Category Archives: Concerns parents have about children

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.

The art of monster taming

In the last 24 hours my 7-year old son has done the following: stand in the middle of the lounge, mimic Michael Jackson and moonwalk backwards out the door; use a four-letter word while arguing with his friend; hug me lovingly while whispering in my ear, “I just farted’; play a computer game called Zoo Tycoon with the finesse of a teenager; shoot hoops in the back garden and sulk for an hour because he missed three shots in a row; stroke his baby cousin’s cheek tenderly; lie on the sofa watching television, smearing pizza over the cushions, pretending not to hear us telling him to tidy up and go bath.

Welcome to the rollercoaster ride. One moment your child is sweet and loving and the next a monster awakes. Trying to pin down a reason for the change is the sort of challenge that Sherlock Holmes would not relish. But parents know something Holmes doesn’t. Their child is possessed. Only an exorcism will do. Until the priest arrives, however, a number of sensible measures may be employed as holding actions when your child is being impossible.

  1. Try distraction – and try it as soon as you see the warning signs of a tantrum or meltdown looming. Point out something very interesting to your child, use cajoling, humour (sparingly though or your over-sensitive and overwrought child might feel humiliated and mocked) and judicious bribery. If the idea of parenting by bribery makes you feel uncomfortable, think of it as a reward or incentive programme, just as the management consultants did at your company recently.
  1. Offer choices. “Richard, you can either pick up all the dog mess in the garden for the next two years, or you can brush your teeth.” “I’ll brush my teeth,” he smirks victoriously. Children love the power to choose. Of all parenting strategies, this one is the simplest and most effective. Keep choices clear and limited, not “what vegetable do you want with your supper?” but “what would you prefer, peas or carrots with your chicken?”
  1. Time out. Tell her you love her but she’s going to her room anyway for a time out – a minute for every year of her life, or until she calms down. She may break things or shriek horrendously but she’s staying there until time is up. The main idea of Time Out is not to punish, but to de-escalate, defuse and calm a situation down. Many parents are concerned that sending a child to Time Out in their bedroom won’t work as there are things to do and play with in a child’s room, but that’s the point – distraction. As long as the behaviour that you don’t like has stopped. Time Outs shouldn’t happen in locked bathrooms, dark cellars etc.
  1. Walk away (emotionally). It is essential that parents stay calm in the face of the enraged child. Do not rise to the challenge of each battle, choose the ones worth fighting and then stand your ground. Stay calm. Shrieking at an already shrieking child is adding fuel to the fire. And never worry about what the neighbours will think about ignoring the prolonged wailing of your child because you’ve reminded him that no-one died from not owning a Ben 10 Omnitrix. Staying calm and walking away when necessary minimises the temptation to lash out at your child. Smacking as a way of disciplining is controversial and potentially problematic. My experience as a parent and psychologist is that smacking is not a particularly useful long-term strategy for managing children’s behaviour. It allows adults the illusion of control and temporary relief from difficult situations, but if used often becomes increasingly destructive. Children learn to hide their true feelings, obeying out of fear not respect. They learn that people who are bigger or stronger have control and that physical expressions of anger are acceptable.

Coming out

This is the column that must be written – the topic just came out to me, you could even say. The Gay Pride March this weekend through the leafy suburbs of Johannesburg set the scene.

In seemingly unrelated acts I first bought Eusebius McKaiser’s book of thought-provoking essays, ‘A Bantu in my Bathroom’. Last night I reached the section on sexuality, and read with a great deal of interest the chapter titled ‘Don’t you just wanna try, my son? With a woman?’

And then this morning I found out that October 11 is International Coming Out Day.

So I got to thinking about coming out. And how important, difficult and often traumatic an issue it is for gay children (of all ages) and their (usually) straight families. Coming out is telling the world the world who you really are. As such it’s an important social and psychological process, a rite of passage.

McKaiser writes about his experience of coming out to his father, via a handwritten letter posted the old fashioned way through the mail. This was as a 19-year old when he was in second year at Rhodes University. He relates, with great poignancy and empathy, his father’s tearful response to this “new fact about his son- a big fact- and doing so with raw emotion, the stuff of humanity”.

But he makes it clear that while he understands that the roots of his father’s conservative attitudes are in the bigotry and ignorance that are vigorously transmitted through our culture, he refuses to be silenced or closeted by them.  “I will not condone homophobia by giving someone the space to get used to me being me … I would not tolerate my friend’s, family and colleagues’ racism, so why the hell would I tolerate and negotiate their homophobia?”

Homophobia is a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), sometimes leading to acts of violence and expressions of hostility. It does seem to me that these words are hardly adequate to describe the hate crimes, a lesbian being ‘correctively raped’; a man being beaten; a child being humiliated and scorned; a student tortured, tied to fence and left to die.

An American report on FBI national hate crime statistics from 1995–2008 found that LGBT people were ‘far more likely than any other minority group in the United States to be victimized by violent hate crime’.

There are places in the world today where homosexuality is a capital offence. In most of Africa LGBT people are persecuted, vulnerable to state harassment and afforded few protections.

Even though the post-apartheid constitution in South Africa was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, we experience the paradox of laws that ensure equality and dignity for LGBT people, while in practice people who are gay, or perceived to act or dress in gender non-conforming ways, still struggle to find physical safety, never mind social acceptance.

Meanwhile, in middle class urban areas people who are open about their sexual orientation are more likely to fear rejection and ridicule than actual physical harm.  But feeling rejected or believing that you are tearing your family apart is hugely damaging, both psychologically and socially.

So coming out has its risks. Why do it then?

This is a question Eusebius McKaiser also poses. Why not simply evade the awkward questions asked by curious (and concerned) family members, talk about your partner in gender-neutral ways and try pass as straight?

As a psychologist the answer is clear to me. To be forced to live an inauthentic half-life, to spend all your time hiding, concealing and fearing exposure is to live a life of constant stress and distress. In the face of the historical stigma associated with being gay or bisexual or transgendered, and without strong support systems, many LGBT youngsters internalize societal homophobia and are vulnerable to extreme feelings of self-hate and shame.

Gay teenagers have higher rates of suicide, depression and substance abuse than their straight counterparts. This is not because gay people are hard-wired for more psychological problems, but because of the stress of concealing their true selves, feeling different and being rejected.

And this is where parents and families can make all the difference. When a child’s family rejects him, the odds of attempted suicide are nine times higher than the general population. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual young adults from very rejecting families are nearly six times more likely to have major depression and three to five times more likely to use illegal drugs or have unprotected sex.

I’m not saying you, as a parent, have to be thrilled that your child is gay. It may be really uncomfortable facing your own assumptions and prejudices; it is difficult accepting that your child’s path in life might be different from the journey you imagined; it is really scary to have your child face a world of bigotry and discrimination.

But you are their parent.

They need you in their corner. They need you to face the world with them. They need you to accept and love them. Because that’s what parents should do.

And the award goes to….

THE only prize I ever won in primary school came with a scented, rainbow-coloured eraser with a little brush attached to it. I loved that eraser. It stood out from the plain white ones that would so quickly stain grey and smelled of nothing.

And the reason for the prize? For drinking the most milk. Seriously. In my Grade 2 year the school still sold small triangular cartons of fresh milk that were delivered to each class at “feeding time” before first break. And in 1974, I drank the most milk.

My sister, on the other hand, won a prize in matric for “Social Awareness and Compassion for Others”. This foreshadowed a successful career as a social worker, then a psychologist (yes, there are two of us in one family). We all teased her that she’d got a trophy for being a nice person, and I suppose we wondered a bit if it was a consolation prize for not being the top academic or best sportswoman.

It’s that time of year again. The time of school prizegivings, award ceremonies and valedictory services, the ritual of certificates, merits and colours, of parental pride and disappointment.

I was amused to read Sunday Times columnist Ndumiso Ncgobo writing about his son’s Grade 1 prizegiving, “Which one’s your kid?” in his Headline Act column in Lifestyle Magazine last week. He raises the debate about whether rewarding everybody for something (like drinking the most milk) devalues the significance of awards.

Should only excellence be rewarded? Or effort? If you are already smart and talented, shouldn’t your wonderful work and brilliant report be enough of an acknowledgement? And what about the cost of awards and public acclamation?

A short while ago my son, who has never won an academic award before, asked me whether I thought he was going to receive one. I had no idea. I know his school doesn’t give everyone in the grade an award so it was no sure thing. I also couldn’t bear the idea of him (or me?) being disappointed. I gave him a long talk about how I believe he could get an award, but that other kids had also worked very hard to … “Thanks Mom,” he cut me off with all the sarcasm a 10-year-old can muster. “Thanks for ruining my dreams.”

Honestly, I’m not absolutely clear about how prizegiving ceremonies should work and what the best way would be to recognise children’s achievements.

I know that children who don’t ever win prizes can feel left out or despondent. And that the children who do win prizes can feel pressurised and overly focused on the prize, not the process of learning. Perhaps no prizes should be given at all, or awards given only to acknowledge effort and progress. How do you even go about measuring that?

It’s easiest to simply reward the person with the highest marks. Not only does it seem to be a more objective measure of success, but it could be argued that it prepares children to be robust in society’s survival of the fittest.

But schools, like the Oscar and Nobel prize committees, use imperfect tools to make their decisions. Those tools are called human beings.

Have you ever heard of Sully Prudhomme, Theodor Mommsen, Bjornstjern Bjornson, Jose Echeragay, Henryk Sienkiewicz or Giosue Carducci? Well, they have all won the Nobel prize for literature, unlike Vladimir Nabokov, WH Auden, Robert Frost, Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy.

Imagine another young man: he hates the rigidities of school, bunks lessons, absorbs ideas from family friends and visiting intellectuals around the dinner table, and spends much of his time working on complex physics. This man receives no school awards and makes little impression on the public consciousness until years later. He leaves school saying, “I have given up the opportunity to get to a university.”

The point of this anecdote is not to say that schools can’t teach or acknowledge the Albert Einsteins of the world, but that, even with the best will in the world, school prizegivings reward children who fit a particular mould, according to a fairly arbitrary definition. Why top 10 and not top 11? Why 80%, not 77% or 82%? How to measure most improved? From an E to a D or from a B to an A?

If you think I’m being over-sensitive to children’s feelings, try this. Put yourself in a group of randomly chosen parents. Perform a series of parental tasks judged by an observer, then allow him to select three best parents in the room, none of whom is you. How do you feel? Has the prizegiving motivated you to be a better parent, or do you feel a sense of injustice because the judge just never “got you”?

Whatever schools decide, parents need to help keep this issue in perspective. Whether your child wins an award or not, accept the moment gracefully, but resolve to focus your child on working on her strengths. It’s her understanding of those strengths, and the need to persist with those, that will lead to a successful, happy life, not awards.