What’s the problem with maths?

Maths

I know, I know, it’s so cliché. Another Chinese nerd banging on about boring maths. Believe me; I have fought hard to escape this stereotype. Banker and I didn’t get off to a good start as when we first met as students he guessed that I was a maths student. Maths meant to me geeky Asian with no social skills, so I wasn’t much impressed.

However, now as an adult in the working world I am thankful for my maths skills and am only regretful that they are not better. As a mother, I positively lament the lack of emphasis on maths in the infant school curriculum and I think that this is of detriment to our children and indeed our country. Britain has produced some of the world’s best scientists, engineers and economists so it is not for want of genetic stock or tradition. Yet why does the Far East continue to dominate the international student abilities (Pisa Test) League tables for maths and science? Nosing around Russell Group Universities, I found a higher proportion of Asians lurking in the corridors of Maths, Engineering and Science departments than in the Humanities departments. Why?

From my own up-bringing which I may be erroneously extrapolating to the rest of Asia, education is extremely highly valued. Within that, maths and science is valued above other subjects. So much so that my parents dictated to my sisters and me that we had to limit our A-Levels to 3 of: Maths, Physics, Biology and Chemistry. Despite having achieved better marks in Art and History at GCSE than science, I was to be a scientist. Mad and maddening maybe, but my parents had seen a national focus on science, maths and engineering education allow their country (Taiwan) to gain economic wealth, and unprecedented development within their lifetime. On the backs of engineers, Taiwan is now a developed country and a world player in technology, despite being the size of Wales and having started in the 1940s from a much more disadvantaged base.

From a cultural origin of mathematical reverence it is quite bizarre to experience the irreverence to maths in the UK. Whilst an engineer is admired in the Far East, they are depicted as “Anoraks” in the UK. Whilst maths is a subject that both boys and girls are expected to excel in, maths in the UK is for boys, and even then – just for the boys who are born with “that logical, mathematical mind”. Whilst inability to do mental arithmetic is associated with derision and sympathy in the Far East, it is expected, sometimes even boasted about in the UK. I was shocked to find that many fellow well-educated mums were openly admitting that they would struggle to help their children with 11+ maths revision. The reason they were openly admitting this was because they were somewhat proud and not the least bit ashamed to be weak at maths, whereas I doubt anyone would openly admit to struggling to read or write at the level of an 11 year old. This would be regarded as shameful. It has become socially acceptable among the well-educated to be bad at maths. Surely this should not be?

Whilst reading is heavily pushed in infant schools, maths seems to be relatively neglected. In the UK reading and debating is cool. Law and politics is aspirational. PPE at Oxford is the Holy Grail. I have no problem with that, but why does it have to be at the detriment of maths and science? If we are a country that believes that children should be allowed to flourish and become what they want to be, doesn’t this include parity of encouragement for numeracy and literacy so that there is a level playing field of areas within which to flourish?

From a basis of low National aspiration in mathematical ability, it is no wonder that Banker states that the majority of banks are recruiting their quantitative skills staff from Asia. These skills are so sought after that my sister (who possesses a maths PhD) had no problem acquiring a highly paid job within 2 weeks of arriving back from the USA after deciding to return to the UK to be a more present Auntie. I am sure she would have found it harder to find a highly paid job had her PhD been in English Literature/ Greek Philosophy/ Viking History. At the population level one wonders whether the average Joe and Joan Blogs could calculate their expected monthly increase in mortgage repayment if the Bank of England were to increase interest rates by .5%. Yet these sorts of calculations are vitally important to keep roofs over heads and food in mouths. Maths is a vital and sought after skill, why are we not investing in it at the very grass roots?

Probably it is because the people in power don’t value or understand maths and science. Shockingly only 1 MP out of 650 has a background as a primary science worker as reported by The Guardian, and headlines of “Only scientist in Commons alarmed at MPs ignorance [about science]” in The Independent say it all. Only 70 out of 650 MPs are even registered as having “an interest” in science at all (reference here). That’s probably less than the number of MPs who are actively writing history books alongside their Parliamentary careers. I am a great supporter of the arts, but am also a strong believer that the basic level of maths and science needs to be raised and society can change this. As a social observer I see that a culture that values maths produces a society with strong mathematical ability. As a psychiatrist I know that “intelligence” is more likely to have a uniform rather than varied profile (so most children who are good at English should be as good at maths). Children with a varied profile are more likely to encounter difficulty and see a Child Psychiatrist, but over the general population they are a minority. As a researcher in behavioural genetics, I know that “g” (geneticist’s annotation for genetic “intelligence”) is generalist meaning that it applies across the board for all areas of intelligence and children who are genetically advantaged in English are also genetically advantaged in maths. Specialism or differentiation on the other hand is environmentally mediated (Kovas et al 2007). This means that in general, whether an intelligent child chooses to specialize in maths or English is due to its environment (parents, school, society); and even more crucially, where a child performs well in English but does less well in maths, this is also due to the environment (parent, school, society).

Back in the Shrink household. Big Sis’s state primary school pushes reading. So they should. All parents are expected to read with their children every night. The school challenged Big Sis at reading so much so that in Reception she was given “chapter books” to take home for her to read to me. At 5 and a half she was expected to read books containing the word “obsessed”. She could read the word but had no clue what it meant nor was she able to understand it when I tried to explain it to her. Big Sis began to hate reading and cried every night when I asked her to read to me. I persisted in thinking “if her teacher has given her this book, she must be capable of reading it”. After a few weeks of this, I gave up and thankfully went with my own judgement that these books were frankly too hard. I must be the only “Chinese Tiger Parent” to have written to the class teacher to say “Excuse me, but I think that you are over-estimating my child’s ability, can you put her reading books down 3 levels please”.  At the same time, while we parents were expected to battle to help children achieve advanced literacy, there was no expectation on us to do any numeracy with our children regularly. I don’t blame the school (it’s a great school), it’s not in the National Curriculum, no state school that I know in the UK encourages numeracy in this way, but I am pretty sure it happens in the Far East.

When I received Big Sis’s report card from Reception, she achieved “exceeding” scores in literacy but achieved “expected” scores for maths. My initial response was “How is this possible? She comes from a family of scientists and mathematicians! Maths is a family tradition.” Truth be told, I would have been happier with “expected” scores for literacy. To make matters worse, when I asked Big Sis if she was struggling with maths, she said “Maths is too hard. Maths is for boys”!

Rather than accept that “maths is hard, and she has not been born with a mathematical mind (she is a girl after all)” I set about setting Big Sis a few counting and maths problems every morning, to balance the reading that was set by the school every night. My view was that of course Big Sis’s literacy was better than her numeracy – I was required by the school to support her literacy on a daily basis but not required at all to support her numeracy. Since then, Big Sis’s maths has come along and she was rated of equal ability in maths and literacy by the end of Year 1. She will now confidently say “I am good at maths”, and attempt maths problems rather than avoid them. The solution was so simple, yet why are schools not breaking down maths to simple parts and pushing numeracy in line with literacy from reception? I’m not talking about solving quadratic equations, but if children are encouraged to count and add sweets/ pocket money/ count the number of days until Christmas etc. daily from a young age, does this not take the “difficulty” stigma out of maths?

I have found that the majority of children enjoy doing the things that they are good at. Some children are naturally good at certain things (Lil Bro is maths minded and will seek out for himself mathematical problems; he was a voracious consumer of jigsaws), however this is rarer and the majority of children become good at things. Once a child is good at something, then they will invest in doing these things and become even better at them. By the time that the National Curriculum suggests that children start doing the core of maths, their expertise and skill in literacy is far ahead of their mathematical ability. At one stage Big Sis was reading Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr Fox” at school but did not know what 2 x 2 was- to me this seems completely unbalanced. Literacy and English become the favoured subjects and maths will be relatively challenging and therefore more unloved.  The opportunity to sell maths to children is hijacked by literacy being given the advantage of earlier exposure and active encouragement. In the Far East, 5-6 year old children will learn their times tables up to 12 by rote. Before you utter “We in the UK are not rote learners”, think about the reception classes up and down the land chanting their jolly phonics sounds “igh, igh, igh”; “Ph”, “Ph”, “Ph”; “ee”, “ee”, “ee”; “ai”, “ai”, “ai”. This is rote learning as who could fathom that “igh” is pronounced “i”?? Once the connections are entrenched by rote learning, it is possible to learn about the Latin and Greek from which words are derived, in the same way the meaning of relationships between numbers can be learnt. The rote learning gets you started.

I am pretty sure that had I not taken action to support Big Sis’s maths in the same way that I was required to support her literacy that Big Sis would not now confidently declare that she was “good at maths”. Without a sound understanding of maths, the enjoyment of the sciences would be in jeopardy. Isn’t it time that we put numeracy on equal footing to literacy in early years education, as only then can we really say that we are allowing our children equal opportunity to select for themselves their strengths be it science or the humanities?

References:

The Genetic and Environmental Origins of Learning Abilities and Disabilities in the Early School Years. Yulia Kovas, Claire Haworth, Philip Dale & Robert Plomin. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Serial no.288, vol 72, no.3, 2007.

All You Need is Love

Love

Simple isn’t it?

Cheesy as it is, I believe in this; so much so that this was the song that was played as my husband and I exited the church at our wedding. But if love is all you need, then in terms of parenting how and why do we sometimes get it wrong?

I think that sometimes people forget that “love” is like money; it’s no good in theoretical or inaccessible form. Having a million pound Trust Fund accessible when you reach the age of 85 years is not of much use to anyone; ultimately you need to be able to FEEL the power of it for it to have value. In my line of work, almost all parents will say that they love their children and I believe this to be true. However, the percentage of children that FEEL that their parents love them is way lower. It is therefore one thing to love your children. It is another to make them believe/ feel in their hearts/ know to the core/ have no doubt of the fact that they are loved. The former can be done from the office or at the kitchen sink; the latter is much harder work.

Knowing that you are loved/ lovable is at the core of our function. In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for depression in both adolescents and adults, when we search back with clients for “core negative beliefs” (the fundamental cognitive processing bias in people with depression), it is amazing how predictable and limited the core beliefs are that cripple so many good people; the most common being “I am not good enough/ I am unlovable”.

When are these core beliefs formed?

In early childhood.

Who/ what contributes to the formation of these core beliefs?

Parents.

I think that sometimes parents get confused about love. They confuse it with something that needs to be earned, won or is conditional. They think that unconditional love is excessive; an extravagance that will “spoil” children, denying it may be a motivator. They, and in turn their children come to believe that achievement (or something that they need to be or do) leads to love. Many great and successful people have grown up believing this model. It makes sense that achievement leads to “being worthy of love” and self-esteem is built on achievement and love. Many people are driven to success with a desire to “make their parents proud”.

Love Model 1

But there is a second model where a fundamental core of love (unconditional and for no reason other than being) can lead to self-esteem in its own right and this self-esteem on a basis of love can drive achievement all on its own. The unconditional love and support of parents is commonplace in acceptance speeches for awards of all kinds from Nobel prizes to Oscars.

Love Model 2

This second model is infinitely stronger than the first model presented. In the first model if love is dependent on achievement, it can be a very bitter pill to swallow if achievements wane and self-esteem and love (which was built on the rocky foundation of achievement) is lost, leaving people in effect stripped of everything. Some parents of course will never be proud of their children, they don’t have it in them and people are left chasing a dream. This type of model can explain how many successful and amazing people can feel they have nothing or are perpetually “not good enough”. In the second model, even if achievements wane and the self-esteem is dented, love is untouched and the source of everything lives on.

Making some one feel loved is hard work, but for parents I think it is important to stress that the effort in love is front loaded. Just as at the start of a new romance you might abandon the grey bloomers for lingerie, refrain from passing wind, frequently ask about your new partner’s day, always go on holiday together, so “romancing” (putting extra elbow grease into making someone feel loved and special) your child is also required at the start. Once a secure loving relationship is established, then inevitable liberties will be taken, but if the work of the early years has been solid, then nothing can shake the secure foundations of love.

As I mentioned I am a great believer of the fundamental importance of love and with regard to my own children I am operating on the basis of the second model. I want my and my husband’s love to be the fuel for our children’s success (or failure, we will love them anyway). As a parent it is difficult to know “How to make children feel loved”, and believe it or not this is not a topic covered at medical school, in a psychology degree or psychiatric training. There is no scientific basis and don’t let any pseudo-science, pop-psychology book tell you otherwise. We as parents are all left to figure this out for ourselves and enact in the best way that we can. The things I figure are listed below:

1) Cuddles are good. Surely nothing says love as much as kisses and cuddles? Sod the Victorians and stiff upper lips, I’m for open affection. Often.

2) Laughing is good. What says “love” more than enjoying each other’s company? One of the vows I made when I worked full-time was that I would laugh with my children every day, and we did, and we still do.

3) Being there is good. I know that I can’t always be there for my children but I make sure that I (or my husband) am there every time it matters. School plays, sports days, class assemblies, concerts and parents’ days – we haven’t yet missed one. I wave like a frantic loon to ensure that they KNOW I am there. Embarrassing I know, but why take time off work to go if they don’t even know I made it…?

4) Being really there is better. It can’t be right just to show your face on the special occasions, part of “love” is about sharing the mundane. Being around at least some of the time to catch the joke, the thought, the upset in real time. Some things are lost in the re-telling. You can love from a distance but can you make someone FEEL loved without really spending much time with them?

5) Understanding matters. What says love more than knowing what the other person is thinking? I often finish Banker’s sentences; I can do this with the children now too. Talking about, listening and exchanging experiences and feelings regularly is the basis of being able to know and understand someone. Children’s experiences and feelings are just as significant as adult experiences even if they might seem less important. A child being told off by a teacher will hurt as much to them as an adult being told off by their boss.

6) Respect matters. I don’t think you can engender love without respect. This means listening and valuing your children’s opinions, even if they are wrong and never denigrating or humiliating them.

7) Saying it out loud matters. I am a big believer of the three words “I love you”. I think it is necessary even if it is not sufficient. Banker is shy of these words but if you want to engender unquestionable love why hold back? Go the whole hog. Say it every day, 5, 10, 20 times a day if you like – contrary to popular belief if you say it continually to the same people, the power is not diluted. At this age, children may not always understand nuance and behaviour and verbalising your emotions and intentions help to bring things home. Once after telling off Lil Bro, he cried and said “You don’t love me anymore”. Since then I have been extra good at verbalising and spelling it out:

“I will love you if you are clever, I will love you if you are not, I will love you if you are fat, I will love you if you are thin. I will love you if you are nice to me. I will love you even if you are horrible to me. Even when I am shouting at you, I love you. I love you for being you. You will always be beautiful and smart in my eyes. I am proud of you for being you. You will always have my support. I am always here for you. Nothing will change that. I love you.”

For an adult it comes across a bit stalker-ish I know, but for young children it’s good and clear (I hope).

This is by no means a correct or exhaustive list and until Big Sis and Lil Bro are adults, I will have no idea whether my list is effective at all. My consolation is that given that my intentions are blogged, they cannot say I didn’t think about this, and if I failed to let my love be truly felt, they will know that I failed trying.

Confessions of a BME Oxbridge Female

whites only

I’VE BEEN MENTIONED IN THE FINANCIAL TIMES!

In Simon Kuper’s article in the Financial Times October 24th 2014 “Confessions of a white Oxbridge male” he mentions me in his concluding paragraph:

“We [white Oxbridge males] have expanded our caste a little. We now recruit some non-whites (preferably Oxbridge men). We’ve even begun admitting Oxbridge women. We just sideline them professionally the moment they make the mistake of giving birth.”

OK, not quite a name-check, but I’m one of the women he is talking about. Since he has given his career confessional (which he says included an easy ride into Oxbridge and journalism); I thought I’d give a view from the other side. No one may be interested, as who wants to hear a BME (black/ minority ethnic) females’ voice when they can hear the voice of the white male, but it saves me a lot of money in therapy.

Unlike Simon’s dad, my dad was no Cambridge educated establishment figure. He was born son to a peasant farmer in 1940s Taiwan. Taiwan in the 1940s bears no resemblance to the bustling developed country it is today, and had a predominantly agricultural economy. Life for a subsistence farmer was hard and tied to the will of the weather. Growing up, we were forever regaled with my father’s hard-luck story. If we ever complained about having to go to school, we would get lectured about “You’re so lucky you can go to school. When I was young I had to plead with my mother to go to school, then I had to walk 10 miles round trip to school barefoot wearing my father’s cut off trousers, feet calloused and bleeding.” We would then mercilessly make fun of it in the manner of the Monty Python 4 Yorkshire-men skit by adding “That’s nothing, when I was a lad, I had to crawl naked on my hands and knees through dark underground tunnels to get to school”, etc. etc.

At the heart of it though, and particularly in adulthood, I truly respect the climb he made to give us, his children a better life. He was the 5th of 11 children. None of his preceding siblings had completed primary school education, and they were forced to enter child labour at a nearby factory where they were physically and verbally abused on a daily basis. On finding that he was to suffer the same fate, he cried until a neighbour took pity on him. This neighbour, having heard from her daughter that my father was the brightest child in the class, persuaded my grandmother to allow him to enrol for secondary education, just for a year at least. The pattern continued with ever more cycles of crying and pleading “Just one more year of school”, until my grandmother eventually realised that all this crying and intellectual sentimentality probably made him too soft for factory work. So they let him continue with education and work in the evenings and holidays in repayment for not shouldering the family’s load. In term time, as his school was far away, he sofa-surfed and freeloaded on classmates from richer families to get by until eventually, he made his way up to University to study civil engineering. On graduation he landed a job as a hydraulic engineer in one of Taiwan’s harbours thus having successfully climbed out of manual labour into the professional class through hard-won education.

Having worked 10 years as an engineer and saved hard, he followed his dream: he applied for a PhD in civil engineering at Swansea University in the UK. That’s how my family immigrated to the UK. I was 3 years old at the time. Compared to the life that my father had, my life has been charmed. A family of 5 was frugally but happily fed and watered on a PhD stipend. My sisters and I had no toys but made chess sets from the cardboard of a cereal packet. We avidly read Enid Blyton books and cuddled bears purchased from the second hand stall at the school fete. We begged our friends to share their penny sweets and chocolates with us. We learnt that material things did not matter, we had the most important gift of all: A LOVING FAMILY.

My father whose life experience was of class discrimination in Taiwan and racial discrimination in the UK also passed on another life lesson: you will face discrimination, but if you work twice as hard as the others, you will succeed, don’t let anyone stop you. We took his advice, and for a while, nothing stopped me.

With this work-ethic instilled, school was a breeze; we went to the local state primary schools as my parents couldn’t afford anything else. Without the seemingly now obligatory tuition, my sisters and I all waltzed into the local Grammar school which saw 1000 girls sitting for 90 places. A clean sweep of As (A* was not around at that time) in 10 GCSEs, 1 AS-level and 3 A-levels, saw me arrive at Cambridge University to study medicine. Whad’ya know? My dad was right – unstoppable.

A funny thing happened at Cambridge. As soon as I arrived, the porters and students all commented on my good English. Initially, I took great offence at this: how else did they think I got all those As at A-level to get here? Later I realised that in my college undergraduate intake of 120 that year, I was the only BME girl who was not a foreign student. Everyone just presumed that I was a foreign student and were hence surprised at my grasp of the English language. Russell Group Universities routinely bump up their atrocious record on BME admissions by admitting BME fee-paying foreign students. These same “cash cows” that aid University BME stats are also paraded in all University promotional material. One of my best friends, a mixed race foreign student who was the only black student in my college year, always made it front and centre in the college prospectus.

This memory came back to me as I read Simon Kuper’s article and I began to do some research in this area. For the period covering my time at Cambridge in the mid-90s, statistics show that of Home students (non-foreign students) 50% of admissions came from state schools, 40% were female and 5% were ethnic minority. If you do the maths, this makes me one of the 1% of the Home University students that was a BME, state school female; or to really put this in perspective, I was 1 of 30 in the entire year at the University *. If only I was lesbian, then I would have been one of three!

Thankfully in my day, there were no tuition fees. Even so, although my parents were now earning good incomes, their income was such that I was still eligible for means-tested hardship funds at Cambridge and I took these as well as student loans. Although I did not work in term time (which is forbidden at Cambridge due to the rigour of the courses), I worked every Christmas and summer holiday; initially for minimum wage at a dry cleaners, and then realising that I had more potential than this, at twice minimum wage as a medical secretary. This afforded me the extravagance of May Balls and to travel myself interesting (Eastern Europe, New York, San Francisco, Cape Town).

Despite being accused at times of “only having been accepted at Cambridge because I was a BME female” a cheap jibe from the threatened, I knew that my grades matched those of the privately educated white males, and I graduated with a 2:1, the same as the majority of the white males. I took a University academic prize with me and took up employment at the best clinical and academic centre in Europe for my medical specialty.

Interestingly, having Cambridge on my CV suddenly meant that people assumed I had a privileged upbringing. A senior colleague once told me to accept a colleague’s arrogance by saying “you can’t be too hard on him because he came from a poor background, he had to work through medical school, he didn’t come from a privileged background like us”. I didn’t think it appropriate to buy sympathy and bring up my summers and winters sorting out the shirts of Japanese business men. At a dinner party with a Professor of Economics at a leading University, he bemoaned the number of foreign Chinese PhD students at his University who came from rich families and expected to be “spoon-fed” their degrees. He asked how my family came to the UK, and I said “My Dad came to do a PhD”. He immediately gave me a scornful look that said “Oh – you are the spawn of one of them”. It didn’t seem apt to say – “but he got there through sheer hard work having worked 10 years to support himself to get a place there”. At an appraisal, I was once told that I “had a reputation for being forthright and assertive”. I meant to cry out “Do you think that people wait with baited breath to listen to what a BME female has to say?” but I didn’t. He followed it up with “We British don’t like it.” I presumed he was excluding me from being British due to some sort of apartheid era definition where “Britishness” was coded in skin colour, as my family and I have lived in Britain and held British passports for 30 years. I meant to respond, but I didn’t.

People that didn’t know I had been to Cambridge continued to mistake me for the nanny/ maid/ cleaner. I mean to correct them, but I don’t.

The reason being that this stuff is like water off a duck’s back. Over years, the BME state school woman develops a skin as thick as a rhino. From the braying “Ching Chong China Man”, “Go back to your own country” taunts from the playground to the assumptions in the workplace that the reason you have made it is because you paid your way or were promoted in an affirmative action. It may have knocked me back but it has never stopped me going where I wanted to go.

What did stop me?

Wanting to work part-time**.

Apparently, this is impossible.

Not only in medicine, but my female Oxbridge friends in law, media, finance and other competitive jobs say the same thing. As much as I hate to admit it, a white Oxbridge male is right again, and by the time we’ve had the second child, we’re well and truly side-lined. While I doubt it is beyond the wit of man to operationalise part-time/ flexible working in high income jobs, it is currently beyond the will of man: the white Oxbridge man.

So I set a challenge for my husband, a white Oxbridge male, my friends and former classmates who will inevitably inherit the mantle of white Oxbridge male power: use your power to effect change and equality for the women in your organisation – if not for your wives then for your daughters. For if your daughters become trapped in domesticity in later life; then they need only look in their white Oxbridge fathers’ eyes for culpability.

References:

Statistics from House of Commons report on “Oxbridge “elitism”” by Paul Bolton. http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/sn00616.pdf

*this rough calculation is based on an approximate number of 3000 home admissions a year and on the distribution of females and state school candidates being similar within the BME admissions as within the University overall which may not necessarily be assumed.

**by part-time I really mean less than 4 days a week, as everyone knows employers are happy to negotiate a 4-day week where you subsume a full-time role for part-time pay.

Fear and Phobia in Children

pumpkin

It’s Halloween, so what better time to think about children’s fears? Clearly, for most kids, the idea of dressing up as a zombie, blood sucking vampire or evil witch is fun and funny, so what do children find frightening and why?

There is no easy answer to this, as you get some children with very strange fears (for instance I have met children who completely freak out at hairs in the bath or the texture of flour), but I will try and describe in general the progression of fears common to most children. Fears typically vary depending on age and intellectual capacity, moving from almost “instinctive fear” in babies to sophisticated fears of abstract concepts in adulthood, that require more elaborate thought processes.

For babies and toddlers, whose cognitive capacity is still basic, fear is more of an “instinct” than involving much active thought and cognition. Evolution has honed humans to have brains that are hardwired to fear certain things that have served our ancestors well in the past: for instance loud noises (which could have denoted a falling tree, an earthquake, a sabre toothed tiger or any manner of danger) and heights, which if not avoided could lead to untimely death. If you make a loud unexpected noise next to a baby, they will most certainly startle and most will start crying. So aversive are loud noises to babies that it is possible to induce a phobia in babies by using a loud noise.

A phobia is an extreme fear associated with an object or situation. Clinically speaking, it requires that the fear leads to avoidance of the object or situation causing disruption to a person’s day-to-day function. “Little Albert” is a classic case in the psychology literature of a phobia being induced in a baby using loud noise. Little Albert was a 9 month old boy who was not afraid of rats and was given a rat to play with. A dastardly psychologist John B. Watson wanted to see if it was possible to cause a phobia of rats. Every time little Albert touched the rat, a man stood behind him and banged a piece of metal with a hammer making a loud noise scaring little Albert. Needless to say, after a while of this, Albert became afraid of rats and stopped going near them, proving it is possible to induce a phobia. Thankfully ethics boards no longer allow this type of research.

Interestingly, there appears to be an evolutionarily hard-wired biological predisposition to phobia development to things which are traditionally harmful. Thus even in adults, it is easy to induce a phobia for things like rodents, snakes and spiders but very difficult to induce a phobia to cars, guns and knives which are more likely to be a real threat in the modern age.

Although it is hard to prove whether a fear of heights is innate in babies, supporting evidence comes from Eleanor Gibson’s visual cliff experiments of the 60s which tested 6-14 month old babies. Here babies were encouraged by their mothers to cross a floor that had a section partway made of transparent Perspex over a ditch. Most babies would not crawl over the Perspex even though they could feel the floor was solid with their hands. Some babies cried as they “could not” get to their mothers for fear of falling into a ditch. Some fearful babies that did not dare cross rolled onto the Perspex part by accident, good evidence that fear, does not necessarily prevent accidents and proving that babies should not be left near real cliff edges! A few other babies, whether due to fearlessness or ignorance crawled over the Perspex. The dumb and fearless – either bound for greatness or an early exit.

At this young age, babies (at least baby monkeys) are also primed to fear what others fear. This evolutionary trick allows babies to quickly pick up the dominant threats in its environment, as if others feared something; it would probably do them good to quickly learn to fear it too. Mineka showed this clearly in Rhesus monkeys who were laboratory raised and did not fear snakes. After showing the monkeys videos of wild monkeys showing extreme fear to snakes, the baby monkeys became afraid of toy snakes in the laboratory, despite never personally having had an unfortunate encounter with a snake. Babies and young children are also primed to attend to their parents’ fear. I acutely remember breast feeding Big Sis while watching a horror movie late one night. At one point, I held my breath in anticipation of something horrible happening on screen. It would have been imperceptible to most people as I did not move or make a sound, and yet, Big Sis stopped suckling, tensed and looked at me. She could not yet sit up, walk or speak, and yet, she could sense my “fear”.

As toddlers grow into infants, they begin to develop cognitively. With this comes the beginning of understanding about the world and of imagination. They can start thinking about things that could happen beyond their own direct experience. At this age “The dark” and “monsters” are quite common fears. Often the children’s fears are completely unrealistic and may come from the strangest of places. When I was a young child, I couldn’t sleep one night and walked downstairs to find my parents. They were watching “Jaws” and I walked in at the inopportune moment when someone got munched. For several nights after this, I had nightmares that “Jaws” would come through my bedroom window and munch me. My parents found this hilarious and at the time, I didn’t quite understand why. Recently, my own children’s fears have been a source of interest and amusement to me, although I try to take it seriously and not be amused in their presence. Big Sis, while having no problems with the Maidmashing and Bonecrunching giants when we read Roald Dahl’s “The BFG”, refused to continue with “Maltida”, for fear of Mrs Trunchbull. Several nights of sleep for Big Sis and disturbed evenings for us lay at the hand of Mrs Trunchbull. Lil Bro on the other hand, took grievance with Violet Beuregarde. For some reason, being turned into a blueberry was the stuff of nightmares. Her return to normality by means of juicing fuelled rather than quelled the fear.

At this age, what parents fear are real fears are often not well understood. The ever-present fear of parents: “How will my children cope if I die?” is not at all a concern for children at this young age. They neither comprehend death nor a realistic meaning of time. Once when I uttered out loud my fear of “What will happen to you children if I die?” to my chagrin, Big Sis with typical “matter-of-fact” style replied “Oh, it will be fine, we will still have Dad”. By the age of 5-8, however, children come to understand the meaning of death and fear of death becomes a common fear in this age group.

The middle childhood years (6-12 years), are also the peak age for acquiring fear of animals. Dogs and spiders are pretty common fears for children. Sometimes, a child will develop a fear because of a specific experience with an animal, but other times, they may have a fear even without a direct upsetting experience as evolution has predisposed our brains to accepting that animals are potentially dangerous. In reality, cars kill more people than animals, and yet, practically no one develops a phobia of getting into a car without a direct traumatic experience. As children reach adolescence, fears become more similar to the fears of adults: fear of failure, fear of humiliation, fear of rejection, fear of war, illness and crime come to the fore. Whilst on the one hand, these fears are more “realistic” than the “boogie man” fears of infancy, one can also make the argument that many adult fears are also unrealistic. Fears about an ebola outbreak in the UK are probably over and above the realistic risk.

It should be remembered that fear is a natural response and it helps to serve a vital function. Without fear, our species would likely not have survived, by putting ourselves in the direct line of danger without regard. The fear response allows not only the bodily preparedness to fight or flight, but also the brain response to pre-empt adversity, plan and avoid. People who show low levels of fear often show high levels of “risk-taking behaviour”, and often end up in trouble one way or another whether it is in a high-speed car accident, audacious robbery or in bringing down the banking sector. However, fears should be based in reality and the work of psychological treatment for anxieties and phobias includes anchoring fears in reality.

As a parent we cannot shield our children from all adversity and helping children to understand and deal with anxiety and fear is part of our role as parents. Teaching children to accept and have the confidence to know that they can handle fearful situations when they arise is more important than preventing fearful situations arising or promoting gung ho “bravery”. Security and reassurance is the key; but sometimes it is easier said than done.

When Big Sis was in Year 1, she studied Edward Jenner and small pox at school. The idea of small pox put the fright into Big Sis like nothing before. Not only was her sleep disturbed, but even in the day she would get tearful thinking about the family being killed by small pox. This went on for a week, and despite my reassurance that small pox no longer existed in England anymore, she was still tearful and upset. I eventually went to school to see her teacher to tell her of the situation. When I picked up Big Sis from school that day, she declared to me that she was no longer afraid of small pox.

“How come?” I asked having given reassurance all week to no avail

“Because the teacher told me about the small pox vaccine.”

“Er –haven’t I been telling you about that for the past week?”

“Yes, but you’re just mum, she is a TEACHER.”

Guess that medical degree doesn’t count when you are just a mother…

 

References:

Gibson, E. J., & Walk, R. D. (1960). The visual cliff. Scientific American, 202(4), 64−71.

Mineka, S., Davidson, M., Cook, M., & Keir, R. (1984). Observational conditioning of snake fear in rhesus monkeys. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 93, 355−372.

Children’s furniture – how would a child psychiatrist design it?

Furniture01

 

Children’s bedrooms are their environment. This is the one space which should be their own, where they should feel comfortable to play, relax, socialize, study and be themselves. It should be their fun, stimulating place of learning, as well as a retreat and sanctuary. Yet, I am not sure how much time an adult thinks about a child’s bedroom when they are designing them. For many children, a bed is put in, some toys and a bookcase with books, et voila. Kid’s bedroom, done, dusted. Tick. Now let’s get on to the really important room, the Master bedroom. This seems topsy-turvy to me as most children will spend more time in their rooms than the adults. This is why in our house, the best room in the house, the biggest one with the most natural light is for the children. Yes, they have to share a bedroom, but it is large, and at this age it is my preference for children to learn about sharing and that goes for rooms too. I shared a room with my two sisters throughout primary school and we had a blast. Come secondary school, when adolescence makes everyone annoying, it became tedious and I hated sharing a room, but  I have fond memories of chatting to my sisters at night as a younger child.

My pet hate are the catalogue magazine children’s bedrooms which are predominantly white and where every toy is a designer toy designed to be looked at and not touched. GET IN THE REAL WORLD! These pristine white rooms are children’s rooms designed by adults for adults. Adults with cleaners I am presuming, because I cannot fathom who else would want to be constantly cleaning this gleaming white paradise. Hopefully the children who possess these rooms have another room, a colourful, practical and messy “playroom” and a “study” where they can do all their finger painting, gluing and sticking and general romping about, but I can’t imagine any of that going on in the all-white rooms.

Equally sad, I read somewhere that the majority of children do their homework on the dining room table and have no dedicated work space. Whilst often a necessity these days at work, as an adult, who would prefer hot-desking to having their own desk? Even though I did not have the most advantaged of childhoods, my sisters and I always had a table for writing, drawing, painting and working on. A little square table that we all sat around taking up three sides. I think it is important for children’s education to have somewhere dedicated to learning. Not only as it is good to have a sanctuary away from distraction and with the proper equipment conducive to study, but also as a symbol that work and study is valued. Having emptied out the children’s bedroom of toddler and baby toys (see last week’s post), I was in the grand position of having a bit of space to work with.

I have been lusting after these designer desks and chairs which adjust in height to see children from infancy to adulthood. Indeed the promotional literature suggests that your children won’t be going to University unless you purchase this table and chair combo due to the benefits it will bring to your child’s posture, concentration and learning experience. I don’t quite buy it, but I love them anyway and they are definitely on my wish list. Unfortunately, as we are planning to do some major renovation on our house (to be able to provide the children with their own rooms come adolescence), I am not keen to purchase any furniture that will require expensive storage in the near future, and so, I was tasked with providing a work space for children without buying anything large and expensive. Further, having got rid of all the toddler toys, including a very lovely toy wooden kitchen for imaginary play, I had felt very sad that the children’s room seemed to have been stripped of fun and childhood, and I wanted to put a little of this back (without taking up so much room), especially for Lil Bro, who is after all still only 5 years old. Here’s how I got on:

Design Brief:

Provide area for study and homework

Provide area for painting, drawing and creativity

Provide area for constructive play: e.g. Lego

Provide area for imaginative play

Provide storage

Provide fun

In my view the best children’s furniture should allow everything to be easily accessible for children to take out to play by themselves. This allows children to be independent and to select and decide for themselves what they want to do, rather than be reliant on being led by an adult.

Equally, as a parent loathe of tidying up, the best children’s furniture should allow everything to be easily PUT AWAY by children themselves, so you can have some semblance of a tidy room.

Not take up too much space

Oh, and for a budget of say, 25 pounds?

 

How I got on:

How delighted was I to find that the same little square table that my sisters and I sat around as girls was still in my parent’s shed? There is something lovely about the thought of my children sitting and starting their educational journey from the same starting point that I did some 30 years ago. The table was stained a revolting mahogony, but with some elbow grease Banker striped it back to a bearable shade, and I spray painted the top of it off-white, and coated it with spray-on sealant. Secondly, given that the kids can now sit on normal dining room chairs at the kitchen table, their Stokke highchairs were recomissioned as desk chairs for studying. They are height adjustable which is great for getting the right seat to desk position. Did you know that a well known Swedish furniture store will sell you a table for £5? For storage, what better than a couple of wine boxes? Sturdy and ready made, even better if your next door neighbours are avid fine wine consumers and regularly throw out boxes, which can be snapped up free of charge (but you can also get them cheap from any wine shop). A few accessories and my favourites: “No more nails” glue, tape and castors and we’re done.

furniture02

furniture04

 

 

The end result:

Here it is all tidied up.

furniture03

A work station for 2, with easy access to pens, paper, pencil sharpener and all the stationary goods that a budding young creative might wish for. A blackboard for messages and doodles and seating with built-in storage to house all bits and bobs. School essentials are kept tidied away but in bags slung over the chairs for easy access. At the side, a handy mini-shelf to store toy cars, and when the mood takes, flip it open and supported by a storage box from beneath the table, you have a mega-ramp with which to race cars down. When homework is over, pull out the Lego and craft table from underneath. The storage box below the table slides out on castors too and hold all the Lego and beads that you need. Flip over the boxes and move the cushions from the Stokke chairs to the boxes and you have two sturdy little stools at just the right height for crafting and constructing. When it’s bed time, but you haven’t finished playing, just slide it as-is back under the table and it will be out of the way, but safely stowed to be completed whenever the mood takes you.

Very practical. But wait, what about the imaginary play? Well, when Lil Bro left nursery, the nursery asked all the children to draw what they would like to be when they were older. In among the pictures of doctors, dentists, astronauts and human rights lawyers was Lil Bro’s picture of an ice-cream man. How could I resist?

 

furniture05

 

furniture06

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And finally, empty the storage drawers, turn the blackboard over and lay out your ice creams…

furniture08

 

Charity begins at home

sale poster 1

When I was a trainee at the IOP (Institute of Psychiatry, now Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience), we had a great set of lectures on altruism. This being the IOP it started with discussions in rats and monkeys before proceeding to humans, but the main conclusion of it all in my memory was that true altruism is exceedingly rare and the majority of altruism is self-serving. I understood this immediately as I had done a lot of volunteer charity work in my youth with disadvantaged children, children with disabilities, the elderly and the homeless and knew in my heart that although I was doing it partly because I enjoyed it, a significant part was related to being able to put it on my CV for medical school applications where demonstrating that you had “concern, compassion and ability to connect with people from all walks of life” was an asset. It also made me feel good and virtuous to help others, as well as to be smug and tell others about it. How many secret millionaires would there be if they actually remained secret and were not being filmed by a TV crew and allowed to reveal their true identity on national TV at the end of the programme?

Still, although I remain a sceptic of altruism, giving to others, whether truly altruistic or completely self-serving is still a good thing, and at worst is a win-win situation for both parties. Much is made in the media of the children of this generation being “consumed by materialism”, an iwant generation as opposed to ican generation. Sitting with the kids watching TV at breakfast time (yes, I let my children do this – so sloppy aren’t I?) it’s easy to relate to this as every time an advert is shown (shiny bow and diamante bedecked shoes that cost as much as mine, voice activated diaries, crass game where poop comes out of a dog, crass game where snot comes out of a plastic kid’s head and so on) my kids jump up and down shouting “I want that, I want that!”. “I’m not getting it for you” I say. “You don’t have to” they shout, knowing I am as tight-fisted as they come, “We’ll ask Father Christmas!” Poor, innocent kids; Father Christmas is as tight as their mother!

It was my dislike of this “I-want-something-for-nothing” attitude as well as the swelling pile of toys building up in the kids’ room spilling over into the entire house that led me to think about exposing the children to giving to charity and what a good thing this would be. As Lil Bro was to be joining Big Sis at Big School, I decided that it was time to clear out the “baby” stuff and bring in the “desks” for homework. We would have a sale and give the proceeds to charity. As it was the kids’ stuff, and I wanted them to be involved, they chose the charity. As much as I tried to steer them towards a lovely mental health charity, or the Teenage Cancer Trust, they chose the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. Not my first preference, but still a great charity, and the best part was that it was their choice.

Clearing stuff out is never as easy as it sounds. Out went the mini trampoline, slide, tables and chairs, toy kitchens, easels, ride-along-animals, books, games, puzzles, soft toys, bedding, clothes and so on into the “sale room” (the study). Back came the books, games, puzzles, soft toys, kitchen utensils into the kids’ room with proclamations of “I love that. I still play with that!” – despite never having touched it or shown any inclination of reading it in the past year. And it wasn’t just the children. I would come across a baby rattle – of no good use to us now, but with memories of my having bought it especially for my new baby girl and of shaking it at her and making her giggle for the first time. Or a board book I had bought especially for Lil Bro as the dinosaur shared his name and that we had read together over and over. It wasn’t just the children that kept some of the items that really should have been passed on; I secretly built up a stash of sentimental keep-sakes that will probably hound our limited storage space forever.

Sale poster 2

 

The kids enthusiastically started to make some posters for our sale, and not-so-enthusiastically finished them. I invited a host of friends with young children to come and buy stuff with the added incentive of beers and a barbecue to help the process along. The kids helped clean their old toys. They helped to display their wares in the study as well as to show and demonstrate to the stream of toddlers coming in how to play with the different toys, and take the money for their goods. This proved a great strategy, stick a toy in a two year olds’ hand and while the kid is crying as the adult tries to prise it off them send two doe-eyed children to shake a money tin in front of them, saying “it’s only 50p and it will go to charity”. At times, I had to step in on the price-setting which was rather erratic: £37 pounds for a book and 50p for a slide, but all in all, they did a fantastic job. We didn’t quite clear the lot, but 80% of our stock was gone and we had raised £150.75 for the cats and dogs, which was not bad going. One friend who had come for a table and chairs, left with a table and chairs as well as a slide, a trampoline, books, toys and puzzles to the extent that they needed rope to tie down their boot door.

The whole experience was tiring, but thoroughly satisfying. The children were happier to part with their belongings because they knew where the money was going: to a charity that they had picked themselves. They were involved in promoting and selling their goods which will hopefully embed in their minds sales and entrepreneurial skills. We got sent lovely photos of the younger generation (toddlers) playing with their new toys so there was a sense of passing on happiness as well as the satisfaction of recycling and sparing from land-fill. Then the children got to experience altruism, giving to charity.

Recycled

The best part was that Battersea Dogs and Cats Home invited us down to Battersea for a private tour of their Kennels and Cattery, with head volunteer Mike. The children got to see first-hand directly where their money would be spent. Battersea do a great job at taking in cats and dogs from all-over London, feeding and catering to their health needs, re-training them if necessary and finding them new homes. It is a testament to their work that although their dog home was full of dogs, of often “aggressive” breeds – rotweilers and staffies, there was hardly a bark to be heard – as the dogs were content. Many even popped their heads over the top of the gates to say “Hello” to us. In the beautiful newly completed Cattery which looked like a 5 star Cat Hotel, three beautiful kittens Doris, Dorothy and Dilton, siblings that reminded the children of the offspring of Tabby McTat and the Black and White Cat were being taken to a health check and in our minds I think this became synonymous with where our money was going.

I am sure that seeing and experiencing this process of giving-up your own possessions, working for money and then seeing first-hand the good that comes from it, is a healthy process in instilling altruism in children, even if the main motivation is to clear out a bedroom. And if it inspires the next generation of entrepreneurs and philanthropists, all the better!

Battersea collage

Why the stay-at-home mother is more vital than the female CEO to achieving gender equality

Babymonitor v Blackberry

The female CEO and the stay-at-home-mother have often been pitted against each other in the media as arch enemies. Popular press likes to publicise the idea of the stay-at-home mother lambasting the female CEOs (or other high-flying career women) for “selfishly pursuing their careers while neglecting their children”, whilst stay-at-home mothers are looked down upon for perpetuating female stereotypes and being “bad role models” for their daughters, basically “letting the side down”. Yet, in my opinion, feminism is about choice in an environment of equal opportunity. The choice to be a CEO or a stay-at-home mother is a personal one, and I feel that either choice is respectable. The trouble is that the “equal opportunity” part is not quite there yet in our society, and to this end, although much has been made about the need for more female CEOs, I actually think that the stay-at-home mother (or a working mother that is heavily involved in parenting) has more to contribute to advancing feminism than the female CEOs (if they are childless or largely delegating parenting).

I watched Emma Watson’s speech for the HeforShe campaign in solidarity, having been a life-long feminist. What interested me was that at one point Emma describes her realisation of gender inequality when she was called “bossy” for “wanting to direct a play she and her siblings put on for her parents, whilst the boys were not”. I am presuming that it was her parents that called her “bossy” (as if it were her siblings, then why didn’t she just tell them where to go), which made me think about our responsibilities as parents in the pursuit of gender equality. Had Emma Watson’s parents; and every other parent in the world fostered and promoted the self-belief, confidence and ability in their daughters, and cared as much about their future academic and employment prospects as they did their sons, then we would not have gender inequality. Of course, Emma got the last laugh, perhaps because she was “bossy”. Good for her.

I attribute any academic successes that I have had 100% to the fact that I did not have a brother. Taiwanese parents of my parents’ generation had a strong preference for sons. My parents had told me that they had hoped especially that I would be a boy, having had 2 daughters already, and were disappointed when they found that I was yet another girl. They had no choice but to put their hopes and aspirations into us girls and foster and promote our abilities as if we were boys, capable of anything. My father spent time teaching my sisters and me computer programming and electronics when we were in primary school. I was never interested, but my sisters went on to study engineering and maths at top universities. Had we had a brother I am sure that things would have been different. Our brother would have been the one encouraged and burdened in equal measure with the pedestal, and we girls would have been left to cultivate a pastime. When I went to study at Cambridge, I was one of a few British Taiwanese children to get there, and it was no surprise to me that the only other female Taiwanese students that were there were ones without brothers. I read somewhere that China is seeing a surge of successful female business women and entrepreneurs and I wonder if this is related to the one-child policy, such that families are now invested in their only child, whatever the gender.

In the West, where the gender preference is less explicit, one can almost believe that the problem does not exist, but when you examine behaviours more closely, you begin to see that gender-based parenting is also pervasive. We can blame media and society at large as much as we want, but the reality is that we are all culpable: from the toys we buy, the behaviour we encourage, the expectations we hold, the activities we choose to do, the assets that we praise and our own day to day behaviour and language.

Even when we think we are being gender neutral, or are trying to be, we are not because gender bias is so subtle. How many parents of boys have actively gone out to a toy store and bought their son a baby doll, a push chair and a bottle? How many parents of girls have done this? From my inspection of the bedrooms of the little boys I know, I would say that very few boys have been bought dolls specifically. The parents will make the justification “Oh, he was never interested in dolls, he’s a boys-boy – so we didn’t bother”. Yet, from my experience of little boys with older sisters whom they look up to and wish to emulate, the majority enjoy playing with baby dolls in the preschool years (before peer pressure). Even more so if actively encouraged, as you would naturally encourage a girl. That’s just one example of many.

How many times have you praised your daughter for looking beautiful or commented on her clothes? How many times have you done this for your son? How many times have you praised your daughter’s social skills, whilst praising your son’s mathematical ability? How many times have you persisted with a 1:1 craft activity with your daughter even though she was bored and you ended up doing it yourself, while saying that your son does not have the patience for it and taking him out to run around in the park instead? When it’s a boy’s birthday party, how many times have you bought Lego as a present, while choosing a craft jewellery kit for a girl? In answer to that last question I can reveal that at a recent joint birthday party for my kids, the total tally on craft activity for Big Sis was 5/20 and 0/20 for Lego; for Lil Bro he scored a whopping 8/20 on the Lego, 0/20 for craft. We are all guilty to a greater or lesser extent of the above perpetuations of gender stereotypes; myself included.

This type of unconscious gender bias has been studied in relation to the lack of advancement of women in academia and the workplace and is thought to be one of the driving factors for lack of women in science. The King’s College London website has some interesting papers on this issue and says:

“Unconscious bias refers to the biases we have of which we are not in conscious control. These biases occur automatically, triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations based on our background, cultural environment and our experiences. There is a growing body of research which suggests unconscious biases influence key decisions in the workplace and are responsible for some of the enduring inequalities that are evident today. One example is a study by Moss-Racusin et al (2012) which examined the assessment of applications to science faculties from students applying for the position of laboratory manager. The same application was used 127 times and randomly assigned either a female (64 times) or male (63 times) name. Selectors rated the male applicant as significantly more hireable than the female applicant. They also chose a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the selector did not affect responses.”

My view is that it is not only in the workplace that these unconscious biases are occurring. By virtue of being unconscious they permeate every aspect of our lives, including the parenting of our children. What effect does this have?

In my line of work, “behavioural management” is a parenting technique that uses discriminant encouragement, rewards and praise to shape children’s behaviour. It can be used to get a child to do anything from concentrating longer to eating their greens. If our parenting is guided by unconscious bias that encourages, rewards and praises our children according to gender stereotypes, then we are unconsciously using behavioural management daily to shape our children into gender-based norms. It is only by making bias conscious that we can act in a child-centric rather than gender-centric way when acting and responding to our children.

How does this relate to the title of my post?

A female CEO can improve the lot of women in two ways. Firstly they can inspire and prove to the world that women are capable. However, the reality is that aspiring women will look at the few female CEOs and scrutinize their lives. Do I have the same intellect, ambition, personality? Am I willing to work as hard and sacrifice as much? For the majority of women, the answer will be “No”. Secondly, a female CEO can influence the culture at the top and enact policies that will help women reach the top. However, these policies and helping hands can only be extended to women that have already climbed to the middle and are reaching up to the top, and at the moment, there are insufficient numbers of women in that position. We are forever told that the reasons that there are so few CEOs, MPs, establishment figures, is that there are a dearth of applicants. So, in my view the impact of a female CEO is extremely limited.

OK, but surely the stay-at-home-mother is the antithesis of feminism? I say, NO, a stay-at-home mother that parents in a way that promotes gender equality can produce citizens of the next generation that expect equality. Boys that become men that respect women, value women, understand women and believe that men and women are equal partners in work and parenting. Girls that become women that respect men, value men, understand men and believe that men and women are equal partners in work and parenting. A stay-at-home mother that enacts child-centric rather than gender-centric parenting can create a new generation of citizens that can change the socio-political landscape. At present, given the billions of stay-at-home mothers worldwide compared to the handful of CEOs, I would have to conclude that the future of feminism depends on stay-at-home mothers practising child-centric parenting. Unbiased parenting by CEOS, stay-at-home mothers and their partners/ husbands has the ability to give our daughters a true choice of stay-at-home mother, CEO or both.

This is not something we need to lobby for; it’s something we can enact now.

 

Social hierarchy in 4 year olds

Social hierarchy

This is part of the infant 360 degree appraisal series on social ability. This post follows on from previous posts on basic,and higher level social ability and will give you information about social hierarchy in 4 year olds. I am not an expert in social anthropology and so the following is just a précis of my own observations using my knowledge of human behaviour and social science that are part and parcel of psychological and psychiatric training.

One of the best places I have found to observe social skill in my children is at a kid’s birthday party, particularly at age 4 years where the tendency is to invite the whole class. Unlike a classroom environment where structure is ever present, and authority stems from the teacher, a birthday party is like the school playground where it is a social free-for-all. In any school assessment we professionals conduct, we always observe the child in the playground as well as in the classroom because, here, and only here, children are left to fend for themselves without adult intervention, it is quite literally a different world.

For a child, the birthday party scenario is one of the most challenging of their social skill. Hell, even as an adult, who does not occasionally quiver in fear at the prospect of having to make small talk with numerable new people at a work do or colleague’s birthday party? Observing how your child copes with this situation is a real test of their social skill in the most difficult of social situations. I had stumbled on this quite by chance by attending numerous kids’ parties, but then my instincts were ratified when I found out that Professor Dale Hay, Professor of Psychology at Cardiff University uses the “Birthday Party Scenario” to assess social skills in children. Her team at the Cardiff Child Development Study, have been hosting mock children’s birthday parties on a weekly basis in their department for the last 7 years. A PhD student is even tasked with appearing at the end of each party in a bear costume! Fab!

Here, not only is it possible to observe your child’s social skill, but also their pecking order in the social hierarchy. Yes, just like in the jungle where our primate relations fight it out to be alpha-male and high-ranking female, so all human societies have a social hierarchy, even amongst 4 year olds. At the top end of the social ability spectrum, the highly socially skilled children battle it out for top-dog status.  I was first alerted to this by Big Sis’s nursery teacher. One day, she told me that Big Sis had a bad day at school because “there are some girls in the class with strong personalities and they are clashing for dominance”. It didn’t take me long to figure out that Big Sis was one of the said girls and I made a passing comment about monkeys fighting it out to be alpha-male. I was quite used to the concept of social hierarchy in teenagers and adults. The whole genre of teenage movies from “Pretty in Pink” to “Mean girls” and “High School Musical” are based on the well-established angsts of social hierarchy – but really – does it start in nursery and reception?

The sad answer is “Yes”. After frequenting many of these birthday parties and taking the obligatory shot of the birthday girl/ boy blowing out the candles of their cake, I noticed that in every single picture, the same few children, Big Sis included, were at the birthday child’s side. This happened even when the birthday child was not a particular friend of Big Sis. I began to observe a pattern of “top table children” at birthday parties where the same children would be seated around the birthday child, regardless of whose birthday it was. I developed a theory of social hierarchy being played out in the seating of children at birthday parties. I began to watch these top-table children, and they seem to be extremely socially aware of what is going on. For instance, they anticipate exactly when the call to be seated for food will go out, and where the birthday child is likely to sit (usually somewhere in the middle or at the top end depending on table layout). They then seek to position themselves at the prestigious seats which are those with closest proximity to the birthday child.

Big Sis and her friends were experts at this, but one incident stands out. Big Sis broke her leg and was required to use a zimmer frame to hop around. At a friend’s birthday party, at the all-important call to be seated, there was the usual rush amongst children to sit in proximity to the birthday boy. The table was laid in one long line, and the birthday boy moved to seat himself in the middle. I was observing Big Sis. She saw that all the children ran to seat themselves directly next to the birthday boy and there was a tussle amongst “high-ranking” children here to gain the prestigious seats. She was first to see that the seat opposite the birthday boy, of equal prestige was free and hobbled as quickly as she could on her zimmer frame down to get to the other side. Although she was clearly first off the mark, her able bodied “high-ranking” friends who had missed out on the prime seats next to the birthday boy, had now seen the free seats opposite as she had, and they raced passed her to claim the seats. I had to laugh at this as it proved my theory about birthday seating hierarchy correct. Much to my amazement, when Big Sis got to the seats she had wanted, which were now occupied by her popular friends, she started asking them if she could sit there. Clearly no alpha-child was going to give up their seat, but good-on-her for trying! I felt sorry for Big Sis, as she would certainly have got there first had she not had a broken leg, so in this instance I intervened and I pulled up a chair so she could sit there with her friends. They were happy to make space for her, but I am pretty sure that they may not have done this for all children; girls, even age 4 years are quite good at social exclusion.

In complete contrast, Lil Bro appears devoid of this social antenna. He will without fail ask to go to the toilet just before the call to be seated for food at birthday parties, such that we will emerge from the toilets and he will be sat at the last available seat a mile-away from the birthday child, even if the child is a good friend. Even when he is there, he will stand rooted to the spot until all the other children have sat down before finding the last available seat that nobody else wanted. He appears oblivious to social hierarchy and would even risk being isolated to the cold corner seats at his own sister’s party if I did not reserve a seat for him at his sister’s side. The good thing is that it neither concerns him nor bothers him. I have to admit that occasionally it bothers ME, only because I aspire for him to be super sociable and popular, but then I just have to slap myself in the face, recognise that his needs are different from my wants, see with my own eyes that he is happy and confident and let him BE. Imperviousness to social pressure is also a great strength in itself!

Clearly I have never told my children where to sit at birthday parties, and I doubt anyone ever has, so it is interesting for me to observe the presence and absence of these social instincts in such young children. This ability, termed social osmosis (i.e. picking up knowledge from social experience rather than actively being taught) is thought to be lacking in children with autistic spectrum disorder. Those with excellent social osmosis and social ability are able to climb to the top of the social hierarchy. Their success is not based on physical dominance (aggression), but social dominance – the ability to make friends and influence people. The funny thing is that once you are on the look-out for it, you see examples of hierarchy in 4 year olds all the time.

When I volunteered to go into Big Sis’s class to paint faces, the teacher asked me to choose the first child to have their face painted, and then they were allowed to choose the next child. Whilst painting one girl’s face, her male best friend loitered around saying “please choose me next”. Big Sis had told me that these two classmates were best friends, lived close together and did everything together, so I was not surprised when she smiled, and seemed to agree. Then, out of the blue saunters in “alpha-male”. A bigger, and brighter boy with better social skills. “Please choose me next” he said politely. I smiled, the wicked smile of a child psychiatrist about to test human nature, and asked the fateful question: “So, who do you want to go next?”

The answer is as predictable as it is gut-wrenching , but alpha-male wins every time, and “the boy-next-door” had to wait in line. Social hierarchy in children it seems plays out just as social hierarchy plays out in adults. You only have to observe the parents at children’s birthday parties to see this. But that’s a different story…

How to assess your child’s social ability – part 3

superman
This is part of the infant 360 degree appraisal series on social ability. This post follow’s on from last week’s post on basic social ability and will give you information about how to assess higher order social ability in 4 year olds.

Interaction with peers

As described in last week’s post, a child’s interaction with peers is more difficult for them to navigate than interaction with adults. A child that interacts confidently with adults may struggle to interact with peers. This is as 4 year old peers are immature in social skills and are themselves learning to acquire these skills. This is easy to understand if you think about tennis. A child beginning to learn tennis can play with an expert adult as the adult can direct balls at the child and return errant balls. Get two children who are just beginning to learn to play tennis to play with each other and it is much more difficult and frustrating for the children as neither can play properly.

Both Big Sis and Lil Bro went to nursery from a young age and so had much exposure to interacting with other children. From this I was able to get good accounts of their social ability with peers. Most nursery schools will be able to tell you if your child is able to take turns, share toys and join in with other children (for instance joining in with actions to songs such as “The wheels on the bus”, or a game of hide and seek). Most nursery schools will be able to tell you if your child is aggressive in interactions. If your child is constantly victimized (which you will know about as you are required to sign an incident form in a nursery if your child is bumped/ bruised/ bitten/ scratched or harmed in any way), as well as questioning what the nursery is doing about this, you should question what your child is and is not doing to end up in this situation so frequently.  Children who are frequently victimised or frequently aggressive are more likely to need extra attention as they may be vulnerable to difficulties.

Most nursery schools will be able to tell you if your child is polite (says “please” and “thank you” – very important social skills that do require to be taught) and caring (what they do in response to another child that has fallen over). They should also be able to give information regarding play. If they don’t, you should ask about it.

The importance of play for children  cannot be overstated. Not only as a means of relaxation and enjoyment, but it is in play that children are able to order, understand, rehearse and cement social understanding as well as be creative. Play is often heavily influenced by what the child has experienced in their social environment. It is sad, but no surprise that some children I know in South Africa, following an armed break-in started to play a game of “robbers” involving tying each other up. Back at home, I know children who are more likely to play “I’m mummy, getting ready to go out to a party”. What these children have in common is that they are all learning about their own social environments and about ways to behave in them. It’s no wonder that “play” with a dolls house and family characters is the preferred way that shrinks find out what is really happening at home when we assess children of this age group. If children play about the mummies and daddies shouting at each other, this doesn’t mean a direct call to social services, but does prompt questioning and assessment on the parental relationship and what bearing this may have for the child. Observing what my children play act left to their own devices is one of my favourite pastimes, and if it is about setting up a school and marking a register and reading stories to the assembled stuffed animals (which it is frequently), I can heave a sigh of relief. It’s no wonder that watching children play, and interacting in play with children is one of the main assessment tools in a child psychiatrist’s armoury.

As well as to gain insight into the child’s real social environment, children at this age will be beginning to develop imaginative and interactive play, both precursor skills required for good social ability. Dressing up and pretending to be a princess, a superhero or both is usually a good sign of imaginative play, in particular if they take on the roles, act out stories that they have generated themselves and if they play this with other children, each understanding what the other is pretending. Many adults may see this type of play as “silly” or a “waste of time”, but imagination and role playing is a rehearsal of the ability to think about how someone else is thinking and how this may affect their behaviour, the basis of “mentalization” the new buzz therapy in psychiatry.

Interactive games, such as hide-and-seek, allow observation of practical interaction skills between children. Is your child able to take turns? Will your child cry or get aggressive if they lose? Is your child able to follow and understand the rules? How does your child react if someone else transgresses the rules? Does your child take charge of the game or stand back?

Your child’s nursery can give you this type of information; else you can observe your own child’s play with their sibling (if they are close enough in age to play together) or at a play date.

Spoilers

If you want a real test of social skill, or are just a mean child psychiatrist like me, then you need to work in a few spoilers. Most children will be able to display good social ability when everything is hunky-dory and going their way. But what about compromise and negotiation? What about staying out of trouble? Most children are taught compromise when children are invited over to play and “Guests” are given privileges. “Let your friend go first, because they are the guest”, “Let your friend have the bigger slice of cake, because they are the guest” – this type of thing that happens all the time on play dates. If your children are able to accept this, chances are, they will be able to come to terms with compromise. They understand the social rules and etiquette and are able to conform to them. If they predictably have a tantrum, even when the situation is explained, then problems at school can be anticipated. Getting along with other people, good social ability; includes understanding that getting along with others is sometimes[1] more important than the bigger slice of cake.

Other spoilers can be less easily arranged, but these situations arise all the time naturally and it is often a good idea to stand back and observe how your child deals with situations rather than to wade in and intervene at the onset of trouble. When I took Big Sis to a public sand pit one day, I noticed another child who was more boisterous and disruptive playing there. The boy approached Big Sis, clearly wanting to interact, but he had already disrupted the play of some other children. Big Sis turned subtly away and kept her head down doing what she was doing and saying nothing. The boy got tired of no response and went away to disrupt someone else. Big Sis had clearly clocked this boy was trouble but she managed to deal with the problem in a way that was not rude or confrontational and that achieved its objective with minimal fuss. She was able to see trouble coming and avoid it. It may not be the most obvious social skill, but it is a highly valuable one. We all know some children who are “always” involved in trouble even if they are not necessarily the instigators and I would argue that avoiding trouble is as much a social skill as the ability to make friends. I felt confident that Big Sis could handle herself at school after this.

What happens at the highest levels of social ability – the battle for social dominance? Next week’s post is the conclusion in this series on assessment of social ability and will answer this question. Later on, I will write about what can be done to help support children’s social skills.

 

[1] I say “sometimes” as children who always suppress their own needs for others will have other issues that need addressing, and being the class “doormat”, is also not particularly desirable.

 

How to assess your child’s social ability part 2

eyesThis is part of the infant 360 degree appraisal series on social ability. This and the next few posts will give you information about how to assess social ability (from minimal to maximal) in children around the age of 3-5 years old (for short, I will refer to 4 year olds). Later on I will post on how you can help young children to develop their social skills.

Problems with social ability are currently rarely diagnosed in the pre-school period unless problems are severe. This is not because they do not exist but because adults, particularly parents are extremely obliging in making up for their child’s weaknesses, and aren’t aware of their difficulties. Even if a child is gibbering in Alien, you can bet, the parents know exactly what is being communicated and get quite grumpy when you infer that you have not a clue what they are trying to say. Play dates at home supervised by adults will involve parental supervision and intervention to assure that children “play fair”, “don’t leave people out”, “wait their turn”, “be nice”, and critically don’t beat each other into a pulp. If another child is “not nice” to your child, they are not invited back. Not so the school playground where your child will have to communicate with other children who are impatient, do not necessarily care to hear what your child has to say, have little incentive to include your child in games and may beat your child into a pulp if they find them annoying. I don’t care what any school says in their prospectus, teachers cannot be there at all times, and it is much wiser to ensure that your child has the social skills to survive! By educating parents to be more aware of their child’s social skills, weaknesses can be identified earlier, leading to interventions, better support and prevention of more difficult problems developing later on.

When people think about social ability, they tend to first think of the confident thespian, the extrovert lead in the school play. Often these people do have good social skills, but social skills are more than confidence, acting and oration. It is about ability to make lasting friendships, seek help, read emotions, understand social situations, adapt to new social environments and avoid trouble. All the skills required to “get on” with other people, the essence of social ability. If your child was assessed for a private school “assessment” at age 4 years, without a doubt one of the key components that they would have been making a selection on was social ability. A sociable child will get on with other children in the class, be easier to teach, cause less trouble and ultimately, make the school’s life a lot easier! These skills continue to be highly valued throughout life, and there is a reason that even into adulthood, we are asked to demonstrate our “people skills”, “ability to be a team player”, and “communication skills” in any career.

Before talking about how you can improve your child’s social skill, it is a good idea to think about assessing you child’s social skill. It may be that your child is extremely socially able and you have no need to do anything. Lucky you. But how do you judge this? Over the next few posts, I will detail here observations that can be made of social skills from the most basic to the fairly sophisticated levels of social skill.

Basic Social Skills

The most basic social skills are required in an interaction with a familiar adult. Most children aged 4 years should be able to interact easily and readily with a familiar adult. Many children with mild autism (de facto impaired social ability) can pass this level of interaction, as the familiar adult will be primed to be patient, can guess from experience what a child wants, is accepting and willing to invest in understanding the child, and letting them have their own way.

Spending time playing with your child and conversing with them can reveal if there are fundamental difficulties in social interaction. Some readily testable tasks are whether your child turns to face you if you call their name from behind them. Can your child ask you to pass something to them that they need? Can your child look you directly in the face when talking to you/ you are talking to them? Can your child smile at you? Can your child smile at you if you smile at them? Can your child spontaneously wave goodbye to you when you leave, shake their head to mean “no” and nod their head to mean “yes”? Can your child use gestures to show you how to do something (e.g. brush their teeth) without using an actual toothbrush? Can your child recognise facial expressions in picture books and tell you what they mean? Can your child point to show you something and check that you are looking at the right thing? Can your child make up a story? Can your child feed their teddy bears or make their dolls talk to each other? Can your child realise/ understand that other children may have different thoughts and preferences to them? Can your child copy what you do?

Most typically developing children can definitely do all of these things by the age of 4 years. Clinicians are looking for the presence or absence of ability in all the above (and many other things) in a typical autism assessment in 4 year olds with typical development.  They may sound like an arbitrary list of things to look out for, but they are amongst the basic building blocks necessary in developing sophisticated social ability.

If you do not have a preference for looking at people’s faces, particularly their eyes, which are usually the most expressive, you will fail to pick up all the social nuances in expression that a person is communicating (see part 1). “You idiot” said with angry eyes will mean something different to “You idiot” accompanied by a glint in the eye. If you are not looking at a person’s face/ eyes, you cannot infer intention and you are liable to misunderstanding. If your child does not naturally pick up common social conventions (smiling at people, nodding and shaking the head, waving) they will have more difficulty understanding what is going on as social conventions are so frequently used in communicating with others instead of speech. Think how awkward you feel when travelling to a foreign country where all the social conventions are different (bowing in the Far East, not using your left hand in India). Your actions may be misinterpreted by others and it will affect how you get on socially. If your child has difficulty understanding that others may have different thoughts, they may not act in consideration of other people. If they cannot understand facial expression, they cannot infer how someone else is feeling and act accordingly. If they cannot ask for something to be passed to them, they may have difficulty communicating their other needs in an appropriate way. If they do not naturally copy you and what you are doing, they are missing out on the most frequent method children naturally have to acquire social skill, by emulating their parents and other adults around them.

If your 4 year old child is struggling with all/ most of the above, it would be worth considering the 4 main possible reasons that a child psychiatrist would consider: hearing impairment, speech and language problems, learning difficulty and autistic spectrum disorder.

Intermediate social skill

Interacting with an unfamiliar adult takes more social skill than interacting with a familiar adult as an unfamiliar/ less familiar adult will not know or understand the idiosyncrasies of a child’s communication. For instance, when Big Sis was two, she loved to watch a music DVD called “Fun song factory” (which incidentally starred a pre-fame member of JLS). She was at the time unable to enunciate “Fun song factory”, but called it “Bun song Bactery”, or just “Bactery”. One time, when my mother was looking after her, she repeatedly stated that she wanted “Bactery”. My mother was at a loss at what she was talking about and it led to a lot of frustration on both sides. Indeed, my mother strangely concluded that she was talking about the “lavatory” (rather advanced vocabulary for this age group) and whisked her nappy off and plonked her on the lav. Needless to say, Big Sis was not amused. Eventually, my mother called me and I immediately knew what she wanted. Thus interaction with an unfamiliar/ less familiar adult pushes the need for better communication skills to avoid frustration.

In clinical practice, we often see parents that are so good at compensating for their children’s weaknesses that they cannot see that their children have pretty severe impairment. They get very upset when teachers report difficulties at school and blame the teachers, but the reality is that the level of ability required to interact with an unfamiliar adult is more challenging than interacting with a familiar one. If your child has consistent difficulties interacting with a kind and supportive teacher, the chances are, they will have difficulties interacting with many other people and are likely to have weaknesses in social ability.

Interaction with unfamiliar adults can be observed easily. Leave your children with a trustworthy friend whom they do not know well and see how they behave. How well your child is able to communicate what they want can be observed (child psychiatrists and psychologists would do this crammed behind the one-way mirror in our clinics, but you can do this by poking your head quietly into the room or hiding behind a door left slightly ajar) and you can extrapolate their behaviour in this situation to their likely interaction with their new teacher (an unfamiliar adult). If you want to challenge your child’s social skill a bit more, you can ask the adult to occasionally disagree with the child, or to deliberately thwart them (e.g. accidentally knock down the tower they were building), or try to contribute a different idea to the game they are playing and see how your child responds.  If this is all a bit too Cold War, just ask your new babysitter how they got on and garner as much intel from this as you can.

In addition to communicating needs and wants, in this scenario, a socially able child would understand that they will need to behave better than they do with a parent or a familiar adult, this is called “social inhibition”. Even if your children are naturally boisterous and cheeky to you or their grandparents, they should be inhibited by someone they know less well. This natural recognition of social context, the awareness that something is different about this social environment and the appropriate way to respond is part of a child’s natural social ability (whether they are able to sustain behaviour is a different matter). Most children are able to behave well and interact with an unfamiliar adult even at age 4 years for a short time at least, which is why even hyperactive children can behave well when they visit the doctor’s clinic much to the chagrin of their parents who have spent the entire time talking about the child’s inability to sit still. More worrying is the child that is over-familiar with strangers, and goes straight up to cuddle and sit on the lap of a stranger, not only as this has implications for vulnerability to abuse, but as here it is clear that they are unable to pick up the difference in social environment and expectation naturally.

The types of difficulties in social interaction which we professionals would be looking out for fall broadly into the following categories:

1) Aloof – a child with no interest in social interaction. They neither initiate social interaction nor engage in interaction when it is initiated by others.

2) Passive – a child who will engage in some social interaction, but will not initiate it.

3) Active but odd – a child who both initiates and engages in social interaction but does it in an odd or inappropriate way (such as the disinhibited, over-familiar manner described above).

A caveat to this interaction as a means of assessing social skill is the confounding factor of anxiety and security. I will discuss these issues at greater length in another post, but needless to say that if your child has difficulty separating from you or is anxious in new situations and with new people, you will not be able to get a clear picture of their social ability using this type of observation.

Brownie points if your children are well behaved, appropriate, polite and obliging with an unfamiliar adult. Extra, extra brownie points if they are also engaging, interactive and interested. They will have no problems with interacting and communicating with their teachers and in the structured environment of the classroom. However, it is easier for children to interact with adults. Many children with autism are able to interact with adults. This is as adults are generally nice to children and will make allowances for children, will have the ability to guess what a child wants, give in to what a child wants and are generally predictable and sensible. Higher levels of social ability are required in interacting with other children; the basis of next week’s post.