Tag Archives: parenting

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.


Who needs a tiger for a mom?

tiger_momThe book was published on January 11th 2011. And within three weeks its ideas have spread across the world and colonised the debate about how to be a good parent. I can’t remember any other book generating so much polarised and vigorous debate about parenting, so quickly, as has Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. A combination of clever marketing, slow news days and the power of the internet has fuelled the controversy ignited by the release of her entertaining, repetitive and sometimes horrifying memoir.

To give you an idea, here are some extracts from the book: “… an A-minus is a bad grade … you must never compliment your child in public …… the only activities your child should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal … and that medal must be gold.” 

Further rhetorical flourishes include Chua dragging her “screaming demon” of a 3-year old child into the freezing cold, calling her children “pathetic” and “garbage” and “fat” and threatening her child that if she doesn’t play the piano perfectly, “I’m going to take all your stuffed animals and burn them!”

If you do a search on Amy Chua’s name, you will get more than 4 and a half million hits. Her book is a bestseller on Amazon already. Chua has pushed people’s buttons across the world, arousing insecurities and torrents of anger. She has entered the collective Google consciousness. Somewhere in the world right now, you will probably hear a parent somewhere saying, “If you don’t behave yourself, I’ll get Amy Chua to adopt you.”

I have just read the book and a great deal of the commentary, admiring, bemused or out- and-out hostile. The book clearly strikes a chord, positive and negative, with readers, but on close reading I was struck by how shallow Chua’s rationalisations for her behaviour are. Her arguments are not based on any coherent, scientific theory of healthy child development.  The psychologist in me diagnosed her as a brittle narcissist with unresolved performance anxiety. She clearly has a high IQ, but scores really poorly on any measure of emotional intelligence. The parent in me secretly worried I was really a yappy, growly small terrier mom, or even worse, a spineless jellyfish mommy. And the small child in me wanted to run screaming away from Amy Chua and her relentlessly Machiavellian mothering. For her the end (acceptance into an Ivy League University) justifies her extreme, mean, means.

Chua insists that her book is not a parenting guide but a memoir. Nevertheless there is plenty of advice and commentary on parenting styles. She distinguishes between the ‘Chinese’ parent’ and the ‘Western’ parent: the first believes that her child must be denied play dates, sleepovers, acting in school plays or watching TV, and no grade less that an A must be tolerated; in the second model children are coddled into mediocrity, protected from hurt feelings and praised for trying hard when they get a D for Maths. Where Western parents are pleased if their child practises the piano for an hour, Chua reckons that a Chinese mother thinks the first hour is easy, two and three being the tough ones. Much emphasis is placed on drilling and repetition until ‘perfection’ is achieved.

Many commentators have noted that her book plays into Western fears of the Asian giant and that billions of children raised by Tiger moms are going to overwhelm poorly disciplined, semi-skilled American offspring. Taking excerpts from the book at face value makes fairly alarming reading for anyone who is sensitive to the issue of emotional and psychological abuse of children.

Chua does acknowledge that her ‘Chinese’ and ‘Western’ parenting models are just generalisations for the purpose of argument. She also admits her own parenting difficulties, framing her conflict with her daughters (raised in America and with a Jewish father) as a “bitter clash of cultures”. She also admits to feeling “humbled by a 13-year old”.

As interesting as her ideas are, so are many readers’ and commentators’ responses. One called her a “stuffed animal arsonist”, while others point out the horrible pressures of perfectionism and the high suicide rates of Chinese American teens compared to other groups. A mother I know, who has a high achieving 18-year old daughter (9 A’s for Matric, captain of the netball team and all round good kid) and a 4-year old autistic son, commented to me that she wondered what the Tiger Mother would do with a disabled cub. Eat it?

Chua’s thesis, as you can probably see, renders the complex task of parenting into a completely false dichotomy. It’s sensible to dispense with unhelpful stereotypes like ‘Chinese’ and ‘Western’ and refer instead to the continuum of parenting styles from authoritarian to permissive.  Both extremes are high risk strategies – they may work for some children, but when they go wrong, the results can be disastrous.

The problem with adopting an extreme parenting style is that you have a limited repertoire of responses. You are not necessarily able to respond to a particular child, in a specific context in an appropriate manner. Psychologists emphasise the importance of being empathically attuned to children from infancy onwards. Understanding what your child needs emotionally, being able to separate out your own issues from those of your child and being able to see things from your child’s perspective, are all components of mature parenting. As are setting boundaries, saying no, making difficult decisions on behalf of your children and being prepared to be hated sometimes.

In her book on maternal ambivalence, Torn in Two, British psychotherapist Rozsika Parker definestorn in two ambivalence in relationships as having co-existing contradictory feelings about the same person. Powerful loving and hating feelings that parents feel towards their children are an intense manifestation of this phenomenon. This ambivalence is normal and inevitable. The loving feelings are easy to accept as they are the ones we are “supposed” to have towards our children, but the angry, resentful feelings, while just as common, are much more difficult to face up to. 

When parents have a predominance of negative feelings this is a problem that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. But when we have those negative feelings in the context of love, the ambivalence we feel is manageable and bearable. The ability to acknowledge, think about and deal with our negative feelings and impulses is an important skill that minimizes the chance that we will act out these feelings in a destructive way. Parents also need to tolerate their children’s ambivalent feelings towards them. Very few parents I know have not heard their children say some variant of “you’re so unfair, I hate you, you’re the worst parent in the whole world”. Especially when you’ve made them finish their homework or grounded them or not bought them something they’ve nagged for.

You won’t see much evidence of ambivalence in Amy Chua’s book, nor in some of her respondent’s views. In the cover article about Chua in Time magazine this week, Annie Murphy Paul comments that “more than anything, it’s Chua’s maternal confidence — her striking lack of ambivalence about her choices as a parent — that has inspired both ire and awe among the many who have read her words.” It is this absolute lack of ambivalence that I think is a problem, for in fact tolerating mixed feelings is not weakness or indecision; it is the ability to acknowledge difference, to allow for flexibility and change, and to consider alternatives. It is the denial of ambivalence that is the problem.

Authoritarian parents like Amy Chua are afraid of losing control, terrified that their children might descend into mediocrity. To prevent this, they expect their children to adapt to them. On the other hand, permissive parents adapt themselves completely to the child. They are so afraid of evoking negative emotions that they give control over the child’s whims, always meeting their child’s wants rather than their child’s needs.

Finally, this book made me think about what these debates mean for parents in South Africa. In our context I believe that Chua’s ideas are deeply problematic. Our history of militarism, apartheid, forced removals and the deliberate erosion of family and community bonds, is the worst foundation for a harsh, unempathic and emotionally abusive style of parenting. Similarly, to raise children in a permissive, laissez faire way, in a country that flirts with lawlessness and violence, exacerbated by communities with poor attachment and absent adult figures, is like throwing a giant firecracker into a dynamite factory.

South Africa needs another model of parenting. The great psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, spoke of this balanced approach when he coined the term the ‘good-enough’ parent. Good-enough parents accept the many benefits of ‘Chinese’ parenting, such as persistence and repetition, whether it be practising mathematical equations or grooving a backhand stroke in tennis. But they also see the many cognitive and emotional benefits of releasing their child into the world of sleepovers, play dates and occasional academic failure. It’s perhaps no exaggeration to say that complex childhood tasks such as balancing your needs with those of a group of friends, or learning to read the feelings of others, are crucial to success as an adult.

Above all, good-enough parents are able to tolerate mistakes, learn from them and understand that there are many ways to be a parent. Good-enough South African parents and ordinary South African children can breathe a sigh of relief that tigers are not really at home here.

Raising Brave Children

baby-supermanTimmy buzzed around my consulting room, playing Superman. Faster than a speeding bullet he rescued the doll family that he’d earlier tied up with some string. In the sand tray he intervened to prevent the marauding dinosaurs from stomping on the farm animals that waited anxiously for their hero to arrive. After performing an emergency operation on the toy bear, he flopped down onto the floor and said wistfully, “Where’s the real Superman when I really need him?”

Timmy, the courageous conqueror of crime, dinosaurs and illness, the hero of the hour, had been referred to me because he was scared all the time. He had nightmares, struggled to separate from his mom when he had to go to school and worried constantly about bad things happening. He was particularly afraid of swimming in the pool – he said his brain told him sharks didn’t live in swimming pools, but his heart and tummy couldn’t believe his brain.

In the course of play therapy my aim was to help Timmy face and manage his fears. To do this he would have to find his own inner superhero. SuperTimmy would have to demonstrate courage – defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the ability to disregard fear”.  Courage, also known as bravery, valour, tenacity and pluck, is not recklessness or fearlessness. Courage is informed by fear and able to learn from fear. Courage is doing what you know is right even when it’s not easy. Charles A. Smith, an American educator, points out that “courage finds its roots in two fundamental skills learned in early childhood – persevering despite adversity and remaining mindful despite fear”.

So how do we teach our children to be brave? Firstly we need to model being brave and proud of our own moments of courage. We also need to teach children to persevere. We can encourage this by praising and rewarding effort, focusing less on the outcome of a project than on the process. In order to teach mindfulness in spite of fear we can provide scaffolding – small amounts of support and reassurance to help children move gradually through increasingly anxiety-provoking situations. The parent’s support and soothing words help the child calm down enough to manage fear. Over time the child learns to calm himself down, so the ability to self-soothe is internalised. Current research suggests that this is a result of the strengthening of those brain pathways that manage stress. 

As well as offering appropriate support, we can also help our children develop confidence by “letting go”. In her excellent book on parenting, Letting Go as Children Grow, Deborah Jackson, a British writer, points out that while children need adult support, they do not need interference, which can damage their growth. If we learn to trust our children at each stage, they are more likely to find their own courage. When parents do a little less there is the likelihood that children will feel freer to do a lot more.

girl lighting fireOne way in which parents can build children’s confidence and courage is to think about the challenge offered to parents by Gever Tulley of The Tinkering School in Southern California. Before you ask why, here are five dangerous things he says you should get your child to do:

  1. Play with fire
  2. Have a pocket knife
  3. Take things apart
  4. Drive something
  5. Throw things and skim stones

We live in a dangerous world. So why on earth encourage our kids to do more dangerous things? Tulley reckons that we need to learn about our own power and potency. We do this by learning about the world and how and why things happen, its causes and effects, and by experimenting with the limits of our physical capacities. We must have the experience of being in control. Of course all of the above activities MUST be carried out under responsible adult supervision, with guidance, support, and yes, scaffolding. 

Allowing kids to explore and use tools encourages creativity, independence and a desire to learn. We risk having societies turn into sterile systems, where dirt, trees and appliances are taken away from kids, together with marvellous opportunities to learn by playing!

As parents we can tell our kids that fire is dangerous and useful, but until you actually build a fire, “play” with it, cook something on it, and learn to control it and put it out, you haven’t learned about fire. In reality our children will do dangerous things whether we like it or not. If they are forced to do so secretly without your help and supervision (not interference), they are more likely to hurt themselves. Children are more at risk if they have not had guided experiences with danger.

I thought of other things our Superboys and Supergirls should be encouraged to try as we watch them learning to be brave:  

  • Climb things, especially trees
  • Jump off and over things
  • Taste new foods
  • Act in a play
  • Make a new friend
  • Go on a ride at a funfair
  • Say what you feel
  • Play in the mud
  • Risk failure
  • Dance
  • Sing loudly

Perhaps it’s not only the parents who allow their children to run wild who are a problem. It’s also the parents that won’t let their children run at all.


Sleepover’s don’t need to be nightmares

Slumber party or night of the living dead?sleepover image

It’s 2.00am and out of the blackness of sleep something materialises in my room. It’s at my elbow, shaking me awake. I grope through the mist, trying to catch up to my racing heart. It’s my son’s 8-year old friend, sleeping over for the first time. He can’t sleep. So neither can I.

The sleepover, or its Americanised girlie version, the slumber party, is one of the modern rituals of childhood. Children and teenagers beg parents to allow them to host or attend sleepovers, with the promise of pillow fights and midnight feasts, the tests of ghost stories and truth or dare.

What can go wrong? Well for starters: imagine a giggling gaggle of hyped-up tweens and teens, transforming into squabbling, sleep-deprived, grumpy monsters ruining the rest of your family weekend.

Other parents have darker imaginations, depending of what they’ve read in the newspaper or which stories they’ve heard that week. Pornography, paedophiles, sex, drugs, alcohol or neglectful parents, take your pick.

Sleepovers are a rite of passage, a plunge into deeper waters. Whether you host one or send your child to someone else’s, you might feel as if your child is not ready. For some parents the shallow end of life is a much safer place to be. I understand this. I understand it completely.

When my son packed his things to stay over at his best friend’s, I smiled encouragingly through the lump in my throat as he left home for his first night out. He dragged a huge bag behind him, walking innocently forward. I trusted the hosting family but not chance, the possibility of some violent intrusion into their home, some horrible, random stroke of fate that I should be there to experience with him.

If you think I’m bad, try my husband. “What if a small rusting bit of a satellite breaks off, falls a few thousand kilometres and hits their house?” he asked, only half-joking.

Unsurprisingly, our son survived. There was no act of God or shift in the earth’s crust. I’d just forgotten about his sleepwalking, of course, a habit he’d recently started and which we had yet to understand properly.  I was probably sleeping fitfully when he fell out of the top bunk of his friend’s top bunk in the middle of the night, crashing onto the carpet, where his friend’s mom found him a few seconds later, sleeping peacefully.

My son was 7 years old at the time, but what is the correct age for sleepovers? There is no right time, of course. Some parents will be in their early twenties, others in their fifties – they just have to deal with it as maturely as possible.

Parents might refuse to allow their child a sleepover at a friend because of safety concerns and the fear of something going wrong, or just because they have different attitudes, values and parenting styles to those of the hosts.

Equally, not all children want to sleep out. Sometimes it’s the parents dying for a child-free Saturday night but their child says no.

Properly planned and supervised sleepovers are a fantastic way for children to consolidate friendships, expand their horizons and learn about how other families live. It helps children practise being flexible and autonomous within safe boundaries. It also helps parents practise letting go.

Some tips:

  • Make sure you know the family where your child will be spending the night. You should also ask what level of parent supervision will be provided and which other children might be sleeping over. And if you feel uncomfortable, you can say no;
  • If you host a sleepover, be vigilant, be responsible, keep them short, and don’t have too many kids over to sleep at one time. Remember Lord of the Flies?;
  • Don’t schedule sleepovers for every weekend or they lose their specialness and also start compromising family time and other activities;
  • Children should never be pressurised into sleeping out if they feel unsafe or uncertain;
  • If they would like to go but are nervous, put a plan in place that allows for you to make contact with your children and the host family, say goodnight and, if necessary, make a plan allowing them to come home if there anxiety gets the better of them;
  • Avoid a pattern of your child asking if he can sleep out, and then always phoning you in the middle of the night to be fetched. If this is happening, then your child is not ready for sleepovers – take a break and try again in a few month’s time; and
  • For anxious parents of younger children, consider something I read about, which is ‘sleep unders’, ‘half-overs’, or ‘late nights’. The children go off in their pyjamas, take junk food, play all the games they want, but at a certain point are fetched and tucked in under their own roof, where their parents can feel safe.

The author Elizabeth Stone wrote: “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ” And sleepovers, the precursors to leaving home, allow your heart to brave some tentative baby steps.

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

Sugar and Spice and Being Horrid

Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of. Except, it seems, when they’re cracking bottles over each other’s heads, calling each other fat cows, spreading offensive, defamatory rumours or disinviting each other from parties, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger.

I’m sure many parents were distressed by recent reports of the 15-year old schoolgirl at Krugersdorp High School in Johannesburg who attacked a fellow pupil with a glass bottle. This incident seemed to be at the tail end of a string of bullying and harassing incidents that had passed between these particular girls.

We should be distressed but not surprised. 

Many teachers, parents and psychologists have become increasingly aware over the last couple of years of an apparent rise in female bullying. This is sometimes called ‘relational aggression’ as physical assault usually plays only a small part in the pattern of behaviour.

Relational aggression includes spreading rumours, verbally insulting, exclusion from friendship groups and hostile and dismissive body language. It is different from the normal conflicts that occasionally flare up between girls, in that the aggression is persistent and relentless, usually targeting on one or two individuals. It can happen anywhere and in any age group, but it is most commonly played out in school settings and is most intense in the middle school, between grades 6 to 10.  

As I said earlier, I believe girl-on-girl bullying has become more common, partly as a result of the availability of more instant forms of communication. A study of young people, conducted in South Africa in 2009 by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention, found that about 25% of them had been bullied by means of text messages, and that almost 70% of text messaging bullies had been bullied themselves through sms. 

Why is this verbal bullying more common amongst girls? Partly it’s because girls generally invest more in friendships than boys do, and so the stakes are much higher, the hurt greater, when conflicts arise. Words are the instrument of affection but also the weapon of choice.

Any girl can be a victim or aggressor, and many issues can incite incidents. But one common thread that runs through these fights is the social isolation of a victim so that the status of the in-group is enhanced. Ring-leaders of the in-groups might resent competition from the victim or want more attention for themselves, and it’s not uncommon for those leaders to have an unstable self-esteem, one that is easily threatened by new voices and competing influences.

The chief bully in the group is often a seemingly popular and charming girl whom parents and teachers like and give lots of attention to. In other words, not the sort of person who would automatically be suspected of such behaviour. queen bee and enabler

The American parenting educator, Rosalind Wiseman, describes these girls as “queen bees”. She points out that other girls often hover around queen bees out of fear of being excluded from their approval, and that the queen bee (or mean girl or ruler of the clique) is often not well liked by her peers, but that she makes them afraid.

Complicating matters for all parties – parents, targets and teachers – is that the very nature of relational aggression makes it more difficult to detect and take seriously.

If a girl comes to you and says that her friends have started turning away from her when she approaches, rolling their eyes at her when she speaks, or telling others that she is fat, you might not understand that this is part of a relentless campaign that happens behind your back. Victims often fail to report what has happened and can suffer for a long time without being helped. 

Johannesburg psychologist Lesley Rosenthal adds that “Part of the problem is that girls are socialised to be good and nice and compliant and people pleasers and therefore project a false self to the world. Social competition and aggression are denied and frowned upon as unfeminine. So the behaviour gets expressed covertly, through the bitchy meanness manifest in relational aggression.”

So much for sugar and spice and the world of nursery rhymes. It’s much more the little girl, who had a little curl, “right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very good indeed, but when she was bad she was horrid.”

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.

Money, money, money: parenting and the recession

When I was young we were so poor we lived in a shoebox. 

We walked to school in the snow, listened to the radio, watched the test pattern and for a special treat shared an ice cream at the corner café. We wore hand-me-down clothes and nobody laughed. There were no designer cell phones, sneakers or R600 Playstation games.

Today our kids hang out in shopping malls, are driven to school, insist on DC shoes, watch tv in their rooms and for a special treat are dropped off at U-parties with 200 bucks in their pockets in the company of friends who say, “Yo, dawg!” and “Hey, bru!” and who all know the difference between Mr Price and Iron Fist clothing.

Times have changed. The new jargon is retrenched, downsized and credit crunched. We are in a recession and, while I don’t believe in the golden age of the past, where money is concerned there are a few lessons we can learn from our own parents.

Your parents may have been economical with the truth on issues like sex and politics, but they were most likely honest about money and the importance of being frugal. That kind of directness is important. Don’t pretend to children that nothing’s changed since the recession began. Discuss realities about money honestly and age-appropriately, and don’t over-protect children from the reality of your situation.

Opening these channels of communication about money can help children to value it for what it enables us to do and experience, while not overvaluing it for its own sake. In your talk and actions model the idea that money is important but not the main signifier of success.

One way to teach kids the appropriate value of money is by drawing up a family budget together, and discussing the main components. Then agree on a certain amount of pocket money each week in return for specific chores, according to the age and needs of a child. With chores, a clear relationship between work and money is set up early on. As part of their budget, also insist that a certain percentage of pocket money, for example 15%, is set aside for savings.

It is also worth encouraging an entrepreneurial attitude in your child. True entrepreneurs may be born not made, but all of us can improve our enterprising skills. A kid I know has been selling bird feeders. My friend’s child wants to make a lemonade stand like the one he saw in a tv programme – with a little effort he could make money the next time Walk the Talk passes by his house.

Even if you and your family are not very good entrepreneurs, it’s not difficult to adopt a creative approach to living life that makes or saves money, rather than simply splashing out money on restaurants, holidays and malls. Creative activities that are not expensive include: walk in parks or on the beach if you are lucky enough to live at the coast; making birthday cards; meeting friends and family in the park for a picnic; building hideaway dens in the garden; using materials from your recycling bin for your kids to build objects with; or helping your child to use wooden blocks to make a play house for his hamster. And keep a lookout in the press, local newsletters and internet sites like Jozikids for various inexpensive activities.

But what happens if, despite your best intentions, your children are obsessed with designer labels and will only wear Ed Hardy or AmaKipKip? They could certainly save or earn some of the money for these, but don’t be emotionally blackmailed into believing that having the right clothes will make a child happy and popular. At the same time don’t be a hypocrite – if you will only wear Prada what do you think your child will want?

In the end, parenting in a recession is about reclaiming one thing our parents may have got right in the past – we are not entitled to have money so look after it carefully.