Category Archives: Meaningful parenting

Long summer holidays, constructive boredom and your children

One of the most powerful parenting techniques is having faith in your child’s ability to resolve a problem. This is especially true around the issue of “boredom”.Snoopy bored

I wrote previously (Boredom: a melancholy truth) that allowing your child to be bored can be a positive experience, just as solving your child’s boredom by always organising structured play can lead to new problems. Paddy O’Donnell, a professor of social psychology at the University of Glasgow, in a study on the impact of structured play on the future abilities of university students, claims that many current students are less confident of making their own decisions. They are so used to being managed by a hovering parent that they prefer it if someone takes charge and directs them, even as young adults.

At the same time, modern, concerned parents don’t want to simply leave children to their own devices. We need to find the balance between a lack of involvement with our children and the tyranny of helicopter parenting – where parents are a 24-hour child entertainer and teacher. We need to cultivate constructive boredom in our children and offer some appropriately “benign neglect”.

With the long summer holiday approaching, here are a few tips that might help you in this quest:

calvin and hobbes brain atrophy

Plan ahead

Why wait until your child’s already bored? At the moment your child decides to announce (over and over again) that they are desperately bored, you will probably be on the phone to your boss, sorting out an office emergency while stirring a pot of pasta sauce. Rather, in a quiet moment sit down with your child and make a “when I’m bored” list. I tried this out with my own nine-year-old son and his first three ideas were: “Play soccer against the wall, make the tallest tower I can with my wooden blocks and make a teepee with sticks.” Add a few ideas of your own and stick the list on the fridge.

For longer activities, consider things such as sleepovers, campouts in the garden and allowing kids to wear pyjamas all day Sunday while amusing themselves. Just remember: while you might suggest these, don’t organise them yourself.

Make resources available

If you have these around the house then the boredom monster can be slain at any time: crayons and coloured cardboard or paper, straws, hammers and nails, spray paint, masks or costumes, a pile of sticks in the garden, discarded computer print-outs, used plastic cartons and bottles, cereal boxes, a collection of fabric scraps and glue. It also helps if you allow one part of the garden to be a play area with sand or mud, or are relaxed enough to allow your children to colonise one corner of the kitchen to concoct their evil brews.

Be actively noncommittal

If your child tries to engage you in solving his boredom, master the art of saying, “Really? Hmmm,” followed by silence. She might lose interest and move away. Or you could say, empathically: “Yes, as a child I was often bored myself,” followed by: “Let’s think of some ideas together.” In other words, try not to leap in with your solutions – rest assured, they will anyway likely be met with scorn.

Maintain safety

It might be good to give your child space to use his imagination, but some safety rules are non-negotiable. Don’t forget to explain that the pool is out of bounds, or leaving the property without permission and playing with fire in the house are forbidden.

Practise boredom

Switch off the TV sometimes, limit the amount of time spent on PlayStations or computer games and have days where no after-school activities are scheduled – in this way, your child learns to engage himself and doesn’t become a complete nag when he’s suddenly feeling ignored or unstimulated.

Read feelings

Maybe your child’s not bored. Maybe she’s crying out for your attention or needs to spend time with a friend after a period of being alone. In this case, ignore everything I’ve just said and spend some quality time with him, giving him your undivided attention.

Ultimately, life is often a solo journey. By trusting your children to be able to cope with the responsibility of sometimes amusing themselves or generating their own ideas and managing downtime, stillness and space, you will do them a great service. And if out of this boredom greater maturity and creativity emerges, you will have done the world a great service

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.


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

The problems of praise and positive thinking

WE live in the age of positive thinking, an urgent pursuit of self-improvement and feeling good about ourselves. In this we are guided by the opinions of “experts” and book shops teeming with tomes on self-help, not to mention the Oprah-fixation of the airwaves.

To put all of this in perspective, it’s worth noting two things: most psychopaths and highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves (debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem); and many of the world’s greatest thinkers and doers have lived filled with self-doubt and even unhappiness.

Assuming you don’t want to raise a psychopath or a miserable artist, reconsider what society has been telling you about raising your child. We are emerging from an era defined in the West by the striving for perfection and individual success, dominated by a belief in the importance of high self-esteem.

Smile-or-Die-How-Positive-ThWestern culture has long been largely intolerant of pessimism or “negativity”. The American social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book “Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of
Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” (also called “Smile Or Die”), tells how people didn’t want to hear that she was miserable about having breast cancer; they wanted her to tell them how she was going to defeat cancer with positive thinking. 

I believe self-esteem and positive thinking have become two of the most overused and misunderstood terms today. Parents often tell me that they want to raise their children to be motivated and have good self-esteem. Schools commonly suggest that a pupil’s problem is related to a lack of it. 

One of the strategies parents have been encouraged to use in order to build their kids’

self-esteem and improve motivation is to lavish praise and recognition. Judiciously used, all good things!



But the problem with this approach, when used excessively and uncritically, is revealed in the animated film The Incredibles. Dash is angry when his mother tells him he is not allowed to win races and that, in any case, everyone is special. Dash retorts: “That’s just another way of saying nobody is.”



Easy, ubiquitous praise and false reassurances do not build your child’s self-esteem — mainly because you can’t easily build self-esteem from the outside in. In a 2009 study published in the journal Psychological Science by Wood, Perunovic and Lee, it was found that people with low self-esteem actually felt worse about themselves after repeating affirmations of their lovability. The authors say that “repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, but backfire for the very people who ‘need’ them the most”. The greater the gap between our fantasised ideal self and our own experience of our authentic self, the greater the likelihood of dissatisfaction, anxiety and even depression.

How and when you offer praise is important:

  • Praise in moderation;
  • Always be sincere and authentic; and
  • Praise a specific effort not an attribute; give “process praise”. In other words, focus on engagement, perseverance, improvement and so on.

The last point is the most important. In a study on motivation by Carol Dweck, it was found that children who were praised for an innate ability, for example being smart, did worse than kids who were praised for something they did, like trying hard, or studying. That’s because you can control or repeat an action, but not who you “are”.

Children who believe that they are successful because of innate ability have what Dweck calls a fixed mind-set. They don’t recover well from setbacks, become preoccupied with image maintenance and are afraid to risk making a mistake.

In contrast, kids who believe that their achievements are related to their efforts and learning have a growth mind-set and are more likely to persevere, persist and study.

Dweck says that focusing on and praising effort gives children a variable they can control. If they make mistakes, they understand that they can expend effort to correct it.

Often, parents resort to excessive, generalised praise when they feel anxious they are not doing enough for their children. However, authentic, robust self-esteem and motivation develop not from overdoses of praise and “positive thinking”, but from feeling loved by, connected to and understood by our parents and carers.

We feel better about ourselves when we experience success in tasks that are important and meaningful to us; when we fail it is easier to cope and try again when we receive realistic and empathic feedback about our efforts from people who care about us.

And yes, that means being praised when we deserve it too. 

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. 

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

Battery Chicken or Free Range Kid?

He was 22 years old when his mother gave him up to the police.

It was 1988, the last spasm of apartheid, and the military police had arrived at his mother’s flat in Durban to track down the military service dodger. But he was living elsewhere in Durban on the Berea, hoping that his mother would deny all knowledge of his existence, or at least his whereabouts.

Instead, she meekly handed over the information and he was located, formally charged and required to attend a tribunal in Pretoria several weeks later. “I wasn’t really surprised,” he said. “She was essentially a good person but fearful and timid, and I never felt she would protect me. When we first arrived in Durban, she dropped my brother at the gate of his new school and told him to approach the headmaster to sort out everything. That was for grade 1.”

Meanwhile, according to Google the ‘problem’ currently appears to be the other way round. In families, fictional and real, and in 1 600 000 internet hits (compared to 55 000 for the term ‘underprotective parent’), overprotectiveness, sometimes referred to as helicopter parenting, is the hot topic.

Modern society is a culture of information. But sometimes we have so much information about every new disaster, crime and moment of misery that it also means we live in a culture of fear. High levels of parental protectiveness seem necessary given the many dangers reported in our newspapers and community crime-watch emails. We are drowning in bad news.

Life can also seem more pressurised, jobs more scarce, the future more uncertain (let’s pretend it’s not 1914 or 1939 or any year of apartheid), so fiercely protecting your child seems to be a basic requirement of effective parenting.

But overstepping one’s parental role, not allowing children to learn from mistakes or fight some battles on their own, can prevent children from developing resilience and learning to manage difficulties.

Underprotective or indifferent parents are a different sort of animal completely. These parents aren’t creating a safe environment in which to allow their child to learn independence, but throwing them to the wolves. This happens when parents were themselves raised by neglectful or abusive parents, or where community or family structures have broken down.

So how to find balance? A parent should be more guide than bodyguard. When your toddler staggers past a sharp-edged table, walk quietly behind him at the ready rather than call out the danger and whisk him aside. Let your 5-year old daughter grapple with her shoelaces rather than always intervene. Advocate how your 10-year old can deal with her friendship dispute rather than automatically phone the friend’s parents. Allow your teenager to fight smaller battles with authority figures on her own – you don’t want to communicate that you have no trust in her strength of character.

What you want to raise is a free range child, not a battery chicken unfit for the normal rigours of
everyday life. The term ‘free-range kid’ was coined by an American writer, Lenore Skenazy. She says a free range child ‘’gets treated as a smart, young, capable individual, not an invalid who needs constant attention and help. For instance, in the suburbs, many school PTAs have figured out a new way to raise money (God bless ‘em): They auction off the prime drop-off spot right in front of the school — the shortest distance between car and door. But at the mall, or movie theater or dentist’s office, that would be considered the handicapped parking spot — the one you need if you are really disabled.”