June 15th, 2020
3 weeks ago George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by a white police officer during an arrest, by kneeling on his neck. His death triggered demonstrations and protests in citiies around the world against police brutality, racism, and lack of police accountability. This week another black man, Rayshard Brooks, was shot dead by police officers in Atlanta. Now, if never before, parents are faced with explaining to their children the issues raised by these events.
In other countries there have also been repeated incidents of police brutality towards people of colour and deaths in custody. During the Covid-19 pandemic people of Chinese descent have been faced with racist taunts. Racism is rife across the world. If you are a person who has experienced racism, if you have been afraid of the police or anyone else because of the colour of your skin, if you have had to explain to your child why they should not run from the police or that they are likely to be stopped and searched just because of how they look, if you have had to endure taunts or discrimination or been denied opportunities or been made to feel that you don’t belong then this may be sadly familiar ground. If you are from an ethnic minority your children may feel afraid and angry and that life is unfair. I don’t presume to know what that is like but I know it will be important to validate these feelings and allow them to vent. Racism is unjust and hurtful but we can also teach our children that they have a voice and can change things.
None of those things may have happened to you but you may want to ensure that it no longer happens to anyone else. Caucasian parents need to not let guilt about what’s happened in the past, or discomfort about what is still happening, stop them from raising children with better attitudes for the future. If the protests across the world are anything to go by many people, white or black or Asian, have had enough. If you share that view you may want to teach your children to be anti-racist. How do you do it?
Your approach will vary according to your child’s age and your lived experience, including your current neighbourhood. I am a Caucasian who grew up in Singapore in a multi-cultural community where my friends were mainly Chinese, Malaysian and Indian and one or two Europeans. I saw difference all around me but was only interested in whether or not my friends wanted to play. The more your child is exposed to people from different backgrounds, the more they’ll get used to the idea of different races, and the more comfortable they’ll become with people from other ethnicities. This was an important factor to us when my husband and I were choosing what schools we wanted our children to go to in the UK. Surrounding yourself with diversity is a strong step toward breaking down the ignorance behind the fears that feed racism.
We can also be thinking carefully about what books our children read and films they see and toys they play with –are they seeing people of different races portrayed in familiar situations? What ideas are they picking up about who occupy positions of power? Eg are the princesses or the heroes in the films your children watch all white?
Children are aware of race from an early age –from as young as 3 months old babies show a preference for people from the same race as their primary carers. Quite young children pick up attitudes and behaviours toward people of different races from those around them even if they don’t hear overtly racist comments. Most people don’t intend to be racist but may unconsciously model beliefs about a person’s capacities or their place in the world on the basis of race. It’s not racist for a child to notice differences such as skin colour but what we want to be careful of is any value judgments that are being attached to those differences. We need to challenge these, not with criticism, but by gently helping the child to see that stereotypes aren’t true. At any age we can have conversations with children about fairness and hurt. By primary school age children have a well-developed sense of fairness so we can tap into this. We can be talking to them about racism and white advantage as part of a wider conversation about fairness and teaching empathy.
As well as celebrating differences eg by taking part in festivals and sharing food, music and dance we want to be pointing out to our children the many things we have in common as human beings.
Very young children take their cues from their parents about how to react to people so if they see that you welcome someone they will too. Ideally young children would not be exposed to the news but if they have heard something about recent events you will need to explain in very simple terms what has happened. “A police officer killed a man who had black skin. That was not ok. The police have to follow the law, the same as anyone else. A lot of people are very angry about it. We should be angry when something is wrong. It is wrong to treat people differently because of their skin colour. People are marching to let the government know they want things to change. That’s what we can do when we’re not happy about something in our country.”
If your older child asks why the police officer killed this man this is a good opportunity to talk about how people handle anger and how important it is to use words. From the age of 7 we can be talking to our kids about how they feel about fairness. Relate it to their experience. Would it be fair if everyone except you could have ice cream? What if only people with red hair were allowed to play football? You can ask questions to engage them in ideas including about what they can do when they see unfairness to themselves or their friends or in the wider community.
Don’t feel you have to have this conversation in one go and don’t feel you have to know all the answers before you begin. The fact that you are engaging in this conversation with your children will be raising their awareness and taking some important steps toward raising an anti-racist generation.
June 09th, 2020
It’s June and restrictions may be easing in the UK but families have been cooped up under one roof without the respite offered by schools for 11 weeks now. Siblings have had to endure each other’s company, have had to put up with each other’s annoying habits and have had to compete with each other for scarce resources, whether that’s a laptop, the kitchen table space or a parent’s attention. There may have been more fighting in your household as brothers and sisters have vented their emotions on a convenient scapegoat. Tensions have been running high as children have their own anxieties and frustrations and pick up on adult stress in the atmosphere. Children with immature brains and lack of experience at self-analysis won’t understand that it is actually the fact that they are missing their friends or playing sport or worrying about getting into university or being bored or even missing the routine of school that is irritating them rather than the really ANNOYING way their brother is slurping his drink! Although does he really have to be so gross?
You may have found yourself shouting at the kids more than usual, stepping in to sort out conflicts, separating them, banning the TV/iPad/games console. It’s not surprising that we’re focused on the fighting because it really demands our attention. We want it to stop. We definitely do not want to be going into A&E right now with a head needing stitches. But in fact we need to invest our time in laying the foundations for siblings to get on better with each other rather than putting all our energies into reacting when things go pear-shaped.
If the lifting of some restrictions is the light at the end of the tunnel for you perhaps it will give you the energy to have a fresh look at how your children interact and what you can do to help them get along.
Here are 7 ways you can help your children to get on better:
During this time families have been together far more than normal and if you’re finding it’s fraying a bit around the edges try some of these 7 steps for sibling harmony and enjoy being together.
June 01st, 2020
The next return to school will be like none other. Most children have been learning from home for about 10 weeks in the UK. Some parents have loved the opportunity to individualise their child’s learning and to spend some real quality time with their kids. Others have found it incredibly difficult to supervise home learning while working themselves or caring for younger children. This is not a moment to compare your parenting with others’ and feel bad if you are longing to send your kids back to school. Each family has different circumstances and how home learning has impacted you will have depended on multiple factors like your children’s ages, educational needs and abilities, their temperament, your work and childcare commitments, your own wellbeing and your support structures.
On the 24th May the UK government announced phased returns to school starting on 1st June with Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 and for years 10 and 12. Schools have had to adjust quickly and put a range of measures in place with extra cleaning protocols and to try to ensure social distancing by reducing the size of classes and having staggered break times as well as reducing parent contact at drop offs. Many parents are concerned about how social distancing can work for younger children and there is confusion resulting from conflicting scientific advice.
I have no medical expertise and don’t purport to offer opinions on that but I know in each country with easing of restrictions we are constantly making assessments about balancing risks. In this case the risks we’re weighing up are the damage to education and social learnings from remaining out of school versus the risk of contracting or transmitting the virus. The science seems to suggest that healthy children are much less likely to contract or pass on the disease than adults and they experience less severe symptoms if they do fall ill. In other countries they have even taken the view (based on differing amounts of virus in the community) that social distancing measures for young children are unwarranted.
Of course there are many different views circulating and a high degree of confusion and anxiety about children returning to school. One of the things we have all had to get used to in the era of Covid-19 is a much higher degree of uncertainty and for many this is very hard to cope with. There are reports of disturbed sleep, higher rates of intense dreaming and more dependence on alcohol.
You may decide that you are not sending your eligible child back to school for reasons of logistics (transport issues, siblings not eligible to return) or health (either theirs or that of another member of your household). But if your child is going back to school this week or later there will be some things you can do to help them settle back in happily:
Of course point to the good things about going back to school and smile! Let your child know you will miss them and look forward to hearing all about their day at home time.
May 25th, 2020
You may be aware that last week was Mental Health Awareness week in the UK and the theme for this year is kindness. Kindness is obviously not something we just want to look at in one particular week but something to encourage in our children throughout their lives.
Dictionaries define kindness as the quality of being friendly, generous, considerate and caring. I would also include empathy, since the ability to recognise how others feel is a prerequisite to caring, concern and consideration. These are qualities that are not necessarily innate in a person. Parents can encourage kindness in children. We can build the skill of empathy.
So why do we need to encourage kindness and empathy? Well one of the lessons from the coronavirus pandemic is a reminder that human beings are inherently social creatures. We need to connect to each other. We rely on cooperation to survive and thrive. There is much research which shows that cooperation, rather than competition, produces better strategies faster to deal with problems. It will be interesting to see what approaches affect the development of Covid-19 vaccines. There are many examples that have emerged from this health crisis of kindnesses from one person to another. I have loved the feeling of togetherness in my neighbourhood as people have greeted and looked out for one another. Many apps and online groups have sprung up offering to help those in need at this time and there have been many heart-warming stories of support.
We know that mental health is very much improved by small acts of kindness or connections, whether as the recipient or the person doing that act of giving. Research shows that kindness is the antidote to stress and it can increase happiness and self-esteem. There is evidence that small acts of altruism improve our self-image, and our behaviour. There is also evidence that kindness can improve our physical health and academic performance as well as prolonging our lives!
We want our children to learn to be kind of course so that they will enjoy good and meaningful friendships. By encouraging kindness in our children we can reduce the epidemic of bullying that is causing so much anxiety and depression in our kids. We also hope for a future where adults brought up on a diet of considering other’s perspectives may actually be able to solve the world’s problems better than those focused primarily on their own needs.
So how do we encourage kindness in our children? Michele Borba, in her book ‘Unselfie’, addresses just this and she offers hope when she says that “Kindness is contagious”. In her research she found that when children practiced simple acts of kindness it started a ‘kindness revolution’ in their community, changing behaviour and attitudes.
To teach children kindness the adults in their lives need to:
What this means is that adults need to demonstrate in their daily interactions with the children and others that they think about how the other thinks and feels. Don’t make this be something to beat yourself up about for not doing but tune in and notice the small kind things you do all the time like giving your upset child a hug. We do this on a daily basis in simple ways:
Let’s make kindness more contagious than Covid-19!
May 04th, 2020
In Australia, where I am sitting out the pandemic, schools are re-opening gradually in some states. In the UK there is talk of primary schools going back on 1st June. Reactions to that possibility will differ according to people’s different experiences of at-home learning during lockdown, their need to work themselves and anxieties about the degree of risk posed to physical health by reopening schools. Of course parents, teachers and authorities are concerned about the impact on our children’s education by keeping them away from face to face learning. But another important factor is the loss of social interaction they are experiencing at potentially formative times in their lives for acquiring and practising social skills.
Human beings are social animals and our brains are wired for social interactions which are essential for our wellbeing. Much of our brain evolution has occurred because of our social nature. We’ve all missed being able to engage with our friends and there has quite rightly been a lot of concern about the effect of loneliness on our mental wellbeing. The body perceives social isolation as a threat to a basic human need and it triggers a stress response but if stress hormones remain at elevated levels for too long they can increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, elevated blood pressure, infectious illness and cognitive deterioration. So not having friends around is bad for our health.
But our children are likely to suffer even more than us as a result of this time of reduced social contact. Younger children do most of their learning through play with others and engagement with their peers in early years’ settings is crucial for learning the social skills that are the foundation for all their future relationships. Cathrine Neilsen-Hewett, Associate Professor at the Early Start centre at the University of Wollongong, says. “Ninety per cent of their brain is developed by the time they reach five years old. Missing out on early education experiences is going to have a bigger impact than, say, missing out on year 4.” Friendship skills develop over time so the over fives are still fine-tuning their social skills. When children play with and learn alongside others they learn these vital skills for life:
Our teens are also suffering disproportionately from social deprivation as in this period of development social interaction is of profound importance. In their excellent book ‘The Incredible Teenage Brain’ Bettina Hohnen, Jane Gilmour and Tara Murphy explain that in adolescence social pain is experienced as strongly as physical pain. Some teens will have actually appreciated an opportunity to be away from the school setting if that has been a place of discomfort for them, either academically or socially. Introverts may have relished a home-learning environment that suited them better but even these young people are expressing a yearning to be back amongst their peers.
While we can’t have playdates just now there are things that parents can do to help our young children develop the social skills they need and to give older children the chance to practice these vital skills while in physical isolation and to facilitate non-physical social contact for our teens.
The following are social skills that all children need which can be practised in different ways at home:
Try to facilitate contact with friends using video based technologies but these have their limits for younger children. Littlies will need a lot of direction and perhaps setting up a shared activity like Play-doh so they can play ‘alongside’ each other. Older children can manage better with this form of contact. Teens may need more latitude in their access to the various platforms via which they can make contact with their peers.
Let’s hope our physical isolation will let up a bit soon and make the most of the time we have for family togetherness.
April 10th, 2020
The Coronavirus crisis is forcing every one of us to adapt, to pivot and to accommodate new norms. We are all dealing with challenges and there will be days when we are responding calmly and with compassion and humour and other days when we feel anxious, angry or despairing and our responses then may include snapping at our loved ones, micro-managing our families or retreating to our beds. We may be surprised by our responses.
What are you learning about yourself? There may be huge opportunity for growth here. The disease and the necessary limitations imposed in order to limit its spread may provide a real opportunity for us to develop self-awareness in a way we haven’t encountered before.
Stress testing is a term that is used both in the medical world and in engineering and it involves putting stress on the heart, or a piece of concrete, to see how it performs when challenged. A cardiogram is performed to see what the real state of your heart and blood vessels is and to reveal potential weaknesses that may not show up in ordinary life. We’re being stress tested right now and it may reveal the true state of our emotional health. As with the results of an ECG this gives us a chance to take action about our mental health.
We’re being confronted with our emotions more than ever before. This is an opportunity to examine how I am dealing with my feelings –do I reach for alcohol to numb or TV to distract or do I plough into work or exercise furiously? Am I rowing with my partner and snapping at my children? Has my response to this crisis been to reach out to others or to retire inwards? Do I feel as if there’s nothing I can do or can I see that I am doing something just by staying at home. Do I feel I have to do everything myself or am I relying more on others? Am I prepared to ask for help when I need it?
For myself I found that when the crisis really took hold in Europe and I became aware of how wide-ranging the issue was I was filled with anxiety, not for myself particularly because I am not in any of the categories that we were being advised were vulnerable to the virus, and I thought I might be able to weather the storm financially, but for the world generally. I was filled with sadness which then became despair and I felt real bone-aching tiredness. Then I found there were things I needed to do for my business and for our clients whom I could support. Once I started feeling as if I could be useful I found a new sense of purpose and less hopelessness.
Pay attention to whatever feelings come up for you –be curious about them. Curiosity leads to compassion. There’s been a lot of judgment in mainstream and social media about people who engaged in panic-buying and those who don’t seem to be observing social distancing. It’s been characterised as selfishness but maybe there is fear behind those actions. As parents we need to think about why our children behave in ways that aren’t acceptable and we can model that non-judgmental, curious approach when considering the behaviour of strangers too. People who have experienced past hurt have fear built into their systems and that fear response gets triggered easily. Their response in the present reflects their past experience (which may be hidden even from themselves). When we don’t know what’s triggering us we tend not to be as flexible in our responses.
A great gift we can give our children is self-awareness and self-compassion. When we are conscious of what we are feeling and we learn to tolerate those feelings we can manage our responses better. If we can sit with our own feelings we can respond effectively to our children’s feelings.
Parental stress has a huge impact on children so the best thing we can do for our kids is to take care of ourselves. I know it’s difficult if you are working from home and looking after kids at the same time but think of the time you’re saving by not commuting! Build some time for yourself into your day even if it’s only half an hour in the bath with music and candles.
My advice would be to talk to your children about your own feelings, and the steps you’re taking to deal with them. I’m tense –I need time to listen to some calming music. Acknowledge vulnerability but don’t make it the child’s problem. When we explain to our children how we are feeling it helps them to understand us and themselves. It makes it less likely that they will make our response be their fault. Otherwise they feel the tension in the air and they make it mean they are wrong. You can say: I’d love to spend time with you but I have to make a work call in 20 minutes. Can we play a quick game of table tennis? That would really help me be calm. That helps the child not to feel wrong but also to feel they can make a contribution.
As well as discovering our internal emotional world what else are we learning?
What internal resources am I finding in myself? Am I actually stronger than I think? Have I got through days of home schooling and achieved something that is in fact good enough? Have l mediated between squabbling siblings, got kids to bed more or less on time and put food on the table? Have I done all this with no preparation but just rose to the occasion because it was required of me?
You’re probably discovering what’s really important to you as so many things have been taken away. Have you found you didn’t really miss some of the things you did regularly, like clothes shopping? Have you found that you can communicate perfectly effectively without spending hours in face to face meetings? Have you found you really do miss the freedom to move about and take in fresh air? Do you miss the gym or has Jo Wickes taken over for life?
You are probably clarifying what and who you value and respect. Is it the Instagram influencers or the people in high status (well paid) jobs or is it the health workers and teachers, the shelf-stackers and truck drivers? Are you finding you really value principles like courage, altruism, solidarity, a sense of community and resourcefulness?
What values would you like your child to take on as a result of this crisis? We can be having meaningful conversations with our children and pointing out to them the examples of admirable behaviour that we see. You might even ask your children what changes they would like to see in the world after Covid-19 has gone away.
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