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Unpacking Life: What I have learnt about leaving a legacy

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I want you to imagine you have a backpack sitting in front of you. It has been in your family for generations, passed down from parent to child. This backpack holds all the characteristics and experiences that distinguish your family. It represents everything you inherited, both consciously and unconsciously.

Some of the items in your backpack will be useful and advantageous. Hard work, discipline, financial security and laughter may have been supporting your family for generations.  Your backpack may also include some things you wish weren’t there – abuse, neglect, bankruptcy, broken relationships or addictions.

The backpack comes with one golden opportunity.  When you have the backpack in your possession, you may alter its contents by adding or subtracting items. The addition or subtraction of items isn’t an easy job.  It will take a lot of time, hard work and dedication to make changes.  

Regardless of how enthusiastic any one person is, they can’t alter everything in their backpack in one lifetime. Yet, I believe that it is each generation’s responsibility to improve the contents of their bag before it is passed down to the next generation.  It’s our job to make it lighter, not heavier.

When our children see us taking responsibility for our backpack, we introduce them to courage, as opposed to blame, judgement or neglect. We help them understand that parenting is about leaving a legacy, and our decisions can be made with the future in mind. I can’t think of a greater gift to give a child than the knowledge that their mum or dad, held a challenge and threw it far to sea.

My Definition of Maturity

Unpacking a backpack takes bucketloads of maturity. However, maturity isn’t about an age. Nothing magical happens on a child’s 18th birthday, and I’ve seen some 40-year olds who are far less mature than some 16 year olds. Maturity is a mindset that we can foster in our children in so many ways.

I have seen those as young as 14, look in their backpack and start to deal with its contents. Many of these kids were living our of home and having to deal with a very heavy load. By default, they had to grow up early.  You may ask, should all our children have to take responsibility for their backpack at this age?  Great question!  

Understand that ALL of our children naturally start to process their childhood experiences during adolescence. Their brain replays childhood memories and they make meaning of experiences and trauma. During this time they BEGIN to open their backpack and review its contents. It’s an important part of their development, which has such an opportunity to help them understand the responsibility that comes with growing up.

How You can Help

It is wonderful that your teenager is under your wing while they are beginning to process their backpack. To help, I would like to make a few suggestions.  Firstly, example is everything. Secondly, each generation will see things differently and want to tackle their backpack their own way. We want to champion that. Here are some conversations that are important to have along the way:

  • Tell them that they can only conquer what is within their circle of power. They cannot change other people, or the past, but they can take ownership of their response to life as it presents itself. What they can embrace is their unique stamp on the world. Start conversations with, “You get to do things differently. I’m here to support that.”
  • Tell them that they will leave an impact on everyone they meet, but especially their family.  They have a unique and important contribution to their family line that will be remembered! Start conversations with, “One day your children and/or your community will celebrate your life. What kind of person will they celebrate?”
  • Tell them stories about their grandparents and the sacrifices they made for others.  Tell them stories about the failures and disappointments too. Tell them stories that help them understand humanity.  Make sure they age-appropriately know their family history. Start conversations with, “Your grandmother would want you to know this….”  
  • Tell them that their upbringing is valuable starting point in life, but it is not the end of the story. It will serve them well to take the time to get to know what they are working with.  Start conversations with, “What childhood memories do you want to be a part of your future? What things would you want to leave behind?”
  • Tell them that because backpacks come from infallible humans, they will never be perfect. Life isn’t always fair and people’s starting blocks aren’t the same. We must also understand this in our dealings with other people. Start conversations with, “Every person has a load to deal with. Sometimes we don’t see how heavy other people’s load is.”
  • Our knee-jerk reaction may be to shame and blame others, rather than take ownership of what we can (and often must).  Start conversations with, “You don’t have to make the same mistakes I did. The things you care deeply about are yours to embrace and I am here to help you reach for those things you desire.”

When Parents Lose Their Vision

Sports psychology tells us that the heavier the backpack that someone is carrying when mountain climbing, the more it impedes their vision. Someone with a heavy backpack is less likely to be able to see as clearly or as far as someone who is carrying a lighter load.  When we consider this in light of parenting, it is very easy to lose our way and become short sighted. It’s easy to just repeat what we have seen other generations do, instead of digging deep into what matters.

I always told teenagers that without a vision for their future, they will always return to their past. I told them this after they had been sexting, lying, taken advantage of and mistreated. Vision is important, for us as parents as well as teenagers. It gives us a reason to put one foot in front of the other.

I notice that many parents carry around a heavy, heavy load and feel outweighed by inherited hardship they didn’t ask for. It could be poverty, sickness, broken relationships or a history of abuse. They are literally overburdened and squashed by their backpacks. It paralyses them. 

Unconsciously they take off their backpack too early, before their race has been run. They put it on the shoulders of their children. The weight that they as an adult failed to carry, is now sitting on the shoulders of a 12, 15 or 18-year-old. It’s no wonder that so many of our kids collapse under the pressure.

When we fail to deal with our problems, they become our children’s problem. It’s that simple. But we also have to be realistic about what we can do in one lifetime, and how long it may take to truly conquer something.  Great parents are not perfect parents. They are parents who say, “The buck stops with me. This is my load and no matter how tough it is I am going to carry it.” 

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