Monthly Archives: December 2012

The end of the world?

So the latest end of the world came on December 21st 2012. And so far so good. My son warns me that the end of the Mayan calendar doesn’t mean that the world would end precisely on December the 21st 2012, but that this would mean the beginning of the end. So even though he claims not to be at all worried about this, I know he is pleased that our family holiday, starting tomorrow, will be in the Drakensberg mountains. The Drakensberg are the final refuge for the survivors of the 2012 apocalypse in the movie 2012. They will be my refuge from the city, the shopping malls and the rest of the world. I am posting a column (updated) that I wrote at the end of 2011, thinking about the end of the world, and what really matters….

Mayan countdown  Dec 21 2012Like many children my son is all too aware of the significance of the year 2012. Earth will collide with an asteroid, he reckons. Or a solar maximum will burn life on our planet into ashes. Or earth will be sucked into a black hole and obliterated. Take your pick.

However, these disasters, based on wild and fanciful interpretations of the Mayan calendar, are not what make 2012 significant. Through history many cultures have predicted an apocalypse in their own time and no such event occurred. Based on available evidence, our blue planet is no more likely to be destroyed in our life time, climate change notwithstanding.

What’s much more interesting is why the idea of the apocalypse passes from one generation to the next. It seems to be rooted in our human capacity to project ourselves into other times, places and people, and imagine ‘why’.  Why do we exist? Why is there evil and suffering? Why do we die?

Perhaps it’s more vanity than common sense to answer these questions with, “Things happen for a reason.”

Is there really a reason behind a good person’s accidental death, a tsunami, genocide somewhere in the world or large asteroid on a collision course with Earth?

At the end of each year we tend to ask these bigger questions of life. If you have the responsibility of parenting young children, they can be more difficult to answer, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because it might be an opportunity to view your family life with more clarity and perspective.

The original meaning of the word apocalypse is to reveal or uncover. Perhaps we should approach parenting in 2013 by lifting the veil from our family practices. Let’s ask: What doesn’t really matter?

Here’s  my list of things that shouldn’t matter in 2013:

  • Getting everything right all the time, doing things perfectly. Whether it’s your overtired son’s homework, or your daughter’s costume for a dress-up party or the performance of the Under 14 cricket team, failing sometimes, even spectacularly, is normal and healthy and absolutely necessary.
  • Always doing chores or working or accepting invites and putting off pleasurable ways of connecting with your children. Tolerating a little bit of mess in your home or not going to after work drinks every Friday might lead to a great walk with your child in the park, a chance to bake chocolate chip cookies together or an energetic game of soccer in the garden.
  • Earning more than other families, displaying your wealth through extravagant children’s parties, using your Hummer as a rent-a-ride in your child’s school Market Day or dressing your baby in designer onesies.
  • Your own ego. Your children are not an extension of you. They are not there to make you feel better or more important or more succesful.

My good friend called me with a dilemma. She had bought an expensive, very beautiful, very white couch for her family living room before she had her children. Her son was now a toddler and she was struggling to keep him and his muddy feet and grubby hands off the couch. She was screaming and moaning at him constantly about the issue. Could I, as a parenting expert, help her find a strategy to keep him off the furniture?

I suggested she buy a child repellant spray.

Not really.  I actually suggested she buy a brown slip cover for the couch.

I pointed out that at the end of her life she was less likely to be proud of the fact that her couch was still pristine white than of the fact that she had enjoyed and fostered a happy relationship with her children, even when they were boisterous toddlers.

So the final thing on my list of things that shouldn’t matter for 2013 is:  white couches.


10 gifts worth giving our children

gift of hope“I have to pay the accounts.” “I can’t take a break just now.” “No, not right now – I’m just trying to figure out the Internet banking.” Three times my son asked for a hot chocolate, three times I denied him.

No big deal. My son is resilient and we provide for him as best we can. Besides, he can actually make his own hot chocolate by now. But sometimes our love for our children is like a deferred payment or an unopened letter of warning – we’ll get to it but not right now. And then it’s just a little too late and you’re giving twice as much to get half as much back. He walks out of the shop with an expensive toy, you with an empty wallet and a feeling of disquiet.

Maybe this week, today, just today for now, we should put aside our preoccupations and ask how we can spend more of our time giving children the gifts they need, not the ones they think they want or the ones that will buy us a little time.

Here are ten gifts worth giving:

1. The gift of optimism: hope is hard-wired into the human brain but sometimes we act in front of our children as if there is no hope. Hope helps us, ‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour’, as William Blake wrote.

2. The gift of compassion: to have compassion is to suffer with, empathise with and care about. One of the greatest gifts your child will give you in return is when she turns to you at the traffic light and says, pointing at a beggar, “Why do we have so much and he has so little?” You’ll know you’re both on the right track.

3. The gift of courage: courage is not foolhardiness or impulsivity; it’s feeling scared and doing it anyway. The fireman who heads into a fire to save a trapped person, gave birth to his courage on the childhood swing while his parents watched in support.

4. The gift of humour: being able to laugh at yourself, not take yourself and the world too seriously. Maybe humour is a sign of emotional intelligence, the ability to recognise the underlying absurdity of something, or the change in a pattern. But in the end humour is inexplicable and irrational. Humour connects us to other human beings.

5. The gift of community and connectedness to our families, friends and communities. The sense of belonging and being aware of our connection to people in specific and the world at large is a core component of being psychologically healthy. Our children love the idea of going where the wild things are, but they also love to come back to their families.

6. The gift of competence: when we teach our kids to cook, fix stuff and insist that they do chores and clean up after themselves, we raise ‘kids who can’ and kids that know they can.

7. The gift of conviction: finding meaning in faith, other people, or the future. The existentialist psychotherapist Dr Viktor Frankl, who survived the Nazi concentration camps, said that those who survived the camps, besides being lucky, had something to live for. He famously quotes the philosopher Nietsche who wrote that  “he who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” The why might be a relationship, an idea to contribute or a work to create.  Our job as parents is to help our children find their own “why”.

8. The gift of curiosity: ‘curious’ derives from the word ‘care’. To be curious is to care about what’s out there. ‘Don’t be so curious,’ we sometimes admonish our children, meaning don’t be interfering and meddlesome, but I’m sure most of us prefer a child who takes things apart and can’t put them together again, to one who is passive and incurious.

9. The gift of creativity: this is not so much about being artistic but seeing old things in new ways, getting things out not getting things right. Our children need to learn to make mistakes, experiment with ideas, and take action. A creative spark can feel like divine intervention but simply waiting for divine intervention is unlikely to lead you anywhere.

10. And finally – the gift of perspective and common sense: to make do and tolerate imperfection. Tell yourself that sometimes it’s okay just to be a good enough parent with a good enough child. Recognise that ordinary, every day things are acts of pleasure. As Piglet says to Winnie-the-Pooh, “When you wake up in the morning, Pooh, what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what exciting thing is going to happen today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.

These are gifts that won’t run out of batteries, get chewed by the dog, lose their wing or sink to the bottom of the pool. They’ll be carried with your children wherever they go, as part of themselves, to be passed on to others, gifts to be shared with the world.

hope faith love

What parents can do about bullying: helping girls manage relational aggression

Girls bully too. They may not always mean to, but they do. They may initiate the activity as the “Queen Bees “ of a group, perpetuate the behaviour by acting as “wannabees’’or “sidekicks”, or just let it happen by being passive bystanders. Rather than fists and stones, their weapons of choice are their tongue and their thumbs, with which text messages are sent out to the gang of friends. In an instant, someone is unfriended and a systematic programme of verbal abuse and ostracisation begins.

In a previous column   I wrote about this relational aggression amongst girls. This week I want to make some suggestions about what parents can do about it.

First, look to thine own self. We don’t always think of it but adults are often bullies. If you bully colleagues or friends, ignoring their phone calls, dismissing their ideas publically, leaving them out of social events, your daughter is bound to see this as a model for social interactions. ‘Ah,’ she might think, ‘so that’s how I deal with my insecurities. Strengthen my standing in the group by turning the others against a common enemy.’

Next, have a pre-emptive conversation with your daughter about bullying, preferably around age 10 when it most commonly starts.  Talk to her about what relational aggression looks like, ask if she has seen it around her and talk about strategies she can use if it does happen one day. Teach and model healthy assertiveness.

Make it clear to her and her friends that not only will you not tolerate relational aggression, but you will always be there for them if they need to talk about it in future. This increases the chance that a victim you know will ask for your help before things get too bad, bearing in mind that victims of relational aggression often keep silent.

Advise your daughter not to invest her all at school, in one group of friends or one area of activity. Encourage her to have some friends and interests away from school. School can be a hothouse of insecurities and jealousies, sealed off from other influences. A girl who has friends and activities out of school has a much better chance of keeping her perspective on bullies in school.

One of my clients was a teenage girl who really struggled to integrate with other girls at her new school. Somehow she just couldn’t crack the codes of behaviour and be accepted. “I honestly don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” she would say. She turned out fine in the end not so much because of anything I did or said (although counselling is another important remedy) but because she was highly involved in the equestrian world, where she had other friends, from other schools and earned commendations for her achievements.

For the same reason (having other areas of emotional investment) a girl excelling at a particular academic or extra-mural activity in school might suffer less when she is harassed by her social group.

Then there’s writing. Jassy Mackenzie, a Johannesburg crime novelist, says that writing her first novel helped her to come to terms with a brush with crime. In the same way, journaling or keeping a private diary helps many girls to clarify their feelings, record incidents and have a safe place just to be. Encourage your daughter to write about all her feelings, and to include writing about positive experiences and emotions too.

Also, listen to your daughter and don’t minimise her feelings. I am reminded of Alice Sebold’s autobiographical account, called ‘Lucky’, about her rape at Syracuse University. When she reports the crime to the police the first thing they tell her is that she is lucky because another girl was raped and murdered in the same spot. Minimising feelings in this way is a failure to understand an individual’s particular experience, added to the fact that adolescence has a unique character and intensity that adults can rarely fully remember and understand.

Of course, remember that any story you hear you will only be part of the story. While you listen, keep an open mind and don’t jump to any hasty conclusions.

But it is always important to take action.

Encourage your daughter to report bullying and harrassment, with your active support if necessary. Often people are afraid that reporting and intervening will make the problem worse. But it is very important that you bring these issues to the attention of school management.  Schools need to take relational aggression as seriously as physical aggression. All schools should have comprehensive anti-bullying policies and positive social behaviour programmes in place.

For while sticks and stones may break girls bones, words (and malicious rumours and cyber harassment and social ostracization) can break their spirits and their hearts.drawing-bullying4