Saturday, 3 August 2013

Fattening children

One of the things that has fascinated me since I started blogging a year and a half ago is the synchronicity that pops up so unexpectedly. I mentioned in my last post that I had a swag of food-related ideas for this blog that had died a death in draft form because they were ending up as rants, so it wasn't until that post that I really did get my head together enough to respond to the Jamie Oliver expose of McDonalds without going overboard. The response to that post has been amazing - it rocketed up my list of all time most viewed posts on Dragon Mother - EVER. Thanks to everyone who came to read!! And then there was this cartoon that a friend posted this morning that I couldn't resist popping on here, because it relates to that last post and what you're about to read:
So, this morning while cruising around Facebook, I found a link to a blog post that a friend had put up that was absolutely chilling. The blog is called The Well Fed Homestead, and I have every intention of going and having a good wander around to see what else the writer has to say, but this post, How to Fatten Pigs and People - the title is indicative of where it's going - is both disturbing and VERY confronting. 

From my brief look at the blog, it is the chronicle of a family going back to farming for themselves in order to eat and live healthily, the way we used to before the world got so speeded up, industrialised and urbanised. How many of us dream about that? I know I do... Family discussions at home over the last year or so have come back a few times to what we might do when we hit a financial place where we don't necessarily HAVE to live in the city for work and school reasons, and while Young Stepson thinks where we're heading consistently in these conversations shows that either his father has totally lost his marbles or I've pulled some evil magic spell over him and bewitched him, my partner and I are both leaning strongly towards land and a rural option rather than a beach house. What the stepson doesn't understand is the pull land has on someone who grew up on it, as his father did, and as I partly did, and also, he's at an age where city life holds all the potential excitement that he's looking for, while we're looking for something more peaceful where we can start to think again and have space just to BE.

But, I digress. Part of that imperative for me is certainly about being able to grow our own food, raise free range eggs, eat seasonally more than we do - the temptation of a ripe fresh tomato in a fruit shop in July can be hard to pass up, even if I know instinctively it's NOT going to taste of summer... And certainly, to be in a position where the bulk of our food does come out of our own garden, and there are less trips to shops where the other temptations of packaged convenience foods beckon from the shelves.

And this is where the blog post that spurred THIS post hits hard. These people raise their own food. They do it small scale, primarily for their own consumption, but from the post, they've clearly done their homework on the methods used to raise meat commercially, and the direct comparison they draw between the supplements used to fatten pigs FAST for market and the trends in current eating habits in the USA - and Australia, as well as most of the modern West these days - is disturbing and eye-opening to say the least.

The first point is the comparison between skim and full milk products. It is well documented that children shouldn't be fed skim milk, that full milk is better for growing bodies. The same can be said for full milk cheeses, yoghurts and other milk products. However, it's skim that's been used to feed pigs for generations, and current health trends have demonised whole milk products because of the fats in whole milk. This is the point - where if you haven't already done so, you should take a moment to go read the other blog post for the details of why this is bad, because I'm just summarising... There are many excellent reasons to feed children whole milk, and from what's in that post, even more for those of us who consume dairy products to continue to do so, and avoid the skim products even as adults. Among other things, those fats in the whole milk products satisfy our body's cravings for sugar in a way that the skim product can't, so we're less likely to reach for something to supplement that craving in addition to the milk! Who knew??

The next is corn. Now, corn is one of my all time favourite treats and there is nothing to compare to that first juicy mouthful of fresh corn on the cob picked straight from the garden, stripped of its husk and dropped into boiling water for about three minutes and then lightly buttered and salted. Really. And even when we manage to get lucky at the fruit and veg store and get corn that's just come in, it's still at the very least, 12 hours from being picked and the sugars in the corn have already changed, so it's just not the same as what you can get straight out of a garden. My kids LOVED growing corn, and used to watch the silks as it ripened, waiting for them to be dry and brown enough to signal they were ready to pick - and then we'd have a wonderfully messy meal of it! Corn in itself, like any other fruit or vegetable, is good food. The ubiquitous byproducts and supplememts produced from corn to alter, extend, sweeten and colour other foods...they're the problem. They're in everything, and it has been found in numerous studies that they are a major contributing factor in the obesity epidemic.

And then sugar - the latest demon. I don't have a particularly sweet tooth, so I've never really had an issue with high sugar consumption. My partner, on the other hand, always checks the dessert menu in a restaurant before he orders. I do have sugar in my tea and if I make porridge for breakfast, I can't resist the luxury of brown sugar and raisins on it... I eat the odd bit of dark chocolate - the good stuff, and I'm not proof against the tiny handmade biscotti that are handed out free with a coffee at the coffee cart near my work. Having said that, I don't eat packaged food, I don't use packaged shortcuts, and until age and hormones stepped in, I've never really had any significant weight issues - so now, it's about dealing with the inevitable changes and modifying quantities of food I eat and the exercise I do. However, our bodies are programmed to want a certain amount of sugar. It's one of the foods that give us energy. Breastmilk is naturally sweeter than cow's milk, so to mimic that flavour, cow's milk baby formulas have extra sugars added. We all know, those of us who've had children, that it's much easier introducing sweet solid foods to them than savoury ones - their faces when they get their first salty or acidic foods are hilarious! But you only have to read labels on cans and boxes in the supermarket to realise just how excessive the extra sugar levels are in processed food now - once you get going with added sugars, the body gets tripped into craving more and more and more... And there's the problem - start THAT cycle early and we're potentially setting our children up for a life long struggle.

The food industry is no small adversary if we're to start claiming back better eating habits. Those processed products and fast food are staple conveniences for many people and with busy lifestyles, I get that it's easier to just grab something already made or that just needs a few packets to be ripped opened and combined. It takes time, consideration, energy and a different attitude to what we spend out money on to eat fresh and well. In the long term though, surely it has to be a better use of our funds than the medical costs that we're already facing that only stand to get higher as these quick fix habits become even more entrenched.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Jamie Oliver and McDonalds exposed

I mentioned in a recent post that I had a whole host of food related posts I could write, and have started to write then binned because they turned into rants... This is one that is close to my heart - courtesy of a Facebook post that just popped up on my feed close on the heels of a huge protest that is currently underway in a small country town in Australia called Tecoma to prevent a McDonalds being opened there - right opposite their kindergarten, when there is one five minutes drive away already...

Here's the text that accompanied the photo on Facebook, for those readers who aren't on Facebook (I actually do know people who aren't!!):
Hamburger chef Jamie Oliver has just won a battle against one of the largest fast food chains in the world. After Oliver showed how McDonald’s hamburgers are made, the franchise announced it will change its recipe.

According to Oliver, the fatty parts of beef are “washed” in ammonium hydroxide and used in the filling of the burger. Before this process, according to the presenter, the food is deemed unfit for human consumption.

According to the chef and presenter, Jamie Oliver, who has undertaken a war against the fast food industry: “Basically, we’re taking a product that would be sold in the cheapest way for dogs, and after this process, is being given to human beings.”

Besides the low quality of the meat, the ammonium hydroxide is harmful to health. Oliver calls it “the pink slime process.”

“Why would any sensible human being put meat filled with ammonia in the mouths of their children?” asked the chef, who wages a war against the fast food industry.

In one of his initiatives, Oliver demonstrates to children how nuggets are made. After selecting the best parts of the chicken, the remains (fat, skin and internal organs) are processed for these fried foods.

The company, Arcos Dorados, the franchise manager in Latin America, said such a procedure is not practiced in the region. The same applies to the product in Ireland and the UK, where they use meat from local suppliers.

In the United States, Burger King and Taco Bell had already abandoned the use of ammonia in their products. The food industry uses ammonium hydroxide as an anti-microbial agent in meats, which has allowed McDonald’s to use otherwise “inedible meat.”

Even more disturbing is that because ammonium hydroxide is considered part of the “component in a production procedure” by the USDA, consumers may not know when the chemical is in their food.

On the official website of McDonald’s, the company claims that their meat is cheap because, while serving many people every day, they are able to buy from their suppliers at a lower price, and offer the best quality products.

In addition, the franchise denied that the decision to change the recipe is related to Jamie Oliver’s campaign. On the site, McDonald’s has admitted that they have abandoned the beef filler from its burger patties.
When No.1 was very small, I started a massive brainwashing campaign against the fast food chains. Every time we drove past a McDonalds, Hungry Jacks or KFC, I'd growl something along the lines of, "Yuuuuuck, McDonalds!" in a funny voice, and full of giggles, No.1 would join in. As he grew older, it became totally normal to just bypass them. We made burgers at home. I created my own (KOFC - Kaz Oven-Fried Chicken) with my own 'secret' blend of herbs and spices and crunchy little potatoes - recipe HERE - and once in a blue moon, for a special treat we got real fish and chips wrapped in paper, just like when I was a kid.

And then my mother hijacked the brainwashing campaign... She had No.1 for the afternoon one day and dropped into the garden nursery where she worked for something, with a McDonalds right next door. Because it was getting late, and they'd been running around all afternoon, she dashed in there and bought No.1 a small fries - and he made the fatal discovery, at age four, that 'Yucky MacDonalds' had CHIPPIES!!! I cannot emphasise just how betrayed I felt - by my own mother at that, who forswore all junk food when we were kids... And so, the battles began, and increased when No.2 was getting old enough to join in - memorable moment, someone having begun this by giving him a sip of Coke without my knowledge when he was just barely toddling, when he planted himself in the middle of the living room when we had friends over (who had brought Coke), raised his finger in the air and, through gritted teeth forced out, in a strangled tone, "I NEED Coke!!". He was three at the time, and hugely hypersensitive to caffeine... The incident had its amusing side, but it really wasn't funny. 

So, back to McDonalds. If we look at the spread of these chains across the country, it's insidious what is happening to our food culture. They say they don't do this, but they are targeting lower socio-economic areas and offering deals that are quick and cheap, adding to a cycle of poor nutrition and life long health issues for many lower income families. I live in an affluent area of Sydney, and apart from our local mall fifteen minutes away, you do have to drive some distance to find outlets... Head west or south, however, and they get closer and closer together. It's pretty obvious, regardless of what they say. The case in Tecoma is another instance - when there's an outlet already five minutes drive from the town, WHY is there a need to open one there? Especially when the town council and the whole town's population have been fighting against it for two years now. No doubt they have sundry small businesses who are already providing them with take away options, and providing local employment as well. And clearly, the good people of Tecoma just don't want this particular food option to be so easily available to their children.

These chains may well provide our young people with employment opportunities - how many of us had our first jobs at one of them, after all - and that's all well and good. However, at what cost to the health of our children? Obesity is becoming an enormous issue in this country. What we need to do is campaign for sustainable, affordable FRESH foods, and go back to eating simply and well, as our grandparents did. If the bread we buy from the supermarket can stay soft and fresh in its plastic bag for up to a week, then there is stuff in that bread that I don't want in my body, because bread that is made from flour, water, yeast and salt (which is all that actually should be in bread) goes hard and dry in a day or so - and then you make panzanella (Italian bread and tomato salad) or breadcrumbs to freeze and coat your next batch of schnitzels with, or whatever... 

Likewise, if McDonalds, to maintain their bottom line, are prepared to manufacture their meat products out of the scraps that would usually be ruled out for human consumption, using toxic chemicals to make the end product look like real have to ask yourself if that is what you want going into your bodies, or your children's, or your grandchildren's? I know I don't. And thankfully, the brainwashing had its effect. Neither of my boys are big fans of the chains, and when he left home and set up on his own, one of No.2's first recipe requests was for the crunchy chicken drumsticks, which he makes regularly, and which still feature frequently on the menu here at home.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Obituary for Common Sense

A dear friend of mine sent me this today via email, and I thought it was just too good not to share here... While couched in humour, the underlying issues are serious and some of the consequences of some practices that seem to have become new 'norms' in our school and social systems that are reaching the media are truly shocking. 
An Obituary printed in the London Times

Today we mourn the passing of a beloved old friend, Common Sense, who has been with us for many years. No one knows for sure how old he was, since his birth records were long ago lost in bureaucratic red tape. He will be remembered as having cultivated such valuable lessons as: Knowing when to come in out of the rain; why the early bird gets the worm; life isn't always fair; and maybe it was my fault.

Common Sense lived by simple, sound financial policies (don't spend more than you can earn) and reliable strategies (adults, not children, are in charge).

His health began to deteriorate rapidly when well-intentioned but overbearing regulations were set in place. Reports of a 6-year-old boy charged with sexual harassment for kissing a classmate; teens suspended from school for using mouthwash after lunch; and a teacher fired for reprimanding an unruly student, only worsened his condition.

Common Sense lost ground when parents attacked teachers for doing the job that they themselves had failed to do in disciplining their unruly children.

It declined even further when schools were required to get parental consent to administer sun lotion or an aspirin to a student; but could not inform parents when a student became pregnant and wanted to have an abortion.

Common Sense lost the will to live as the churches became businesses; and criminals received better treatment than their victims.

Common Sense took a beating when you couldn't defend yourself from a burglar in your own home and the burglar could sue you for assault.

Common Sense finally gave up the will to live, after a woman failed to realize that a steaming cup of coffee was hot. She spilled a little in her lap, and was promptly awarded a huge settlement.

Common Sense was preceded in death, by his parents, Truth and Trust, by his wife, Discretion, by his daughter, Responsibility, and by his son, Reason.

He is survived by his 4 stepbrothers:
1.      I Know My Rights
2.      I Want It Now
3.      Someone Else Is To Blame
4.      I'm A Victim
Not many attended his funeral because so few realized he had gone.  

** And just WHY the font has gone dicky in the post is technically beyond me - apologies, and hopefully in my next post it will have reverted to good behaviour!

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Back to basics

Women have been having babies for a very long time - to make a totally obvious statement. As a species, we've been reproducing, nurturing and parenting our young for tens of thousands of years. It's only really in Western culture, and in more recent times, that the whole process has become so medicalised, institutionalised and criticised...the latter by everyone from our peers to so called 'experts' and lots of folk who have had no actual hands on experience of any of the process.

One of my good friends, many years ago, laughingly described me as 'a primitive' and urged me not to change, because our world needed more primitives. It was in reference to my ineptitude with technology at the time, when I was much more comfortable with a lump of charcoal or a paintbrush in my hand. The same friend says now - I have an iPhone, I blog, I work online, etc - that an alien has stolen her primitive friend. As far as the use of technology is concerned, I have moved beyond the primitive, but it appears that many of my views on parenting - from conception onwards - still fall within the 'primitive' range, in the opinion of some of my peers, and compared to a lot of what I find in contemporary media. Imagine my pleasure when I found an article on Kveller - an online parenting mag I subscribe to (not the least because it is where Mayim Bialik's blog is published - Amy from Big Bang Theory) that echoed many of my own sentiments!

The article, Parenting Tips from the Developing World, by Alexis Kort, shares insights she gained through travels to twenty different developing countries that, she says, shaped the person she is, and most definitely shaped the way she approaches parenting. The handful of things she focuses on in the article are such simple, basic things - sadly, things we've largely lost, and her implication is that we've lost them because we have so much - too much, sometimes, perhaps. There is a simplicity in the examples she gives that we would, in the main, be enriched by reclaiming. I don't say that lightly.
Her first point is about the naturalness of breastfeeding - where ever you are, whenever the baby needs to be fed, and her country of example is Uganda, where children are carried by their mothers and nursed (in traditional communities) until they're around three. Kort doesn't mandate that we should all copy this to the letter. What she does point out is that this is something people do there as a matter of's not weird, self-indulgent, or something that will warp and/or otherwise damage a child. It's just what, biologically, we are designed to do, and Ugandan women still do it, with no dramas.

My mother, of blessed memory, was something of a forward thinker. At a time when birth was highly medicalised, she'd got her hands on Dick Grantley Reid's book about natural childbirth, and despite being forced to deliver me on her back with her legs in stirrups, she did it by using the breathing exercises she learned from the book, with minimal pain relief. She also breastfed me until I was three months old - and had she not had an old school baby nurse give her a hard time at that point about losing her milk (I was having a growth spurt and what she needed to be told was to stop doing everything else and go to bed for a couple of days and just nurse me frequently to build up her milk supply), she'd probably have gone on for longer. She watched me nurse the boys way past the then recommended six months with not a little envy... I know some women have difficulty with breastfeeding, and I firmly believe that everyone should have a choice in how they feed their babies, but had I not had the support I had OUTSIDE the local baby centres, nurses, and various well-meaning but misinformed family members,  I think I'd have found it very difficult to stick to my guns in the face of some of the criticism I got - particularly at 'landmark' points... "Oh, but he's got TEETH!" - got that a lot. "But he's walking now..." Another common one. And, worst of all - apparently - "OMG, but he's TALKING!" You know what, I don't remember ever getting sprung in public - and I did nurse in public, discretely. And by the time No. 1 was both walking and talking, and still nursing, it was only before his afternoon sleep and before bed at night - he was far more interested in other foods, and those two breastfeeds were part of his going to bed routine, and dropped off - one when he stopped having afternoon naps, and the last night he cuddled in, sort of thought about latching on, and then didn't, and that was it... No dramas. He just stopped. I truly can't believe the fuss and carry on that's raging in the media right now about women breastfeeding in public - you have to wonder what the hell has gone wrong with our society when it's these mothers who are the ones in the spotlight...for WHAT?

She also highlights something that was definitely part of my childhood, and something that both my children experienced...and something I see very little of in more contemporary parenting. From her time in Nicaragua, she writes:
In much of Central America, people eat a lot of rice and beans; maybe an egg in the morning, a little chicken once a week, a few vegetables, and lots of fruit. From what I saw, kids tend not to be as picky eaters in places where there is just enough to eat. And children eat what everyone else is eating for dinner, not chick’n nuggets or plain pasta with butter.
There's a whole blog post I could write about children and food, believe me. I've actually started several drafts and they turned into rants, so I deleted them! Children grow to be picky eaters in Western society because we let them... We get our knickers in a twist because they refuse one food, so we offer them something else and they refuse that too, so we scramble around getting stressed and bust a gut trying to find something they will eat... What are the children in this scenario getting? Attention.... Stop and think about it for a minute. No healthy child will let itself starve. If it chucks a fruity at dinner time and refuses to eat what's put in front of it and the parent stays in parent-mode and doesn't give in, said child may end up going hungry if it's stubborn enough to also not give in. But that will only last until the next meal - where it will be so hungry it will probably eat whatever is put in front of it without a murmur.

I don't recall ever being fed special 'kiddy' meals as a child, but my mother was guilty of this with my children. I remember her turning up one day when No.1, aged just under one, was gleefully tucking into a crust of the homemade pizza my Italian next door neighbour, Mrs M___, had delivered (she was convinced we were all starving because we were all so slim...and kept feeding us!). Mum was horrified - "What's he eating??? He's just a baby!" She had no counter at all for my reply, which was something along the lines of, "the same as Mrs M___'s grandchildren!" Another time when I took them to her place for dinner, she drew me aside and said, "I have some steak for us, but I've cooked little lamb chops for the children, is that all right?" She was a little dismayed when I said no it wasn't... I couldn't afford steak very often at the time, and they got the, then, much cheaper lamb chops most of the times we ate meat, so I told her they'd probably feel a bit miffed to not be getting the treat of steak! It was the last time she cooked them a 'kiddy' meal.

Take a moment and read the rest of this excellent short article. It's a well put reminder of how simple the stuff of parenting can be if we don't get caught up in what people tell us we should be doing - whether it's our nearest and dearest, some well meaning health professional who is busy pushing their opinion, or the latest trend that's being pushed in the media. We have to go back to the simplicity of what these families in simpler cultures are doing - lets face it, if they can manage to parent and hold their families together with so much less than we have available to us, surely we can take a step back and just use what is absolutely necessary...without all the extra 'stuff' that can so get in the way of that most basic of relationship building experiences...between us and our children. Not us and all that 'stuff'!

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Muuuuuuum....I'm bored!

I have particular memories from my childhood of being bored - bored enough to brave my mother, who made short shrift of any complaints by briskly telling me to find something to do or she'd give me a job. My godmother, with whom we spent countless weekends and holidays on her ten acres of land, was wont to inform us with devastating matter of factness from her lofty 6"2' should we be silly enough to complain to her of boredom, that only boring people were bored...and then she'd just stare at us suggestively, which usually prompted us to scuttle off with our tails between our legs! 

I visited similar techniques on my boys - and they learned pretty early that if they couldn't occupy themselves during after school time (once homework had been dealt with) or the weekends that I would find them things to do. Not surprisingly, dishes, car washing, weeding, hanging out washing, etc, didn't really appeal to them... They were both highly creative, and could often then be found building great Lego edifices, complex road systems for matchbox cars, playing board games with friends, and other good old fashioned past-times. No.2 also loved to bake, and I have a number of recipes in my collection that have been specifically written out for him to cater for his reading and comprehension levels at various ages so he could be left to his own devices, because if he was going to make muffins, then HE was going to make them - not help me with the odd stir or adding in of ingredients. 

We didn't have a computer until I was doing my post grad university - No.1 was in his final year of high school by then. The Ex bought him, over my vigorous protests, a Nintendo for his ninth birthday. A few years later, it had become the basis for levels of aggro that were constant: rows over whose turn it was; rows about turns taking too long; rows because someone had cheated; tearful angst about losing; tantrums because I limited their time playing on it; tantrums because the 'stupid Nintendo' cheated (!); and so had become the machine that dominated all the time they weren't at school or otherwise occupied. So one visit to The Ex, when of course it had to be packed up and taken along with clothes and other stuff, I told him not to bring it back, or I'd bin it. I was quite unpopular for some weeks after this, until they gradually drifted back to the myriad other activities they habitually amused themselves with, and relative peace reigned again.

Did they get bored? Of course they did - just as I had before them, and countless generations of children before them. Was that a bad thing - bearing in mind that, at the time of writing, very few children have time to even consider the concept of being bored, poor overscheduled little grubs that many of them are... No, I don't think it was. What being bored did for my children and those of us that remember it, was throw them back on their own resources. For me, as a child, it meant I spent time reading, drawing, writing, creating mad fantasy worlds with toys and building cubbies - inside if the weather was bad, and outside if fine. Interpersonal skills got developed as we headed out into our street to find other kids to play with so the games could be bigger and more exciting. My boys did the same. 
These days, with so much scheduled activity it is less likely that children have much time to get bored - between different afterschool classes, sports, tutoring, and so on, a child's day can look infinitely busier than some working adults, which is a pretty scary concept. Learning to manage time, to manage activities, to foster creative time, and to cultivate those moments when there is nothing pressing to do and you can just BE requires time that isn't scheduled. Time to be bored. Time to have to reflect back to the self and say, well now, what am I going to do with this time that I have available? Maybe an opportunity to find mum and ask if she's free to do a little cooking, or play a game, or similar with a sibling - which will require utilising developing negotiation skills if the other person is busy, and require patience if the requested activity is possible but not just right then and the child has to wait a while. Then again, perhaps everyone else is already occupied and that means the child has an opportunity to sit with it, deal with the initial frustration, be gently nudged to books, paper and pencils, other toys, or even a quiet lie down to just daydream a bit... If this is the norm, it won't be long before the child has found something to do and may even find, to their surprise and yours, that they're quite happy.

We start the rot when we park them in front of the TV to keep them out of our hair at times when we feel we need to be able to focus on what we're doing. I understand the motivation - I did it myself in moments of desperation. But if we start offering them that kind of instant gratification at an age when they lack discernment, then we're effectively spoonfeeding them for our own convenience and, at the same time, depriving them of the opportunity to learn to work it out for themselves. 
I was at the Sydney Fish Markets this morning and there was a large family sitting down to eat. This is not a long drawn out process at the Fish Markets. People buy from the stalls, and park wherever they can find a seat, and scoff down wonderful fresh seafood, then pack up and go... So why was the toddler with this family needing to be parked in front of an iPad with a children's tv show on? The place is a teaming mass of humanity, wonderful colours and smells, stuff coming and going constantly - it's a visual as well as a gastronomic feast - and this little child was experiencing none of it. I see it all the time - kids with their parent's devices being babysat out in public - never learning to BE in public situations, and learn to watch and enjoy being out and about as an activity in itself. I see so many cars being sold now with built in DVD players - why? As a kid in the back seat of a car doing the trek between country South Australia and Sydney annually, as well as countless other road trips, we didn't have all that - and that the technology didn't exist is irrelevant; knowing my mother, we'd not have had it anyway. Instead, she made a pack for us just before each trip. Mine - my brother's had some slightly different goodies - always had a brand new novel, a new activity book and pack of gleaming new coloured pencils; a new blank sketch book and drawing pencils, little packets of sultanas and nuts (which were expected to last) and, if I was really lucky, a new travelling version of a traditional game - we had travelling everything...Scrabble, chess, drafts, battleships and so on. We also had an always growing repertoire of games to play in the car - and my kids grew to love Mum's number plate game where you have to come up with a slogan about the driver in front based on the letters on their number plates. My kids and I also accumulated a selection of songs and had mad sessions of things like There's a hole in the bucket and all sorts of corrupted nursery rhymes!

And what prompted this particular post? There's usually an article or some event that generates my posts on this blog - as my regular readers will know. In this case, it was an article in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald, which you can read HERE. There are some important points made in the article about the benefits of allowing children more free and unstructured time than they often get these days, as well as some of the issues that may arise when they're over-scheduled.

It's school holidays in lots of Australian states at the moment - so how about having some time when there isn't an activity planned... Give yourself a holiday as well as the kids. Tell them it's THEIR holiday and ask them what they're going to do when they can be at home all day and not have to be at school and all the other things that keep them busy during term time. See how it flies!

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Learning to fail

I know, it sounds contrary. However, a few things have converged recently and the ability to manage failure gracefully and see it as something potentially useful is a dying ability, or so it seems to me based on a number of recent experiences. And, as it appears to happen - it's a bit spooky really - as I'm mulling over my thoughts on this topic, up pops an article by a public figure for whom I have a great deal of respect. 

Lisa Forrest will be remembered by many as one of our teenage swimming stars, and one of those who defied Malcolm Fraser's government to be part of our contingent at the 1980 Olympic Games. She has since campaigned for women in sports journalism, acted, presented radio programs and is a writer of four novels, with a fifth due out soon. In her article for The Hoopla, Losing can be beautiful too, she tells of her own experience coming second in a race - mostly due to ignoring her coach's swim plan through youth and inexperience - and her parents' handling of her feelings post-race. She also looks at the debacle of the Australian swim team at the London Olympics last year. A debacle not due to the medal count - our swimmers were there, many won medals, ergo they are right up there amongst the best in the world - but due to their behaviour post-race. Who will ever forget James Magnussen's attitude? Cocky and top of the world pre-race, then incoherent, shoving past reporters refusing to speak when he didn't win.

Aeons ago, when I was still married to No.1's father, I had an experience, up close and personal, of behaviour like this. He was doing an honours degree, and after much slogging away at his thesis, he submitted it for its first review. It was handed back with notes and recommendations for improvements before he handed it up to be examined. It was some time before I got the details of the situation because he was outraged, almost incoherent with emotion that he clearly couldn't articulate. Silly me, I kept asking him what the matter was...concerned young wife... What I got was a tirade about how he'd failed, and how I just didn't understand. I didn't see it myself. What I saw was a review process. What he saw was that his effort wasn't good enough.
This drama played out again with him as one of the players many years later. The other player was No.1. It was school sports day and No.1 had been picked for his house's relay team - the relay races were always the last event on the schedule for the day, so everyone was lined up along the track to cheer them on. No.1's team started badly. The first runner wasn't fast enough, and then there was a fumbled baton change between the first and second runners. Then came the change between the second runner and No.1. At that point in the race, they were coming last. I had never seen No.1 run as fast as he did that afternoon. He powered through, passed one runner, then another runner, then thrust the baton at their last team member with the team now in second place. Their last runner ran a mighty length, but couldn't quite catch up and they came in second - just! Those kids were beside themselves, and No.1 was thumped from all sides with congratulations for pulling them so far back up through the race. He was walking about ten feet tall. His stepfather and I set off across the tracks to congratulate him, but his father got there first... We got there just in time to hear him say to No.1, "What a pity you couldn't have run just a little bit faster, Son. Then your team could have won." No.1 shrank back to less than his usual height. Nothing we said to him could erase what his father had said. He'd done his best, his very, very best, and pulled his team through to a fabulous second, but in his father's eyes he'd failed.

These days, there appears to be a concentrated focus on building our children up to believe they can do anything, they're wonderful, they're brilliant, they're super-talented - ALL THE TIME. Consequently, we are now creating a generation that have no idea how to meet challenges that are a natural part of life. A parent once said to me of a teen I was to work with, "Tell him he's great, he needs to hear he's doing well." My reply was, "Let him show me he's doing well, and I'll reinforce that, but if he's messing up, he needs to hear that so he can lift his game and work out what he needs to do to improve." That same child has recently had a setback at school, and is in meltdown because it's his first real failure and he hasn't the faintest idea of how to deal with it. Admittedly it's big. The potential consequences could be harsh. However, it's not irredeemable, and although it will ultimately mean that he may not come through shining quite as brightly as anticipated, he can still achieve a grade that will get him where he wants to go.

Learning to fail, to lose, teaches us skills to meet challenges. We're not always going to be first in a race. We're not always going to get the top mark. All too often, we'll be second choice for that job we went for. These things will sting, yes. Some of them will feel initially devastating. I know this, I've been there. I've also watched my children struggle through the disappointment of not winning, of not coming first in competitions or school exams. I watched both of them have to work through the emotional implications of spending not one, but two years completing their final year of school, both for a different set of reasons, and both by transferring to a different school for that second year. They are now both in good jobs, independent and enjoying what they're doing. Was it easy for them? No. Do they have a sense of appreciation for what they've achieved? I certainly hope so, because it's impressive. I am extremely proud of both of them.

When we start by giving out a prize to every child who plays 'pin the tail on the donkey' at a birthday party instead of just the child who actually achieves it; when we buy into rants from children who bring home substandard work from school blaming their teachers for not 'getting' them; when we tell them that they're the best at something, even if they're not - we start to teach them that everyone is a winner, everyone is great, and they can always have what they want just because they want it. That's not reality. Sometimes, if they experience something bad, it may be a genuinely unfair situation that creates the loss. That happens, and in that case, they're fully entitled to sympathy and cossetting. Losing a game - well, in games someone wins and someone loses and that's how games work, so that should be dealt with in a matter of fact manner. Basically, if you don't like to lose, don't play, and if you want to play, learn to lose gracefully when it's not your time to win. When they fail because they didn't come up to scratch, if they ignored an instruction, if they broke the rules...they need to learn that they created that for themselves. They made a choice that resulted in them not achieving their desired aim, that they played a part in the end result and they need to take responsibility for that. If we don't teach them this, we deprive them of the opportunity to take responsibility for their own destiny. We take away from them the possibility to learn to strive for something they haven't yet attained. We don't give them a chance to learn what it is to burn for something and then pursue it...