August! Winter. Winds. Athletics Carnivals and… the Brisbane Exhibition (Ekka). I admit to feeling nostalgic. It’s decades since I clutched a strawberry ice-cream cone at the Ekka; or lined up impatiently for Tasmanian chips; or watched the woodchopping or sheepdog trials in fascination but I’m missing those experiences – yet another example of craving that which I cannot have or hold. It’s a COVID moment really, wanting the things I should have loved a little (or a lot) more, when they were in reach.
I remember sitting on the train bound for the Ekka with my mother and sisters so many years ago. I was in tears. The four dollars that I had saved painstakingly for what had seemed to be an eternity; those two crisp green two-dollar notes with their pictures of famous Australians, (males of course) – William Farrer and John Macarthur – along with images of wheat and wool, were sitting in a wallet on the back seat of my mother’s car, adjacent to the Indooroopilly train station. No reassurance from my mother or my sisters that they would loan me $4 could allay my sobbing – it simply wasn’t the same. Those two notes that had slowly materialised from coins in a jar were more special than that. For months, I had dreamt of the exchange of that specific money, those two crisp bills, for a Cadbury’s Sample bag, a Bertie Beatle bag, or perhaps a ride on the chair-o-plane – possibly, even, all three. My response was totally irrational I’m sure, and I imagine there was some furtive eye rolling happening between my older sisters, but I remember that moment more than the trip to the Ekka that year. In many ways it is my most powerful memory of the Brisbane Exhibition.
Why? Because I had earned that money, every cent of it, myself. It was an early foray into the world of independence. I was not a conscientious saver and so this was an achievement for me. Pocket money had to be earned and birthday money was rare; saving was an agony for me, but I had a goal and I had achieved it with the determination that I usually saved for other important enterprises – like shooting more goals than my sisters, or clearing a higher height than them at ‘elastics’. There is something precious in doing something on your own, especially when it’s hard, and saving was hard for me. Melbourne Age journalist, Richard Glover reminds us as parents not to rob our children of such understanding. In our quest for them to experience success, to achieve at a higher standard than we did, and to do so without delay, without hard work, is to rob them of the necessary skills for life itself; skills required of us all at any time and magnified in the midst of a pandemic. He puts it this way; ‘Parents want to help and, if they can, they should. Just as long as the way they do it doesn’t steal so much more from their children than has been given’ (Glover, 2013). Don’t do too much. Don’t intervene when it’s not appropriate. Don’t rob them of the skills to negotiate the world, their world. Let them achieve independence: let them.
On Tuesday, at Assembly, a large group of Senior School girls crossed the stage to receive their Semester 1 Academic Certificate. There were familiar faces and there were new faces too – girls who I know have worked with determination to achieve that goal; girls for whom an academic award reflects more than reaches the eye. In each award there is an individual story and I imagine that not one girl who walks the stage for that purpose has done so without hard work. What I love, nonetheless, is seeing a girl who I know has set this as her goal and worked at it, independently, perhaps even fiercely, and sometimes over a long period of time. Self-mastery at its best. The learning inherent in that moment is rich – as rich as I felt all those years ago when I clutched my cherished crisp, green $2 notes and dreamt of their exchange.
If I recounted this story to my mother, she would probably be stunned to think that I can recall it at all, let alone in such detail. She would be stunned that I can elicit a tale of significant learning out of something so ordinary. But as in so many ordinary childhood moments, I admit to being grateful to both my parents, forever the greatest teachers in my life. Good or bad, we are teachers by example, as all parents are. My parents have never been rescuers, although I’ve thirsted for that on occasion; they’ve modelled hard work, although I’ve sought the easy path at times, but their greatest gift was allowing me to develop independence: that’s why that four dollars mattered so much to 10-year-old Linda.
To let go as a parent doesn’t just mean letting our children go off independently. It also means letting go of our own, sometimes unfair, expectations of them, or our need to entwine our own wants too closely into our hopes for them. Educator and psychologist, Haim Ginott, writes of the slow but requisite relinquishment of control that is a fundamental part of effective parenting. If you’ve taught your daughter or son to ride a bike; walk to school without you; or to drive a car and then waved them off as they have jumped into a car to travel kilometres solo – or left them at boarding school, then you’ve begun the journey. Ginott speaks of this letting go process as parents’ finest hour; to let go when we desperately want to hold on tight is, in his words, an act of ‘painful greatness’ (Ginott, in Bennett and Rowe, 2003, p.246).
Adolescents’ quest for independence is often dichotomous – there is an intrinsic drive to be separate from parents whilst at other times a need to be strongly knitted to them – and it’s confusing for them as well as for us. Adolescents need to define themselves separately from their parents, lest they never become independent adults. Some do this more cautiously than others. Some more respectfully. Some more healthily – and some not so healthily – but it’s important that they do and that we somehow endure the experience. In a cleverly constructed blog entry entitled, ‘Parent Corner: The Letter Your Teenager Can’t Write You’, author and parent Gretchen Schmeltzer writes as if in the voice of an adolescent girl – she captures the paradox of a teenage girl’s simultaneous and often contradictory quest for independence and dependence with incisiveness:
I need this fight even though I hate it too. It doesn’t matter what this fight is even about: curfew, homework, laundry, my messy room, going out, staying in, leaving, not leaving, boyfriend, girlfriend, no friends, bad friends. It doesn’t matter. I need to fight you on it, and I need you to fight me back. I desperately need you to hold the other end of the rope. To hang on tightly while I thrash on the other end—while I find the handholds and footholds in this new world, I feel like I am in. I used to know who I was, who you were, who we were. But right now, I don’t. Right now, I am looking for my edges and I can sometimes only find them when I am pulling on you. (Schmeltzer, 2015)
My magnificent meltdown on the train to the Brisbane Exhibition was not so much about the possibility of missing out on an Ekka strawberry ice-cream cone, or a coveted showbag or even ham sandwiches from the Queensland Butter Board stand – it was about having lost my newly found independence. It was about having to be dependent again when I had, ever so briefly, savoured the sweetest taste of liberation … I had metaphorically stood on my own two feet. I couldn’t articulate that thought, of course, in any other way than a tearful tantrum. This is my most powerful memory of a childhood August ... a foray into independence - one of my parents’ most precious gifts to me: ever. AUGUST!
Bennett, D., and Rowe, L. (2003). ‘What to do when your children turn into TEENAGERS’ Random House, Australia.
Glover, R. (2013). ‘The best reason for not buying your child a property.’ DOMAIN. October 29, 2013
Schmeltzer, G. (2015). ‘Parent Corner: The Letter Your Teenager Can’t Write You’