Category Archives: Sunday Times Columns 2013

Seven Deadly Habits of Ineffective Parenting

All parents make mistakes – lots of mistakes, and making mistakes is part of the necessary cycle of rupture and repair that enables our children (and us) to learn from and grow through these mistakes. But here I’m writing about something a little different…

I’m not talking about the actions of psychopaths and paedophiles, or sadists and scientologists, but those of we ordinary, well-intentioned parents who sometimes just get it wrong.

There’s lots of advice about how to parent effectively, but it’s necessary to confront what makes us ineffective or, worse still, damaging to our children. You should have heard of the Seven Deadly Sins and you may know of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Well, here’s my small contribution – this one’s for the list lovers.

1. Envyenvy

Exceeding simple jealousy, envy is the desire to ‘outdo and undo’. All parents feel it at one time or another. Comparisons are made around an infant’s milestones and behaviours (many of which have very little to do with your parenting). Your friend’s child sails through school, or through the tape, while yours labours in the rear. Your child is still not able to swim while their same-age cousin has just completed their first Midmar Mile.

Parents often feel competitive with each other – there is societal and family pressure to be the best parent and raise the best child. But envy is a destructive and spoiling emotion,  detracting from our capacity to enjoy our children for who they are, not simply for their achievements. Parents who are most susceptible to envy are those who are concerned about how others may judge them, those who struggle to value themselves and those who measure success in concrete and short-term ways.poison-envy-POSTER-SM

2. Perfectionism

If there are any regular readers of this column, they will know that I’m no fan of perfectionism. Perfectionism is a curse and has it’s roots in a yearning for a fantasy of control, success and affirmation. One could argue for a scale of perfectionism and that on one end is a desire for excellence in one’s child, but the other end is a tortured place for children to be. A neurotic drive for your child to achieve excellence in all areas can lead a compliant child to a life of misery, with everything tainted by imperfection, while a child with a stronger personality is bound to resort to fighting or fleeing you.The Perfectionist's Guide to Results (Lo)

3. Sloth

The sloth or laziness I’m focusing on is not about slumping in front of the TV after work or serving hot dogs for supper (again) instead of a wholesome home-cooked meal. I completely understand how utterly exhausting life and parenting are. And I am a strong proponent of frequent naps, holidays and periods of indolence.

The type of sloth I am worried about is emotional apathy, a refusal to be actively engaged in passiveparentsyour child’s life. In particular I think about parents who are highly successful and driven individuals, with high expectations of but low engagement with their children’s lives. To thrive, children need engaged and interested adults around them.

4. Joylessness

Early philosophers like Plato and Aristotle saw humour as a statement of superiority over others’ flaws, but current research draws attention to the correlation between humour and resilience. It seems that a child who grows up in a home filled with pleasure and play is better equipped to face the serious issues of the world. Humour also oils the wheels of verbal intercourse and allows you to address difficult issues in manageable ways. Laughter reduces stress hormones and encourages healthy feelings of connection amongs family members.

5. Self-blame

When we blame others we wrap ourselves in a cloak and insulate ourselves from being responsible. But self-blame is also a huge problem. We are both cause and effect – a poisonous state of being from which there appears to be no escape. “It’s all my fault!”; “I’ll never learn Maths – I’m too stupid!” we might hear our child say.  Perhaps your child is prone to this or perhaps he’s developed these thought processes in the home.

Excessive parental guilt about all the shoulda-woulda-couldas simply paralyses parents and renders us ineffective.

6. Rigidity

The parents I find most challenging to work with are those who have a rigid insistence on how it should be done, because “That’s always how it has been done”, or “That’s what I believe to be right, no matter what other evidence there is to the contrary”.

Keep calm and ignore Gina fordOne size doesn’t fit all when it comes to raising children. Effective parents are able to assess the needs of each individual child and try to respond appropriately.

Setting up of predictable routines and rules, while useful in the everyday structuring of a family’s life, can become problematic when these are rigidly adhered to with no room for deviation. Life involves growth, change and managing unpredictability. As parents we have to be able to go with the flow when necessary. By being adaptable, we model to our children a thoughtful approach to the way we live our lives.

7. Denial

A little denial is undoubtably a good thing – we need to be able to put aside some of the horrors and worries of human existence just to get through some days. But when denial extends to not acknowledging or dealing with a persistent truth, it is damaging. Whether it’s a parent’s denial of the extent of their own problematic behaviour (addicts in particular have a special gift for denial), or denial of the extent of a child’s problems, a refusal to look difficulties head-on and tackle them leads to long-term distress and damage.


Ironically I wrote this column shortly before the new management of the Sunday Times decided to cancel my column. But at least I’d been profiled in a national paper once…

I have been writing this column for the Sunday Times for some years now but I have never properly introduced myself to you, the reader. And because I haven’t yet been profiled for a glossy magazine or featured on a reality TV programme (where I could debut snappy catch phrases like “Get your grown-up on” or “Who’s the mommy’’), I thought I would do the obvious thing: interview myself. So here goes.

Where do you get ideas for your columns?

I read widely to keep up with current ideas in child development, and justify hours of surfing the internet as research into trends, debates and controversies in the area.  But mostly I listen to clients and colleagues and observe what’s happening around me for clues as to the everyday concerns of parents, teachers and care-givers. Just last weekend a friend’s 13-year old daughter said she gets really nervous every time she sees her mother talking to me. Her fear is that whatever issues she’s been having will be broadcast to the world as a parenting column on  “How young is too young to date?’’ or “Is it really wrong to read your daughter’s diary?”

What are you currently reading that might help parents?

how children succeesI have just finished How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. It is an overview of the research into which factors contribute to long-term success. He argues that personal qualities such as resilience, curiosity, optimism and the capacity for self-control matter most when it comes to raising children who succeed. He also cites a broad range of research that supports his argument that character is directly and powerfully related to the quality of early interactions between children and loving, consistent caregivers.

What else is on your mind?

far 1far-from-the-tree_420I am now immersed in the dauntingly thick but compelling book by Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree. He writes movingly about parents who face the painful reality of raising children whose identities are shaped by profound difference and disability. For example, parents whose children are transgender, autistic, prodigies or conceived of rape, and families managing deafness, dwarfism, Downs Syndrome and schizophrenia. The book challenges parenting assumptions, and explores how parents can face the truth that loving someone and finding them a burden are not incompatible feelings. It also shows that love can transcend prejudice, pain and disappointment.

Does being a psychologist with an interest in parenting ideas make you a great parent?

No. Definitely not. I wish I could say differently but it’s always easier in theory than in practice. In theory I am a calm, rational and warmly accepting mother who sets limits appropriately while allowing my son to explore and take acceptable risks. All this while earning a living, whipping up tasty and nutritious meals, encouraging wholesome activities and limiting his TV, computer and digital gaming hours. Right. Cue sardonic tone.

Do you analyse people all the time?

Only if they pay me. Otherwise, the therapy mode is switched off.

What was your worst parenting moment?

My husband’s was when he lost our son for a few minutes in a public place. ‘There is no way to describe the gut-wrenching anxiety that overcomes you,” he said, “the sudden fear this might be the rest of your life.” Mine is any time my son coughs while eating. I am deeply neurotic about choking (there is a long backstory to explain the roots of my anxiety, but that’s for another column) and I have no faith that I will remember my First Aid training come a crisis.

Can a parenting column make a difference?

Most of us have to parent instinctively, which is neither good nor bad. But I have the luxury of focusing my professional attention on research on parenting and the world of new ideas. I can be a conduit for those ideas but, in the end, what really makes the biggest difference in parenting is trying hard to be the person you want your children to be. Being more, saying less.

Are there any parenting theories or ideas you don’t like?

I am suspicious of anyone who promises a quick fix or who rigidly holds to one theory of parenting that will fit all children or all situations.

Finally, what are the essential things you would like parents to know?

  • It’s never too late to make a difference.
  • It’s inevitable and necessary to make mistakes, but we can learn from these failures.
  • Fathers matter and the absence of interested and involved fathers impacts negatively on society.
  • School is a marathon, not a sprint. Some children only really thrive after finishing high school – but what happens during the school years lays the foundation for that success.
  • Above all, and to repeat an earlier point, infants and young children need consistent, connected caregiving from birth to make them human, to wire their brains for empathy, thinking and resilience.

Where have all the heroes gone?

A version of this piece was published on the front page of the Sunday Times Review section on February 24th 2013.

It ends with the catastrophic fall from grace, but it starts with us. All of us, ordinary people, fans and followers, the media and the machineries of marketing and brand creation. We take note of a person’s sublime performances and we elevate them to the status of icon, hero, role model, even saint. They become potent symbols of our own yearning for achievement against the odds, for perfection and omnipotence.

And then we lose sight of their humanity and, sadly, very often so do they. In colluding with the myth-making, we allow our celebrities and heroes to believe they are somehow not bound by natural laws and the normal civilities. So we withhold the necessary corrective feedback when they behave badly and then one day it all comes crashing down.

Oscar, Lance, Tiger and Hansie. They have broken our hearts and betrayed our trust. But remember it started with us.

Somebody asked me recently why we even need heroes, but the question is pointless. Heroes and icons are inevitable. Their existence tells us something about our aspirations and something equally important about our needs and weaknesses.

Inevitably, we idealise.  I imagine that there are good evolutionary reasons why we seek larger-than-life heroes as role models. We feel we can learn from their strategies and attitudes, and there is potential survival value in following the path they have taken.

Heroes also make us feel better about the world and we draw inspiration from their triumphs against the odds.

For a while Oscar Pistorius showed us that it is possible to be born physically disabled and still make the final of an open Olympic event. Ashwin Willemse showed us that it is possible to be born in the Cape Flats and sworn into a gang, yet still play for the Springboks one day. Nelson Mandela had tea with Betsy Verwoerd and modelled a degree of forgiveness and reconciliation that was almost superhuman in its transcendence of trauma and bitterness.

Up to a point these are inspiring stories, promises of a better life no matter our circumstances. That’s why there have always been and always will be heroes. And that’s why we tend to cast these heroes as role models.

At the same time, heroes have been letting us down throughout history. Lucifer was a fallen angel while Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Darth Vader was once Anakin Skywalker, Jedi Warrior, until he joined the Dark Side. Charles Lindbergh, aviator and all-American hero of the 1920s, turned out to be a Nazi sympathiser, while our own Winnie Mandela, Mother of the Nation, was directly implicated in the kidnapping and assault (and eventual death) of 14-year old Stompie Moeketsi. Lance Armstrong beat cancer and drug testing protocols, and Oscar Pistorius … well, you get the point.

Nevertheless, our blind faith in heroes is often at the expense of the truth. Psychologists say this idealisation has its roots in the infantile defence mechanisms of ‘splitting’ and ‘primitive idealisation and devaluation.’

Splitting is seeing people or situations as either all good or all bad, so we unconsciously choose not to know about the messy and dangerous parts of our superheroes (and ourselves). We let ourselves believe that the villain is the Other and that he’s out there. That’s why our fairy tales are full of the polarities of good fairy godmothers and wicked witches, perfect princes and scheming barons, trusty steeds and bloodthirsty dragons.

Idealisation and devaluation are part of the same process. When we idealise celebrities, sports heroes or people in our own lives, we allow ourselves to know only what we admire about them. But when they disappoint us we are can see only what is spoiled and bad.

All defence mechanisms help us manage anxiety and protect us from what may be overwhelming or distressing. However, a central task of psychological maturity is the capacity to tolerate knowing that everybody, including people we admire and love and people we fear and dislike, and ourselves, are neither all good nor all bad. We need to integrate the difficult feelings evoked by this sometimes unsettling reality.

My thoughts have been prompted by Oscar Pistorius’s explosive and horrifying fall from grace. Obviously, terms and conditions apply to my next statements. We don’t know what really happened and we need to be careful neither to condemn nor absolve until the truth is exposed.

If, however, it turns out that Oscar (first names only for heroes) is found guilty we shouldn’t be that surprised. After all, we have been complicit in the myth-making. What Oscar has achieved is amazing, but there has been plenty of evidence along the way of as darker side. There are the alleged shooting incidents, police call-outs to domestic disturbances, disgruntled ex-girlfriends, boat crashes, risk-taking behaviours and so on. In many articles I’ve re-read about Oscar, journalists describe a whole range of dangerous behaviours and ominous portents but seem unwilling to come to any conclusion other than that these are part of a heroic temperament.

If, however, Oscar turns out to be innocent of any intention to kill, my argument still holds: he then turns out not be the monster we created either, but a man of enormous grit, charm and flawed impulses.

There is another explanation for our tendency to idealise heroes and make them into role models. We could argue, for example, that Oscar was good at running on blades, that’s all. Joost van der Westhuizen was good at rugby, Tiger Woods was a star golfer, Mel Gibson was a compelling actor, that’s all.

That is, we take a piece of known information about our heroes and we generalise it, and that little bit of them we know becomes the all of them. Oscar had courage and extraordinary levels of determination grit, and he was successful. So we assumed this meant he was the good guy in his private life and in the way he treated women, even if there were signs that this might not be the case.

When we are finally confronted with the ugly truth, it challenges the way we have arranged the world in our minds and it disturbs our equilibrium. We thought we knew our heroes, even though we really knew very little about them. We feel humiliated, foolish and angry because we believed in their goodness, even their greatness. Ask Lance Armstrong’s fanboys and public defenders. The final step is as inevitable as it is self-defeating – we move from idealisation to devaluation. We can hear no more good about our tarnished role model.

On the subject of role models and public perception, whenever I witness the latest downfall I find George_Orwell_press_photomyself turning once again to the ideas of the writer George Orwell. Orwell is a role model for how to look at role models, so to speak.

In an essay on Ghandi, Orwell was critical of the idea of saints (or heroes). He wrote ‘Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent … The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.’

So, too, the worshipping of saints and heroes.

We can still have heroes and objects of fantasy, but they should not be confused with role models.  As the former American basketball player, Charles Barkley, put it, ‘I’m not a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.’

For these we should look closer to home. Parents who overcome their difficult pasts to raise sturdy, happy children, teenagers who overcome tragedy to succeed at school, nurses who deliver babies in the middle of the night, the vet who strokes your dog’s head while he passes away – these are the kind of ordinary role models we should draw our children’s attention to.

New York writer Madeleine George sums it up well: “… if you need your heroes to be perfect, you won’t have very many. Even Superman had his Kryptonite. I’d rather have my heroes be more like me: trying to do the right thing, sometimes messing up. Making mistakes. Saying you’re sorry. And forgiving other people when they mess up, too.”