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.

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PROFILING

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.

Judith Ancer to speak on bullying at Abraham

Judith Ancer to speak on bullying at Abraham Levy Centre in Port Elizabeth

ujw pe

The Union of Jewish Women are bringing renowned child psychologist Judith Ancer from Johannesburg to talk to parents on Sunday, 19 May at the Abraham Levy Centre in Port Elizabeth from 10:00 to 12:30.

Her very pertinent topics are ‘Bullying, and Emotional Safety’.

Funds raised from this event go to our many outreach projects in the broader Port Elizabeth communities.

Where: Abraham Levy Centre
When: Sunday, 19 May
Time: 10:00 to 12:30
Cost: R120, which includes tea

For more information and to book, phone 041 374 3460 or 072 307 3098. Alternatively, email ujwpe@isat.co.za.

Can I “bully-proof”my child?

I have been invited to go down to PE to talk at a fundraiser – and the topic that I was asked to speak on is bullying. So I went back into my archives and here is one of my very first columns. It is a topic that, sadly, is still important as bullying is such a pervasive and difficult issue. And not only in schools and during childhood. My work with adults and within corporate and workplace settings keeps reminding me that it is a big issue throughout our society. 

“Our child lies in bed every night, crying. He says he’s going to kill himself. Kids at school are calling him names. Some of them push him around. We don’t know what to do about it.” The mother becomes tearful.  The father says, “I just want to go to the school and beat up every one of those bullies.” I look at my distressed clients and see the expectant look in their eyes, the look that says, ‘Give us a solution.’ While there is no single answer, there are, however, strategies we can use to try manage this problem.

Bullying evokes a variety of responses. We might feel powerless and tempted to minimise the situation, or angry and determined to protect our kids by taking action against perpetrators. We might also be concerned not to overprotect our child from a ‘normal’ life situation and believe they should ‘tough it out’.

The first thing to do when you suspect your child is being bullied or if he/she reports being bullied, is to establish the extent and nature of the problem. Is what your child is experiencing part of acceptable social interaction or is it more persistent and  problematic? Some children are more sensitive and may struggle to manage ordinary social interactions, but on the whole children are pretty accurate about assessing the intentions of their peers.

Bullying can be verbal, physical or social in nature and has the intention to hurt, humiliate and isolate individuals. It can include name-calling, shunning and ignoring, threatening, mocking, physical violence, spreading rumours, extorting money and possessions. These days it happens not only at school and social gatherings, but also online and through cell phones. And it is something that both girls and boys do.

Parents often ask me whether there is something specific about their child that makes them the victim of bullying, are some kids are more vulnerable? Bullying can be about anything: your height, or lack of it, your weight, or lack of it, your money, or lack of it, Bullies will zero in on any aspect of their victim’s life. However, those children who are the victim of repeated bullying do tend to have certain characteristics in common.  They tend to have poor coping mechanisms in ordinary situations. Often they have low self-esteem and may be anxious and passive, and struggle to assert themselves. On the other hand they may also respond too impulsively or aggressively to an event, making them a sure target for bullies who thrive on getting a rise out of their victims.

Bear in mind also that the way you respond to finding out that your child is being bullied is influenced by your own experiences. If you were, or still are, a victim of harassment, or a bully yourself, you might find it difficult to act in a calm and appropriate way. Bullying also isn’t just something that happens to children. At all levels of society and in all workplaces people intimidate others or act passively in the face of intimidation. How you typically act in these situations can affect how you respond to your child being bullied.

To help your child who’s being bullied begin by acknowledging and recognising how difficult the situation is for them, praise their bravery in telling you about it. Offer comfort and support, no matter how upset you are, and take seriously their fear that if the bully finds out that they’ve told, the bullying may get worse. This does not mean you should keep the incidents secret and bury them. Be active in approaching the situation and deal with it sooner rather than later. Brainstorm and discuss different coping strategies. Consciously working on open communication between you and your child will help you to help them to be more in charge of the painful situation. As part of this approach you could role play what they could do or say differently.

Your actions should also take into account that bullying is a systemic problem, not only an individual one. You might need to speak to the school, or other adults in positions of authority, and report the incident, but in such a manner as not to disempower your child. All schools should have an anti-bullying policy, and this policy must be made clear to learners and staff at the school.  At the same time it is not only the school’s responsibility to solve the problem. This can only be done effectively if you see yourself as in partnership with the school and your child, allies in enforcing zero-tolerance for bullying.

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.

black-family-globe

Vignettes from Himeville

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

Euro Writing Safari 2015 Beaulieu College

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

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

Some idiosyncratic observations:

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

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