Monthly Archives: November 2012

Sugar and Spice and Being Horrid

Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of. Except, it seems, when they’re cracking bottles over each other’s heads, calling each other fat cows, spreading offensive, defamatory rumours or disinviting each other from parties, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger.

I’m sure many parents were distressed by recent reports of the 15-year old schoolgirl at Krugersdorp High School in Johannesburg who attacked a fellow pupil with a glass bottle. This incident seemed to be at the tail end of a string of bullying and harassing incidents that had passed between these particular girls.

We should be distressed but not surprised. 

Many teachers, parents and psychologists have become increasingly aware over the last couple of years of an apparent rise in female bullying. This is sometimes called ‘relational aggression’ as physical assault usually plays only a small part in the pattern of behaviour.

Relational aggression includes spreading rumours, verbally insulting, exclusion from friendship groups and hostile and dismissive body language. It is different from the normal conflicts that occasionally flare up between girls, in that the aggression is persistent and relentless, usually targeting on one or two individuals. It can happen anywhere and in any age group, but it is most commonly played out in school settings and is most intense in the middle school, between grades 6 to 10.  

As I said earlier, I believe girl-on-girl bullying has become more common, partly as a result of the availability of more instant forms of communication. A study of young people, conducted in South Africa in 2009 by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention, found that about 25% of them had been bullied by means of text messages, and that almost 70% of text messaging bullies had been bullied themselves through sms. 

Why is this verbal bullying more common amongst girls? Partly it’s because girls generally invest more in friendships than boys do, and so the stakes are much higher, the hurt greater, when conflicts arise. Words are the instrument of affection but also the weapon of choice.

Any girl can be a victim or aggressor, and many issues can incite incidents. But one common thread that runs through these fights is the social isolation of a victim so that the status of the in-group is enhanced. Ring-leaders of the in-groups might resent competition from the victim or want more attention for themselves, and it’s not uncommon for those leaders to have an unstable self-esteem, one that is easily threatened by new voices and competing influences.

The chief bully in the group is often a seemingly popular and charming girl whom parents and teachers like and give lots of attention to. In other words, not the sort of person who would automatically be suspected of such behaviour. queen bee and enabler

The American parenting educator, Rosalind Wiseman, describes these girls as “queen bees”. She points out that other girls often hover around queen bees out of fear of being excluded from their approval, and that the queen bee (or mean girl or ruler of the clique) is often not well liked by her peers, but that she makes them afraid.

Complicating matters for all parties – parents, targets and teachers – is that the very nature of relational aggression makes it more difficult to detect and take seriously.

If a girl comes to you and says that her friends have started turning away from her when she approaches, rolling their eyes at her when she speaks, or telling others that she is fat, you might not understand that this is part of a relentless campaign that happens behind your back. Victims often fail to report what has happened and can suffer for a long time without being helped. 

Johannesburg psychologist Lesley Rosenthal adds that “Part of the problem is that girls are socialised to be good and nice and compliant and people pleasers and therefore project a false self to the world. Social competition and aggression are denied and frowned upon as unfeminine. So the behaviour gets expressed covertly, through the bitchy meanness manifest in relational aggression.”

So much for sugar and spice and the world of nursery rhymes. It’s much more the little girl, who had a little curl, “right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very good indeed, but when she was bad she was horrid.”

Boredom: a melancholy truth

Boredom is a melancholy truth of life. Charles Dickens is credited with the first recorded use of the word boredom in his 1852 novel Bleak House. Now, 158 years later, it’s still with us. Despite our overly busy world, with our senses strained by multimedia and the frenetic pace of life and work, we still experience boredom.

If you’re in any doubt, remember the school holidays are approaching – that might bring back memories of restless children moaning about the emptiness of their lives.

Boredom is an inevitable part of life and a crucial part of childhood. Reed Larson, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, conducted research in which he gave children beepers to indicate when they were bored. Larson concluded that for about a third of time at school and a quarter of time at home, children felt bored.

But what does “boredom” mean? Mostly we think of it as something bad, a lack of stimulation. If only we did more for our kids, or their teachers were more charismatic, or they had better toys or we arranged more exciting outings for them, they would not be bored.

In my view, boredom is not usually the result of a lack of stimulation. More stimulation often makes children feel restless, easily distracted and unable to focus sustained attention. This leaves them feeling there is always something more exciting somewhere else and they haven’t got it.

When a child says, “I’m bored,” you could say something sarcastic like, “If you’re so bored, why don’t you clean your room?” Or you could ask yourself if something else is happening. Boredom can also be a way of your child indicating tiredness. It might also be expression of a need for your attention or affection, even contact with a friend.

British psychologist Dr Richard Ralley believes being bored is “a signal to stop doing other things and to re-engage socially – social activity is best: a beach trip, playing football, having a picnic.”

As a parent, the thing to avoid is always leaping in with more structured and organised play. Many parents think it’s their job to entertain their children continuously or cart them off to numerous sport or cultural activities. The danger is we generate passive children who cannot problem-solve themselves out of boredom. As a sometimes distracted parent, I am struck by how often a “bored” child, receiving short shrift from a harassed mother, soon ends up doing something surprisingly imaginative on his or her own.

Think of boredom as an occasional, naturally occurring emotional state. Sometimes it means the child needs to take stock and rest after a period of stimulation. At other times it signifies the child feels a need, after a period of inactivity, to do something constructive. Left alone, the child will probably think of something.

Dr Jane Nelsen, educator and author of Positive Discipline, says it is reasonable to expect pre-schoolers to amuse themselves while you do a few chores, and for an older child to be able to entertain his or herself for one to two hours. There are risks involved, and for children who are too poorly monitored or who are already unhappy or angry, boredom can become a gateway to trouble.

When bored children blame their parents, or even their teachers, for their lack of stimulation, it might be a sign that the adult can do something differently. But, equally, boredom can be seen as a temporary failure of imagination, a shirking of responsibility. Left to themselves, bored children lose interest in finger-pointing and begins to invent something.

In other words, it is your child’s basic human right to be bored! This state is a stimulus for daydreaming, the kind of relaxed brain state in which creative imagination grows, a space in which self-reflection and self-discovery begins. Don’t chain your children to everyday life all the time – let them break free and discover the huge potential in constructive boredom.

Minding the Gap

After 12 years of formal schooling, many students feel burnt out. “The chase for the prize begins early…It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who have won all the ‘prizes’, stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it… [they] sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp.” 

So says William Fitzsimmons, the Dean of Admissions at Harvard, who has written on the importance of student’s taking time out to avoid burnout and get off the relentless conveyor belt that runs from preschool to grave.

Increasingly I am aware of young South Africans taking gap years. This is a year off from formal study or training, usually taken at the end of high school. Some kids will also take their gap year after finishing with some basic studies, before moving onto more specialised or postgraduate studies.

Fitzsimmons reckons that the effect of a gap year is “…uniformly positive. In fact about 20 percent of Harvard students follow the practice of ‘time-out’ at some point before graduation. Harvard’s overall graduation rate of 97% is among the highest in the nation, perhaps in part because so many students take time off.”

The advantages of a gap year are potentially numerous. A young person could:

The world is in your hands

  • Have a change of pace after school
  • Have a new experience and make new friends
  • Experience potential life choices or careers
  • Make money for future studies
  • Mature and gain perspective on their own values and goals
  • Expand horizons and learn more about the world
  • Face life without the comforts and protection of what’s familiar and predictable
  • Volunteer to help make the world a better place: teaching, building, giving back

Of course, there are risks. Parents who consult me about the decision to allow their teenager to take a gap year are nervous about their kid’s safety. They are especially nervous about the “new experiences” and “making new friends” parts – they translate this into drugs, sex and never coming back. They fear the gap year will became a gap decade. Many parents worry that their child will become sidetracked, lose skills or motivation, and never enrol for further study or training. But typically the benefits of a gap year far outweigh the risks. 

If you and your child are contemplating a gap year, understand that a gap year is not the same as doing nothing. A gap year should be a reasoned, proactive choice, not a default situation because your kid forgot to submit the application forms to the local Technikon. A kid who has no specific plan for a gap year is unlikely to grow socially, emotionally or intellectually from hanging around the family living room. A kid who is listless, depressed, angry, abusing alcohol and other substances is not necessarily going to have a miraculous turn-around just because she has a year away from formal activity.

Manage the potential risks by being clear about how the year is to be structured and funded. What are you able and prepared to contribute? Help your child prepare a realistic and detailed budget for the year, and make him realise that he must take some or all responsibility for finances. A gap year should be finite and have a carefully considered time frame.

Discuss the range of possibilities for the gap year. Travelling the world is one, but so are working in various jobs, taking part-time courses to develop new skills or joining volunteer organisations overseas. It is often reassuring if kids travel and work with a buddy or as part of a group of friends. There are even businesses that offer structured gap year programmes for a fee – some are reputable and worthwhile, while others are apparently glorified scams.

Finally, assess your child as an individual and make decisions about the merits of a gap year in relation to each child’s specific personality, needs and abilities.

Fitzsimmons suggests that “parents and students alike could profit from redefining success as fulfilment of the student’s own aims, usually yet to be discovered. Burn-out is an inevitable result of trying to live up to alien goals. Time out can promote discovery of one’s own passions.”

Money, money, money: parenting and the recession

When I was young we were so poor we lived in a shoebox. 

We walked to school in the snow, listened to the radio, watched the test pattern and for a special treat shared an ice cream at the corner café. We wore hand-me-down clothes and nobody laughed. There were no designer cell phones, sneakers or R600 Playstation games.

Today our kids hang out in shopping malls, are driven to school, insist on DC shoes, watch tv in their rooms and for a special treat are dropped off at U-parties with 200 bucks in their pockets in the company of friends who say, “Yo, dawg!” and “Hey, bru!” and who all know the difference between Mr Price and Iron Fist clothing.

Times have changed. The new jargon is retrenched, downsized and credit crunched. We are in a recession and, while I don’t believe in the golden age of the past, where money is concerned there are a few lessons we can learn from our own parents.

Your parents may have been economical with the truth on issues like sex and politics, but they were most likely honest about money and the importance of being frugal. That kind of directness is important. Don’t pretend to children that nothing’s changed since the recession began. Discuss realities about money honestly and age-appropriately, and don’t over-protect children from the reality of your situation.

Opening these channels of communication about money can help children to value it for what it enables us to do and experience, while not overvaluing it for its own sake. In your talk and actions model the idea that money is important but not the main signifier of success.

One way to teach kids the appropriate value of money is by drawing up a family budget together, and discussing the main components. Then agree on a certain amount of pocket money each week in return for specific chores, according to the age and needs of a child. With chores, a clear relationship between work and money is set up early on. As part of their budget, also insist that a certain percentage of pocket money, for example 15%, is set aside for savings.

It is also worth encouraging an entrepreneurial attitude in your child. True entrepreneurs may be born not made, but all of us can improve our enterprising skills. A kid I know has been selling bird feeders. My friend’s child wants to make a lemonade stand like the one he saw in a tv programme – with a little effort he could make money the next time Walk the Talk passes by his house.

Even if you and your family are not very good entrepreneurs, it’s not difficult to adopt a creative approach to living life that makes or saves money, rather than simply splashing out money on restaurants, holidays and malls. Creative activities that are not expensive include: walk in parks or on the beach if you are lucky enough to live at the coast; making birthday cards; meeting friends and family in the park for a picnic; building hideaway dens in the garden; using materials from your recycling bin for your kids to build objects with; or helping your child to use wooden blocks to make a play house for his hamster. And keep a lookout in the press, local newsletters and internet sites like Jozikids for various inexpensive activities.

But what happens if, despite your best intentions, your children are obsessed with designer labels and will only wear Ed Hardy or AmaKipKip? They could certainly save or earn some of the money for these, but don’t be emotionally blackmailed into believing that having the right clothes will make a child happy and popular. At the same time don’t be a hypocrite – if you will only wear Prada what do you think your child will want?

In the end, parenting in a recession is about reclaiming one thing our parents may have got right in the past – we are not entitled to have money so look after it carefully.


The First Day of School

  I don’t know who was more nervous about my son’s first day of grade 1, me or him. On the surface I had been positive and he was full of bravado but the unconscious told a different story – I’d had bad dreams and he had taken up sleepwalking.

At school children will experience some of their greatest challenges, successes, failures and humiliations. In separating from their parents they will learn about how the world works, about managing social interactions and about people outside their own families. They will face up to their strengths, weaknesses, interests and who they are socially, but not without some anxiety along the way.

Most children have similar sorts of worries around starting school. I asked three young kids what they remembered about that first day, and here’s what they said

1. “I thought I wouldn’t pass because I wasn’t clever at that time.”

2. “I was worried the kids would be mean to me and I wouldn’t find my way back.”

3. “I didn’t know who would play with me.”

These are typical concerns along with “How will I know what to do and where to go?”, “Where are the bathrooms?”, “What about bullies?”, “Do I need to be able to read or write or spell already?”, and “Can I cope with saying goodbye to mom or dad and will I cry?”

Such worries can make even a well-adjusted child anxious. And that anxiety or fear can build up in a child’s mind, leading them to act on it in many ways — from tummy aches and sleep problems to out-and-out refusal to go to school.

If parents have mixed feelings (such as guilt or anxiety) about sending a child to school, this can add to the child’s reluctance. A child’s experience starting school is influenced by their parents’ feelings and attitudes.

Parents of young kids often feel emotional as they send their child off for the first day of big school. Kids can pick up on that nervousness, making their own worries even more intense. Months of buildup to the start of school, talking about it as a big event, can also make a child anxious.

What if the first week of school arrives and a child still doesn’t want to go to school? He or she might not say it directly, but rather claim to have a tummy ache or a sore throat that quickly disappears once it’s decided to keep him or her home from school. Kids might hide when it’s time to get ready to go to school, or throw temper tantrums. Anxiety can also cause a child to have trouble sleeping or have nightmares while they’re sleeping. Little ones especially may become very clingy especially if they aren’t used to being away from parents during the day. If you don’t deal with the anxiety and its causes, it can get out of control very easily. A vicious cycle is set up when an overly sensitive parent keeps an anxious child at home, only for it to be even more difficult to send the child to school the following day.

So, no matter what, parents shouldn’t let anxiety keep kids away from school. All of these signs of worry may end soon after the start of school. But if they continue for several weeks, talk to the teacher and get some guidance.

What Parents Can Do To Help Their Child

  • Show interest and be supportive. Take your kid’s fears seriously. Don’t criticise, mock or tease as they are easily humiliated. Talk to your children about their anxieties and help them articulate these. As I have written before, speaking fears out as words diminishes their unspoken power and renders them normal.
  • Talk to your child about what to expect – the activities, the schedule and the other children.
  • Share your own memories of school –  be generally positive, but realistic. Your own experience can be an opportunity to model coping strategies
  • Read books about going to school.
  • If possible take your child to school to get used to the layout (where his classroom is, where the bathrooms are, which desk is his, etc.) and to introduce him to the teacher. Many schools have orientation programmes for pupils starting Grade R or Grade 1 – these are extremely useful to attend.
  • Identify a buddy at school – this can decrease apprehension about being alone in the new setting.
  • Get your child in a routine some time before school starts, going to bed earlier and waking up earlier.
  • Make the getting-ready-for-school ritual as stress-free as possible. For example, with your child’s help lay out all books and clothes the night before.
  • Suggest that your child takes a familiar object or a family picture to school.
  • Be a coach – talk through and role play situations. Break down big tasks into smaller, more manageable steps.
  • Don’t overdo it though as this can make kids more anxious.

Remember to be realistic about who your child is. If they are temperamentally anxious or shy, starting school may be more difficult than for confident kids. Even in these cases don’t overprotect or underestimate their ability to manage stressful situations. It‘s not only important to trust your child’s ability to cope, but also to be able to trust the school and teacher and most importantly to trust yourself to let go.

Battery Chicken or Free Range Kid?

He was 22 years old when his mother gave him up to the police.

It was 1988, the last spasm of apartheid, and the military police had arrived at his mother’s flat in Durban to track down the military service dodger. But he was living elsewhere in Durban on the Berea, hoping that his mother would deny all knowledge of his existence, or at least his whereabouts.

Instead, she meekly handed over the information and he was located, formally charged and required to attend a tribunal in Pretoria several weeks later. “I wasn’t really surprised,” he said. “She was essentially a good person but fearful and timid, and I never felt she would protect me. When we first arrived in Durban, she dropped my brother at the gate of his new school and told him to approach the headmaster to sort out everything. That was for grade 1.”

Meanwhile, according to Google the ‘problem’ currently appears to be the other way round. In families, fictional and real, and in 1 600 000 internet hits (compared to 55 000 for the term ‘underprotective parent’), overprotectiveness, sometimes referred to as helicopter parenting, is the hot topic.

Modern society is a culture of information. But sometimes we have so much information about every new disaster, crime and moment of misery that it also means we live in a culture of fear. High levels of parental protectiveness seem necessary given the many dangers reported in our newspapers and community crime-watch emails. We are drowning in bad news.

Life can also seem more pressurised, jobs more scarce, the future more uncertain (let’s pretend it’s not 1914 or 1939 or any year of apartheid), so fiercely protecting your child seems to be a basic requirement of effective parenting.

But overstepping one’s parental role, not allowing children to learn from mistakes or fight some battles on their own, can prevent children from developing resilience and learning to manage difficulties.

Underprotective or indifferent parents are a different sort of animal completely. These parents aren’t creating a safe environment in which to allow their child to learn independence, but throwing them to the wolves. This happens when parents were themselves raised by neglectful or abusive parents, or where community or family structures have broken down.

So how to find balance? A parent should be more guide than bodyguard. When your toddler staggers past a sharp-edged table, walk quietly behind him at the ready rather than call out the danger and whisk him aside. Let your 5-year old daughter grapple with her shoelaces rather than always intervene. Advocate how your 10-year old can deal with her friendship dispute rather than automatically phone the friend’s parents. Allow your teenager to fight smaller battles with authority figures on her own – you don’t want to communicate that you have no trust in her strength of character.

What you want to raise is a free range child, not a battery chicken unfit for the normal rigours of
everyday life. The term ‘free-range kid’ was coined by an American writer, Lenore Skenazy. She says a free range child ‘’gets treated as a smart, young, capable individual, not an invalid who needs constant attention and help. For instance, in the suburbs, many school PTAs have figured out a new way to raise money (God bless ‘em): They auction off the prime drop-off spot right in front of the school — the shortest distance between car and door. But at the mall, or movie theater or dentist’s office, that would be considered the handicapped parking spot — the one you need if you are really disabled.” 

Feeling Guilty?

There is so much for us to feel guilty about. 

I feel guilty that I had a glass of champagne on that New Year’s Eve before I knew I was pregnant. I feel guilty that I got impatient (really ugly-impatient, not just mildly irritable, more along the spectrum to dementedly pre-murderous) with my infant child when he wouldn’t sleep or feed according to whichever baby expert’s scheduling system I had just read or been told about.

I feel guilty that I couldn’t simply be that relaxed, serene mother you see in adverts, with her child calm and chilling in an ergodynamically designed body sling

At least I am not alone.

Mothers I see in my practice tell me they feel guilty about about what they ate during pregnancy, how they fed their baby with bottle or breast, where their baby slept or not, whether they did sleep training or not, which discipline strategies or lack of strategies they used, or how they delivered their baby – a Caesarean section that medically speaking may not have been strictly necessary, or not. 

Recently I bumped into an old friend and we chatted about sun block and how hard it is to get your children to put it on every day, not to mention trusting they will reapply it later in the day for sport when you’re not there. 

She said what I had been feeling, but it felt too heretical to say: “I feel relieved that the recent fuss in our press showed how inaccurately sunblocks are labelled and how some of them don’t really make much difference. It cured some of my guilt about being a sloppy mother straight away.”

 I regret I’ve been a grumpy mom, a tired mom, an intrusive mom, a clingy, anxious mom. I even feel guilty about feeling guilty because, as I tell my clients, guilt that is undeserved can be self-indulgent and even destructive.

 But there is at least a place guilty people can go to pretend they’re being productive while actually just maintaining a proud personal tradition of work avoidance and procrastination. I’m sure you’ve been there many times yourself – the internet.

And it was there that I came across a short blog on the Huffington Post website by a man called Dr Kris Jamsa, titled Learning and Development Starts at Age Zero.

 “From the moment of conception,” he says, “a child’s wellbeing and development is dependent upon the mother’s actions and behaviors.” No pressure, then.

He goes on to say that between birth and the first year of formal schooling a child’s future success largely depends on the mother’s ability to inculcate 400 child-development skills in the child.

Now Dr Jamsa has written “over 110 books on computing and education“ and I am still struggling to get my first book written. He has an impressive six college degrees,  I on the other hand only need one or two to have decided that this kind of advice should be strongly resisted. Parenthood is hard enough without experts (and yes, I’m one of them) turning parenting into mission impossible. 

Dr Jamsa emphasises the importance of teaching mothers to improve their child’s early learning development, and of course I agree with him. Parents need to engage with and interact with their babies, hold their babies, talk with them and play with them and yes, also give them space just to be. And certainly this is vital in developing countries and is something that parents should take extremely seriously.

But what I take issue with is his all-or-nothing tone in sweeping statements like “Every action a mother takes (or fails to take) with respect to developing her child’s learning skills, directly affect the child’s ability to succeed in the future.”

It’s this kind of prescriptive comment, with it’s erroneous implication that there is no room at all for mistakes or lapses by mothers in particular (he interestingly makes no mention at all of fathers in his short piece) which is monumentally unhelpful to us mothers (and fathers.)

As an aside it also reads to me like an unconscious extension of the mother blaming of the past – remember the “schizophrenogenic mothers who where thought to have induce schizophrenia in their children, or the “refrigerator mothers” who were blamed for making their children autistic? Both guilt-inducing theories that have been thoroughly disproved and discredited.

My thinking is that you need not be concerned about the single wasted learning opportunity that may make the difference between your daughter being a high school drop-out or Nobel prize winning economist.

Child development and learning, like parenting, is a process that necessarily and inevitably involves making mistakes, getting it wrong and failing. Ordinary, good-enough parents help their children deal with these mistakes and failures and through these experiences we all learn that we can learn, that we are adaptable, resilient and can tolerate frustration and delay gratification.

While we should feel less guilt, we really do still need to keep on applying that sunblock.