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?
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”.
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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!
Big Sis asked me what a zombie was the other day. Here is our conversation:
Big Sis: Mummy, what’s a zombie?
Me: It’s the undead. Like, the living dead.
Big Sis: Huh?
Me: It’s like, someone who is half dead.
Big Sis: You mean like [gesturing a line through her face and body] this side is dead and this side is alive? (they have clearly been learning about “halves” at school)
Me: No! [struggling, then remembering “Shaun of the Dead”] They are people that walk around like this [now giving my best “Shaun of the Dead” zombie impression with stiff arms outstretched moving up and down]
Big Sis: You mean a puppet!
Me: [Aargh! This is tough] No, no, no! It’s like some one who has died but then comes back to life.
Big Sis: Oh! You mean like Jesus Christ!
Totally not what I meant, but very funny.
HAPPY EASTER EVERYONE!
Photograph by Giorgia Bertazzi
Race and skin colour is a tricky thing to talk about with kids, even in London where probably all 110 Pantone skin shades (yes this actually exists) are covered. I had my own (albeit mild) experiences of racism as an immigrant to the UK, and my fair share of ponderings regarding racial identity. I wanted my children to avoid that if possible, and thought I knew how to facilitate that. As with all things with children, things don’t always turn out as you plan!
It is natural that any parent uses their own experiences of childhood as a point of reference in parenting, both in how to do things and how not to do things. Having emigrated from Taiwan to the UK with my family at the age of 3 years, my race had at times been an issue for me growing up. It is well known that immigration has strong associations with mental health due to the stress both of leaving behind a social network and of feeling like an outsider, or “not belonging/ being accepted” in the new country. The stress of leaving behind family was more of a problem for my parents, but I certainly sometimes experienced the “not belonging/ being accepted” feelings. Although I was largely Anglicised; my outward appearance was clearly Chinese and this bothered me for a long time. I remember one instance when I was ten; I closed my eyes tight and wished very hard that when I opened my eyes again, I would have white skin. I didn’t want to change who I was, or my family, just the colour of my skin. It wasn’t the taunts of “Ching Chong Chinaman” or mock martial arts moves, which were easily dispelled by sharp tongue, but the pervasive stereotyping. Rightly or wrongly, I felt it was grossly unfair that all “Chinese people” (which actually included any East Asian ethnicity) were regarded as what I referred to as “book nerds”. Every teacher and every employer I have ever had has described me as “conscientious”. Why not “efficient”, “competent” or indeed “supremely talented” (ha ha) – which imply the same without the connotations of hard-working?
Because: only white kids were “naturally clever”, Chinese kids “worked hard, did nothing but work and were definitely uncool”…hmmm.
It’s definitely better now than in the past. Susie Bubble, Jemma Chan, Alexa Chung, Gok Kwan, Mylene Klass, Lucy Lui, Devon Aoki and even my old friend Ching He Huang are regularly on T.V. rocking the Asian cool. I don’t think that I would have had such an issue with being “Chinese” if I was growing up in London today, but I grew up in the era where Chinese people on T.V. were represented by Peter Sellers in fancy dress. An Indian friend described a similar stereotyping problem saying how “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” was his most hated film, as he was forever being mocked about eating monkeys’ heads at his school, Eton. Funnily enough, it was also in the most privileged of environments, Cambridge University, where I experienced the most ignorant petty racial stereotyping. Frequently people commented on how good my English was and questioned where my Chinese accent was from, to which I responded “Norf London”. Others commented on my keenness for shepherd’s pie, remarking “I thought Chinese people only liked rice”. I am seriously not making this up! My poor Etonian friend fared no better. He went back-packing around Nepal with his friend, and on return was told by his friend that his family had mistaken him in the photos of the trip for “the hired native that carried the bags”.
I remember being acutely jealous of a Romanian friend of mine, who despite also being an immigrant to the country managed to pass herself off as the quintessential English rose by virtue of white skin, blonde hair and European name. She was never asked about Romania, Communism, “Why her English was so good?” or treated to random stories about “I met a Romanian once…”, unless she brought it up herself. It struck me that skin colour is important here, as whilst second generation Eastern European immigrants could be fully accepted as British, my children and grandchildren may not.
This thought was on my mind at the point of naming Big Sis and Lil Bro. I was acutely conscious that I wanted to give them the gift of racial anonymity. Being mixed race, they are a skin colour of “ambiguous” ethnicity. I wanted them to be taken for who they were, not what their name or skin colour represented. They were given mainstream European names and took my husband’s European surname, such that unless they chose to divulge their Chinese middle names, on paper, no one would be able to tell that they were not fully European. This was a fully conscious decision, because even though we live in much enlightened times, even in a cosmopolitan city like London, I think race and skin colour still mean something.
That said; I take instilling cultural pride and identity seriously. I definitely don’t want them to pretend that they are “European” and reject their cultural identity. They need to be proud of who they are and where they come from. My children are dutifully sent to mandarin classes to learn the language and culture, despite my own poor grasp of the language. My children are told that they are Taiwanese, and pitch up proudly on cultural days at school in Chinese costumes and brandishing the Taiwanese flag. They regularly eat Chinese food, they have visited Taiwan and spend regular time with their Taiwanese grandparents in London. They identify with being Chinese and in fact, when asked “Where are you from?” Lil Bro will declare he is “Chinese”, whilst the better informed Big Sis will explain how she is “From Taiwan, South Africa and England”.
Great hey? My plan was working. Strong knowledge, awareness and pride in ethnic roots and identity, but not being judged on ethnicity from the outset.
What happened next, was rather unexpected then.
It started with a discussion of Disney Princesses:
Me: Which is your favourite Disney Princess?
Big Sis: Sleeping Beauty. Or maybe Cinderella. They are the prettiest.
Me: I like Jasmine.
Big Sis: I don’t like Jasmine.
Big Sis: She wears trousers.
Me [Phew, this is related to fashion rather than race]: OK, then, what about Mulan, you look most like Mulan.
Big Sis: No I don’t.
Me: Yes you do.
Big Sis: No I don’t.
Me: You have black hair and so does Mulan.
Big Sis: No I don’t, I have yellow hair.
This wasn’t a one off; this sort of thing continued. At the end of Reception, Big Sis’s Year 6 partner gave her a Chinese looking Barbie doll.
Me: That’s nice; she’s given you a Chinese Barbie.
Big Sis: How did she know I was Chinese?
Me: Because you look Chinese.
Big Sis: No I don’t.
Me: You have black hair.
Big Sis: No I don’t.
Me: You have yellowish, brownish skin.
Big Sis: No I don’t, I have light skin.
Me [What the hell?]: silence.
It was not a surprise then that when I bought Big Sis’s Year 1 tea towel with each child in her class’s self-portraits printed on it that I saw that she had depicted herself with “yellow” hair. What I didn’t expect and was relieved to see was that her blonde best friends, drew themselves with black hair, and another European child with dark brown hair also drew herself with “yellow” hair.
Maybe this is not about race then, but something deeper about identity and about wanting to belong. Wanting to be the same as your friends. It struck me that I could learn from this, that difference is in the eye of the beholder and where we seek to find similarity not difference, we can find it – however improbable.
Recently Big Sis was cast as Mummy Bear in her class assembly. We were asked to provide at short notice (always at short notice!) a costume. Thankfully, the school were making the masks for the children, so that was not required, and as the school assembly is not such a big deal, it wasn’t so big an ask. I went with Big Sis to her dressing up box to see what we could find. Brown, long sleeve T-shirt, brown tights, pink skirt. Good, good. But these were just normal clothes. How about some dressing up stuff so Mummy Bear can be more of a character?
Here is our conversation:
Me: I know, I know [excited], why doesn’t mummy bear be a doctor and then you can carry this bag and wear this stethoscope around your neck?
Big Sis: But Mummy Bear wears an apron.
Me: She doesn’t have to, she can be a doctor. Or, I know, you can wear this fireman’s costume and Mummy bear can be a fireman.
Big Sis: Mummy bear wears an apron, because she makes the porridge.
Me: Are you sure, maybe Daddy Bear made the porridge. Your daddy makes you porridge and pancakes sometimes.
Big Sis: In the book at school, [insistent] Mummy bear makes the porridge and wears an apron.
Big Sis wore an apron.
This is the most recent in a long line of unsuccessful attempts by me to break the gender stereotypes prevalent in society.
The first was just before Big Sis’s third birthday when the nursery decided to have a whole week (!) of fancy dress. This must have been a sadistic joke on the nursery’s behalf as I saw poor children being trundled into nursery for 5 whole days wearing the same Spiderman pyjamas with working parents looking very displeased. I was also a full time working parent at the time and shared the same displeasure, but vowed that we would at least attempt 5 different costumes, however crappy. She was not yet 3 years old, so at that point in time I was still winning the war on polyester Princess dresses. The first day, she went as a cat. We had a foam-cat mask from some party she had been to, and she wore a black long sleeved T-shirt and black leggings. The second day, I had decided that she could go as a Pirate. She had a jumper with a skull and cross bones on, denim shorts and she could put a handkerchief around her head. I managed to coerce her into this outfit. She was not happy. I promised her chocolates when she got home.
Big Sis: I don’t want to be a pirate. They are boys.
Me: No, there are girl pirates as well, pirates aren’t just for boys.
Big Sis: None of the other girls will be pirates.
Me: Well, it’s nice to be something different.
I had got her to the door by now, although she was dragging her heels and not wanting to cross the threshold into the outside world. Eventually, she slumped down across the doorway in tears.
Big Sis: Why can’t I just be a Princess like everyone else?
This was too much for even a feminist like me to bear. I became tearful. Was I really going to force my daughter to do something against her will and want based on my own ideology? I made her go as a pirate but promised that she could go as a Princess the next day, and that was how the war on pink polyester was lost.
The second, was when Big Sis requested a pink stethoscope for her 4th birthday. I went to Toys R Us to purchase said stethoscope only to find that the only pink stethoscopes that they had were attached to a nurse’s uniform. The doctor’s costume was resplendent with blue stethoscope. Hmmm. I literally stood in front of the costumes for hours deliberating in my mind. Should I buy the doctor’s uniform and encourage breaking stereotypes so that she might aspire to be a doctor like me, rather than a nurse, or is it too much hassle to risk tears on her birthday and screams of “I wanted a pink one!”. There were no tears on her birthday.
The third time was when Big Sis and Lil Bro were playing together. Here is the conversation:
Big Sis: You be the doctor and I’ll be the nurse.
Me: Wait, why can’t Lil Bro be the nurse and you be the doctor?
Big Sis and Lil Bro in unison: Because doctors are boys and Nurses are girls!
Me: [in disbelief that this is happening in my own household] No they are not! I am a doctor and I am a woman.
Big Sis and Lil Bro: [look at me silent for a moment as they ponder this puzzling conundrum]
Big Sis: Yes, but he wants to be the doctor and I want to be the nurse. Anyway the nurse’s uniform has a skirt so it is for a girl.
Damn Toys R US! I knew I shouldn’t have bought the pink stethoscope!
I was glad to hear more recently that Toys R Us and other toy retailers are rethinking their gender stereotyped toys. I haven’t been recently to check out if they now sell doctor’s costumes with pink stethoscopes. For my children it is too late. What I worry about is this:
(1) If role models of working mothers and domesticated fathers are clearly available in the home, gender non-stereotyping is being actively pushed at home, how is it still not getting through that women and men can be whatever they choose? I have noticed that media portrayal of genders, at least on CBeebies (which is my children’s main exposure to media up to now) is pretty fair so the easy target of media, is not at fault this time. (Dr Ranj is male, but Nina (“Scientist”) is female and there is a female doctor and male nurse on “Me Too”). So where is this stereotyping coming from?
(2) If my children, who are the next generation, are still growing up with such defined gender stereotypes, where does this leave feminism? Has so little changed in the 30 years between myself and my daughter? Given that my children have already bought into gender stereotypes, will they be able to be stronger than me and insist that their children are brought up gender-stereotype free? Will we have to wait until our grandchildren’s generation to see if gender stereotyping can be beaten?
In my mind, the problem is so pervasive which is why it is so hard to beat. It goes beyond “pink” and “blue”. Every traditional tale and history lesson is encoded gender stereotype. Every advert from Barbie to Iceland (Why doesn’t bloody Dad go to Iceland and get the frozen goods for once?) is encoded gender stereotype. Every word we choose to use is gender stereotyped (ambitious men/ pushy women). My view is that language is a good place to start, as it is the fabric of our culture and society. To this cause I hope that you will appreciate that on this blog, where I mean “parent”, I use the word “parent”, rather than “mother”, which cannot be said for the majority of parenting scientific papers, news articles, websites and media.
There’s also very little pink.
As I was driving the children home the other day, we saw a man of African ethnicity sweating profusely as he performed his job of using a large hooked stick to manually dredge a pond to remove dense amounts of algae and pond weed. “What a horrible job!” I exclaimed. It was a statement not a question, so I did not expect any response, but to my surprise after a pause a small voice shouted back “He should go back to his own country”.
I nearly crashed the car in horror. I am sure that those words sear into the flesh of any ethnic minority person in this country and many others. When I was growing up, “Go back to your own country” was almost as popular a schoolyard taunt as “Ching Chong Chinaman”. In fact “Go back to where you came from Ching Chong Chinaman” was probably a favourite. How in heaven had I, who prided myself in liberal leanings managed to raise a child sprouting mantra more akin to UKIP (right wing political party in the U.K.) manifesto than Hampstead socialism?
“What do you mean? Why did you say that?” I asked Big Sis tentatively. Mental images of the sanctimonious telling off I was going to give to her friend, friend’s parents, teachers, babysitters, and anyone else who she might have had contact with that might have contaminated her with this right wing view.
“Because of what you said.”
“What? When?” I demanded, having never held such views in all my life.
“Two weeks ago when we were doing maths homework”
The blood drained from my face in realisation. This was the conversation that we had had two weeks prior:
Big Sis: “Why do I have to do this anyway?”
Me: “Because it’s your homework.”
Big Sis: “Yes but it’s so boring, why do we need to do maths.”
Me: “Because if you don’t learn to do maths or to read, then you won’t be able to get a good job. You’ll have to clean toilets or other people’s houses.”
Big Sis: “Does that mean Terri can’t read or do maths?”
Terri was our lovely cleaner who came on an ad hoc basis and also helped with babysitting, I certainly did not want Big Sis lording it up over her. Ferocious back pedalling required.
Me: “No Terri is very clever but she didn’t grow up in this country. So she can read and write and do maths very well, but only in her own language. Because she decided to move to this country, she can’t read or write or do maths so well in English, which is why she has to clean our house.”
Big Sis seemed to accept this explanation, so with relief she finished her homework.
From this innocent conversation, Big Sis had decided that people who had moved here from another country should go back to their own countries in order to have better jobs. Seeing the African man doing a back-breaking job, she figured that he could read, write and do maths and therefore had better job prospects in his “own country”.
From this, I concluded: IT IS SO HARD TO EXPLAIN SOCIAL PROBLEMS TO CHILDREN!
Give me scientific questions like “What’s a rainbow?” (white light split into its composite colours by prism shaped raindrops) and “Why is grass green?” (chlorophyll) any day. How to explain social inequality, poverty, racism? Tricky! Given relief that at least Big Sis was not a bigoted racist, I wimped out of explaining the other difficult questions (e.g. why should she assume that someone with brown skin was not from this country?) and issues that might arise that would require explanation of the world’s skewed distribution of wealth, immigration, asylum seeking, social class and racism. It’s so hard – I’m imagining something like this:
Me: People can’t always go back to their own countries, because there is probably a good reason why they left.
Big Sis: Why?
Me: Maybe the government want to put them in prison.
Big Sis: What’s government?
Me: Umm, the people that decide the rules in a country.
Big Sis: You mean the police?
Me: Something like that, the police make sure people do what the rules say.
Big Sis: Is he a baddie then? Did he steal something?
Me: No he is a good person. OK, that’s not the reason he left his country. Maybe he can’t get a good job in his country.
Big Sis: He can’t read?
Me resorting to head banging.
Anyone who has read “Nurture shock” [by Po Branson & Ashley Merryman] will know that children do not just soak up politically correct ideas from society without explanations. Often they can come to their own conclusions (often warped) if not explicitly explained, so it needs to be done. As I carried on the journey home, I wondered if Big Sis had made such comments at school or elsewhere, telling the school cleaners to “Go back to their own country” or something. Mortificado! Clearly this talking to children business needs more thought. I will definitely explain it properly to the children. Just need to think how…
Anyone with good ideas, please help!