Tag Archives: empathy

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

How To Save Our Future

I hold onto my faith in South Africa and South Africans even when, every now and then, someone powerful waves a flag, identifies the “enemy” in our midst and urges us to march obediently forward to deal with this problem. Sometimes blood is drawn, and if it’s your blood it can be very nasty indeed. This is where my faith comes in. There is something in our collective memory, together with our institutions and laws, that repeatedly pulls us back at the last moment from throwing it all away.

Nevertheless, South Africa clearly hasn’t properly dealt with the past, instead building a superstructure of laws, policies and explanations on a

very shaky foundation. Recent events have shown once again what a damaged society we are. It seems a word here, a splash of paint there, can turn the national thermostat up to irrational rage. On the surface the anger seems to be out of all proportion to the events that trigger it. Below the surface, however, it all makes sense because that’s where the pain still lives.

Even so, I’m not too concerned about people occasionally getting heated and emotional if they are able to operate within the bounds of our Bill of Rights and our laws, go about their lives as normal, raise their children and work to meet their basic needs.

The people I’m worried about are the ones so damaged by their childhood that they are incapable of bonding with other human beings. They might look like you and me but under the skin they have a dangerous lack of empathy.

To switch on empathy in infancy, the single most i

mportant thing a parent or caregiver can do is form a meaningful attachment with their baby, and be a loving protector. Even in a crazy world of conflict and poverty, it just takes one present, compassionate adult to give a child a fighting chance of becoming a psychologically healthy adult who can connect with others.

A consistent, caring and thoughtful early attachment between caregiver and child is, I believe, a primary source of psychological resilience, a shield against adversity and a template for empathy.

Unfortunately, South Africa currently experiences a serious lack of empathic parenting. In a recent column I quoted two statistics from a report by the Institute Of Race Relations: one held that at least 50% of South African fathers have no regu

lar contact with their children; the other stated that this number is growing.

I see evidence of compromised attachment every day in my practice. I work with people who have suffered because of the belief that infants and children are not really affected by how they are brought up. Their caregivers did not understand or care that children suffer if they are ignored or raised by somebody (or more worryingly a series of somebodies) who is not emotionally invested in a child’s well-being. There are too many absent or unavailable parents, drunk parents, angry, immature and psychologically disturbed parents, for example, who fail to connect in a loving, protective way with their children.

We all know that something is wrong in our coun

try. The proximate causes might be guns, drugs or unemployment, but one of the ultimate causes is the disturbance of secure attachment, in infancy and childhood, to a good enough primary caregiver. The fractured relationships between parents (particularly fathers) and their children is one of South Africa’s greatest challenges.

This is a plea, then, to parents, caregivers and teachers. Each one of you is able to have a key influence on the future of South Africa by connecting empathically with a child and thus building that child’s capacity for connectedness with others. Here are the sorts of behaviours that work across various developmental stages:

  • Thinking about your baby and older child, holding them in mind, wondering how they are experiencing the world, what they need and how the world is impacting on them;
  • Holding and cuddling your babies, talking and singing to them, making lots of eye contact, touching and hugging;
  • Soothing babies (their brains are immature and they learn to self-soothe by your act of connection) and not treating their distressed cries as manipulative attention-seeking;
  • Responding to acts of distress in older children and adolescents by listening, talking and offering to be their advocate; 
  • Showing interest in a growing child’s activities, experiences and stories; and
  • Getting help for yourself if you feel damaged by your childhood, or bringing other caregivers such as helpers or relatives into your life 
    who can be there consistently for your child.

Being truly present in our children’s lives as much as possible, is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves, our children and our country.