The Joy of Learning

The world is full of magic to be discovered, and it was my children’s library and laboratory during their childhood years.

I would like to begin by saying that I am not an educationalist, but my children’s father is. He has a Bachelor of Education degree from King Alfred’s College, Winchester, but the best of his education philosophy (in my humble belief) comes from his mother.

My mother-in-law was brought up in a poor part of South East London. Her mother was a Spanish immigrant who did not speak much English and went blind when my mother-in-law was 11. The war came soon after that, so my mother-in-law had a very low level of formal education. She worked as a cleaner, cleaning offices and schools. But she self-taught, despite her limited hours, to better herself. She finished her years of work as a clerk at London Electricity Board, a huge achievement for a girl who did not go to school and had a lot of responsibilities.

The great thing about my mother-in-law is, she did not harangue her blue-eyed boy to study, study, study. And so, my children’s father grew up cycling round the Kent countryside from the age of 4, played with the family pets, and later on, jammed away in a rock band in some mate’s garage. He is the most balanced, happiest person I know, and he learned a lot and earned enough to buy us a magical life.

When my kids were young, we did not have enough money to keep up with what other families were doing. Thus, my kids grew up without electronic toys or even a colour television. We had to ‘make do’. Pots, pans, wooden spoons when they were young, and later, family games of Pictionary and Charades. We built forts from blankets and sheets, collected interesting things from our walks for our Seasonal Nature Table, and from this way, we all learned about ourselves, the natural world, family values and the beginnings of language, literature, the sciences.

Later, when iPads became the rage, we could have afforded it but somehow never got around to buying it for our youngest child. Her former school had made it mandatory for each student to have an iPad, the much touted learning tool, but she did not do too badly without ever having owned an iPad.

We had to work harder as parents because we did not have the whizzy gizmos to educate our children. We don’t use the internet to babysit them either, so much as the temptation was there to allow them to passively learn from the ‘Net, we taught them the old fashioned way, namely by experiences in the real world.

My second son built a real-life go-kart with his father in the garden shed. He raced the go-kart, became quite good at racing, and then sold it for profit. He wasn’t an academic child, and he certainly did not leave school with a string of A’s, yet he managed to win a scholarship to study Mechanical Engineering & Electronics at Southampton University, and in a time where there are many unemployed graduates, he is second in command of all the weapons on a Royal Navy warship. He is 27, exuberant, boisterous, balanced, loves life.

His younger sister is enjoying the closing years of her very magical childhood, living in a land of aquamarine oceans, blue skies, winding island roads. She rides shotgun to school everyday with her father, chatting away happily, and often, with her mother too. She talks about her day, uncensored, with passion and heat. The teachers were sometimes unfair, there were bitches in her school and dumb boys. History and English Literature are confusing, Maths is boring, and the Sciences are easy. As for English Language… “don’t get me started” with a roll of her eyes.

Unbeknownst to her, as we soothed her, answered her, rebuked her, we are teaching her. Not only about the syllabus, but our family values, the ways of the world, humanity.

And because we limit the time she is allowed to spend studying, she dives on her books with great gusto. And because she is only allowed limited time on her subjects, she on her own accord brings them into her real world, in our car conversations and whenever she makes the connection with the real world. And her eyes and quicksilver brain are always searching to make the connection, sometimes between the most innocuous events and objects. A casual conversation about “those shoes” became the laws of Spanish grammar and ultimately, the trivium. She argues heatedly, sticking her head between her parents’, intent on getting her point across.

We see the joy of learning awakens in her, and it is a great feeling.

Resourceful kids

Too many parents are caught in the trap of using up their children’s childhoods to cram ‘knowledge’, facts and know-hows into young brains. Sure, there must be a certain amount of knowledge that needs to be accumulated, but more importantly, children should be taught how to think.
Here’s an analogy – we have unlimited knowledge in the public domain these days. So much. But are we ‘wiser’ as a race of people? Probably not. A lot of the information that is out there is useless.

I believe that the best way to help a child accumulate knowledge is by showing him how to find that knowledge by himself. That way, he learns, whilst accumulating knowledge. And that learning has to be first-hand, in the real world. Because reading about planting bananas is not the same as actually doing it!
And it is only in the real world that children meet their boundaries, feel uncomfortable a bit – and this is the horizon of growth.


Six Ways of Raising Employable Kids

My mother didn’t do one part of parenting that well: she treated me as if I were too important for ‘real’ life. I never had to do any housework and she never brought me down a peg or two, which I sorely needed. She gave me the impression that jobs are something that shouldn’t concern me, on the grand scheme of things.

Fortunately, after flunking out of my private school with three measly O levels (in English, French and Maths), I continued my studies at my local community college. As it turned out, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

It gave me the much-needed reality check.

First of all, I had to learn typing. Yes, freaking typing. But hey, I met my children’s father in Mrs. Jean Bushby’s typing class, when he wandered in, looking lost, needing someone to help him type something. Of course I volunteered, he was this Adonis-looking male in tiny football shorts and blazing blue eyes and impressive muscles. The rest, as they say, is history.

And then there was a Mr. Jim Crow. I was on the track to study Medicine at university, so Mr. Crow arranged for me to work once a week at St. Mary’s Hospital, Portsmouth. He and Sister Ayling at St. Mary’s became my torturers of sorts. I didn’t want to go back, after senile patients expected me to clean their bums and junior doctors treated me like an annoying kid that they were forced to babysit. The nurses, who were supposed to be angels, weren’t too kind with me either: I was told on many occasions that like all doctors, I was as thick as two short planks, just because I couldn’t find things and didn’t know what NG tubes were. I could sense Mr. Crow’s lips twitching under his bushy moustache as I retold my woes to him week after week, but he and Sister Ayling did not let up. The Princess had to relinquish her crown before either of them would endorse my university application.

But much as I hated the weekly come-down-to-earth sessions that lasted for the best part of two years, I must have known subconsciously, that the tough love is representative of the real world: my first job was at St Mary’s Hospital, and I still have my first paycheck framed up.

I was also fortunate that my mother-in-law came into my life when I was still a teen and thus still not too late to be reformed. I was pregnant with her precious son’s child. She was tough on me, in the way that my mother never was. And oh woes, we had to live with my in-laws when we were saving for the deposit for our first home.

“Why are you still in bed?” my mother-in-law would demand.

“I was up late last night studying,” I would bleat. My mum would have soothed my hair and run off to get me anything I wanted. Not so my mother-in-law.

“But you are not sick, are you,” she countered. “There’s nothing wrong with you at all, just lazy.”

I learned one very important thing about myself: that though I was smart and have a bright future, I was not very likeable.

I was arrogant and imperious. I had the entitlement mentality. In later years, I look back and count my blessings that I had come face to face with real life, though it was painful at that time. I am especially grateful that my children have never been anything like me, thanks to their down-to-earth father. My kids had always been ordinary, likeable folks, and this had served them well, and without all the heartache that I had to go through, without my baptism of fire into the real world.

What I have written here relates to something I have been reading about lately, namely the number of unemployed young people.

These unemployed youngsters often have the much-coveted, sometimes expensive degrees, yet employers are not beating a path to their front door trying to hire them. I am not an economist, so I cannot make pronouncements about government policies, the economy and other factors that may cause the situation.

But I want to put this to parents: are you raising employable kids?

Unless you have a business empire for your child to walk straight into immediately after graduation (is a degree that important, by the way), your child needs to get a job.

  1. The likeability factor

First of all, that means he has to be likeable. And I mean likeable to the outside world and not just to you and his grandparents. I read somewhere that the impression is made in the first few seconds after meeting someone: the following minutes and hours only serve to build evidence for or against the first impression.

  1. The art of conversation

Many over-schooled children cannot hold a conversation. Because believe it or not, children need to be taught how to verbally engage with others. And that, I mean ask relevant questions politely, listen to the answers, process the information, form own opinion, and discuss topics eloquently, in context, and in an age-appropriate fashion (a child discussing heavy topics that he or she does not have deep real knowledge of is like listening to a performing monkey parroting rubbish). 

I once asked a seven year old little girl in my yoga class, “What shall we order? A cheeseburger or a toffee ice cream?”

Her reply, “I got to ask my marder first.”

Yet this girl knew – or should I say, could parrot – the most impressive book knowledge ever.

  1. Service with a smile

Does your child have the right attitude? What I have learned, through my own experience, is that in the real world, everyone needs to start from the bottom rung. How does your Little Emperor / Little Princess cope with being an office junior? My mother didn’t do this part of raising me too well – I was so shocked that even after my degree from Oxford, I was expected to do menial tasks for my boss. Whaaat? Moi? Be your bag carrier? Are you serious? But that’s real life. Carry your boss’s bag, sharpen his pencil, bring him coffee and do it with a smile.


  1. It hurts but that’s life

Perhaps most important factor of all, can your child cope with criticisms? You spend his early years telling him that he is wonderful. What happens when someone out there in the world disagrees? You can bet your last dollar that someone out there will, and how then will he react?

I met a boy a few years back, who had a massive meltdown in public (he was about ten at that time) because a mother told him not to touch a display stand at a science exhibition. He screamed and pinched the lady who told him off, and his own mother’s rationale was, “All gifted children have some degree of social problems.” Well, Little Einstein is going to come in for a big shock, because like it or not, he has to be likeable enough, to be able to be social enough, to get a research post at some university, however gifted he is.

  1. Be alive

Is your child inspired? Does he have the fire within that makes him want to make something out of his life? Does his CV show initiative? I think my second son has one of the most interesting CVs for a schoolboy: he built and sold his racing go-kart for profit, he organised illegal boxing matches and he worked as a furniture removal man in a rough part of London during his summer holidays. And somehow, I wasn’t too surprised that it was this child of mine, the least academic one, who won a prestigious sponsorship for his bachelor and masters degrees, and a job immediately after graduation when many of his more academic peers were struggling to find jobs.

I didn’t have the best academic record, yet I was given a full scholarship for my second degree at Oxford. At the interview, I was asked about my terrible grades. My (truthful) answer: it was a beautiful spring that year, and I was sleeping on the beach with my children’s father on most nights, including the nights before my exams.

  1. Show commitment

Start something, stick to it, finish it. Chasing for bigger and brighter things every few months does not look good on the CV. A good way for small children to develop this quality is the humble jigsaw puzzle….and no moving on until the piece is finished.

Note: my four adult children are all gainfully employed: an investment banker, a naval officer, an interior designer and a property developer. I, however, am currently unemployed. I blame my mother for growing me with the belief that all a girl needs to get by is fresh air, sunshine and love.

“Gratitude Eggs”

When my children were young, we used to say a little prayer of gratitude whenever we were peeling eggs.  We would say, “Thank you, Mrs. Hens, for laying these lovely eggs for us. We really appreciate it.”

Cheesy, i know, but it teaches children gratitude.  It teaches them that nothing in the world is ever truly without cost – someone somewhere had sacrificed something selflessly to give you the gift. It also teaches them not to waste food.

Scotch eggs were our favourite food. It was our kind of food because we could easily take them on picnics, and children loved making them.

Here’s my recipe for a vegetarian version.  Please don’t ask for exact measurements – part of the delight with cooking with children is exploring and experimenting, and loving the outcome. There is no perfection in nursery food, only love.

How to make these eggs:

Soak about 400g of dried organic chickpeas overnight.  Boil until soft.  Boil six eggs and peel their shells off.

Mash up the cooked chickpeas with one finely chopped onion, two cloves minced garlic, half a grated carrot and a small bunch of finely chopped coriander.  Divide into six patties.

Dust the cooled eggs in flour.  Mould the chickpeas patties around each egg. Dip in beaten egg and roll in breadcrumbs.  Bake for 20 minutes.

And enjoy 🙂

“Don’t rush me, Mummy, Daddy”

My youngest daughter Georgina could not read properly until she was eight, and fortunately, she went to a school where she was not pressured to. So we took it nice and easy. Her father read to her every night, because though she could not read, she loved stories.

We still have a whole library of her Fairies books. He would read to her every night, snuggled up in bed with his youngest child under the pink fairy duvet, reading about Ballet Fairy, Pumpkin Fairy, Horse Fairy, you name it, there was a book written about it, and we have the book.

Later, she progressed to Jacqueline Wilson, and he continued to read to her every night, about bitchy girls and teenage heartthrobs and difficult boyfriends. He read almost every single book that Jacqueline Wilson wrote, and I was touched when I went to his office two days ago to see a hardback copy of Candy Floss sitting on his bookshelf, totally out of place. It had been four years since he read the last Jacqueline Wilson to his youngest child.

Many schools demand that children must be able to read at a ridiculously young age, and parents stress over it. I don’t think it is right that children are put under needless pressure at such a young age. Reading, and learning, should be fun, pleasurable and a lifelong passion. Some critics would say that we are lucky, we have the money, thus we can afford to be cavalier about our child not being able to read until she was ready to. What if we had no money for progressive private schools, what if she had been a child in the school system that forces her to achieve awful, outdated targets?

We would simply remove her from a school and kept her at home. And no, I am not making grand but  meaningless statements here. We have lived though the difficult consequences of our choice.  In the past, in the UK, we had to remove our children a certain Catholic school because we were not married or the kids were vaccinated. It would have been easier to walk into a Registry Office to register a marriage or to walk into a doctor’s clinic to vaccinate our children.

But we have always chosen to stick to our ideologies. This is something we passionately believe in:  we are 100% committed to giving our children a joyful, carefree childhood, even though sticking to our ideologies caused difficulties.  But nonetheless, we think it is important to defend the quality of our children’s childhood – they only have one, and once lost, those years will never come back again in this lifetime.

I am not saying that early reading is bad for your child, but pressure on young children is. What I am advocating is: do not be afraid of taking the road less travelled. In taking that road, Georgina had precious years of being read to by her beloved father, a priceless legacy, because instead of hurrying her, her went with her flow. In her sweet time, she grows. Beautiful and strong, with love and joy in her heart. She had not known ugliness.

In later years, Georgina would say, “I could read since I was four. I was only pretending.”

It didn’t matter whether she could or could not read when she was four. Today, at 15, she regularly achieves high grades. Unsurprisingly, however, English Language remains one of her weaker subject, despite being a native English speaker. She still comes up with howlers.

A few months ago, as we were heading to the airport to pick her older brother Kit up, she commented, “I hope the storm stays away until the plane lands, or the turbans will get Kit.”


“Yeah, turbans. The whatnots in the air that makes planes go bump in the sky,” she explained confidently. ‘Surely you know what turbans are?”

She may not know how to pronounce and hence spell ‘turbulence’ according to the dictates of the English Language, but she has such a deep love for learning. She asks questions all the time (“Why are there isotopes in the world if the heavy ones are less stable?”) and is always reaching out, searching, exploring. Fearlessly. She has a huge hunger for knowledge, and for life.

Her inability to read early did not handicap her at all. It just made her into a different child.

This reminded me of an article I read a few days ago, about a man who was turned down for a job as an office boy because he did not have a computer. Rather than panicking about not having one, he simply used the last $10 in his pocket to buy a crate of tomatoes, which he sold knocking door-to-door. By sheer hard work, his tomato business grew into a sizeable retailer. He engaged a service of a broker to plan his finances, and his broker was surprised that the successful businessman did not have email. “You don’t have an email, and yet have succeeded in building an empire. Can you imagine what position you could have if you had an email?” To which the successful businessman replied, “Yes, an office boy.”

Whether it is true of fictitious, it highlights a very important message: there is more than one path. Choose the one that works for your child, and this one is often the one that makes her happy.

Raising a Child: The Success-Happiness Correlation

(Photograph: my youngest son Jack and his grandfather (mine). This photograph defines success to me).

We have brought up five kids, my children’s father and I. I had my first child whilst I was still at school, and the others came in rapid succession when I was at University (our last child, Georgina, was a luxury, she came much later).

Of course, we didn’t have maids.

Our family became something of a minor celebrity in Asia, where we moved to ten years ago. My youngest child couldn’t read properly until she was 8, and I was anti tuition. It was an alien concept to me, these hours of additional studying, just to make sure our kids get higher marks in exams than other similarly hothoused (but not necessarily smarter) kids. What in the blazes for??

So we opted out of the gold rush and taught our kids how to plant bananas instead.

My children’s father did not come from a rich background, so we were not insouciant because of the privilege of wealth. His father was a bus-driver who had to hold down three jobs at one stage to keep the family housed, clothed and fed. My mother-in-law was a cleaner. They lived in a house that was sub-divided and rented out. Not many boys from my children’s father’s school went on to further education. He was one of those who did.

I am glad he did not push our children to succeed academically, despite having his life changed because he passed exams and had opportunities that he would not otherwise have had. I am glad he did not think that there is anything wrong in his children becoming a bus driver, because his father was one. I am glad that he emerged from his financially poor childhood with the realisation that one can be financially poor, but still be happy and fulfilled. He often says, the best prize to him about having the opportunity was that he met me.

So we brought our children up against the tide. I am sure many people think we are insane, thus it is nice to read a new research and listen to a TED talk that corroborates what we have always believed in ( In a nutshell, it is about a child’s happiness. This thesis is by Shawn Anchor, on the subject of happiness and success. This happiness thing is a big deal these days – prominent professors of economics have published research on it. Check out the Centre for Economics Performance at London School of Economics – lots of research here on the subject of happiness.

Happiness? Eh? Shouldn’t parents be more worried about good exam results to lead to that place in that prestigious university, so that big-name employers chase Ah Boy/Ah Girl with that important job that guarantees success for life?

Happiness brings success. Not my words, but Shawn Anchor’s (a view shared by various psychologists in the field). Shawn looked at a low socio-economic school in Chicago where academic grades were below average, yet a couple of students have skyrocketing grades. That was enough to pull my interest, as my children’s father went to a similar school.

So are these students genetically more intelligent? I can’t comment, as I do not know them personally but one thing I know for sure, my children’s father is not that intelligent. Anchor believes that intelligence and technical skills only predict 25% of success. The other 75% is optimism, social connection and the way you perceive stress. Bingo!


Anchor’s definition: the belief that your behaviour matters in the midst of challenge. Yes, it is the mindset. Does your kid crumple into a heap and is paralysed when life deals him with a blow?

My children’s father always tells our kids, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

I have to rein in the Asian Tiger Mum in me sometimes. “Waaah, doan worry??? Got Chemistry exam tomorrow, wor, Ah Beng!”

As proof that mums are always right, the afore-mentioned child dropped a grade or two for entry to the degree course of his choice. But with his father’s eternal sunshine burning forever bright in him, he took the train to Southampton and asked for his place on the highly competitive engineering degree course.

“You will drop out,” his pessimistic mum predicted. “It’s a tough course, and I won’t be around to nag you. The bottom line is, you have to convince me that you really want it before I help you financially.”

Now, I hate to be the sort of person who rains on others’ parade, but I believe that it is my duty to provide this second son of mine with reality check and ask for some sort of insurance before I spend my money.

He did provide it, in his own way and on his own terms: he went out to get a sponsorship for the three years of his degree course. And his masters degree.

Was this child of mine super-intelligent? In one word, No. Much as I, like all parents, would like to believe that my children are superhumanbeings.

Social connection

Anchor’s definition: whether or not you have depth and breadth in your social relationships.

The first thing I thought about when I read this sentence was oh no, networking and all that rubbish. But no, the author of this study actually meant one’s ability to form meaningful relationships.

It reminded me of the tale that my children’s father often tells. He left South East London and went for his further education in my hometown. He shared digs with a mad Greek called Georges Tsimoupoulous, who he is still pals with almost 40 years later. That was bad enough, but at that time, by coincidence, a bunch of Gibraltarian boys from his hometown was also at the polytechnic. So they did very little studying, a lot of drinking and even more womanising. His enduring memory is throwing someone’s final thesis out of the window from the third floor of the Engineering building in Anglessey Road.

“How did you pass your exams?” I was aghast.

“Oh, we bought notes from the Chinese students who spent the full three years in their rooms swotting and eating instant noodles,” he said winsomely.

Note: I do not condone that sort of behaviour, but this man became very good at what he does – he won a coveted place to do research at the National Maritime Museum, despite his high jinks, and interestingly, Anchor found that students who live in the library and eat meals in their rooms do not perform better. They are more likely to suffer burnout.

Hmm, I don’t know about burnouts, but one thing I know (by logical extension) – these students suffer from personality deficit disorder or some sort of a zombie affliction. Nah, I wouldn’t employ them.


Basically, what you see as stress is a block to success.

What I see is parents (and often school) adding on to a kid’s stress.

I do find it hard to say “Don’t worry, be happy” about weak exam grades, but I am glad I have a partner who grins about it and makes comments such as “Isn’t she magnificent” irrespective of what she achieves or not achieves on a piece of paper (and here is the surprising piece, she achieves, more often than not).

This is one thing I have observed: some stress is good, but if you get the ingredients right, that sort of organic stress comes from within a child who wants to do well, rather than out of fear of letting the parents down.

Pleasingly, the author of this quoted study mentioned that those who perceives stress as enhancing, ‘a challenge instead of threat’, are more likely to see an improvement in their levels of engagement at work.

Now, this is the piece in the study that pleases the yogi in me: the author found that by providing social support to others, his students at Harvard are doing better for themselves too.

So teaching your child to genuinely help others rather than view their peers as competition is a good thing. Strange as it may sound. It starts with teaching your child how to make friends, and how to appreciate those friends, especially those who are different and annoying.

In conclusion, it ain’t that difficult to raise a child. What that is difficult is getting rid of parental ego and unrealistic expectations. Now everybody, please download the song “Don’t worry, be happy” and sing it at the top of your voice with your children. It works 😉



My six ways of raising a happy child:

  1. Enjoy your child – find things to do with them that are not goal-related

  2. Talk to each other on car journeys

  3. Find time to do nothing

  4. Play the yogi laughter game – lie on each other’s tummies and laugh non-stop for 1 minute – at least once a fortnight

  5. Thank your child for the small things he/she does for you

  6. Spend time outdoors in nature, much as you may dislike it.

Education for Tomorrow

People are often confused about my education philosophies.  My children’s father and I are both unapologetic beach bums living on the paradise island of Phuket, with no ambition beyond walking the beach each day. Our older children have all grown and flown the nest, back to our home country (UK) and making strides in their adult lives. Now, there is only Georgina left. She is our last child, and her father and I are living the last years of our parenting journey with her (or should I say, through her).

We both have seen a lot, as one does with over a decade of travelling, living in foreign lands, meeting unusual people and raising five kids. Oh, the wisdom we have acquired from the road, it is nothing like what the books tell you. Of course, as parents, we want to impart the real-life wisdom to her – after all, what parents don’t.

A couple of the important things that we have learned: happiness is internal (therefore don’t go chasing big job titles) and in a world that has become increasingly fast-paced, we have to hold on to good old-fashioned values. And thus, we tell our child, you get the best learning at home (well, on the beach) and in church.

But here’s our dilemma – we have a child who is gifted (I hate the word) and who storms ahead, propelled by her curiosity of the world around her, her impatience at not knowing answers, and her desire to rule the world and see her name in lights.

With the benefit of hindsight, experience and years on the road, we want to tell her this:  a lot of what you obsess about is not important, anymore than exam grades are.

Fortunately, we live on a holiday island and she attends a progressive British international school, so the focus on exams is missing from her psyche. Thank goodness.  I could not have coped with exam stress for the second time in my life (coping with my own was bad enough), and exams say nothing about a person’s capabilities anyway.  I give you an example: despite her tender years, Georgina is one of the most erudite, vocal and critical thinkers I know, and English is her mother tongue. Yet English Language is one of the subjects that she consistently scores lowest in exams.

But dear parents, it does not mean that we just let our child’s fertile brain just rot. We teach her. Teach as in giving her the building blocks to build her own framework, rather than telling her what she has to know. Because a lot of what we know is rubbish anyway, come tomorrow, but the learning process remains and paves the way for future, yet-to-be-known experiences.

Here’s what I mean: whilst I was at Oxford, the superstar of the Astrophysics department was a young scientist called George Efstathiou, who was heavily lauded for discovering cold dark matter. A few years later, his theory was found to be flawed and cold dark matter was dead. And then, it revived again….it goes to show that nobody really knows The Truth, not even parents.

Georgina’s father has a Bachelor in Education degree, so I derive some degree of comfort in the fact that at least one of us know what he/she is doing when it comes to educating this child. We want to educate her for a better world (she, and all the other youngsters, are our world). It sounds rather pompous, so in company, I always say, “Education for tomorrow”.

And this is it about education for the new world: our children are going to grow up to be someone’s husband/wife, parent, employee, employer, leader, friend, helper, and a whole gamut of unofficial occupations. Look around you at these people in your life – what do you love and cherish about them? What do you admire about them? What is it about that special person that makes the world better?

Now turn the mirror inwards to your parenting self. Are you raising that wonderful person, or are you too obsessed trying to create a genius out of a moderately clever child?

I often post on social media about the challenges of raising a child who does not want to follow her parents’ footsteps and live on the beach, existing solely on love, fresh air and sunshine.  I post about her asking questions on isotopes, grammar rules, marine plywood, universal proof and a whole lot of other things that are quite frankly beyond my rusted brain. I often struggle to find the answers and have invested hours rereading my old books and doctoral thesis to bring myself up to date.

However, my intention is not to create a monster – sorry, I mean genius. I have no ambition whatsoever of raising a scholarship student either. And there is nothing I find more irritating than a precocious child spouting rubbish that he/she had picked up from the Internet or from reading unsuitable books – the saying ‘empty vessel makes the most noise’ springs immediately to mind.

No, we teach our child to learn. Relativity, Quantum Theory and other big-ticket topics that fire the imagination are merely tools for learning, and not the actual Holy Grail. These subjects teach a child that the world is not known, much as we like to think it is, and orders are rapidly changing.  This is why Ptolemy is proven wrong, whilst Einstein’s legacies are work in progress. Learning how to think is expansionist and cannot be converted from textbook learning.  It is from a different branch all together.

For background, Claudius Ptolemy was an influential mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, geographer and poet. Ptolemy was famous for a number of discoveries, out of which the most famous was a theory that expounded that the earth was the centre of the universe (though some might argue that Ptolemic system holds true for some isolated cases). We now know that the earth is not at the centre of the universe, and nor is the universe the centre of other universes. There is no centre, though no one knows for sure, not even the ‘experts’ with their space-age, multi-billion dollar toys. And this is what I answered to a mother today who suggested that I seek experts to help my daughter with her maths: there is no expert, and the best teacher for a 15 year old child is her parents. Maths knowledge – or any non-contextual knowledge for that matter – will not make her a better person, or a happier one, or a successful one, if your definition of success is a balanced, productive adult with a fulfilling personal life.

I was once asked, when I was giving a talk at the Science Museum London, what I thought about Einstein’s Relativity equations.  Thinking on my feet, I responded immediately, “They kind of work, because Einstein left gaps in it for things that he did not yet know.” I was terrified of being misquoted afterwards, as it was a high profile event and I shared the stage with Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson and A.S. Byatt. To compound my worries over my unscripted grandiose statement, the ultimate head of my department at that time was Professor Christopher Llewellyn Smith, who was the Director General of CERN, the European multi-billion pound research facility in Geneva. The dressing down never came (maybe I was correct, but who knows), and a few weeks later, I won the Department of Trade & Industry’s SMART Award.

I don’t use any of it. Except maybe to win arguments with my child.

But this is the important lesson I learned from Einstein: as time passes, we will continue to grow and gain a deeper understanding of things, and we will see things differently. We must allow for the empty spaces in the present.

As my child succinctly summarises, “Oh, the textbooks are not always right then.” And neither are parents.

Real knowledge has to be discovered, either in the real world or within the unplumbed depths of your mind. It does not come spoon-fed to you, either in books or the Internet. And that is what we are teaching our child: to think critically, to question relevantly, to search effectively, to create workable frameworks, and most of all, to find joy in the living and meaning in the caring.

I dedicate this article to my dear friend Richard Boyle, who understands what I am trying to teach my child, keeps me inspired and gives me much joy.