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Month: December 2014

The perfect parent is a foolish myth

This post was first published in The Daily Telegraph, December 26th, 2014. 

Educator, author, media commentator, cause for great concern. It seems at various stages in my career I’ve been all of the above.

Last year I received a call from the management team of a company who had booked me as the keynote speaker at an education conference. They were nervous as apparently another prominent figure working with youth had called them questioning my suitability to speak at this event. My crime?  The fact that I had once posted a picture of my daughter on my Facebook page in her school uniform (something the other professional deemed dangerous and irresponsible).

Whilst publicly posting images that allows our children to be too easily identified is certainly not advisable, I had to giggle to myself at how misguided the concern was for it is this anecdote; me explaining why I had done this (“Look! My big girl’s first day of high school!”) and then retelling why I subsequently took it down the next day (“Bugger! Probably not that safe…”) that parents and educators I talk with relate to best. After all, what can be more comforting than hearing that the so-called “expert” got it wrong too?

And let’s just clear the air once and for all. I’ve made plenty of mistakes. Screaming at kids when frazzled? Check. Failing to hand in school notes on time? Yep. Serving up beans on toast (with a side order of exhaustion) at dinner? Guilty; truth be told? I’m actually a repeat offender.

In fact, I am always amused when I am described in the media as a parenting “expert” as the title assumes a level of perfectionism I simply don’t have – nor want. Sure I have formal expertise and qualifications but I think of myself as more an avid explorer. I am intrigued and delighted by young people, and keen to work with them and listen to them. I also love learning from others who devote themselves to education and nurturing. I then relish working out how to best report back my findings. More tour guide than know-it-all.

The other types? The dictatorial parenting experts?  Well they’ve been responsible for some really dodgy advice over the years. Everything from rubbing alcohol on teething babies gums, to letting unattended babies cry it out indefinitely, to using the rod to discipline, thus avoiding spoiling the child (a common theme seems to be we should raise quiet and compliant kids).  But worse still, I think they’ve disempowered many parents who feel that perhaps it is in fact all too hard and that they really aren’t capable of raising their own children to be happy, healthy adults.

As I walk into my home painted in huge letters at the entrance is a quote that helps put things in perspective for me. It is from Julian of Norwich in the late 15th Century, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” These words, considered to be the first on record written in English by a woman, speak of hope and compassion. At the time in which they were written, however, they were considered heretical. Julian was speaking of a God who she saw as being forgiving and loving. The Church back then was all about prescriptive rules; do it this way or be doomed!

Whilst I am not particularly religious I have always found Julian’s message comforting.

And all was indeed well. I did speak at that particular conference. And I shared what I do that works, and was honest about what I could do better.

My favourite piece of feedback from the day? “Parenting teens is not rocket science is it? You reminded me that I’ve got this.”

Yep. You have. This doesn’t mean you should ignore the wisdom of those with years of research and experience under their belt who speak with common sense and a genuine affection for children and families. Rather, it means you should tune in to those who also make you make you feel empowered and hopeful. Know too that although your child may occasionally stuff up (as may you) it will be ok.

Love, laugh, listen, learn, forgive.  And know that in this expert’s opinion? There is much beauty in imperfection.

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Gratitude at Christmas – get some!

This post was originally shared by Mamamia. 

For three little kids in Utah, the Grinch has just stolen their Christmas. And the Grinch? It’s Mum.

Fed up with her family seeming ungrateful, Lisa Henderson decided to cancel presents and Christmas festivities. 

Is there a parent alive who hasn’t at least flirted with the idea of doing this? Anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of a child’s ingratitude knows that one of the most infuriating things about it is their lack of awareness of just how good they’ve got it.

But while it is easy for us as adults to see how absurd it is to be grateful in the midst of plenty, imagine for a moment what it’s like from our children’s point of view. Compared to any previous time in history, children in the developed world are growing up with far more stuff to want, far more channels by which that stuff is marketed and advertised to them, and more disposable income or credit cards in our wallets with which to buy that stuff. Only a few generations ago, at Christmas a child might have been delighted to get a stocking filled with fruits, nuts, sweets, and trinkets.

Compare that to the vast array of toys, electronics, music, shoes, makeup, clothes, and so on children are now convinced they need. Oxygen, water, food, shelter, love—these are what we really need. But thanks to sophisticated marketing and advertising, celebrity endorsements, and children’s strong and valid urge to fit in, high-price consumer goods can seem essential to survival.

Even when children do receive the things they want, it doesn’t necessarily make them happy, because they are living in a state called the “abundance paradox.” Sociologist Christine Carter, of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, puts it this way: “Their disappointment when they don’t get what they want is greater than their gratitude when they do get what they want.” This is because gratitude comes much more easily in times of scarcity. Carter uses the example of a child growing up in a home where there isn’t enough to eat. That child is likely to be more grateful and less picky about the food that is on his or her plate compared to a child whose fridge is full of goodies. Similarly, generations ago it would have been easier to please children with gifts because their closets weren’t already stuffed to bursting with consumer goods. Carter notes that “even underprivileged children in the West have more than most children in the world, who live in developing nations.”

As a parent of children who are fortunate to live in comfortable circumstances, I don’t want to have to cancel Christmas or deprive them of the things they want. I don’t want to make them feel guilty for having a better life than the many less fortunate children in the world. At the same time, I do want them to know that not everyone in the world enjoys the same level of comfort and security as they do. I want them to appreciate all they have and be grateful for it.

And this gift? The gift of learning to be thankful? Not only can it be taught but it may well be one of the best presents we can give our kids. When researching my latest Ebook, “Gratitude: a positive new approach to raising thankful kids” my writing partner Vanessa Mickan and I waded through mountains of research by psychologists on gratitude and found benefits that included joy, reduced depression, optimism, richer social interactions, reduced materialism and even physical benefits such as stronger immune systems, lower stress, less pain and better sleep.

We also discovered numerous strategies that can foster this attribute in kids. Whether it be keeping gratitude journals, writing letters or cards of thanks, giving to the less fortunate, giving their time and effort to others through acts of service to the community, or recognizing the everyday heroes that help them, the research is also clear that thankfulness can be taught.

And the best part? Kids will quickly feel the benefits for themselves too. Ms Henderson reports there has already been a change in her kids: “They are learning exactly what we wanted them to learn, because they are not moping around feeling sorry for themselves. They are thinking of others.”

So whilst this Grinch may have cancelled Christmas, by doing so, perhaps she has instead reintroduced the true spirit of the season.

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Some ideas from Gratitude for bringing back the thankful at Christmas: 

* Christmas love letters. A mother named Linda Evangelist who hated shopping started a tradition in her family in which they did not exchange presents on Christmas Day but wrote letters listing 25 things they loved about each other. It’s become a treasured tradition for many families across the globe since author and journalist Richard Louv wrote about it. I don’t think you necessarily have to forgo gifts to do this. (Unlike Linda Evangelist, I love buying presents!) And if your kids are very young, you might need to simplify the exercise so everyone can take part. 

• Christmas gratitude calendar. Christmas can seem like a relentlessly materialistic season, with decorations appearing in stores earlier every year and a barrage of ads everywhere you look. One antidote is to make a gratitude calendar, similar to an Advent calendar. For each of the 24 days leading up to Christmas, an Advent calendar has a little door for kids to open to reveal a message, a toy, or a chocolate. The gratitude calendar has 24 empty pockets. Each day, kids take a small piece of paper, write on it something they’re grateful for, and slip it in the pocket. It could be a lot of fun to spend time on Christmas Day reading through all the things everyone’s grateful for.

The book may be purchased at: www.enlighteneducation.com/shop OR at Itunes (RRP $8.99). It will also be available as a hard copy in all good book shops from February 2015.

Parenting – My Top Tips

This month’s issue of Good Health magazine features insights with various parenting experts, including me! Others interviewed include Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, Dr Tim Hawkes and Andrew Fuller ( Andrew and I are both also keynotes at the 2015 Critical Agendas Girls Education Conference which will be held in Melbourne).

The following are the tips I offered for this Expert Guide.

Nurture gratitude

Cultivating gratitude is really important – research shows that grateful young people are more connected to community, more resilient, happier, and less stressed and anxious.

However, we’re not born grateful so it’s something we have to model for our kids. It really helps if your children see that you appreciate the little things in life.

The key is to find creative ways to make gratitude a daily practice. You can encourage gratitude in children by having them write thank you cards, donate to a charity, keep journals or post pictures on Instagram.

Let them know that one mistake is not the end of the world.

While it is true it’s hard to keep control of images you post online, the reality is we are dealing with new technology and mistakes will be made. The last thing you want is a young person to believe, because of what they posted online their life is over.

We really want to tell young people that there’s always a solution and that everything does pass. We need to give them the skills to move on.

You can say to your kids: even if you do post something inappropriate and an employer sees it in the future, the best thing to say is, ‘yes, I was silly to do that and this is what I have done to show I have learned from that’.

Mothers need to love and value themselves

Body image is still the biggest issue facing girls. We need to show girls that they’re valued beyond what they see in the mirror. But girls can’t do what they can’t see, so mothers need to love and be kind to themselves as women. We need more positive strong role models for girls, to show them what being a whole, multi-dimensional and connected woman looks like.

 

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