Roots and Wings — Advice My Father Gave Me

By Jason Lockwood

When I was growing up, my dad would frequently, over the course of a family dinner, give us a speech. A journalist by trade, he had no trouble formulating his words, though I didn’t come to value them as much as when I was fully grown. The speech he gave most often consisted of the following opening: Your mother and I don’t tell you what to do or what to think; that’s up to you. What we do give you is roots and wings. The roots are your foundation and the wings are what you’ll use when you’re old enough to make your own decisions. I frequently would roll my eyes at this speech, not because I didn’t think it was true, but because he gave it so often it became almost a cliché. It sits along side the money doesn’t grow on trees maxim many fathers tell their children.

When I first left home at age 17, the oft-repeated words began to resonate with me. I’d arrived in Belgium for a year-long exchange programme, which was the first big challenge of my life. I had to learn to speak French well enough to talk to my host family, as well as the new kids at the collège I was to attend. This took effort and a lot of self-confidence. Over the course of that year, my French became very fluent, even though the home stay experience with my host family wasn’t the greatest. Still, I stuck it out, and I’m glad I did. I believe it forged in my teenage mind that some things are worth trying extra hard to succeed at, even if the process is arduous.

I was 17 in 1983. I mention the year because in the more than three decades since that time, I’ve come to realise just how critical the roots and wings speech was. My parents’ strong roots kept me grounded when I could have given up. My own wings allowed me to flourish on my own terms without asking permission from others, or worrying whether others approved of me or my choices.

The crux of all this is that my parents instilled in me an independence of spirit that has stuck with me over the decades. It’s given me the strength to figure out for myself what I want my life to be. It’s also given me a strong sense of serenity that many people want for themselves, but often struggle to acquire.

I think about this matter constantly as I watch my partner Steven’s two daughters come of age. They’re 15 and 17 years old now, and I met them when they were 10 and 12. Steven wants his girls to be as independent as possible, which in practical terms means: learning to drive, getting part time jobs, figuring how to get around the city using public transport, and generally being confident in their own abilities. When they’re 25 and 27, I fully expect they’ll have found good jobs, homes, and perhaps even loving partners of their own. By the time they’re in their late 30s and early 40s, they’ll have established their own lives, whether they live in Sydney or elsewhere, and they’ll be able to reflect back on their childhood and their own father’s sage advice to them.

This is what I hope for them. But we all know this is tricky, under the circumstances. Steven is a gay dad, like most GAMMA members. Steven has also had his fair share of disagreements with his ex-wife, some of which have been about the manner in which the girls are raised. When I was younger, I thought all parents wanted their children to become independent. It was normal, right? Why on earth would a parent want to control a child, as opposed to teach him how to thrive on his own? I haven’t got the answer to this question, but I do know that some parents see their children as extensions of themselves. A good example of this behaviour is the expectation that a son will play football just like dad did. Or the daughter will go to school formals just like mum did. What if Johnny or Susie prefer to stay home and read a book? What if Johnny is happiest when he’s playing the piano or Susie finds great contentment in writing short stories? In other words, what happens when reality comes calling and the controlling parent begins to grasp that his child is a different person, not just a ‘mini-me’? All hell can break loose when a maturing child asserts his own personality. A good parent will encourage the child to pursue his own interests, whilst the bad parent will assert his authority, trying to squelch the child’s interests or worse, belittle them. There is nothing worse than a child who comes to resent his parents at a young age. That child will grow into adulthood thinking parents are a necessary evil, and he’ll want little or nothing to do with his nagging mum or tyrannical dad.

In my case, as I got older, I came to see my parents as sages. They had long since stopped offering me advice, but when I asked them questions when I was puzzled about something, their extra decades of living enabled them to offer advice that I could take to heart. When it came time for me to find an editor for my first book, I didn’t hesitate to ask my mother to do the job. I knew that her sixty years of experience as a writer and editor would serve me well. In the end, my dad’s speech wasn’t about two mutually exclusive things. Both the roots and the wings are complimentary values. Yes, I do fly on my own, but sometimes going back to my roots is a fine thing. I feel like a whole person, knowing I can rely on someone who has gained incredible expertise in living, but also knowing I was raised to be as independent as I possibly can be.