Category Archives: Sunday Times Columns 2010

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

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Intimate enemies: sibling rivalry

I had a second child,” a mother says, “because I want my son to have company as he grows up.” Which made me think:

  • The first murder victim in history, according to the bible, was Abel, killed by his brother, Cain.
  • A client consulted me because her 7 year old daughter fed her younger brother a potentially fatal overdose of medicine because he was irritating her and she “wanted to make him better”.
  • First-hatched black eagle chicks peck their younger siblings to death, driven by a primitive fuse.

There is an old Arabic saying that goes, “I against my brother; my brother and I against my cousin; I, my brother, and my cousin against the stranger,” that perhaps sums up how primary and instinctive sibling rivalry is. In the competition for emotional and material resources, no greater threat exists than the brother or sister living in your own home.

Of course, life with siblings can also be an enriching experience. For many people, life would not be the same without a sibling with whom they can shoulder life’s burdens or celebrate common experiences. But we should not assume that the sibling relationship is always easy. From the very beginning sibling rivalry rears its head. Toddlers want to protect toys; young school kids, having internalised the concept of fairness, will dispute a sibling receiving perceived preferential treatment; teenagers bent on becoming independent might resent doing household chores that younger brothers and sisters do not have to do.

These age-dependent conflicts could also be exacerbated if one child has special needs that require other siblings to accept less parental attention, or if one of your children has a temperament that intensifies the conflict – a child who is sensitive and needy might not be well matched to a more robust and independent child.

When fights do break out, what should you do? Wherever possible, don’t step in. It’s difficult to adjudicate the truth in these fights, with both parties making an equally impressive case for why they are the victim. Taking sides can also increase dependency on one side and resentment on the other. At the same time, you don’t want to feel like Cinderella’s father, benignly standing by while others burst into cruel laughter, mocking their younger sister.

If the heat of the moment requires you to step in because of possible violence or vicious name-calling, the advice one can give is based on common sense. Start by separating the combatants. If possible, allow a little cooling off time. Make it clear that violence and insults are not acceptable. As far as possible, encourage your kids to resolve the problem themselves. Of course, this doesn’t always work, but in doing this you are laying the foundation for a time when they are able to find a win-win solution.

Over the long haul, family problems like this are better prevented than treated. Somewhere in that busy schedule of work, school lifts, extra lessons and meetings, try to work out a preventative approach.

As disputes arise, talk about the concepts of fairness and equality. You can’t always treat children equally but you must always try to be fair.

  • Work with your kids to write up family rules governing behaviour that is acceptable and unacceptable – eg no name-calling, violence – and how disputes will be sorted out, as well as consequences for such behaviour. Stick this set of rules on the kitchen cupboard. 
  • Make special time for each child according to their interests, so they don’t feel neglected. 
  • Do fun things as a family – this reduces tension and builds bonds.
  • For specific areas of disagreement, such as who gets to watch favourite TV shows, write up a schedule that divides the time equally between siblings.

Most sibling differences are resolved over time as brothers and sisters grow up and become friends and mutual supports.

Except when they don’t.

Situations I deal with in my practice include families where siblings haven’t spoken for 20 years, a grandmother who still struggles to deal with her older sister’s bossiness and constant one-upmanship, and a man in his 30s who still bitterly resents his successful, much loved younger brother.

Perhaps if parents had from the beginning consciously adopted the sort of approach I have mentioned, a lifetime of distress might have been replaced by a valuable sibling friendship.

Calvin_and_Hobbes_1280_Wall_by_LamboMan7

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.

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!

incredibles-dash

 

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. 

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.”

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.