“Blueprint” – genomics and our children, and what we cannot change

A few years ago, shortly after my parenting book was published, I was sat next to a child psychologist, waiting to give my talk.


He flipped through the pages of my book and laughed.

“Children come to us almost ready cooked,” he said with a broad grin. “Whatever parents and educators like to think.”

We went our separate ways after that, and I continued to spread my philosophy of imbuing our children’s childhood with love, light, laughter, kindness and all the good stuff, in the belief that how children are brought up will shape the adults they will become.  Indeed, it is still my core beliefs in parenting, namely how we live our lives as parents and the words we speak to our children become their norm.

Sure, Nature plays a part, but NURTURE can shape Nature.

But now, years later, Robert Plomin published a book that states the contrary, bringing to mind my conversation with the child psychologist of long ago.


Plomin is a geneticist and psychologist, and a Professor at Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre,  Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London. This book took him 30 years to write.

According to Plomin, the key to personality traits does not lie in how you were treated by your parents, but rather in what you inherited biologically from them: namely, the genes in your DNA.

Whoa!!!! While there has always been widespread acceptance that genes determine our physiology for good and bad, much greater controversy has surrounded the subject of our psychology – our behaviour and personality traits.

And read this, dear parents and teachers:  Plomin’s argument is that, in a society with universal education, the greatest part of the variation in learning abilities is accounted for by genetics, not home environment or quality of school – these factors, he says, do have an effect but it’s much smaller than is popularly believed.

Indeed, there are many opponents to Plomin’s controversial views, but perhaps that comes from our still immature understanding of genomics – as explained by my daughter – the science of how the complete set of genetic material influences the whole organism (namely the study of interaction between genes). After all, it was only introduced in 1986 by Tom Roderick.

But pieces are emerging to debunk my long-held beliefs, though who knows what the “real” story is. Maybe there is more than one. Maybe it is a combination. Who knows. There is certainly a very strong genetic influence (mine) when it comes to my fifth child. Despite being of mixed race, she looks exactly like me. She also has my affinity for mathematics beyond what that can be taught, my impatience, my flash temper. Her father and I certainly did not nurture those three traits (especially the latter two!!) but she is certainly walking around with them, though she has her father’s sunniness, strong work ethics and stability. And his smile 🙂


I remember another conversation I had on the grounds of Priory Clinic in London about 4 years ago with a psychologist who told me, “I believe cruelty can be inherited.”

I had laughed at him then. “So you think one should interview the parents and grandparents before choosing a life partner?”

“Yes,” he had answered sombrely. “Human beings are just breathing, walking, talking, living bags of inherited genetic material and we spend our lives trying to over-ride our inherent nature.”

Sobering thought.  But I believe that even if Plomin & Co’s research and expertise are correct, we should still endeavour to create a loving, supportive and kind home for our children, without the expectations that it will lead to greatness (if neither of their parents are Einsteins). After all, one of the true values of parenting is that we become better people ourselves from the parenting process.

Plomin’s book sounds like a good read.  You can read an article about his book and his thoughts here.

E-version of my book is available here.


6 Reasons why it’s important to teach children gardening

Naw, I’m not really keen on gardening. Last year, I almost poisoned my whole family by mistaking my mum’s prized alum bulbs for garlic. I chopped a few up and she looked faint, as these babies were heritage bulbs from Royal Horticultural Society. Eegads.


Photo: the dreaded alums when they finished flowering.

But my mum is not letting me off that easily. She nabs me at opportune moments to do little gardening-related tasks for her that she hopes will awaken my belated love for gardening.

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Now I have three little boys – very boisterous – who would prefer larking around by the sea (it’s such a beautiful summer) than “boring” gardening at home. It’s almost like a punishment, so to engage their interest, I told them that my niece Katie used to dig up the earthworms and ate them with gusto.

“Why is she still alive?” they demanded in disbelief.

And therein lies the reason why children MUST garden:

#1: To get them not to be afraid of the dirt and creepy crawlies.

Jumping on cowpats in wellies is a fun thing to do, I told them. My brothers and I used to do that with such glee, encouraged by our mother.

“Won’t the germs kill you?” the boys asked with narrowed eyes.

On the contrary – it is the lack of germs that might kill you. Getting dirty (good clean dirt) is all about strengthening the immune system, and no where can you get that more than in the garden (nature’s antibiotics). So ditch the hand sanitisers!

#2: It’s all about understanding nature

Children these days have become so distant from the source of life that some think that burgers come from supermarket shelves (not cows are pigs) and potatoes grow on trees like apples. What a shame that we are losing our roots, which is the foundation of our strengths, and several pieces of research have shown that estrangement from our roots is the cause of many modern malaises.

#3 It’s healthy to be outdoors (unless you live in a heavily polluted area)

Children are like plants: they need water, sunshine and fresh air.

They need to be outdoors, moving around barefoot on the grass, instead of hemmed in indoors (house, tuition centre, shopping malls) like poodles. And it’s educational too. Check out this BBC clip – it WILL convince you.

#4 Less fussy eaters

People often exclaim with surprise and envy that my kids eat so much salads and are happy chugging down green smoothies. Well, two factors. Firstly, they know that green stuff is good for you. Secondly, I make it interesting for them by mixing greens (that they pick themselves) with their favourites.

And if your kids grow edible herbs and veggies, they will find what the grow so tasty! (Container gardening is good enough if you don’t have a garden).


Photo: dandelion and buttercups from the backyard in the salad

#5 Respect time and nature

We have such poor relationship with time. We are either chasing it, trying to catch up, or we are dragging it behind us.  Only few walk to the beat of time. I knew someone who lived in a different time zone from the real world: “Just a minute” was his unconscious often repeated mantra, and he never had time for anything real.

These little boys of mine, they harvested some beans (which they saved from a parched field) and wanted to grow them NOW.

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But I told them they have to wait until May 2019, because it’s too late now to grow beans.

“Why?” They moaned collectively.

Because life beats to its own rhythm, and we best learn how to dance to it.

#6 Better relationship with your child

Gardening build closer bonds: shared afternoons together in the sun, without the distraction of iPads and smartphones, is a wonderful way to spend time together.

You can have a lot of deep conversation with your child when you are side-by-side digging or pulling out weeds. Because here’s the thing: there is no such thing as quality time as we cannot schedule for meaningful moments to happen. You get a lot out of your kids when you spend time together, just BE-ing.

OK, here are the efforts: potato patch (badly planted), mint (from the supermarket vegetable section) and scraggly lavender. Good start anyway, thumbs up x

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“The best classroom in the world”

It is true, the best classroom in the world is the world.  Though books are great for growing young minds, I strongly believe that children (and adults) need to go out there to the world they live in to feel the lessons.

The best teacher is often the parent. What my parents taught me all those decades ago still reverberated strongly in me. And indeed, my biology teacher, Mrs Jenny Woods who took the class out on field trips to Harting and Stoughton.

And so I am back here again, walking in my beloved Hampshire, far from the madding crowd.

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Amongst the golden ripeness, we came across a field where its entire crop of broad beans were devastated by the hot summer we are having.

“Oh no,” I said, with feeling. I remember what my father told me about his childhood: he had grown up in a farm, and one summer, a whole field of crop was ruined, with just one blade standing. A lone tear rolled down my father’s cheek, all those decades later.

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“What happened, Jacqueline?” Little Berti asked. He slipped his tiny hand in mine. The youngest of the triplets, he was particularly in tune with my emotions.

“The sun, it destroyed this whole field. There was no rain, so the plants burned.”

“Why didn’t the farmer water his plants?” Christian asked.

“Because the cost of watering this large field, so far from a water source, would cost more than his crop.”

“Let’s pick the alive ones to eat,” Alex said.

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And with the wisdom of an old soul, Berti (named after Umberto Ecco) said firmly, “We will take the seeds home to plant them, so that they may grow again next year.”

My heart soared at those words for this is the most precious lesson of all, that life is kindness and cruelty, good times and bad times, but we must have hope always ❤

Drying the seeds in the sun for next season, may God bless us:

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Most precious of all

If I were ever to have an engagement ring, the stone will be some tiny fossil that my beloved finds.

This is because when I was young, I used to go fossil-hunting with my parents. We live on the fossil-rich coastline of Southern England and you can find some lovely fossils here (especially on the Dorset coast and Isle of Wight).

Later, when I became a mother, I would take my children fossil-hunting. I taught them to love fossils, because isn’t it amazing that we can hold thousands (even millions) years of our history in our hands?


An old lady went on a long journey, and along the way, she found a beautiful piece of rock. She thought her family would love the rock – it would look lovely on the mantelpiece of their simple home to remind them of her when she is gone.

Later in her journey, she met a man.

The man was hungry and she shared her food with him. When the man saw the rock, he asked if he could have it.

Though it broke her heart to give the rock away, she nodded and handed it to him.

The next day, the man came looking for the old lady. He gave the rock back to her.

“I want something more precious than this beautiful rock from you,” he said. “I want to know what’s in your heart that makes it possible for you to give beautiful things away.”


For more information on where to go fossil-hunting in Hampshire, click here.  UKAFH organises fossil hunts.

Main photo from Isle of Wight Fossil Museum https://onthewight.com/fossil-enthusiast-donates-collection-to-dinosaur-isle-museum/

A way of living

When my children were young, we had lots of picnic. We almost never left the house without a picnic basket for a very simple reason: we didn’t have that much money, and even tea and cake in a cafe cost a lot when there were so many of us. So we never ate out. We ate lots of cheese sandwiches on fields, in parks, grasslands, meadows, forests and seafronts all over England and Europe. We picnicked on beautiful sunny days but we have also picnicked under grey, drizzling skies, sitting on horse blankets, eating soggy cheese sandwiches.

Whenever I was too lazy or too rushed, I’d just buy stuff from the delicatessen or supermarket and make up an impromptu picnic.

Apart from the cost-savings, the upside we found was the fact the kids never whined about being ‘hungry’ whenever the saw or smell yummy stuff. They never pestered us for candy floss or burgers. Because they know my response: “Let’s see what’s in the picnic basket if you’re hungry.”

So now, the kids are grown. We can afford to eat in cafes and restaurants on our trips. But old habits die hard….it has indeed become a way of living, something that I really cherish. That’s us today, bumping along on the country roads with a picnic basket and horse blankets in the backseat.


Inspiring children and building teens

When my children were young, I did not endear myself to relatives and friends. I specifically made it be known that I would not allow my children to play with plastic toys.  Gifts that were plastic in nature were politely and firmly returned.

“Come on, relax a bit,” my children’s father would say.

No, not on this. We have to live our beliefs in our everyday lives rather than spouting ideals.  Children learn when their parents model their teachings.  If we allow plastic toys – many of which are manufactured unethically using child labour and contributing to environmental pollution – when and how will our children learn to live mindful lives? Our home is the laboratory that our children learn the art of being and the ways of living.

In any case, my children were not deprived despite my draconian laws and moratorium on plastic toys.  They played with pots and pans and wooden spoons. They rearranged my cupboards and spent a lot of time outdoors.  My niece Katie infamously ate earthworms served up very prettily on my mother’s china plate.

My father-in-law made beautiful toys for my children.  It was truly a labour of love. He passed away in 2005 but the toys that he made almost 30 years ago still have the place of pride in my son’s house. My mother-in-law made lovely things for them too with her sewing machine and crochet needles. She made the characters of the series of story books that my children’s father and I wrote entitled The Atoms Family to teach our children about the physical world. Here’s Harry Helium who is one of the residents of the block of flats called The Periodic Table.

My parents, who were less into crafts but more into biology, taught my kids about the plants that grew in the New Forest and the animals, birds and insects that lived there. Almost thirty years later, I still treasure those sketch books.


Scarcity of ‘toys’ made my children more resourceful. You see, toys entertain them passively, especially those with bright lights and synthetic voices. Without these toys to entertain them, they had to actively engage themselves. They became very creative and resourceful. I did moan a fair bit about the fact they they were always up to mischief, like cutting up old t-shirts to make clothes for the dogs, dismantling things and experimenting with fireworks.

But the upshot is, they learned how to live purposeful lives.

As teens, they would put on cabaret acts for the family. They would dress up. Yes, they were always up to something, living their lives fully and colourfully. Georgina taught First Aid course in her school for small children. She ran weekly children’s Taekwondo classes in our front garden (she was a Second Dan Black belt by 12 years old).  She started a company called G-Tech selling home electronic kits for children to learn the basics.

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Today, she is two weeks short of her 16th birthday. She has no interest in hanging out in shopping malls or nightclubs (though we live in a party town). She does not own an iPad and she is not into computer games. She lives her life as a continuation of her childhood, which was fun-filled, resourceful and creative. She enjoys studying because she sees it as part of the process – no pressure, challenging, can be beautiful – and brings her creativity and enthusiasm into it.  This comes from her childhood where the things she does is active and directed, rather than passive and accepting.  An example of her biology notes:


This morning, I stopped by my friend Vivienne Reis’s stall. I wish I had known her when my kids were young, because Vivienne is a patron of a Thai charity, Good Shepherd Sisters www.handsofhopenongkhai.com. The ladies supported by this charity learn self-sufficiency by making beautiful crafts and toys.  I particularly love the cloth books with detachable pieces which are good for engaging children in story-telling.

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They are all handmade with love and are very reasonably priced. I especially love the 2-in-1 Mermaid doll….because many years ago, my mother-in-law made one for my daughter Kat.

For more information, please email viviennereis@gmail.com



Why I advocate NO PLASTIC TOYS for children

I first became a mum at 17. Back in those days, I was fiery, idealistic and willing to fight till death for my ideals. When doting grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends bought plastic toys for our kids, I would politely return them and caused a lot of bad feelings.

At 47, I would probably do things differently these days.

However, I still feel the same aversion towards plastic toys from the numerous examples of tortoises and other sea creatures being poisoned to painful deaths by discarded plastic. I am also concerned about the environmental pollution that this plastic industry and its resultant mountain of plastic waste that chokes our planet.

I was concerned about the health aspects, too. Children put toys in their mouths, don’t they? We had a dog that suffered cancerous growth all over his body, because he ate plastic bags.

I also didn’t like the feel of plastics, and toys with flashing lights and electronic sounds were the ultimate nightmare for me.

But enforcing this tough policy has resulted in surprisingly pleasant outcomes. The main one is that my children learned to engage themselves actively, either with pen and paper, make-belief dolls from corn stalks, paper costumes, pet circus and a whole myriad of creative past times that became the hallmark of their materially poor but spiritually rich childhood. They never asked for Disney programmes or any TV programmes or merchandise associated with the ‘in’ movie or iPads. When we saved up and took our young children to Disneyland Paris, my youngest son Jack screamed in terror when Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck approached him. Because in his world, mice and ducks are not made of plastic and neither do they wear shoes.

My children learned to love being outdoors too, because the garden was a whole lot more interesting than sitting in a room devoid of electronic entertainment. They learned to climb trees, build tree houses and burrows, caught insects, drew leaves and grew things. Whatever the season, they would be out in the garden. I attribute their immunity to childhood diseases largely to their outdoors lifestyle, for those were the days before hand sanitisers and needless medication. Fever, coughs, colds and diarrhea were treated with lots of water, rest and fresh air rather than a trip to the doctor or medication.

Having no toys in the house also disciplined us parents. We had to make cars and cookers and dollhouses from discarded cardboard boxes. We had to get up early to take them out for walks. We had to think harder on how to engage them rather than letting them be passively entertained by the television. We had to incorporate them into our lives (shopping, cooking, reading), which brought us the precious closeness that we enjoy to this very day.

But thinking deeper beyond these points, I really do think that children’s playthings should be things that exist ‘naturally’ in real life, like pots and pans and wooden spoons. Why buy plastic tea sets when they can play with real freebies? It doesn’t make sense, right? By compelling our children to engage with their natural world also grounds them to this beautiful planet.

Yesterday, whilst walking with my partner along a breathtaking beach at sunset, I could not help but notice these tiny turquoise medallions in the sand. I could not resist investigating further, and was blown away by the delicacy and complexity that exists in the smallest, humblest organisms that escape the notice of the world at large.

What are those blue buttons? I emailed my father this photograph.

Blue button jellyfish, he replied, though they are really colonies of polyps, known as Chondrophores.

How so very lovely they are, dotting the beach like tiny turquoise orbs, making the sunset walk even more magical. I hope my children will find such enchantment in nature, as they walk the beaches and woodlands and roads of their adulthood, as I have, growing up with a toy-less childhood, which opened my eyes to the bountiful beautiful free things around me.

Your children, your legacy

If you are a parent, bringing your children up is your most important job, because how you bring them up is your legacy. They are a continuation of your love, your values and your way of life.

I was 17 when I first became a mother.  I did not do such a good job, but I am blessed in that I had a man with deep happiness in his soul to co-parent with me. We also had a lovely, close family who cobbled together to make it work in the most beautiful way (I think it is a combination of Welsh, Spanish and Cockney English that fostered this lovely philosophy of kindness rather than cold rigidity). I relaxed my unrealistic ideals about how children should behave, learned that love is the most important thing of all, and that everyday happiness is to be valued.

Almost 30 years later, I see the product of this philosophy.

My second son, Kit, is looking after my doggies for a few weeks, and he parents them up exactly the way that his father and I brought him, his brothers and sisters up. The doggies live in a relaxed household with Kit. He made a house for them in the shed, with rugs and a favourite couch, but the doggies chose to be indoors with him and his girlfriend. Instead of enforcing discipline, he moved them indoors without a second thought, because that was how his father and I brought him and his siblings up – they slept in our bed for the longest time, all happy sweaty bodies piled in together, never mind what we read in books about discipline and boundaries.

Kit takes the doggies everywhere with him. In the past week, they have been to Portland beach in Hampshire and later in the week, camping in Cornwall. He could have sent them to boarding kennels, which would have been simpler for him, as he will be on a camping trip with the boys. But his father and I, we took them everywhere with us too because we could not afford nannies and maids. We enjoyed their company anyway – they were fun kids, always full of life and resilient; they never sick, whiny or tired.

Our children were never perfectly behaved, they were not ideal kids by far, and but they were happy. We did our best to keep ugliness out of their lives, though mainstream thinking was that we must be tough to children to teach them how to cope with the tough ‘real’ world.

We chose a life of happiness and trust instead, accepting that life is imperfect and so long as we have 75% good, we are OK.

They have grown up into strong, nurturing adults. I think it is because their father and I gave them a stable childhood filled with love, and the latitude to be naughty rather than aiming for perfection. That little forgiveness and softness is so important, I find, because it teaches children to be forgiving and soft in adulthood.

Packing for Life’s Journey

One thing you learn if you are a mother with many small children living in an expensive city like London: you always carry food and drinks in your bag even if it is for a short trip out. Last summer, though my youngest child is already 15 and we have sufficient money in the bank for the odd cup of tea and the odd packet of sandwiches, I still could not stop myself carrying food and drinks in my very uncool big handbag.

At church yesterday, it was a young Filipino priest who gave the homily. He said that in his culture, food for travelling is a big deal. And he asks, what do we carry in our hearts for the journey of life: all the good things like love, compassion, mercy, wisdom, hope…..or heaviness such as bitterness, anger, regret?

It struck a chord deep in me.

Many years ago, whilst I was teaching yoga in NYC, I had a young lady in my class. Her body was tight, tense. She never looked like she was enjoying my class. I largely ignored her, believing that people come to yoga to find their quiet space.

One day, she came to me after class and said “Thank you” for something I said during class. We were doing inversions, and I trotted out the usual yoga teacher dialogue: “Look at the world differently and let go of the rocks in your heart so that you are light enough to stand on your hands. Lose your fear and all the heavy stuff.”

Her story came tumbling out. She was abused as a child, and for 20 years, she had carried hatred for that person in her heart and it stopped her moving on. Inside the grown woman was a child stunted by hatred.

So she decided to try to let go, and fill her life with light things. I like the visualisation of starting today with an empty bag, and going through the day filling the bag up with goodness. The good stuff for life’s journey – big smile 🙂

Light begets light

“It’s ispirazione, not inspirazione, or do you mean inalare?” The man called Antonio Castellano said. I think he was smiling at the thought of my poor mastery of his mother tongue, though scarily enough, most of my outpourings in Italian are about him.

Whatever it is, he is my inspiration (ah, the English language is so much simpler!). And inspiration comes in many forms, at surprising stages of your life. I was a doctor, lacking passion for my job, when I met Antonio on an enchanted tropical island in the Javanese sea, sleeping in little eco-huts under mosquito nets. He had come to the island on his own, to ponder about life’s big questions but ended up inspiring me instead. He inspired me to go back to school to train as a surgeon, to discover my passion again.

He did it with his beautiful writings over the following months. He would type in his Blackberry, or scrawl on a piece of paper, and later, he would read his writings back to me. His writings are self-deprecatory, soul-searching and always honest, and they touched me ever so deeply. I loved the cadence and the silences in his words. Later, in Milan over a couple of winter evenings, he read to me the manuscript that his friend Ambrogio wrote about a war-time love story in Monte Rosa (or maybe Arosa). And in a sense, this is why I write a lot these days, even on my busy days – to continue the magic that I once discovered in faraway Jakarta. His writings certainly changed my life.

There is something about Antonio that struck a chord deep in me, not least because he is Italian, and I am 25% Italiana. That Italiana side of me never achieved full expression until Antonio. But more than that, it is the silence we both share that created something special between us – as young children, we both began speaking later compared to ‘normal’ children. As adults, we still do not speak much, but we began building a bridge into each other. He had always been more adept than I with words, so I began writing ‘Ten Most Beautiful Equations in the World’ for him. Those ten equations now form the basis of the novel I am writing.

Years later, I often asked myself, “Why am I continued to be inspired by Antonio, why could I not get his words out of my mind?” I miss him. I miss his light. And therein lies the answer. His light.

Before I knew him deeply, I wondered where his light came from. I found the answer when I visited him in Milan. On the first evening I arrived, I met all his childhood friends except one (we went to Verona a few days later to meet him). I was jetlagged and ever so slightly intimidated to be faced by a wall of Italian men who had known each other all their lives. But they were grinning at Antonio and I as soon as we walked into the restaurant.

I told them I suggested to Antonio that he coaches football at my children’s school on weekends. I told them that he began going for Ashtanga Yoga in Jakarta. I told them he cooked traditional Sicilian food for me from his uncle’s recipes. They roared with laughter. “What are you doing to our Tony?” One of them said, eyes sparkling, merriness pulling at his lips.

And then I saw it all at once. Antonio gets his light from his friends, from this band of brothers sitting in a closed circle which embraced me, warm and generous, and suddenly, I could picture the boys that they had once been, all innocent and a bit cheeky maybe, but full of openness, generosity and light nonetheless.

Light begets light, and my post today is about wishing you the opportunity to absorb light, so that you radiate it, touching other lives.