Monthly Archives: January 2013

Raising Brave Children

baby-supermanTimmy buzzed around my consulting room, playing Superman. Faster than a speeding bullet he rescued the doll family that he’d earlier tied up with some string. In the sand tray he intervened to prevent the marauding dinosaurs from stomping on the farm animals that waited anxiously for their hero to arrive. After performing an emergency operation on the toy bear, he flopped down onto the floor and said wistfully, “Where’s the real Superman when I really need him?”

Timmy, the courageous conqueror of crime, dinosaurs and illness, the hero of the hour, had been referred to me because he was scared all the time. He had nightmares, struggled to separate from his mom when he had to go to school and worried constantly about bad things happening. He was particularly afraid of swimming in the pool – he said his brain told him sharks didn’t live in swimming pools, but his heart and tummy couldn’t believe his brain.

In the course of play therapy my aim was to help Timmy face and manage his fears. To do this he would have to find his own inner superhero. SuperTimmy would have to demonstrate courage – defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the ability to disregard fear”.  Courage, also known as bravery, valour, tenacity and pluck, is not recklessness or fearlessness. Courage is informed by fear and able to learn from fear. Courage is doing what you know is right even when it’s not easy. Charles A. Smith, an American educator, points out that “courage finds its roots in two fundamental skills learned in early childhood – persevering despite adversity and remaining mindful despite fear”.

So how do we teach our children to be brave? Firstly we need to model being brave and proud of our own moments of courage. We also need to teach children to persevere. We can encourage this by praising and rewarding effort, focusing less on the outcome of a project than on the process. In order to teach mindfulness in spite of fear we can provide scaffolding – small amounts of support and reassurance to help children move gradually through increasingly anxiety-provoking situations. The parent’s support and soothing words help the child calm down enough to manage fear. Over time the child learns to calm himself down, so the ability to self-soothe is internalised. Current research suggests that this is a result of the strengthening of those brain pathways that manage stress. 

As well as offering appropriate support, we can also help our children develop confidence by “letting go”. In her excellent book on parenting, Letting Go as Children Grow, Deborah Jackson, a British writer, points out that while children need adult support, they do not need interference, which can damage their growth. If we learn to trust our children at each stage, they are more likely to find their own courage. When parents do a little less there is the likelihood that children will feel freer to do a lot more.

girl lighting fireOne way in which parents can build children’s confidence and courage is to think about the challenge offered to parents by Gever Tulley of The Tinkering School in Southern California. Before you ask why, here are five dangerous things he says you should get your child to do:

  1. Play with fire
  2. Have a pocket knife
  3. Take things apart
  4. Drive something
  5. Throw things and skim stones

We live in a dangerous world. So why on earth encourage our kids to do more dangerous things? Tulley reckons that we need to learn about our own power and potency. We do this by learning about the world and how and why things happen, its causes and effects, and by experimenting with the limits of our physical capacities. We must have the experience of being in control. Of course all of the above activities MUST be carried out under responsible adult supervision, with guidance, support, and yes, scaffolding. 

Allowing kids to explore and use tools encourages creativity, independence and a desire to learn. We risk having societies turn into sterile systems, where dirt, trees and appliances are taken away from kids, together with marvellous opportunities to learn by playing!

As parents we can tell our kids that fire is dangerous and useful, but until you actually build a fire, “play” with it, cook something on it, and learn to control it and put it out, you haven’t learned about fire. In reality our children will do dangerous things whether we like it or not. If they are forced to do so secretly without your help and supervision (not interference), they are more likely to hurt themselves. Children are more at risk if they have not had guided experiences with danger.

I thought of other things our Superboys and Supergirls should be encouraged to try as we watch them learning to be brave:  

  • Climb things, especially trees
  • Jump off and over things
  • Taste new foods
  • Act in a play
  • Make a new friend
  • Go on a ride at a funfair
  • Say what you feel
  • Play in the mud
  • Risk failure
  • Dance
  • Sing loudly

Perhaps it’s not only the parents who allow their children to run wild who are a problem. It’s also the parents that won’t let their children run at all.

 

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Sleepover’s don’t need to be nightmares

Slumber party or night of the living dead?sleepover image

It’s 2.00am and out of the blackness of sleep something materialises in my room. It’s at my elbow, shaking me awake. I grope through the mist, trying to catch up to my racing heart. It’s my son’s 8-year old friend, sleeping over for the first time. He can’t sleep. So neither can I.

The sleepover, or its Americanised girlie version, the slumber party, is one of the modern rituals of childhood. Children and teenagers beg parents to allow them to host or attend sleepovers, with the promise of pillow fights and midnight feasts, the tests of ghost stories and truth or dare.

What can go wrong? Well for starters: imagine a giggling gaggle of hyped-up tweens and teens, transforming into squabbling, sleep-deprived, grumpy monsters ruining the rest of your family weekend.

Other parents have darker imaginations, depending of what they’ve read in the newspaper or which stories they’ve heard that week. Pornography, paedophiles, sex, drugs, alcohol or neglectful parents, take your pick.

Sleepovers are a rite of passage, a plunge into deeper waters. Whether you host one or send your child to someone else’s, you might feel as if your child is not ready. For some parents the shallow end of life is a much safer place to be. I understand this. I understand it completely.

When my son packed his things to stay over at his best friend’s, I smiled encouragingly through the lump in my throat as he left home for his first night out. He dragged a huge bag behind him, walking innocently forward. I trusted the hosting family but not chance, the possibility of some violent intrusion into their home, some horrible, random stroke of fate that I should be there to experience with him.

If you think I’m bad, try my husband. “What if a small rusting bit of a satellite breaks off, falls a few thousand kilometres and hits their house?” he asked, only half-joking.

Unsurprisingly, our son survived. There was no act of God or shift in the earth’s crust. I’d just forgotten about his sleepwalking, of course, a habit he’d recently started and which we had yet to understand properly.  I was probably sleeping fitfully when he fell out of the top bunk of his friend’s top bunk in the middle of the night, crashing onto the carpet, where his friend’s mom found him a few seconds later, sleeping peacefully.

My son was 7 years old at the time, but what is the correct age for sleepovers? There is no right time, of course. Some parents will be in their early twenties, others in their fifties – they just have to deal with it as maturely as possible.

Parents might refuse to allow their child a sleepover at a friend because of safety concerns and the fear of something going wrong, or just because they have different attitudes, values and parenting styles to those of the hosts.

Equally, not all children want to sleep out. Sometimes it’s the parents dying for a child-free Saturday night but their child says no.

Properly planned and supervised sleepovers are a fantastic way for children to consolidate friendships, expand their horizons and learn about how other families live. It helps children practise being flexible and autonomous within safe boundaries. It also helps parents practise letting go.

Some tips:

  • Make sure you know the family where your child will be spending the night. You should also ask what level of parent supervision will be provided and which other children might be sleeping over. And if you feel uncomfortable, you can say no;
  • If you host a sleepover, be vigilant, be responsible, keep them short, and don’t have too many kids over to sleep at one time. Remember Lord of the Flies?;
  • Don’t schedule sleepovers for every weekend or they lose their specialness and also start compromising family time and other activities;
  • Children should never be pressurised into sleeping out if they feel unsafe or uncertain;
  • If they would like to go but are nervous, put a plan in place that allows for you to make contact with your children and the host family, say goodnight and, if necessary, make a plan allowing them to come home if there anxiety gets the better of them;
  • Avoid a pattern of your child asking if he can sleep out, and then always phoning you in the middle of the night to be fetched. If this is happening, then your child is not ready for sleepovers – take a break and try again in a few month’s time; and
  • For anxious parents of younger children, consider something I read about, which is ‘sleep unders’, ‘half-overs’, or ‘late nights’. The children go off in their pyjamas, take junk food, play all the games they want, but at a certain point are fetched and tucked in under their own roof, where their parents can feel safe.

The author Elizabeth Stone wrote: “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ” And sleepovers, the precursors to leaving home, allow your heart to brave some tentative baby steps.

Parents make the difference

I wrote this column at the start of 2012. Matric results for the previous year had just been released and it made me think about what contributes to academic success – is it all a matter of the school your child goes to, or the amount of extra resources (and money) you devote to your child? And what about those parents who are not equipped themselves to make up for the distressing deficiencies in many parts of the State school system? How can all parents make a difference?

Parents often believe that they need a lot from experts to help make their children successful. That good school with its waiting list. That brilliant maths teacher whose students all seem to get distinctions. The occupational therapist who improves your son’s poor fine-motor coordination. The educational psychologist who recommends that your child get a scribe for exams.

As useful as any one of these experts is, think of him or her as only one runner in a relay race waiting for you, the parent, to pass on the baton. Unfortunately, some parents hand over the baton well after the others. These are parents who are less aware of or interested in the requirements of their children’s education, and the result is their children may forever struggle to catch up.

It’s a common sense belief that some parents or communities are better at preparing their children for school and careers than others, but how do we know this to be actually true? Various studies have confirmed this, one of which was published recently.

Every three years an international development agency, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), tests 15-year olds from various developed countries, focusing on numeracy and literacy. Past studies have shown that the most skilled and well trained teachers have a significant impact on children’s school results and future success.

But the OECD recently undertook to investigate the role of parents. By 2009 the parents of 5000 students in 18 countries had been interviewed and the test results of their children correlated with the parents’ practices in the home.

One of the findings from the OECD research, as reported in The New York Times is:

“Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during the first year of primary school show markedly higher scores … than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all.”

Andreas Schleicher, Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD, also said, “Just asking your child how was their school day and showing genuine interest in the learning that they are doing can have the same impact as hours of private tutoring.”

Another interesting conclusion from the study was that even in poorer and less educated communities, where individual parents frequently read books to their children in grade one, the children of those more involved parents scored about 14 points higher than other children from the same background.

This finding has potentially huge implications for our country where, clearly, far too many children every year grow up in communities where parents, because of a history of educational disadvantage and deprivation, don’t really understand what schools require and are poorly equipped to prepare their children for school.

What I like most about these findings is how they point to very simple actions that any parent or caregiver can take immediately that will have long term benefits for their children.

Outside of the expensive, well resourced world of private schools and some of the better state schools, education is in a dire situation in South Africa. It’s something that we should be righteously angry about. The best minds in our government should be specifically tasked with saving our country from the future nightmare of masses of uneducated, illiterate and unemployable 18-year olds.

There are many reasons why the government’s responses to poor education results have been polite, beaurocratic and policy-focused rather than tackling real obstacles on the ground. There are powerful constitutiencies that would need to be taken on and, to be fair, the government already spends a huge proportion of its money on education.

However, the OECD report suggests there are steps we, as parents, can take now to help our children that don’t require challenging obstructive constituencies or spending lots of money.

In the meantime the best we can do for our children is to take action ourselves. Spread the word in your community about the importance of parental involvement in all aspects of education. At the very least, keep books, magazines and newspapers in your house. Read and tell stories to your pre-school children. Read and talk about what you’ve read in front of your children. Turn off the TV sometimes.

And when your children start school, ask them questions about their school day, about what they’ve learnt, what projects and group work they are doing. Attend school functions and parent-teacher meetings. Monitor your child’s progress, not in order to make sure they are coming first in class, but to show them that you care about how they are learning and are interested in what they are thinking.  

You can’t wait for the government to fix the schools or rely only on the experts to help your children. You can make the difference.