking for). And they can see that we will, more often than not, get them what they want - what is best for them. The pattern runs again, until we come up against a wall that cannot be scaled. Nature also teaches us to avoid those.

But first, there has to be that ardent wanting for something. Will we succeed? Not until we go ahead and try, will we? We know this. And I teach it to my child, consciously, every day, much against some self-professed well-wishers whose intentions I am beginning to strongly suspect. Yes, there is a limit beyond which any action starts to fray its very purpose. With children and their vastly disparate potentials, however, there simply cannot be ‘a’ rule. ‘Best practice’ is all very well, and mostly, it is best practiced. But with reason.

My son can become a good guitarist one day. He wants to, anyway. But just how far is he going to get without wanting it badly enough and doing something about it? A dream is only as strong as the dreamer. In the same vein, hope is the essence of life, the root of aspiration and the motive behind work. There has to be an aim. And guiding such aim to fruition, there has to be a Xiuxianesque spirit – as discrete as suitable and as lavish as necessary.

Teach them young. Seed aspiration and motivate success; it is the natural way to be. And ... dream. Dream big.