Category: Parenting strategies
Why the stay-at-home mother is more vital than the female CEO to achieving gender equality
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.
How to assess your child’s social ability – part 3
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.
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 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.
 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.
Big Sis, Lil Bro and I have been doing a lot of cooking over the summer.
Both Banker and I love cooking and food. So, it is no surprise that we would want to share this with the kids. Banker likes his meat and fire, and has recently developed a craziness about bread. I like my cakes and puds. This division of labour is not a matter of happy circumstance, but a compromise between two bossy cooks who have now become highly territorial over their area of expertise. Lest Banker ever attempt another foray into the tarte tatin area, there will be full out war (his was way under-caramelised anyway).
My own love of food came straight from my mother, a talented cook of Chinese cuisine; she would taste something at a restaurant and then set about trying to replicate it at home from the memory of the flavours. Sadly this meant that we had no cook books whatsoever at home; my mother cooked fabulously on intuition. The smells of Taiwanese beef noodle soups, sesame broiled chicken and New Year cakes deep fried in batter always filled our home. I watched her cooking from a young age, and dumpling making was a family affair. Sadly though, I lack her flair and am woe-fully recipe bound in my own practice. In contrast to my mother’s still total vacuum of recipe books, my household has over-flowing shelves of them and they are always attempting to colonise tables and floors. I can remember from early childhood pouring over cook books from the local library. Although I was brought up on my mother’s excellent Chinese cuisine, it was Western puds that I craved: warm sticky-toffee pudding with ice-cream, brandy-laced chocolate mousse, apple-pie with vanilla flecked custard. The Chinese lack the key ingredients of cream and chocolate for desserts. Although I will be the first to stand up for red bean as a chocolate alternative, I cannot quite find a cream substitute and perhaps my love of dessert making arose from my cream-deprived childhood salivating over pictures of chocolate éclairs.
It is from this background that cooking with the kids has become a staple weekend/ holiday activity. It is great fun to cook with kids given the hands on mess-making that can be had; wonders of science and alchemy involved, satisfaction of making something from nothing and best of all the gobbling up at the end. If you are still sceptical, cooking involves mathematics (measuring and weighing, calculation if doubling or halving recipe ingredients to make more or less), chemistry (melting, dissolving, colloids, acids, boiling points and much more, especially if you attempt to make honeycomb), biology (nutrition, health), history (spices and the spice trade, origins of recipes), geography (where ingredients come from, food miles, farming practices), art (decorating cakes and plating up) and P.E. (try whipping a meringue by hand, and have you seen the size of a baker’s arms?). I cannot think of a more enjoyable and educational activity for children. What other activity can awaken all 5 senses as well as stir the imagination?
Yet why aren’t all parents doing this with their kids? It was a sorry state of affairs to see on Jamie Oliver’s TV program that British primary school children could not identify common vegetables such as a courgette and an aubergine. More depressing when you see excellent home cooks whipping up gorgeous food, but not having time to cook with their children, or for fear of the mess. Why don’t they pass on their passion? I know that in my generation of women, there are some that deliberately avoided learning to cook. “Home Economics” as it was then called at school, was a subject reserved for the non-academic; a “wood-work” equivalent for the girls on track to early motherhood and a life of domesticity. High-flying women feared that their ability to cook would mean enslavement to the kitchen; but personally, I think they were cutting off their noses to spite their face. Not only is cooking a highly enjoyable creative outlet, but an essential life skill, and given the rise in obesity levels, knowledge about food, healthy eating and cooking may save your and your children’s lives, and everyone should be taught to cook. A friend of mine has a lovely little business teaching little ones about food if you need inspiration.
Of course nowadays, food has had a reinvention and young men and women have become passionate about food and there has been a renaissance of fine eating in London. The depressing thing though is that I don’t think that it has filtered down to children. Although Jamie Oliver has done a sterling job in highlighting the atrocities of school dinners, what about the stuff we are serving to kids at home? I have found that many parents, even foodies (myself included at times), cook separate meals for their children (invariably pasta or chicken based); then sit down for their own dinner of something much more interesting. Children’s menus at restaurants dare not stray from spag bol and chicken nuggets; and yet how are children to learn of new flavours and textures? Worse still, the London restaurants serving the most interesting food discourage children, either by snooty staff/ clientele with intolerance for children, or sky high prices. Not so in other countries. In the Far East, eating is a family affair and for Dim Sum in Hong Kong, you’d be hard pressed to find a table for two. Dining is without exception en famille, with everyone sharing the same interesting food on a massive table laid to the brim served by a lazy Susan. Closer to home, on a recent trip to France, Big Sis and Lil Bro tried veal’s head truffle, cuttle fish balls and petit pois ice cream for dinner from a 12 Euro Menu d’enfant at a 1 star Michelin Restaurant. That’s roughly the price of a Pizza Express pizza and ice cream. Why can’t we get this in London? Contrary to popular belief, children can develop an interesting palate with exposure and encouragement, Lil Bro totally enjoyed guzzling down snails in France, and although Big Sis is less adventurous, she has developed a taste for a variety of interesting cheeses.
I hope that the new found British enthusiasm for all things foodie can find its way to our children. Now that schools have done their part; isn’t it time parents and restaurants did the same?
For those wanting a quick and easy starter recipe that’s great for kids, here’s Big Sis’s step by step guide to our version of Nigella’s Rocky Road. So easy Big Sis can make it herself (almost), pretty much mess free and devilishly scrumptious.
1. Break up 300g of chocolate. We use dark chocolate (>70% cocoa solids) as it is less sweet, better quality and also as Lil Bro had a dairy allergy and now prefers dark chocolate.
2. Put into a bowl with 125g of butter.
3. Melt the chocolate and butter together in the bowl over a pot of boiling water. (I’ve tried this part before in the microwave and it doesn’t work very well). If your butter was at room temperature, then you can actually get it to all melt together over a pot of boiling water from the kettle if you use a metal bowl, thus avoiding any requirement for an open flame for younger kids.
4. Add 3 tablespoons of golden syrup to the chocolate and butter, or, we have also used honey and that also works well.
5. Put 200g of biscuits in a plastic bag and bash it with a rolling pin. Kids love this. A mixture of crumbs and big bits is perfect. Nigella uses Rich Tea biscuits in her recipe, but we prefer digestives. You can also do ginger nuts or amaretti biscuits for a posher version.
6. Pour half the chocolate mixture into another bowl and put to one side. Pour the biscuit bits into the remaining chocolate mixture and add 100g of marshmallows. Or, what we do is to add 70g of marshmallows then throw in 30g or so of other stuff, e.g. raisins, cranberries, brazil nuts, pistachios, almonds, orange zest, Turkish delight, smarties, fudge bits, salted cashews, white chocolate chips, desiccated coconut, coffee essence, vanilla essence – whatever takes you and your kids’ fancy.
7. Mix up the goodies with the chocolate.
8. Spread the mixture into a container. A foil container that you can easily bend open is best, but we never have them in the house when we need them. We have plenty of plastic boxes from takeaways and they work just as well. They also have lids so you can stack your boxes up in the fridge to save space as well as carry the rocky roads with you for picnics easily.
9. Squash the mixture down with a spoon as much as possible, then pour over the remaining chocolate. Put it in the fridge to set.
10. Once set, cut into squares and sprinkle with icing sugar, or just gobble it up as is!
The Y and Z factor
Everyone knows about the X factor, that “Je ne sais quoi” that leads to desirability, fame and fortune. But what of the other attributes that lead to success (in those of us that are not blessed with the looks of Zac Efron or the appeal of Kylie)?
I can’t claim to know the answer, but I think I have spotted 2 new factors: “Y” possessed by Big Sis and “Z” possessed by Lil Bro. They are both of course bound for success, so I might as well spill their secrets now.
Big Sis is the oldest in her school year. This meant that in her reception class, she was often given a prominent role in class assemblies due to her relative maturity (in one class assembly she played Little Red Riding Hood, Mummy Bear and led the closing prayer). By Year 1, the other children in the class had gained in maturity and confidence and so the lines became more evenly distributed, as I would have expected. Big Sis came home from school upset. Here is our conversation:
Big Sis: I have only been given one line in the class assembly.
Me: [With a knowing smile and having perused the script] Everyone has only one line. It’s got to be fair. Everyone needs a chance to perform.
Big Sis: But I want more lines.
Me: Well, maybe in the rehearsals if you say your line really, really well, the teacher will give you some more lines.
Big Sis nodded. I felt smug that I had handled the situation well, given sensible advice which had been taken in. That’s why I was surprised the next day when we had this conversation:
Big Sis: I didn’t get given any more lines.
Me: Oh dear, what a shame. Sometimes that happens even if you do a really good job. What happened?
Big Sis: The teacher asked if there was anyone that didn’t want to say their lines, but everyone wanted to say their lines so I didn’t get given any more lines.
Me: Hang on, why did the teacher ask the whole class if there was anyone that didn’t want to say their lines?
Big Sis: Because I asked the teacher if I could have some more lines.
Me: [incredulous at the gall] What? What happened to our plan to do your line nicely then see if the teacher will give you some more lines?
Big Sis: No. I just asked the teacher for more lines instead.
That my friends, is what I call the “Y” factor. Not least appropriate because for the most part this type of self-assurance and audacity is currently found mainly in men (Y chromosome). I bowed to Big Sis’s superior nature after this conversation and vowed never to give her any more of my rubbish advice. I realised that although the advice that I had given her was genuinely how I would have dealt with things, and was probably inherited from my parents – “Work hard, do a good job and you will be rewarded”, it was actually total BS. It reminded me of the reasons given for the gender pay-gap: women never ask for a pay rise or a bigger bonus, women don’t put themselves up for promotion, women beaver away at their work thinking that good work will eventually pay dividends, meanwhile being stepped over by male colleagues that push themselves forward, that step up to the plate. I wondered if these women had been told by their mothers to “keep quiet, say their lines nicely and maybe the teacher would give them some more lines” when they were six years old. I’m so glad that Big Sis took no notice of me, and in fact has taught me a great lesson in what my genuine and well-meant advice might do to my children. Inflict them with my own weaknesses and foibles.
Here’s to Big Sis becoming that woman that will ask for that pay-rise.
Self-assurance, confidence, self-worth, balls, gall, the “Y”- factor; whatever you want to call it. It’s great, but for those that are not in possession of it, there is another way.
Lil Bro had his nursery sports day recently. He came home from practice despondent. Here is our conversation:
Lil Bro: We had practice for our sports day today.
Me: That’s good. How did it go?
Lil Bro: [in hushed tone as if it were top secret] Mummy, I am not the fastest runner in my class.
Me: That doesn’t matter!
Lil Bro: But I want to win!
Later that week, I was reminiscing with Big Sis about her nursery sports day.
Me: Big Sis, remember that boy Adam that won all the races at the sports day?
Big Sis: Yes, he was really fast.
Lil Bro: [Quietly contemplative, then in serious tone] Mummy, how did he do it?
Lil Bro: How did Adam win all the races? Can you call his mummy? I want to ask him.
We never got to ask Adam the secret to his success, but his mother told me this: once on holiday, he ran twice around a 400m track. On the second lap around, he was extremely tired (being only 6 years old!), but kept going to the finish saying to himself “If Mo Farah can do it; Adam can do it”.
So it turned out that Adam, like Lil Bro, had a desire to win and a determination to work to this endeavour. I was totally impressed that 4 year old Lil Bro could not only articulate a desire to win, but was also self-aware of his own capabilities and had devised a strategy to help himself improve. He was not afraid to ask for help and saw opportunities to gain mentorship. This self-awareness linked to drive for self-improvement, perseverance, determination and a desire to succeed is what I call the “Z” factor. This silent but steely, and oft-over-looked factor is the one that lets the slow and steady tortoise win the race against the brash and overtly talented hare.
I have no doubt that Lil Bro will succeed in bounds, not least because he wants to. Sadly, I wasn’t articulate enough to be able to convey these thoughts to Lil Bro. The best I could muster was:
“Just move your legs really, really fast…”
Everyone (I hope) recognises the existence of genes and their effects. Most people are happy to “believe” in genetic effect in hair colour, blood group and genetic medical disorders, but where “personality”, “intelligence” and “mental health”, come into it, most people prefer to see environmental causation. Part of the problem in selling genetic explanations is in the fear of “determinism”: the thought that your lot in life could be determined at birth and that human will and struggle are for nought. The funny thing is that “nurture” the proxy term for “environment” can also have its own form of determinism, with many people struggling to escape from the prison of their family and birth environments. Funnily enough, it is when things go wrong, when a child becomes “out of control”, that people flock to a genetic explanation, absolving themselves of responsibility. “They were born that way. It had nothing to do with our parenting.”
Outcome is clearly about both nature and nurture. What interests me is the interaction between genes and environments. It’s a wonder how the nature vs nurture debate has lasted so long, as the two are so intertwined. At the most basic level the success of a gene is purely based on its suitability for the environment. At a more complex level, a parent will give to their children both genes and environment, genes will seek out their own environments (e.g. a child with “intelligent genes” will ask to go to chess club), and evoke their own responses from the environment (a child with genes for physical attractiveness will generally evoke more favourable responses from others).
It is a misconception that you can have “good genes” and “bad genes”. Genes are like nature’s version of trial and error. A new combination is attempted at every conception, and the genes that are successful within an environment survive, the ones that don’t fall away. Thus the success of a particular gene is purely judged on environmental adaptation. A “good gene” in one environment may be a “bad gene” in another. Take genes that cause sickle cell. This is generally thought of as a “bad gene”, causing anaemia. However, in some parts of Africa, where Malaria is endemic, the sickle cell gene is a “good gene” as it is protective against malaria. This is palatable when talking about a medical condition, but the same applies for genetically determined personality traits.
Take aggression. Elements of aggression are genetically determined. It easier to think about dogs when talking about this: certain breeds of dog make for better security and attack dogs. No one would ever have a pug dog or poodle as a security dog. Yes, you can rear a poodle or pug dog to be aggressive certainly, but not as readily or to the same extent as an Alsatian or Pit Bull. There’s something in the genes. However, aggressive genes are not in themselves “bad genes”. In certain environments (the end of the world/ lost in a dark forest with wild animals surrounding you, a competitive job market), they may be the best genes ever.
Another reason for fear of genetic explanations is in the fear of genetic modification, gene selection and “tampering with nature”. You either feel it will end in a slippery slope to eugenics or you feel there is nothing that can be done with genetic predispositions and you just have to live with them. The thing is; it’s much simpler than that. In this day and age; we are able to cheat nature. My genetic predisposition to short sightedness has been environmentally sorted by living in a country with access to an optician. By all rights, had this not been the case, I would be dead by now, probably having gone to hug a grizzly bear that I mistook for my mother. The most common genetic predisposition in the world; that for having dark hair; is environmentally corrected around the world on a daily basis by bleach from a bottle.
WHAT HAS THIS GOT TO DO WITH PARENTING?
Well, it strikes me that as parents, we are able to drastically manipulate our child’s environment, especially the early environment, which is thought to be one of the most important periods of environmental influence. This is not only by providing safety, books and toys, but exposure to language, music, models for good social interaction, peer group, selection of nursery, primary and secondary school, and critically, love, warmth and understanding . By learning via observation about our children’s “genetically determined” personality traits, we are able to best shape their environments to suit their needs. All parents are doing this already off course, when you select your child’s nursery, primary school and secondary school, you are thinking not only about the values of the school you wish to impart on your child, but the attributes of your child and how they will fit into the school. It would be an oversight to send a small, intelligent boy with a love of learning and loathing for the outdoors to a school specialising in outdoor sport with a relaxed attitude to bullying, for instance. If your child has particular needs, for instance a learning difficulty, for all the medications and new age therapies; thinking hard about school and environmental placement is the most effective treatment.
A child with average genetic susceptibility to aggression can become very aggressive if brought up in an aggressive community. Equally, a child naturally predisposed to aggression can succeed perfectly well if the environment (parents, schools and society) show understanding and help shape the aggression so it is controlled and pro-social outlets found: competitive physical sport (though not biting other players), some occupations where controlled aggression is valued e.g. some businesses. A child naturally predisposed to aggression can only become a menace to society if parents, schools and societies allow it to be so.
Naughty mat misadventures
“Help! I have locked myself into my bedroom whilst my son hurls nappies around outside. I have lost all control. He is not even 3. What hope is there for the future?!”
A friend of mine recently posted this message on Facebook. We have all been there haven’t we? She got lots of sympathy and solidarity comments, but no one actually revealed how they would manage the situation. Yet why don’t people talk about it?
“Setting boundaries” is one of the most important aspects of raising functional children, and yet the term is bandied around as if we all know what it means. What it actually means is letting your child know what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour and enforcing this. The “enforcing” part is where the term gets rather shady. You hear professionals telling parents to “set boundaries” all the time, but few tell you in detail how to do it. It’s as if they expect children once told the boundaries to say “Great idea mum and dad, I’ll do that from now on”.
Programmes like Supernanny are great as they bring behavioural management techniques to the mainstream, but their entertainment value is largely for middle class parents to feel smug that they do not have children with such extreme behavioural problems, and have no need for the attendance of Supernanny – aren’t they? Whilst parents of children with severe problems are desperate to seek help and advice and are happy to talk about their parenting, the rest of us are like clams when it comes to talking about disciplining our children, lest we be judged to be “bad parents”. The problem then compounds on to itself as without peer judgement on what is and isn’t appropriate, and without friends’ support and advice we are left to our own devices to “muddle through” and feel isolated in our ineptitude, all the while feeling that we need to pretend that our children never misbehave, and that we never lose our rag.
This is a fairly new phenomenon as up until recently, physical disciplining was widely accepted. The majority of my generation were probably hit at some stage by our parents. There is even a story of a wooden spoon being broken on the backside of a member of my husband’s family. Children used to be caned, pulled by the ears and made to stand in the corner wearing a dunce’s hat in school. These days smacking and physical punishment are not recommended. It is not illegal to smack children or use “physical punishment that does not leave a mark”, nor do I think that it needs to be, or could be realistically enforceable. However, as a child psychiatrist, I know that it is not particularly effective as a means for long term boundary setting, may instil fear and aggression in children and may have the unwanted consequence of children learning that “might is right”. As a child psychiatrist, I was determined that there would be no physical disciplining in our household. That said; have I ever FELT LIKE hitting Big Sis and taking Lil Bro over my knee for a good smack of the bottom? Hell yes. And these are really good kids.
However educated, civilised, gentle and kind you are, I don’t think anything ever prepares you for the incessant whinging, nagging, wailing, annoying-ness that a child in full tantrum can be. If you are lucky enough to have a placid child, good for you, but not all children are temperamentally like this. I totally take back all the furrowed brows and superior looks given to parents in my clinic when they admitted using smacking to discipline their children. I can now totally understand their sentiment. Still, the fact remains that smacking is not a good option for boundary setting, and in child psychiatry clinics, it is good practice to keep records of families using physical disciplining as a proportion go on to “physical punishment that leave a mark”, which constitutes physical abuse.
How to enforce boundaries then? The favoured regime of The National Academy for Parenting Practitioners, led by Professor Stephen Scott who works in my department is the Webster-Stratton method. The book “The Incredible Years” by Carolyn Webster-Stratton (CWS) is superb and I would thoroughly recommend it. There is no secret formula and much of what she describes is also used by Jo Frost (supernanny) and other behavioural management programmes. That said even being a trained professional; and having read the book cover to cover, here is my less than optimal account of my use of one major method of boundary setting, “Time-Out” with Big Sis and Lil Bro:
From around 3 years old, the designated place for “Time-Out”, the “naughty mat” (in our case a cheap circular bit of carpet from IKEA) was introduced to Big Sis. CWS does not recommend you call it “naughty” but a “calm-down” or “thinking” mat, but somehow “naughty” still caught on (failure number 1). It is probably not ideal to use a common brand of household accessory as the “naughty mat” either, lest you wish your children to enter someone else’s home and declare “Oh look they have a naughty mat” as happened with us.
The idea of the mat/ step/ designated place is that if the child breaks a set boundary (such as hitting), they should be taken to the naughty mat to calm down. In our household, lesser levels of undesirable behaviour evokes reasoning, encouragement to make the right choice, negotiation and warnings that time out may follow, but hitting/ pinching/ scratching(these things happen more when they have a sibling!) and deliberate property destruction is an immediate time out. Big Sis got the idea pretty quickly and after one or two times of being taken there, she got the message. There was some initial fuss but in general it worked like the textbook. Sometimes when she was naughty, threatening that she would have to go to the naughty mat, was enough to stop the behaviour, and once or twice when she had been naughty and was wailing and screaming, she actually walked there herself and sat herself down (success number 1). The best thing about the naughty mat was that it allowed me to calm down as well. Sometimes, in the fury of a situation, you just need a minute peace to calm down, collect your thoughts and think about how to manage the situation more calmly. The child is supposed to sit there for either a few minutes, or until they are “calm and quiet”, although more accurately in our case “till they stop wailing like a banshee”. Many a time it was pleasing that I could get on with the washing up or laundry in peace without disturbance as often the wailing went on for some time. “Naughty-mat me-time” if you will, albeit with a soundtrack of howling like a fire siren in the background. Sometimes, I was even annoyed when Big Sis stopped wailing as I was almost through the washing up, and if she would just wail a bit longer I could finish the task.
The naughty mat was such a success that when Lil Bro came of age that the naughty mat became appropriate, he also started out using it without a problem. The first few times he was told to go, he literally ran there and sat bolt upright with a big smile on his face finally “being allowed” to sit where he had seen his big sister sit so often.
Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story – some time around the age of 5 years, Big Sis began to tire of the naughty mat, and also realised that she could fight back. She was now significantly bigger and stronger so fighting back was becoming an effective strategy. Here on in, she would stray from the naughty mat and follow me around the house stamping, wailing and hitting. Thus not only was she not on the mat, but I was unable to get peace to calm down. Each time I was taking her back to the naughty mat (as per protocol) I was becoming more and more physical with my restraint because of her increased kicking, pushing and physical resistance. This started to feel very uncomfortable. CWS does not recommend physical restraint to get children into Time Out (failure number 2).
As such, I changed the strategy to going into her bedroom. She would then follow me, at which point I would run out and shut the door, thereby trapping her in her room. CWS does not recommend using a child’s bedroom as the “thinking place” as the bedroom is interesting and stimulating (failure number 3). The funny thing is that neither Big Sis nor Lil Bro when in this situation ever went off to play with the myriad toys in their room. Instead, without fail, they would both try to leave the room in order to follow me around hitting and wailing. Thankfully, they didn’t often go about trashing their room either. CWS does not mention “locking” children in their rooms. However, I am unsure how else she means for the child to stay in there. Clearly, she cannot actively recommend incarceration and yet an illustration in her book implies incarceration by showing a door being beaten outwards as if someone is trying to get out. One would presume that if the door was not locked, then the kid would just walk out. In any case, none of our interior doors have exterior locks on so locking was not an option. Thus I initially stood on the other side of the door, holding the door shut. However, it can take one of my lot up to 45 minutes to “calm down” and standing holding a door shut whilst a raging child does their utmost to huff and puff a door down can get pretty tiresome. I therefore came upon the ingenious idea to tie the doorknob to the bannister with a dressing gown cord preventing it from opening. I sat next to the door, periodically calmly saying “You can come out as soon as you calm down and stop crying” (as per protocol), but at least I could sit next to the door and read a magazine in the interim (success number 2). I was dubious as to whether CWS would recommend this strategy. It reminded me of having to put violent patients into “seclusion” – basically a padded cell to calm down, when I worked in adult mental health wards. Here, staff need to stand right by the door and do regular observations on the patient until they were calm, and it felt very much like what I was doing with my kids…I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing – but wasn’t sure who to ask. The occasion never arose to ask other school run mums if they were tying their children into their rooms using a dressing gown cord.
This strategy was quickly abandoned as I quickly realised that all the things CWS highlighted as negatives for physical restraint also applied to incarceration. Two incidents led me to this quick conclusion, despite it having been an effective strategy. 1) Lil Bro on encountering this situation for the first time shouted from behind the door “When I am big, I am going to lock you in your room!” – this sent shudders down my spine, with visions of my elderly self being subject to elder abuse by my traumatised son, now much bigger than me; 2) Big Sis grabbing my dressing gown cord saying she was going to tie Lil Bro into their room because he had been naughty towards her (failure number 3).
After this, I adopted the ignoring strategy. Not ignoring the behaviour, but the child. They would be told that because they had been naughty, I was not going to interact with them until they calmed down. Given that the children were too strong to be physically taken to the naughty mat and incarceration clearly was not working, I just grew a wall against wailing. They could follow me about the house wailing, but I did not pay them any attention. When it got too much, I like my friend who sent the Facebook message barricaded myself into the toilet. However, rather than feel a cowed victim being chased by my kids into the toilet, I would walk there calmly grabbing a magazine on the way and have a good catch up on fashion and gossip while they howled and hit away at the door.
I am still not sure what CWS would make of this…
The only blessing I have found is that child development and brain maturity at some point clicks in. Big Sis has now definitely graduated to slamming doors and going to sob on her own bed when she is told off. The IKEA mat, long outgrown has gone into the skip. I am much relieved, although I am sure there will be worse challenges to come and one day, I will probably be wishing for the simplicity of dealing with tantrums over what-it-is these days that teenagers get up to…
Please don’t judge me too harshly. I am hoping that by putting my account out there that others will feel more able to talk about disciplining. I think it is a really tricky territory to get right and there is insufficient information out there on this for parents. I do think that if you are constantly questioning “Is it ok?” then it is at least a start.
Carolyn Webster-Stratton. The Incredible Years. ISBN 978-1-892222-04-06. http://www.incredibleyears.com
You know you’ve got posh kids when…
I live in a posh area of London. Well, one of the desirable London postcodes anyway. Thandie Newton and Damien Lewis are local school run parents in the vicinity, my husband saw Michael McIntyre doing the school run in a Ferrari the other day and Lil Bro shared his first shaving foam and sand pit discoveries at nursery with a bevy of offspring of Arsenal football players.
Designer children’s clothes, designer children’s shoes, designer children’s toys and fabulous children’s parties are the norm around here, which can all seem a bit mad if you spent your own childhood begging for penny sweets from your friends and making your own chess sets from drawing squares on the back of a cereal packet. Here is a collection of my posh kids stories that made me laugh:
1. A friend of mine attended a childbirth support group. Upon being advised by the facilitator to moisturise their new born baby with olive oil, one of the group asked if extra-virgin was OK as that’s all they had in the house. I think you’ll find it’s only the second-press of Sicilian olives that are acceptable.
2. Whilst the stroppy kid screaming in the Morrison’s supermarket for sweets is probably the norm the country over, at the local Waitrose, Lil Bro has a tantrum for Yakult. It’s like: “Give me my pro-biotic yoghurt drink – NOOOOW!”
3. Whilst schools the country over are serving chicken nuggets, in our area, they are chicken goujons. “You mean nuggets?” I said to Lil Bro, “No, no, I didn’t have chicken nuggets, I had chicken goujons” (with a quinoa salad on the side I suspect).
4. 3-year old Big Sis and her friend were on one of those car-rides for children that they put outside supermarkets to extract money off parents. Her friend was delighted and declared that she was driving to the cinema. Big Sis pipes up with lovey aplomb, “I’m driving to the THEATRE”. Her friend’s mother raised an eye-brow at me. Ah, such mixed emotion of pride and embarrassment. To be fair, Big Sis at the time had gone to the theatre more times than the cinema (I’m talking “Tiger that came to tea” not “Ibsen’s Brand”) so it was not her fault, but, oh, the snobbery.
5. Big Sis and Lil Bro were playing with their friends on a toy sled. They pretended the sled was an aeroplane, packed up belongings and were going on holiday. “We’re off to the Maldives” one friend cried, “No, St Lucia” said the other. Well why not? My kids started trying to sell them food on the plane. The others said that you did not need to pay for food on planes. My kids said you did and demanded that they pay up. I think I know where the problem is here…
6. I don’t go big on presents for children’s parties. Kids who invite my kids to their parties are lucky if they get a small Melissa & Doug wooden jigsaw off me. It was rather embarrassing then that in the going home party bag of a party at which we had given said small Melissa & Doug jigsaw, was a bigger Melissa & Doug jigsaw, alongside other goodies including sweets, pencils and an anorak! What happened to a slice of cake and a few penny sweets…?
7. “Excuse me, can you pass the parmigiano?” (this is a 4 year old speaking); “Err – you mean the cheese”; “Yes, and if you’d like an espresso, my father will make one for you with the gaggia”. I kid you not…
I am super glad that my children get to live in this brilliant postcode and experience the good things in life, but I am keen for them to know that hard work is the bedrock of it all; and not to take it all for granted. In my mind, my less-than-privileged upbringing has “recession-proofed” my life. I don’t see what’s wrong with state primary school, budget airlines and holidays in camp sites, can’t imagine anyone handling my unwashed clothes and McDonalds is a guilty pleasure. It meant that when I earned money, I truly enjoyed it, rather than expected it to be so. Further, having had a happy childhood, I know for a fact that happiness lies not in material wealth. I was just as happy saving up and bunking off school to queue up at 5am for seats at Wimbledon as a teenager as I am now waltzing into the Steward’s enclosure to drink Champagne at Henley. So it was with concern that I listened to Big Sis complaining that “Our house is so small, my friend’s house is much bigger and they have a big garden”, all the more worrying as our house would likely be subject to a mansion tax due to its location.
On a holiday to visit Banker’s family in South Africa, I pointed out to Big Sis and Lil Bro the township shacks along the roadside. “Do you see those children playing football? That’s their house” I said, pointing to a small tin shack. “No it’s not. You’re joking” they said. It took a while for them to believe, but I answered all their questions and I hope this and many other reality-check conversations since will cement their feet to the ground.
Two shrinks on piano
I had a cuppa the other day with an old friend who trained with me as a psychiatrist way back when. We diverged in specialty, she to the elderly, and I to the youngsters – so we lost touch. It was with delight that we reconnected when we found out that our children attended the same school albeit in different years. Although our interactions are usually of the hectic school run “Hi – Bye” variety, on occasion we manage to have a good catch up.
Naturally our conversation turned to the kids. There was a school concert approaching for children who played musical instruments and my Big Sis and her Big Bro both play piano. Here is what happens when 2 psychiatrists talk to each other:
Me: How’s Big Bro’s piano playing going?
Her: Really good.
Me: Oh, because I am having such problems with Big Sis and piano. We have a great piano teacher that she really likes and she loves going to lessons, but we always end up having an argument whenever I help her with her piano practice in between.
Her: How come?
Me: Well, she’ll start playing, and then, when she gets a note wrong, I’ll tell her that she played the wrong note, and then she will insist that she did not get it wrong. Even when I show her the notation on the music, and show her the correct note; she will insist that she is right and carry on playing the wrong note. It drives me nuts as initially, I’m just pointing it out, not even critical or raised voice, but by the end, it’s like two kids in a playground: “That’s the wrong note”, “No – it isn’t”, “Yes, it is”, “Tis”, “Tisn’t” and so on until eventually one of us storms off shouting either “I’m never playing piano again”, or “I’m never helping you with your piano again”.
Her: Ah! You should never point out when a child is doing something wrong – they will take it as criticism and you’ll end up with the horrible interaction you described! Don’t you remember, that’s like the first rule of psychotherapy. You should know better! They have to reflect on how they played themselves, not have you point it out. I never point out to Big Bro when he has played something wrong; instead I just ask him “Are you happy with what you played?”
Me [ashen faced and ashamed that I had failed to apply clinical skill to my own child – argh, but it’s so much more difficult when it’s your own child!]: Oh bugger, you’re right. Maybe I should try that…
Her: But my trouble is that Big Bro gets so cross with himself. He will play a piece fine, but will be dissatisfied that it was not “perfect” and get very cross and frustrated with himself, sometimes even saying he is rubbish. In fact, I never need to be critical as he is more critical of himself than me.
Me: OMG! That’s terrible. Don’t you see? He has taken your comments to self-reflect into his superego. You’ve made him continually judge his own performance and now he is his own worst critic!
Me: Now that I think about it, asking Big Sis to self-reflect wouldn’t work. When she has coloured something in and it is all over the place, not within the lines, and I ask her if she’s happy with it – she always says “yes”. Even when I point out that it has gone over the lines a lot, she says “That’s how I want it”. Once, she saw me getting cross, and I explained to her that I was getting frustrated with myself because I wanted to do something well, but wasn’t quite achieving it. I asked her: “Haven’t you ever felt that?” and she said “No”.
Her: That’s so funny. Big Bro gets frustrated with himself a lot.
Me: Lil Bro is the same; with him I am always trying to stop him from being so pedantic and accept that it’s OK to make mistakes. I’m always trying to get him to colour outside of the lines without having to screw the whole thing up and start again!
Her: Ha ha.
Me: The funny thing is, even though Big Sis will never admit she played the note wrong, the next day when she plays the piece, she’ll miraculously play it with the correct note!
Three things struck me from this conversation:
- What works for one child will not necessarily work for another as children’s personalities are so different.
- Parent-child dynamics are a two-way street. How a child behaves is shaped by how the parent behaves, but critically, the parenting style adopted is also shaped by the child. Big Sis’s insouciant nonchalance pushes me to point out her mistakes as otherwise she would never acknowledge them, while Lil Bro’s pedantry is equally annoying and leads me to encourage him to make mistakes. Losing my temper is obviously always wrong, but I can only do my best on that one!
- Two shrinks can’t share a drink without analysis coming into it!
How to get into the best grammar school
A friend’s daughter turned 11 years old this year. As such her class cohort has just been subjected to the highs and lows of the 11+/ secondary school application process. For many children this is a very stressful time, albeit nothing compared to the trauma it is for the parents! I am pretty sure from my friend’s discussions that more parents lost sleep than children. At least I hope this is the case as most parents should be protecting their children from the burden of expectation, as feeling a “failure” at 11 years of age can have lasting consequences. The feeling from the school playground banter which can sometimes approach hysteria, would appear to be that it is substantially harder to get your children into a decent secondary school these days than at any other time in history, however I am never sure if every generation feels this (just like every generation of teenagers feel like they invented sex) and justifies it with current concerns (baby boom, “tiger parented” immigrants taking all the places etc.), or if it is actually true. The word on the London street these days is that if you are sending your child to a state primary school, they have “No chance” of getting into a selective grammar or independent school, unless they are receiving private tuition from at least the beginning of year 4. I have even heard some say that they need tuition from reception, and others say that you need to have their name down with the best tutors at year 1, as they all have mile long waiting lists. If you cannot afford private tuition, then they should be going to Kumon (after school maths club) at least; and the proliferation of Kumon classes across London attest to the power of this notion. If you are sending your children to a prep school, then even they may require private tuition from at least year 4 depending on how your child is doing or the quality of the prep school. If your child is not academically excellent, you could try and sneak them into an academic secondary school by way of a music or drama scholarship, in which case, investment into private music/ drama lessons would have been a requirement from well ahead of year 4, as to audition for a music scholarship at a prestigious school requires a distinction at grade 5 (grade 3 for less prestigious schools). All in all, one wonders about the truth of these rumours or if this is one big ruse to boost the nation’s economy and employment level by increasing consumer spending on “must have” educational add-ons. More worryingly, if this is the truth, then where does it leave children from less well-off families who are unable to afford extra tuition and music lessons?
My eldest child is in year 1, so I am currently in a position to be skeptical about the hysteria. By year 4, Big Sis may well be signed up to the best and most expensive tutor that money can buy to secure her place at “the best selective secondary school in the world ever that is her only salvation from failure, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy and delinquency”. However, from my current armchair standpoint I can only look on with bemusement. I am in the rare position for a Londoner of living in the same area where I spent the majority of my childhood, and having the possibility of my daughter sitting for entrance exams at the same school that I went to: “the best grammar school in London”. Her education and circumstances up to that point will have been somewhat different given my economic circumstances are somewhat better than that of my parents. That said, here is a commentary on how getting into the best grammar school was done in the late 80s.
My sisters and I attended a local state primary school in Wales. My mother, having been a secondary school science teacher in Taiwan, taught us maths after school every day. Since she could not speak English, she did not teach us English but attempted to teach us Chinese. Both my parents encouraged us to read in English and took us to the library to borrow books every Saturday. They also encouraged us to write stories and poems in English. When I was 8 years old, my parents moved to London where both my mother and father had found employment. Since my mother now started working full-time, we had no further additional educational input outside of school, albeit constant encouragement, and expectation of hard work and achievement. My eldest sister was at that important secondary transition stage. Contrary to the at-length planning of most parents these days regarding secondary transfer, my parents, uninitiated in “the system” took a “pitch up and see” attitude. My sister was enrolled directly into the local comprehensive as my parents could not afford private school and she had missed all the entrance exams and procedures for the grammar school. My second sister and I were to go to the local primary which was, and still to this day remains, at the bottom end of the primary school league tables. My eldest sister had many a happy lesson making wooden pencil cases and large clay sculptures of birds of prey, whilst effortlessly coming top in every academic subject. My other older sister and I spent many lessons re-learning how to read and write English with the largely “first language not English” class.
Contrary to the current parental angst over school decisions, my parents took the oft-forgotten-in-current-times view that if it all went a bit Pete Tong, then we could change schools. Within the year, both my sisters had aced entrance exams to the grammar school, one at common entrance, and the other for year 8 entry as a position had opened. I was transferred out of the state primary in our area, to a state primary in the further, but much wealthier suburb next door. How? My parents just applied. Children leave good schools all the time for all sorts of reasons, and if you play the waiting game, chances are you’ll get a place without the furor and hassle of making out that you live on the school’s doorstep at common entrance.
In contrast to my previous school experiences, primary school in leafy suburbia was a delight. Whilst at previous schools my work stood out, in this wealthy neighbourhood intelligent children were in ample supply, such that academic equals and superiors were available. Of the 30 children in my class in this primary school, I know that one other joined me at Cambridge. Another went to Yale and another two went on to study medicine at Oxford and at Bristol, and I am sure there are other successes that I have not heard of. It was my parent’s intention that I should follow in the foot-steps of my sisters into grammar school. Their naivety of the education system meant that they saw this as a foregone conclusion. No tuition was brought in, no music lessons arranged, no past papers ordered up. I remember being called out of class one day by the school’s head of secondary transfer shaking a yellow form at me saying “Your parents have put down a highly selective school as the only option on your secondary transfer form! What if you don’t get in? They must put down alternative options!” To which my genuine response was “But they’ve bought my school uniform already.” I had no idea that entrance heavily depended on my performance, it was just a FACT that this was the school where I was going and I just had to go and sit an exam and attend an interview to formalise the process. Thinking back, this is probably not the best strategy for parents to adopt, as it would have hit me hard if I had not followed my sisters into that school, but my parents were blissfully ignorant of the fierce competition as they were both working flat-out full time and barely spoke to any other parents.
I did nearly blow my chances of going to the grammar school “for Young Ladies” as it was then suffixed. In those days, following the Maths and English paper, you were subjected to an interview with the headmistress. The headmistress was exactly the kind of headmistress I would imagine for a school purporting to educate “Young Ladies”. An upper class lady with portly stature, portent demeanour and penchant for port; all blue rinse and pearls. I had to describe a painting by Braque that was presented to me on a postcard. I had to read aloud a passage of written text about rainfall. It contained the word “percolate”. Here the headmistress requested a definition and I was at a loss. Trying to garner as much information as I could from the surrounding text, I offered a clearly wrong definition. No matter, the headmistress took it upon herself to educate me on the meaning of the word “percolate”. “You know, when you make coffee, you must let the water filter though the spaces between the coffee grounds to get the flavour. You have made coffee before haven’t you?” “Yes” I said. “I put a spoon of the granules into the cup, add hot water and stir. Is that what percolate means?”
Thankfully, being of the Nescafe-drinking classes may have excused my ignorance of the definition of percolate, and I was in. But that was the thing in those days. Raw ability got you through – not primed responses and taught vocabulary.
I am rather saddened to hear that my old grammar school has done away with the interview and rely on an IQ style test to screen candidates prior to entrance exam. On the standard IQ test, there is a 6 point test-retest advantage (this means that purely by having done the test before, the average person can improve their score by almost half a standard deviation). For clinical purposes if you want to get an accurate picture of a child’s IQ you should not test a child more than once a year. If however, you want to inflate your child’s IQ for a one off entrance exam, repeated exposure to IQ type tests can really do it, and schools will not be getting an accurate measure of “intelligence”. I can only imagine that doing away with interviews is a pity as however subjective, I still think there is something to be said for the spark in an eye and a quick-witted response.
In addition, from my current standpoint, although I value hard work and wish to pass this ethos on to my children, and although I know that hard work can greatly increase a child’s ability and potential, there comes a point where you as a parent have to recognise the innate (genetic) ability of your children, and pushing beyond ability can definitely have negative consequences. We would all like to believe that our child is the brightest bulb in the pack, but all except one of us would be wrong in this assumption. We might all like to believe that if our child “just did this/ or was given this opportunity/ or was helped more by their teacher” that they would become the brightest bulb in the pack, but again, the majority of us would be wrong in this assumption. For some reason, no one seems to want to admit the obvious, that some people are just cleverer than others – no ifs-ands-or-buts about it. Around the school gates, whenever a child’s exceptional reading or maths ability is discussed, someone will inevitably mutter “Yes, but you know what that parent is making the kid do at home…”, whilst my response is always – “great, it really helps everyone to have bright kids in the class”.
My gestalt realisation that ability is unevenly distributed happened at Cambridge University. I looked around me and thought “Not in a million years and working 24/7 will I ever be as smart as some of these people”. Accepting yourself and not feeling a loser about it is really satisfying, and I think we need to have the same reality check sometimes with our kids. Although aspiration and pushing to achieve potential is a positive, not all children have the same academic potential and ultimately we need to accept, appreciate and love them – in the words of Brigitte Jones’s Darcy “just the way they are”. My current view is therefore that if my children do not get into the most prestigious academic school then they probably would not have got on there. I would much prefer my children to perform in the top half of a less academic school, where they can feel “clever” and become confident in their academic abilities than flounder in the bottom half of an academic school. I saw many people at my school and university suffer crises of confidence (despite being exceptionally bright), due to being in the bottom half of a highly academic environment. Some of the negative effects lasted well into adulthood, and may well be life-long. In my view confidence, security, self-assurance and happiness are the solid foundation that childhood needs to build; academic excellence is definitely welcome, but never at the expense of the former.
I am desperately hoping that the rumour mill is hype and that old fashioned clever kids will still end up where they deserve to go and that good education does not become the preserve of the wealthy, but also that I will be strong enough in my current principles to follow through should my children not be “old fashioned clever kids”.
Pass on a passion
Victoria Pendleton’s father loved cycling. Luckily for GB cycling, he passed on the cycling bug.
To me part of the joy of parenting is being in a position to pass on a passion. Seeing a little person’s face light up with enjoyment in doing something that you enjoy, and being able to do something you enjoy with the best little people in the world. Nothing beats it.
It therefore seems really strange to me to find the plethora of children’s clubs and classes where little ones can learn everything from swimming and yoga, to decoupage and cookery from strangers, alongside similar classes for adults with a crèche attached so parents can pursue their passions unfettered by their children. This uncoupling of parent and child “leisure time” is great for industry, twice the money, but seems to me to be doing us a disservice. Feeding into exhausted parents’ need for “me time”, and the parental competition for “most accomplished child”, it has generated a cult of “professional class attendance” denying parents the simple pleasure of passing on a passion.
My husband and I taught both our children to swim. I am not the most accomplished swimmer, but I am able to stay alive in the deep end of the swimming pool. Swimming is a potentially life-saving skill and the quicker a child learns to stay alive in water, the better in my book. For my husband, swimming is a passion. He dreams of holidays swimming with teenage children between Greek islands (I will be going in the boat, glass and magazine in hand). Thus we made a point of taking the children to play in water regularly since the age of 3 months. The tiger mother in me, wanted to progress from “play” to “swim”, and over a summer when Big Sis was 4 years old, I managed to teach her to swim 5, then 10 metres. It was a great feeling when she managed it, both for her and for me. She positively beamed and wanted to do it again, and again. I was right there next to her in the water (holding on to 2 year old Lil Bro with his arm bands on), shouting “I knew you could do it!” I took added pride as a private swimming instructor who was also using the pool to teach at the same time asked me who had taught my children to swim as they were both “so confident in the water”, and I was able to reply “Me”. Now that Big Sis is able to swim, she is enrolled in professional lessons in a club to learn and refine strokes, but the pleasure of watching her gain mastery over the water was all mine.
It was sad then when a friend who was an excellent swimmer asked me to recommend a swimming instructor for her toddler. I asked her why she didn’t teach her child herself, to which she responded, “I can’t; I’m not qualified”. I can see how you need professional qualifications to teach a group of children, or to teach children to swim strokes, but I was taught to swim by my dad, and my husband was taught by his parents as were the majority of people of my generation. So why shouldn’t modern-day parents feel qualified to teach their own children to swim? Probably because of the many advertised toddler swimming classes advocating professional guidance and undermining our confidence in our own ability to teach. It will be a really sad day when children are sent to professional classes to learn to cycle and bake cakes, as to me, teaching and doing these things with your young children is a rite of passage for parents. Or if you hate baking and cycling then snooker, oboe, tennis, skiing, poetry, jazz music – don’t keep your passions to yourself and send your children out to generic classes. Pass it on.
My own passion is for art. Having been forbidden to go to art school by my parents (which in their eyes meant a life time of poverty), I continue to have pleasure in painting, sculpting, making things and visiting art galleries. From a young age, the children have always come with us to art galleries in London and abroad. Art galleries are great places for children, as they usually feature wide open spaces. Our children wake up at 6 am, so getting to the Tate Modern at opening is no problem, and at that time on a weekend morning, when sane people are still tucked up in bed (or even just going to bed from the night before – ah those were the days), the gallery is quiet and the children can be let loose. Their attention span is short, so we are never able to take the thoughtful meander that we would have in our childless days. But becoming a Friend of a gallery is great, as you can literally pop in to see one picture and leave without feeling it was a complete waste of money, and in London, there are also so many free art galleries, that this is possible even for those on a budget. Most times, I will ask the children to choose their favourite painting, or I will point out mine and we will look at it in detail. At other times, I will bring paper and pens and they will sit and copy their favourite paintings. Other times, we will paint a picture together at home afterwards, “inspired” by our gallery visit. Many exhibits are child-friendly and I can recall Lil Bro aged 3 shouting “Moo” in delight at Damien Hirst’s cow, completely unperturbed by the fact that it had been cut in half, and Big Sis in hushed tones at Anish Kapoor’s exhibit involving a wax cannon saying “Mummy, someone has made a mess in here”. Of course, it’s not all roses and there are many times when I have had to drag sulky kids, carry sleeping kids, bribe whinging kids with gift-shop magnets, but when you later find that they can talk about “Mango’s sunflowers” or say that their favourite artist is “Kandinsky”, it can bring joy to the heart. Many galleries these days have great family days where you can work WITH your children on art projects, or at least ALONGSIDE, and they are usually FREE.
I have great satisfaction in hearing my children say “I love art” and embark with confidence in creating something from their own imaginations, and I am dreaming of the painting holidays in Tuscany that we will be able to take together in the not so distant future, because of the time I have taken now to pass on my passion.
Pass it on.
Pass it on.