Monthly Archives: March 2013

Making memories

I wrote this column 2 years ago while on a family holiday to the glorious Kruger National Park with our then 9 year old son (and lots of extended family too.) It was a short trip, but as always the tranquility and beauty and fascination of this place makes time slow down. So it seemed sensible and necessary to write something about the value of holidays for our children. And retrieving this piece from my archives reminds me that we should plan another trip to the bush, soon….


Rondavel, Olifants camp Kruger National Park, South Africa

Olifants camp Kruger National Park, South Africa

“Let’s enjoy the Kruger while it lasts,” said my 9-year old son, as we sat on the stoep of our rondawel. But in fact a holiday lasts a long time. There’s the pre-holiday excitement of running your finger over a map, planning the journey you will take; or seeing your child opening and closing his pen knife in anticipation of the many uses to which he will put it in the bush.

Afterwards, you have memories: the first boogie board ride, a black-maned lion chasing off a rival, a screensaver photo of your daughter eating a cheese-and-tomato sandwich on the beach.

Why is going away on holiday an important thing for children?

On obvious reason is that it broadens their minds. It’s hard not to believe that a well-travelled person has a richer view of the world and can see it from more perspectives. Out of our comfort zone, we are also bound to explore and experience our environment in new ways that promote greater self-sufficiency. Activities like camping draw children into the tasks of cooking, cleaning and dealing with unexpected problems with limited resources.

I stood recently on the bridge over a river in the Kruger National Park and watched a herd of elephants cross the river below. “See the matriarch.” said the guide, “She defines the agenda. She leads the way for her group and decides when they eat.”

In the same way, parents taking their children on holiday need to plan carefully and anticipate the likely pitfalls. Define your agenda. Here are some tips based on personal experience and those of family and friends.

There are different kinds of holidays to take: big glamorous holidays to exotic destinations, going away for the weekend, camping, staying with friends who live in different towns, visiting family, or even holidaying in your own town.

Try not to make the holiday about spending money, and try to choose age and stage appropriate experiences for children: it is no fun dragging a frustrated toddler around the art galleries of London during winter because you love art, or forcing your resentful teenage daughter to spend a fortnight in a tent in the Kalahari because you love the bush.  Having said that, it is important to strike a balance between the needs of parents and those of children. With some imagination, compromises can be reached.

The next item on your agenda should be strategies to deal with complaints of boredom. You might be entranced by a third elephant sighting of the day but your children might be saying, “Not another boring, grey elephant. We’re hungry.”

Long car journeys are a potential disaster. Anticipate restlessness, sibling squabbles galore (“She’s on my side of the seat”) and the incessant repetition of the phrase “Are we there yet?” So plan ahead. Make frequent bathroom, leg-stretching and snacking stops. Use rewards and distractions. If your children are very young, wrap up old toys or small cheap toys in newspaper, then hand one out every two hours on the journey- watch their eyes light up with joy when they unwrap plastic cars and toys that they have forgotten you gave them 6 months before.

Get a checklist for your children. It might be of towns or cars you will pass on the trip, or a bird and mammal checklist – something that requires regular note-taking. Soon they will be counting how many they have seen already.

Then there are the more well-known things parents do, such as taking audio book CDs for children to listen to, playing I-spy or 20 questions or, if your budget allows it, taking portable DVD players. And don’t forget to take a couple of kids’ books.

If you can’t go away on a holiday, make the effort to holiday at home. It is worth using your leave time to connect with your children and have good family experiences. Go on day trips and picnics to local parks, zoos, aquariums, botanic gardens and museums. Be a tourist in your own town. Even if you don’t leave your house, try to create pleasurable memories by changing your routine – have breakfast for supper, make pancakes, camp in the garden, make a fire in the yard and toast marshmallows.

Birdwatching in Kruger

Birdwatching in Kruger Park 2011


As I write this article, sitting on the verandah overlooking the Olifants river valley, I am at peace. Partly it’s the setting, the sound of river, birds calling and hippos snorting in the distance. Partly it’s the fact that my son is not here, but is circling inside the camp with his ‘binos’, as he calls them, trying to identify more birds.

I also know that too soon we must pack up and begin the long and unquestionably boring, journey home. But we will be sustained for a while by its memories and by hopes of holidays to come. 

Grand relationships

This is a column that I dedicate to my parents who adore all their grandchildren and have been rewarded for surviving their children’s growing up.

What if, in the battle of parenting, you had a reserve force to call in when needed? A buffer against the infiltration of stress into every pocket of your life. Someone who can step in when you are incapacitated. Someone whose knowledge, hard-won in previous conflicts, you can draw from when needed. Actually, many of us do have access to such sources of help. They are called grandparents.

‘Perfect love sometimes does not come until the first grandchild,’ goes a Welsh proverb, hinting at the often easier relationships grandparents have with their grandchildren. The very word ‘grandparent’ comes with a powerful, positive association for many people: someone who makes the best milk tart in the whole world; someone who holds your baby while you keep a family celebration going; someone who agrees to look at your son’s latest experiment bubbling in a test tube. My own son says he loves his grandparents because they are funny, they tickle him and they give him lots of presents. In this way, grandparents get a second chance to be the attentive, goofy parent few people can manage when they raise their own children – mainly because it’s easier to be the model parent when you only have to do it occasionally.

Sometimes grandparents are not just the reserve force, but must step in and actively parent for longer periods. In South Africa, with its legacy of migrant labour and disruption to family life, many children are still raised by grandparents in rural areas while their parents travel to the city to find work. Barack Obama was also largely raised by his grandparents, and he said, “My grandmother poured everything she had into me and helped to make me the man I am today.” Not a bad epitaph to have on one’s gravestone.

Study after study conducted into the role and impact of grandparents shows that they have a strong containing influence on households, especially ones under stress, experiencing divorce, bereavement, poverty or job loss. In these situations grandparents lend an ear, fetch kids from school, visit in hospital or give members of the nuclear family a much-needed break from each other.

But sometimes this can go too far. One of my clients, who worried about feeling useful in her old age, discovered that she was soon an essential part of the everyday life of her daughter’s children. She said, “I wanted to be needed, but I don’t know if I wanted to be needed this much!”

Nevertheless, grandparents often offer stability and continuity for a child whose world has been turned upside down. Perhaps this is why humans live so long, so that grandparents can lead children and grandchildren along the practised routes of life.

Grandparents and grandchildren form a natural alliance, sometimes against the parents! This is not generally a problem but could become one if you have had a troubled relationship with your parents. I have also seen grandparents fail to take up the nurturing role at all, as tension between mother and daughter leads to resentment projected onto grandchildren.  In other cases, grandparents are alienated from their grandchildren because of a divorce or a failed relationship with a son-in-law or daughter-in-law. What a pity this is. Unless your parents really are a negative influence, you owe it to them, yourself and, above all, your children, to nurture these intergenerational relationships.

Although one shouldn’t be mercenary about it, it’s worth noting that grandparents are part of the informal economy, contributing a huge amount to social cohesion without costing government a cent. In Britain, apparently, 60% of childcare provision is supplied by grandparents, saving Britain ₤4 billion a year.

To build positive grandparent-grandchild relationships there are various measures you can take:

  • Visit regularly and celebrate important occasions with all generations of the family
  • When visiting, bring activities for your child as they can easily become bored – you can’t expect grandparents to have your patience and energy levels
  • Encourage grandparents to keep a set of toys at their home – a pack of cheap plastic building blocks will do just fine
  • Tell your children interesting or funny stories from the past, featuring your parents
  • Articulate ground rules for your kids when they visit or are looked after – so everyone knows what is acceptable

A final word to all grandparents-to-be. Enjoy the new relationship – after all, grandchildren are your reward for not killing your own children.

A happy chaos of grandchildren - 2010

A happy chaos of grandchildren – 2010

Your country needs you!

I thought this column should be blogged today – Human Rights Day in South Africa. While I wrote this in 2011, I think all sentiments hold true for today. We need to be the difference we want to see in the world. 

graphic by Michele Dean

graphic by Michele Dean

People  are talking about race, about the tensions between groups. Warmongers and peacemakers are talking about it. Corporate CEOs and schoolteachers are talking about it. Academics and people in shopping queues are talking about it. Columnists and talk-show hosts would have nothing to say without it.

Talking about race in public spaces and in our families is absolutely vital for the future of South Africa. Expressing our feelings and ideas is crucial to the unifying process, even if it exposes the uncomfortable truth that our rainbow nation is no utopian society.

The danger, of course, is that we end up going around in the same circles. It is whites who are to blame for the economic woes of black people; the “influx” of African foreigners is taking away jobs; apartheid happened a long time ago and we should stop blaming it for events today; workers are lazy and over-unionised; companies are racist and anti-black. Round and round we ago, each of us stuck in the safe little world of people who agree with us.

As a parent, teacher or adult mentor of children, do you dare to be different? Do you dare to challenge the prevailing story in your own world, and to hear the stories of others around you?

What can we do now in our own families, circles of friends and communities?

Professor Jonathan Jansen, rector of the University of the Free State, gave an address at the Gordon Institute of Business Science in September 2011 to a group of educators. Based on some of the ideas that emerged from the talk, here are four things parents can do:

  • Provide “alternative storylines”, as Jansen puts it. If your child tells you that Somalis or Zimbabweans are taking our jobs, tell them the other story: how welcoming Africa was to our exiled leaders. If your teenager complains that he won’t get a job because of affirmative action, tell him that not only do we have a responsibility to the past, but that any person with passion and endeavour can achieve success in the marketplace. Let those storylines compete;
  • Provide “opportunities for activism and idealism”. For example, my local city councillor recently organised a walk for residents around the suburb to discuss and resolve neighbourhood problems, and a number of families brought their children with them to be part of the initiative. Encourage your child to join groups like Interact or Rotary at school, or be part of community youth groups. One proviso: it is better to do than to give. You can’t just ease your conscience by giving the occasional blanket or tin of soup;
  • Another thing Jansen likes to say is: “Who’s filling your child’s head?” The more you let your child lurk in her bedroom on Facebook or instant messaging, or wired to social media, or hanging out with peers, the more their ideas, not yours, are filling their heads. Those social experiences are vital, but what also concerns me about Facebook, blogs and so on is how superficial and potentially destructive the discussions are. When there is debate, it often quickly degenerates into name-calling.

I am depressed by how quickly – and inevitably – readers’ comments on news and sports websites turn to insults about each other’s culture and race; and

  •  Make space for discussion and reflection in the family. A good way to do this is by asking questions. If your child tells you that black or white people are a particular thing, ask them why they think that. Ask them if they can provide evidence for their idea. This also fits into the concept of alternative story lines. Many story lines cannot be sustained when closely examined by a calm listener.

Of course, many adults pass on a limited version of our national story to their children, but I am also struck by those who don’t. We have a glorious history of heroes in this country and, as a parent, you can be a hero in your own space.

I recently watched a video called Where do I Stand?, produced by Molly Blank, based on interviews with youngsters who had suffered or participated in the recent xenophobic attacks in the Western Cape.

One child marched with the attackers who drove out foreign shopkeepers, looted their shops and took a bag of sweets home. Her mother, just an ordinary person like you or me, told her child that she had stolen from other human beings and that the sweets would not be welcome in that home. That mother’s telling of a different story was a small act, but multiply it across a thousand homes and those small acts begin to amount to something.

Be that parent. Your country needs you.

star wars empire needs you

Who needs a tiger for a mom?

tiger_momThe book was published on January 11th 2011. And within three weeks its ideas have spread across the world and colonised the debate about how to be a good parent. I can’t remember any other book generating so much polarised and vigorous debate about parenting, so quickly, as has Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. A combination of clever marketing, slow news days and the power of the internet has fuelled the controversy ignited by the release of her entertaining, repetitive and sometimes horrifying memoir.

To give you an idea, here are some extracts from the book: “… an A-minus is a bad grade … you must never compliment your child in public …… the only activities your child should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal … and that medal must be gold.” 

Further rhetorical flourishes include Chua dragging her “screaming demon” of a 3-year old child into the freezing cold, calling her children “pathetic” and “garbage” and “fat” and threatening her child that if she doesn’t play the piano perfectly, “I’m going to take all your stuffed animals and burn them!”

If you do a search on Amy Chua’s name, you will get more than 4 and a half million hits. Her book is a bestseller on Amazon already. Chua has pushed people’s buttons across the world, arousing insecurities and torrents of anger. She has entered the collective Google consciousness. Somewhere in the world right now, you will probably hear a parent somewhere saying, “If you don’t behave yourself, I’ll get Amy Chua to adopt you.”

I have just read the book and a great deal of the commentary, admiring, bemused or out- and-out hostile. The book clearly strikes a chord, positive and negative, with readers, but on close reading I was struck by how shallow Chua’s rationalisations for her behaviour are. Her arguments are not based on any coherent, scientific theory of healthy child development.  The psychologist in me diagnosed her as a brittle narcissist with unresolved performance anxiety. She clearly has a high IQ, but scores really poorly on any measure of emotional intelligence. The parent in me secretly worried I was really a yappy, growly small terrier mom, or even worse, a spineless jellyfish mommy. And the small child in me wanted to run screaming away from Amy Chua and her relentlessly Machiavellian mothering. For her the end (acceptance into an Ivy League University) justifies her extreme, mean, means.

Chua insists that her book is not a parenting guide but a memoir. Nevertheless there is plenty of advice and commentary on parenting styles. She distinguishes between the ‘Chinese’ parent’ and the ‘Western’ parent: the first believes that her child must be denied play dates, sleepovers, acting in school plays or watching TV, and no grade less that an A must be tolerated; in the second model children are coddled into mediocrity, protected from hurt feelings and praised for trying hard when they get a D for Maths. Where Western parents are pleased if their child practises the piano for an hour, Chua reckons that a Chinese mother thinks the first hour is easy, two and three being the tough ones. Much emphasis is placed on drilling and repetition until ‘perfection’ is achieved.

Many commentators have noted that her book plays into Western fears of the Asian giant and that billions of children raised by Tiger moms are going to overwhelm poorly disciplined, semi-skilled American offspring. Taking excerpts from the book at face value makes fairly alarming reading for anyone who is sensitive to the issue of emotional and psychological abuse of children.

Chua does acknowledge that her ‘Chinese’ and ‘Western’ parenting models are just generalisations for the purpose of argument. She also admits her own parenting difficulties, framing her conflict with her daughters (raised in America and with a Jewish father) as a “bitter clash of cultures”. She also admits to feeling “humbled by a 13-year old”.

As interesting as her ideas are, so are many readers’ and commentators’ responses. One called her a “stuffed animal arsonist”, while others point out the horrible pressures of perfectionism and the high suicide rates of Chinese American teens compared to other groups. A mother I know, who has a high achieving 18-year old daughter (9 A’s for Matric, captain of the netball team and all round good kid) and a 4-year old autistic son, commented to me that she wondered what the Tiger Mother would do with a disabled cub. Eat it?

Chua’s thesis, as you can probably see, renders the complex task of parenting into a completely false dichotomy. It’s sensible to dispense with unhelpful stereotypes like ‘Chinese’ and ‘Western’ and refer instead to the continuum of parenting styles from authoritarian to permissive.  Both extremes are high risk strategies – they may work for some children, but when they go wrong, the results can be disastrous.

The problem with adopting an extreme parenting style is that you have a limited repertoire of responses. You are not necessarily able to respond to a particular child, in a specific context in an appropriate manner. Psychologists emphasise the importance of being empathically attuned to children from infancy onwards. Understanding what your child needs emotionally, being able to separate out your own issues from those of your child and being able to see things from your child’s perspective, are all components of mature parenting. As are setting boundaries, saying no, making difficult decisions on behalf of your children and being prepared to be hated sometimes.

In her book on maternal ambivalence, Torn in Two, British psychotherapist Rozsika Parker definestorn in two ambivalence in relationships as having co-existing contradictory feelings about the same person. Powerful loving and hating feelings that parents feel towards their children are an intense manifestation of this phenomenon. This ambivalence is normal and inevitable. The loving feelings are easy to accept as they are the ones we are “supposed” to have towards our children, but the angry, resentful feelings, while just as common, are much more difficult to face up to. 

When parents have a predominance of negative feelings this is a problem that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. But when we have those negative feelings in the context of love, the ambivalence we feel is manageable and bearable. The ability to acknowledge, think about and deal with our negative feelings and impulses is an important skill that minimizes the chance that we will act out these feelings in a destructive way. Parents also need to tolerate their children’s ambivalent feelings towards them. Very few parents I know have not heard their children say some variant of “you’re so unfair, I hate you, you’re the worst parent in the whole world”. Especially when you’ve made them finish their homework or grounded them or not bought them something they’ve nagged for.

You won’t see much evidence of ambivalence in Amy Chua’s book, nor in some of her respondent’s views. In the cover article about Chua in Time magazine this week, Annie Murphy Paul comments that “more than anything, it’s Chua’s maternal confidence — her striking lack of ambivalence about her choices as a parent — that has inspired both ire and awe among the many who have read her words.” It is this absolute lack of ambivalence that I think is a problem, for in fact tolerating mixed feelings is not weakness or indecision; it is the ability to acknowledge difference, to allow for flexibility and change, and to consider alternatives. It is the denial of ambivalence that is the problem.

Authoritarian parents like Amy Chua are afraid of losing control, terrified that their children might descend into mediocrity. To prevent this, they expect their children to adapt to them. On the other hand, permissive parents adapt themselves completely to the child. They are so afraid of evoking negative emotions that they give control over the child’s whims, always meeting their child’s wants rather than their child’s needs.

Finally, this book made me think about what these debates mean for parents in South Africa. In our context I believe that Chua’s ideas are deeply problematic. Our history of militarism, apartheid, forced removals and the deliberate erosion of family and community bonds, is the worst foundation for a harsh, unempathic and emotionally abusive style of parenting. Similarly, to raise children in a permissive, laissez faire way, in a country that flirts with lawlessness and violence, exacerbated by communities with poor attachment and absent adult figures, is like throwing a giant firecracker into a dynamite factory.

South Africa needs another model of parenting. The great psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, spoke of this balanced approach when he coined the term the ‘good-enough’ parent. Good-enough parents accept the many benefits of ‘Chinese’ parenting, such as persistence and repetition, whether it be practising mathematical equations or grooving a backhand stroke in tennis. But they also see the many cognitive and emotional benefits of releasing their child into the world of sleepovers, play dates and occasional academic failure. It’s perhaps no exaggeration to say that complex childhood tasks such as balancing your needs with those of a group of friends, or learning to read the feelings of others, are crucial to success as an adult.

Above all, good-enough parents are able to tolerate mistakes, learn from them and understand that there are many ways to be a parent. Good-enough South African parents and ordinary South African children can breathe a sigh of relief that tigers are not really at home here.