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February 2016

Every problem has a solution

 

"Growth mindset is about learning from mistakes and unlocking potential."

Jim Knight, TES

 

I didn't do well on the 'growth mindset' front this Monday morning gone.

8.23am, over breakfast, my son told me he needed his English notebook, which he'd taken away on half-term holiday to France, ostensibly to do his homework during the holiday week (as opposed to Monday or Tuesday evening before the hand-in deadline, as is our usual wont).

The English notebook, clearly, was nowhere to be found. Nor were the practice SATs test papers he was supposed to be correcting for Wednesday. A quick search of the car, his suitcase, my husband's briefcase, and any other spot we could think of, yielded nothing.

Had we left them at our holiday place? Had they been thrown out by mistake? I had no recollection of seeing them at any point during the holiday, even though I'd done a fairly thorough (I thought) sweep of the place before we left.

 

  Angry face

My rage at myself for neglectful, distracted parenting I hid under sarcastic fury towards my son for not 'being more careful with his stuff, not caring about his homework,' etc.. There was barely concealed irritation towards his father too for leaving the mundanities of domestic life, such as homework-tracking, to me.

'This is a disaster!' I wailed, head in hands.

My son looked as though he were going to cry.

'I will probably have to stay in at lunchtime and breaktime to re-copy all the work we've done in English since the start of the year,' he said, face pale. He hates getting into trouble at school.

'I thought I'd put them in [my sister's] suitcase,' he said.

'Why on earth would you put them there??! In any case, I opened her suitcase and I couldn't see them, and she didn't know what I was talking about when I asked her.'

  

I walked him to school as though I were leading him to the gallows. Dear oh dear, what WILL the teacher say?

 

Hangman

 

On the way back home, I thought to myself, hmmmm.

'What a performance, Elizabeth. Bravo. You say it's ok to make mistakes, then you project all your OWN panic about years of mislaying papers and important documents onto your 11-year-old son. What is REALLY going on here?'

A second internal voice piped up, scattering woes.

'I can't believe I didn't pay more attention to his stuff! I've failed him! Why did I think it was a good idea to take homework on holiday anyway? I should have known we'd forget the minute we got there! Why is it I can write essays about 'my 25-year life goals' but I am so DISASTROUS at taking care of the small details of everyday life - like my children's homework?'

 

And so on and on, the verbal hair shirt.

Once I'd calmed down a bit, I re-set my mind to the problem, and reminded myself of one of my favourite affirmations:

                

            Every problem has a solution.

 

 

Tinkerbell pic

 

Perhaps it was divine intervention, or a more problem-solving frame of mind, or our Finder of Lost Things - our resident Tinkerbell, my 7-year-old daughter (who was off school sick that day) - but somehow the solution appeared.

I knelt calmly before my daughter, who was playing in her room, next to her still unpacked suitcase.

'Darling, we REALLY need to find your brother's school papers. There is a purple notebook with his name on it, and a couple of other test books. Do you think you might have seen them?'

'Oh!' she said, and turned to her case, from which she unearthed the SATs papers and the notebook from under a stack of Barbies and soft toys.

'You asked me earlier, but I didn't know what you meant,' she said.

 

A problem solved.

A heartfelt apology due.

 

A lesson or two learned... maybe??

 


To what extent should children be free to ‘follow their own curiosity’?

10 years ago in Denmark, I taught a father of 3 in his 50’s who had been part of the 'Freetown' of Christiania (an area of Copenhagen) in the 1970s, but had gone on to be a “respectable” middle-class kind of family man, with a suburban house and a job in engineering.

We discussed the Danish forest kindergarten his kids had attended when they were little, and the freedom it gave pre-schoolers to explore their surroundings unimpeded by the need to follow a curriculum set by grown-ups.

‘The teachers didn’t track the children too closely,' he said. 'Sometimes they would even come back at the end of the day and discover they’d left a child behind in the forest and have to go back to fetch them! But it’s better that way. Children should be free to follow their own curiosity. It's the most important thing. It’s better when the adults don’t get too involved - even if it means there is the odd mistake.’

He didn’t approve of safety locks on school gates, or constant head-counting, or any of those 'modern' safety measures. It was clear, on the spectrum of safety versus freedom, at which end of the scale his proclivities lay.

 

                    SAFETY <--------------------------------------------------------------> FREEDOM 

 

According to a recent study by the Policy Studies Institute (PSI) at the University of Westminster, British parents are among the strictest in Europe, in the sense that they grant 'their children less freedom to travel and play in their local neighbourhood unaccompanied by adults', despite the 'significant impacts'  on children's 'health and physical, mental and social development'.

There is certainly a sense, amongst many parents here, that the world has become a more dangerous place, and children need protecting at any cost.

At the same time, children's time is more scheduled: less time 'playing in their local neighbourhood unaccompanied'  means more time for piano lessons, judo, extra maths tuition and gymnastics clubs ( I am aware that I am speaking from the heart of 'middle England', where relatively affluent parents hold high aspirations for their offspring).

 

So my real question here is about the everyday dilemmas, on the scale of safety - or should I say structure - versus freedom, of where we should thrust in our stake???

To what extent should we adults just back off, and let children follow their own curiosity?

Or should we be guiding, goal-setting, boundary-fixing, encouraging and cajoling all the while from the wings of their lives, relationships and learning careers?

This is a LIVE question for me.

My oldest child is 11. He is a Questioner – he won’t do anything unless he personally sees the import of it. He is closely approaching the dreaded TEENAGE years, and some of the clichés applied to that age range are already becoming apparent.

Furthermore, his interests, whilst pretty common to boys of that age, are mysterious to his parents (Minecraft, anyone??). There is a strengthening tide away from parental influence towards peer influence.

And my dilemma is: to let go, or to hold on tighter? To believe I know better, use my declining influence to help chart his course, hold the long-term goals in mind, so he can go on to be successful, healthy, SAFE? Or, to let him wander, unguided, in the forest of his choosing, at the risk of his being left alone in the darkness of night?

 

Lost in minecraft forest

 

Have you felt this dilemma too?

Do you instinctively fall on one or other side of the freedom v. structure balance, or are you too hovering somewhere on the beam?

 

My husband and I are trying to increase the kids' participation in sports and outdoor exercise. We are lucky to have access to skiing at half-term, and have been trying to make it a 'family activity'. But the kids don't want to ski, the 11-year-old in particular. They don't like ski school. They put their little feet down, and I/ we almost surrendered.

But just before capitulating, we took a deep breath, invoked Stephen Covey's win-win habit, and struck a bargain: ski school in the mornings, without complaints, and you have FREEDOM in the afternoons - be it Minecraft, Barbies, or whatever.

It's a luxury dilemma. I know. Boo hoo, my kids don't want to go to ski school ;-).

But it could be anything else - homework, reading practice, going outside for a walk. The dilemma is the same.

 

The outcome for us, in this case, was... success, I would say. The deal held. There were minor complaints first thing in the morning, but I reminded him of our deal, and his desire for Minecraft outweighed his disgust at ski school. He even learned parallel turns, showed us them proudly, and got a badge at the end of the week that he wore all day pinned to his jumper.

 

Ski badge
 

 

He'd won. And we'd won. A win-win.

So far, so good.

 

Will we remember the next time?

 

 

With love,

Elizabeth

Aka The Writing Parent


Tiger-ish

 

'Tell us the story,' the children say.

'Which one?' I ask.

'The tiger one.'

Alright.

 

My father is a human but my mother is a tiger.

Her colouring is remarkable. Dark brown, almost black-ish, with tiger stripes showing through her under-carriage, so she looks permanently like a tiger in the shade. It's no wonder my father fell in love with her. She's so special.

 

A moment of love they shared, but tigers are wild and my father knew he couldn't keep her, not without a fight he would probably lose. So she roams her jungle forests and my father roams near her, where he can spy her from time to time swishing shadowy through the long grasses.

I grew up, a girl with a black ponytail, white skin and eyes the colour of tiger's eye: normal human girl on the outside. Knowing inside I was tiger-ish.

Tiger-ish-ness comes out at moments. Then I know, like my mother, I must prowl alone, and keep from those I love so I don't eat them, in a moment of mistake.

I don't go near her, though I've met her, with her blackish-brown markings, and she has seen me too. We have looked into each other's tiger's eyes. But I'm not a baby she could bundle and own. She left me to the care of others, and roams alone.

 

I roamed too, apart.

 

I left the home and combed the loneliest beaches of the world. I wanted only those that were wild and free.

On a long stretch of sand in Norway, I crawled from promontory to promontory, pounding great stretches with my tiger-ish strides, velvet soft paws leaving feathery marks on the sand where I'd been. A cat, I was afraid of the sea, so grey and cold and wet. My fur yearned for the warmth of the tropics.

I flew to Thailand, each paw delicately balanced on an armrest above a cigarette ash holder, my back arching as waves of tiger-ish-ness protested the restraints. My tiger loved to look out the small windows at the clouds. They reminded me of softest grasses under my belly and dreamy white dunes. My tiger mind flew out with the birds while my powerful pads pushed where hands are supposed to rest.

Thailand was warm. I found a beach. I stretched my cat fur in delight on the sand, and my skin turned a tiger-ish brown under the black hairs. I played in the sea! I told my tiger to stay curled on the sand while my girl laughed and leapt under the water. I found my inner fish.

When my tiger was tired of being soggy wet, I borrowed a board to stand on the waves instead, and roam without getting damp. But my tiger claws found it hard to grip the slippery surface, so we gave up and moved on. Too crowded in Thailand anyway. I wanted somewhere hotter still.

 

I went to India, where I was afraid I would run into my mother.

I couldn't remember her place - I was so young when my father came to the home, took my paw and led me to her. I had no sense of time or space, and my father didn't talk much. He lived on the edge of society, did his work and looked out for shadows, swishing through the grass.

 

'What did Grandfather do?' my son asks. 'Will we see him one day?'

'Grandfather's a hunter,' I reply. 'But hunting is hard to do today. He tried to hunt but he got no money, no tiger either. So he hunts money instead. He sits in a cubicle tapping away, thinking of big tiger paws slipping over the keys. But the hunter is still in his eyes. Will we see him one day? I don't know, my son. If he roams this way.'

 

My son looks for a moment with his big brown eyes, shrugs and goes to hunt for a stick.

 

I didn't meet Mother in India. She must not have been there. I saw all sorts of other things instead - everything. Everything in one small space. That is why people dream of India - the colours, the smells, the people, the food.

But the heat!

I fell in love with an Indian saree, and my girl said, maybe I could do this too. Maybe I can make something with these paws of mine, retract these claws for a while, and keep clothes around my body. 

I thought of you, the two of you.

 

So many people in India, and so hot. My cat fur loves to stretch out in warmth, but I was getting sticky here. So I packed my saree in a bag and returned to where I had begun.

I got a room, with a bed, stretched out my saree and studied it. Women carrying baskets of rice, and a peacock with colourful plumes. Coral pink, red and gold, sequins sparkling here and there.

My tiger paws were soft as silk as I held the fabric.

I looked at it a long hard time.

'It is a start,' I said. 'A start.'

I folded it carefully back into my bag.

 

Every time I dreamed of crawling along Nordic sands or swishing between Indian grasses, I took it out, and looked at coral, red and gold, women with baskets, colourful peacock plumes; I put needle to canvas, and pulled the thread through. And pulled it through again. I built up a fabric, created a design.

I found a hunter in a cubicle and he knew me too.

 

My daughter looks at me with big round eyes. Brown flecked with yellow, and tiny black stripes.

'Are you still tiger-ish inside?' she asks.

I brush the sand from her forehead and lay my paw on her hair. I think of my answer before I reply.

'Am I still tiger-ish inside?' I say. 'My darling, I gave up tiger-ish-ness for you.'

'Will you be tiger-ish again one day?'

I consider my answer before I reply.

'Will I be tiger-ish again, my darling?' I kiss her.

'I'll be tiger-ish, yes. So might you.'

 

Elizabeth Ritchie


What is your greatest fear?

 
What is your greatest fear as a parent?

Are they the same thing, or different?

(My greatest fear, I think, - or one of them, at least -  is seriously harming my kids in some way. So, for me, my greatest fear and my greatest parenting fear are the same).

Xxx


Is perfectionism love, or the ultimate love-killer?

Betcha they're young
Betcha they're smart


 Bet they collect things
 Like ashtrays, and art.

            ("Maybe" from the musical Annie)

I've been thinking about perfectionism in parenting, and wondering how perfectly to express what I want to say. So much so, that I got stuck, and couldn't say anything for 2 and a half weeks.

Then I realised: forget perfect. Just do your best.

I tell my kids: it's ok to make mistakes, that's how you learn.

But we say so much more by what we do and who we are than the lectures we give, and here is an example of a lesson in self-criticism I've given recently.

I have to take (and pass) a numeracy test before I can train as a teacher. So I found some practice tests online and started having a go. The first part is mental arithmetic: a voice reads out a question, then you have 18 seconds to come up with the answer before the next question is read out, and so on for 20 minutes.

By around question 3 or 4, I realised, sh*t, I am going to fail this numeracy test without some serious study/ revision!

And what was my internal response to that? Was it, that's ok, Elizabeth, no worries, you'll do this. You haven't done maths for 20 years, not surprising you're a bit rusty. It's ok to make mistakes - that's how you learn! What an exciting learning challenge!

Nooooo.

More like: you stupid woman! Why didn't you pay more attention in maths at school? How can you have forgotten all this? You're never going to pass this test! You're not good enough! Why don't you know this already???

And so on. You know that voice? The critical, self-damning, catastrophizing, why-aren't-you-perfect, why-don't-you-already-know-everything voice? The It's No Good Trying If You Can't Do It Perfectly First Time critic?

Do you have her (or him) too?

It got me thinking: does what I say to my kids match up to who I am as a parent? And what are the effects of perfectionism on our kids?

 

Seems there are 2 schools of thought on this one.

There are the tiger parents, who set high aspirations and expectations in order to set their children up for success.

 

 

And there are the laisser-faire parents who think their kids should be free to be who they want to be, do activities they want to do, not be 'pushed' one way or the other.

 

The first group would equate 'striving for perfect' with love; the second group says perfectionism is the ultimate love-killer.

 

What do you think?

 

I want my children to be intellectually developed, creatively curious, socially agile, physically strong, and emotionally resilient.

I want them to behave well, be polite at other people's houses, interact well with other children, and mind their Ps and Qs. And write thank you cards of their own volition, ideally.

And I want all this, you understand, because I want them to be HAPPY.

 

I want them to have CHOICES. Because choices make you happy - don't they?

And I want them to be SUCCESSFUL. Because success makes you happy - doesn't it?

 

And I want all of this because I love them more than anything else in the world, and when I know they are HAPPY it makes me... happy.

I know I have been a good parent when... my child grows up to be.... Successful. Productive. Not a serial killer.

Happy?

 

It's ok to make mistakes, because mistakes are how we learn.

But I am angry at myself for not knowing the correct answer first time round, for having forgotten how to multiply a decimal by a fraction. How can I be so OLD? How can I be so STUPID? Stupid, stupid me.

I don't want to have to learn. I want to KNOW. I want to be... perfect.

 

My son asked me. "Why do parents want children to be perfect?"

"Because we want to be PERFECT PARENTS, my son."

 

Do kids want perfect parents?

 

 We went to watch 'Annie' at the theatre.

At the start of her song 'Maybe', Annie imagines her long-lost parents as 'young', 'smart' and collectors of 'art'. By the end of her song, she concludes:

"Maybe they're strict
As straight as a line...
don't really care
As long as they're mine!"

 

'The best thing about you,' my daughter said to me the other day at bedtime, 'is that you're my mum.'

 

Well, if that is good enough for her, I can't ask for 'better'.

 

 
 
  Tiger-kissing-baby-tiger-mother-love

 

 

 

Love,

Elizabeth, aka The Writing Parent

 

"The perfect is the enemy of the good." Voltaire