Monthly Archives: April 2013

Opening up new worlds and our children’s eyes and minds

I have been following my husband’s Writing Safari blog, he is recording a tour he has arranged and is running for 16 of his pupils. and it reminded me of this piece I wrote last year April while on a family holiday in Paris. 

When I was young my family holiday was a drive to the sea punctuated by picnic stops to eat egg or polony sandwiches by the side of the road. But I wanted to be like other kids, whose parents weren’t as wholesome as mine – they stopped at the Golden Egg for toasted sarmies and chips.

Oldest house in Paris

Oldest house in Paris

I didn’t have any friends who went overseas, the Golden Egg and the Durban beachfront being about as good as it got. Now, as I write this, my own family and I are sitting in the Marais district of Paris, around the corner from the city’s oldest house (dating from the 1200s) and surrounded by new and ancient culture. It makes me think about how fortunate some of us are to be able to travel to faraway places and to expose our children to the wider reaches of the world.

Sometimes that means a journey from the KZN heartland in a dilapidated school bus to the coast, a trip that the woman who works for me was never able to make when she was a child, despite living only 200kms from the ocean; at other times it means a drive across the border or a flight over the ocean.

I’d like to believe, perhaps romantically, that exposing my son to French culture and history, having him greet waiters and shop assistants in his limited French, climbing the Eiffel Tower with children of all nationalities, standing on the spot from which thousands of Jewish French children were sent to concentration camps, spotting cannonball damage from the French Revolution in the Bastille area, helps to start conversations about freedom, dignity and humanity from a different angle. And that all of this broadens his mind.

But it’s also true that the children of fellow tourists and residents in Paris all look rather the same, dressed in Nike trainers, sweatshirts emblazoned with the names of American colleges, tapping busily on iPhones, chewing gum and sharing iPod headphones.

Perhaps there is another message in that. When I was young the wave of other cultures, whether from overseas or across the hill in the nearby township, was barely a ripple by the time it washed up on my shores. Now culture flows ceaselessly backwards and forwards across the world and some of the unique differences might have been lost.

Nevertheless, under pressure people fall back on cultural differences and old hates rise up again very quickly. We see this in South Africa. One politician’s use of the word ‘refugee’ can arouse fierce, historical hurts, while a rise in bread prices can lead to stoning of Somalian shopkeepers.

That’s why I believe that exposing your children as much as possible to other cultures in your own country and across the world serves a powerful purpose – to see the connections we have with other cultures and tie our humanity to them. The choice is then theirs as to how to live their lives and create an ethical system, although it’s likely their values will still largely work off yours.

There are also those who argue forcefully for raising children within their distinct culture, with rules and rituals for how to dress, speak, what to eat, when to perform particular actions, and even whom to marry and associate with.

Whatever approach you take, here are a couple of questions that I think are worth asking of your children as they grow up:

  • Do some of your friends and acquaintances expand you as a person, sharing different ways of life with you and giving you access to interesting new ideas, making you more curious about life; or are they always just the same as you, do they narrow you down and support your prejudices and stereotypes?
  • Do your beliefs and lifestyle encourage or at least allow you to connect with other groups different from you, willing to see a common humanity, or do they alienate you from others and demonise others?

Here are some things that parents and schools can do to broaden children’s minds and open their eyes:

  • Teach children a second or third language,
  • Allow children to learn about cultures and religions different from their own,
  • Travel,
  • Explore other African countries (an academic or cultural school tour doesn’t only have to go to Europe – what about Namibia, Ghana or Kenya?),
  • Set up exchange programmes with schools and communities in your own country, and
  • Go to national monuments and museums that acknowledge the histories and experiences of the diversity of people.


Vignettes from Himeville

I ran a workshop on growing through writing at the start of this amazing High School Writing Safari to Kwa-Zulu Natal. Our theme was “the journey that matters” – part of a fabulous line from fantasy/sci fi author Ursula LeGuin: “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.” Something that is true of travel, psychotherapy and all of Life’s Journeys.

Euro Writing Safari 2015 Beaulieu College

Yesterday we drove in the late afternoon into Himeville, through a landscape of rolling purple hills and blazing yellow Autumn trees. The canopy tour was behind us: we had buzzed on a zip-line through a high forest past waterfalls and monarch butterflies and ironwood trees, with the whole of the neatly pollarded treelands spread beneath us.

In Himeville, after supper and ensconced in the lounge of the old hotel, under wooden beams and around a fireplace, with all 16 travellers spread out on the sofas with their journals, it was time to reflect on the week so far.

Some idiosyncratic observations:

  • Every hotel has a cat and this cat has waited all its life to meet Amy. Once scooped up into her arms this cat looks dreamily into her eyes and probably wonders why she took so long to come.
  • Gabriele has an arcane word or wonderful phrase for every…

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Pragmatic parent-school partnerships

You’re a concerned parent and you’ve laid the foundation for your child’s educational success. Your home is full of books. You read or tell stories to your kid in bed. She likes conducting experiments, doing puzzles with you or reading an endless stream of bad jokes from her joke book. Even when you ignore your child, adult conversation in the home makes her aware of the world about her.

You’ve done a good job, not always intentionally, of preparing her for school. Perhaps it’s the state school down the road, or you’re paying a small fortune to a private college. At this stage you might begin to wonder what your role is.  Should you sit with your child while she completes every homework task, or should you leave it up to the school – after all, they’re the experts aren’t they? Should you defend her against every injustice or should you trust the school’s mechanisms to deal with your child’s issues?

I asked six teachers we know, from various schools, to give one piece of advice to parents. Here’s what they said:

  • “Don’t impose your memories of school on your child. Be knowledgeable about current teaching without being an interfering irritant.”
  • “Come to parents’ evenings. Keep in touch.”
  • “Work with me rather than gossiping in the parking lot. If you communicate contempt for teachers at home, believe me, we’ll know from your children’s behaviour at school.”
  • “[For school matters] let your child decide for herself and learn from her mistakes.”
  • “Raise your children in the home to see that learning is fun.”
  • “Get your kid organised. Teach them how to plan.”

The theme that runs through these comments is that you most definitely have a distinct role to play in the parent-child-teacher team, but understanding the parameters of that role is vital.parent-teacher-student1

Rule number one is to stay in touch with the school. Go to parents’ meetings and assemblies, respond to queries from teachers, check and sign homework where necessary, take part in some school activities aimed at parents. One teacher told me, “I probably shouldn’t admit this but if I know the parent well I give better service. ‘Seeing’ the parent’s face or ‘hearing’ their voice while I’m teaching or marking makes me a little more attentive to their child.”

Rule number two is to understand your limits. Support your child by encouraging organised work habits, responding to questions or providing advice, but don’t make decisions for them or do their work. A simple technique is to ask questions when your child comes to you for help, rather than give answers. If he asks you which famous person he should do a project on, don’t tell him – rather ask him to name the various people he admires and which one most interests him.  If he can’t solve a maths problem, don’t give him the answer – discuss various problem-solving strategies and then let him work out the answer, even if it’s wrong.

Like teachers, parents should not be out to gratify their own ego in the short term by coaching a child to false success. Rather allow children to learn from their own successes and failures.

The worst thing you can do is openly undermine teachers. Be realistic and realise that they, like you, are not perfect. Teaching is a tough job – it’s like running a children’s party on your own for six hours a day, every day. In your dealings with the school, bringing with you an understanding of teaching will increase the school’s support for you and your child. A friend of mine who is a parent makes a particular point of beginning the first parent-teacher meeting with a question or sympathetic comment about the difficulties of teaching – this helps him to actively imagine the teacher’s perspective and also makes the teacher feel understood.

What happens if there is a real problem at the school and your child is not able to deal with it himself? Perhaps a textbook is clearly racist, your child is being bullied or you believe the teacher is acting in some completely inappropriate way. Rather than moan about it in the parking lot or phone the principal, first contact the person with whom there is a problem. You teach your child a very powerful lesson if you first meet with the relevant teacher – that one should be brave enough to deal directly with a problem, and that both sides have a right to be heard before a matter is escalated. If that does not work out, take the next step up the school hierarchy.

Some reassurances – it’s ok if: one of your kid’s teachers is very strict; a teacher makes a mistake that will have no long term effect on your child; your child is given detention for a minor infringement; your child gets a B for a test, not an A, even though she always got As at her previous school; or your child doesn’t get a subjective award like Best Hockey Player. In the long term you want your child to be robust and resilient, which is less likely if you treat every mistake by the school as a major catastrophe or a plot against your child.

It all comes down to balance. It’s right to feel entitled to good service from your school. In his book ‘Outliers’, Malcolm Gladwell makes the point that better-educated parents and their children, unlike those from disadvantaged areas, feel much more entitled to ask teachers questions or interrogate their ideas, which contributes to their success in the world. On the other hand you want to avoid being the kind of over-complaining parent who seldom lets his child make mistakes, suffer disappointment or find a way to deal with an imperfect world.