Why we should make a fuss over the birthday child

Ideally, we should make a fuss about our children everyday, but reality is that in the busy-ness of modern life, these tiny but very important people often get lost somewhere in between a rushed breakfast, sitting in a classroom, tired parents and every minute that is dedicated elsewhere just to keep the day afloat.

I have five children, and for a time, both their father and I had full-time jobs out of necessity. This was what we did to ensure that our children didn’t feel like they are not special:

SIX WAYS OF MAKING A CHILD FEEL SPECIAL

  1. Bedtime stories EVERY NIGHT with a parent (sometimes both parents). I swear by them. Having that time to lie down with them every night is something that is so special and precious;
  2. Make an effort to spend a day (or at least an afternoon) with a child. Arrange childcare for the others;
  3. Choose godparents who will make them feel special.
  4. Get to know each child.
  5. Do meaningful things.
  6. Take the opportunity to transform simple things into a memorable event – like picnic indoors (we recently did it though our youngest child is 17 and we live close to the beach).

BIRTHDAYS!!!

A Birthdays is that one day that a person (whatever the age) is supposed to be king or queen for the day. It’s not about the presents or the lavishness. Far from it. These are some snaps from my daughter’s birthday party ten years ago. It took place in our garden and the chief organisers were my older daughter and her boyfriend. As it was in our house rather than some fancy venue, we invited every child in the class. They played simple traditional games – no paid entertainer apart from the two teenagers who worked very hard to organise the special day.

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Here’s a simple party game: the children have to get on this day bed all together and burst the balloons by squashing them.

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Georgina recently turned 17 and she requested a quiet day (perhaps she has had too much birthday party fun all her life!). So she spent a quiet day which began with church the night before, the whole day with her boyfriend revising for their exams and a small family dinner in the evening in an Italian restaurant. As it was a Sunday night, she refused a glass of wine!!!!
But I wasn’t going to let her off so lightly. The following day, she was surprised in class with this ‘chemistry cake’ – BIG SMILE. Let’s make birthdays special, folks! ❤

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A heart-warming tale about my family

My mother-in-law was married for over fifty years, and when her husband died, she was bereft. My son Jack took a month off school and moved in with her in her house in South East London.

Mum valiantly tried to pick her life up. She remained cheerful for her family, keeping up a brave front. Then her dog died.

It seemed that she had no more reason to get out every morning for a long walk in the park. It wasn’t sensible to get another dog, as she was over 80 years old by then, so she went to the pet shelter and got herself an old black cat.

The cat, Laika, was (is) a nasty cat. Laika never came whenever Mum called her, and she often scratched Mum when Mum was slow with her food. She fought with the neighborhood cats and killed birds and squirrels. She wrecked the sofa with her vicious claws, though Mum bought her a scratching post.

But Mum never gave up on Laika.

We had suggested many times to her to return Laika to the pet shelter and maybe get a tamer cat.

“No,” Mum said. “She reminded me of my old cat Satan.” Yeah, the name does say something, doesn’t it?

“And we don’t get rid of someone just because she is too much trouble, do we?” Mum said defiantly. “That wasn’t how I was brought up.”

Sadly, Mum sank into dementia very quickly, to the extent that she was unable to care for herself, let alone Laika. My daughter Kat, honouring her grandmother’s words, refused to send Laika back to the pet shelter.

Kat took Laika home to London, to the flat she shared with her brother, Jack. They both worked all day, and it was not unusual for them to come home to a wrecked home. Being used to living in a house with access to a beautiful garden, Laika did not like being locked up in a London flat.

In summer, when we were home, we would take Laika with us to our other son’s house in Southampton. “Laika’s summer holidays!” We would say cheerfully, despite the fact that it typically took us a lot of time and trickery to get her into the cat traveling box.

Then Kat and Jack moved to a garden flat. They thought Laika liked it better at the new place, but one day, Laika ran away from home.

Jack and Kat’s boyfriend roamed the neighborhood looking for Laika. Late at night, Kat’s boyfriend came home triumphantly, carrying Laika in his arms.

“That’s not Laika,” Kat said immediately.

“How do you know?” He asked.

“Well, for starters, she hasn’t scratched you.”

It wasn’t Laika after all. They kept an eye out for her, sad that perhaps she had been run over.

Then one day, Laika came back. She was wearing a collar! It meant that someone had given her a home! She looked well-fed and fine.

I think Kat was secretly relieved.

Laika still comes to visit Kat and Jack – she leaves shit on their doorstep each time she visits, as if to stick her finger up at the Perry family who kidnapped her from her happy house in the suburbs to live in a small flat in London.

Our last photo of Laika at the end of summer, ready for transportation back to London from her summer house in Southampton:

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“Mum, where are you?”

My youngest child is almost 17. She is a big and strong girl, larger in stature and more powerful than I. Yet she is extremely attached to her father and I.

“Where’s my Daaad?” She would ask and huff whenever her father is out of sight.

“Mum, are you there?” She’d stick her head into my room to ‘check’, her big, bug-like eyes missing nothing.

 In a year’s time or so, she would be flying the nest to go to university. The world is her oyster, but I think she will settle for Imperial, because it is in London and thus close to home.

“You should teach her to be more independent,” a few people have commented disapprovingly.

And recently, there was an article making its rounds, “I am raising my kids to leave me.”

No, we are not raising Georgina to leave us. We are raising her to have choices.

 Indeed, this supremely capable youngest child of ours has all the right tools to live independently, but the choice to be independent is entirely hers.  Practicality might dictate that she leaves her supremely happy and safe childhood home, but there is no must.

I once knew a lady who could not wait for her children to leave home so that her life could begin. She defended that aim ruthlessly and would not allow her adult children to come home even in times of need. This stance of hers has caused her living children grave emotional trauma, ranging from addiction to chasing for love in the wrong places and being unable to accept love when it happened. Always running away, because a safe place called home never existed for them.

Beautiful perfect house, nice-looking photographs on the mantelpiece but wounded souls carrying unhealed childhood trauma still, right through their forties.  

 Is it worth it, this independence thing?

To have a secure base is a gift and a blessing.  I am a strong believer in the evolutionary theory of attachment, namely human beings are born with the biological tendency to form attachments for the aim of survival. We need to be safe, to have a secure base, and then only we can achieve our best well and truly.

Two of my children who are in their twenties choose to live together, less than one mile from their childhood home. In fact, they recreated their childhood home that they loved so much. Close our eyes, and we seamlessly rolled back the years back to when we were young and the children were little. So easy. But perhaps it is because they never left. They slept in our bed for the longest time. And thus my thesis: attachment is the price we pay for that warmth and closeness with one another, and the joy and happiness that comes with that attachment.

This video by Omeleto about The Thank You Project says it so beautifully. As a medic, it struck a chord deeply in me.  Please click this link to view: https://www.facebook.com/omeletocom/videos/10154832249999494/?pnref=story

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Photograph: Omeletto

 “None of us make it into life or through life on our own.”

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Photograph: Georgina with her father.

When life and love came into being

When I was at university, I hated Biochemistry. I hated Organic Chemistry. I hated those incomprehensible, complex shapes with significant alphabets attached to them, whose significance I never quite figured out.

I would rush through those sections, praying that none would come up in the exams. Now, thirty years later, I am back again between these pages, amongst these unlikeable shapes. Now, I am doing this for the love of my youngest child, G. I remembered how much I hated studying these, so I want to make the learning experience as joyful as possible for G. I didn’t want her to grow old dreading big molecules.

So here I am, sitting at the kitchen table, rewriting her textbooks. I am adamant that she will not rote-learn the sequences as I did, so I took the story right back to the beginning, beyond the scope of the syllabus and exams, to come up with a system of learning that lights the fire in her.

Where did life begin?

We come from stardust, inorganic material from a cosmic explosion 13.8 billion years ago. But how did those cold, lifeless atoms become life?

She knew that first lifeforms were generally accepted to be cyanobacteria, but how did these ancient ancestors of ours come into being? How was life created from a soup of inorganic broth in the violent, young world?

As I began to retrace the paths of my long-ago days, I was, unexpectedly, suffused with happiness. For hours I sat at the dining table, halfway across the world from my childhood home, but remembering those wonderful days that my brother and I sat at the kitchen table in my mother’s sunny house in a little town in southern England whilst our mother bustled around helping us, making Welsh cakes. She had loved us so such, gave so selflessly, and in giving selflessly to my daughter, I felt the same happiness rising gloriously in me.

I never thought I would be doing this. I grew up believing that I am destined for great things, but I am becoming to realise at the end of my 48th year that the greatest thing one could do is to raise a family with love, rather than with resentment at the sacrifice. It is in this spirit that G’s father spends a large chunk of his week driving her around, from football practice to friends’ houses to parties.

I hope that in years to come, G will discover this surprise gift when she does the same for her child. I hope I have taught her to give selflessly, as my mother before me had given so selflessly. That is her legacy, transcribed in our maternal mitochondrial DNA.

It is indeed true that if one were never taught to give, one would not know how to do so. Perhaps it can be learned consciously, and it is a lesson well-worth learning because of the riches it brings.

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So what is life?

If we look at the basic building blocks of life, then it is something that has the innate ability to store, replicate and transmit information. At the heart of these processes is the ability to read and write the language of chemistry; all life processes are inherently chemical in nature. It gives us resilience and inheritance.

The simplest row of atoms strung together into a chain known as RNA (ribonucleic acid) possesses this innate ability for living, namely resilience and inheritance; life would be damned before it began without resilience and inheritance. The simplest RNA chains in which these qualities are supported were nucleotides made of a sugar with a base and a phosphate attached. Life began in earnest then.

A disciplined and academic Human Bean

 

When my youngest child was small, she couldn’t read for the longest time. Her father used to read to her devotedly every night. He would read the old favourites to her as well as the collection of fairy stories. Later, they graduated to Jacqueline Wilson’s collection.

She went to a nursery where she was read to but not taught to read. Oh, they did letters and numbers half-heartedly, but most of her nursery days were spent learning how to speak French (and ‘proper’ English) and playing in the small compound. It suited us just fine, because she was such a happy little girl who came home each day with colourful artwork that mirrored her happy day.

Later, she went to a school where there was a selection process. Fortunately, Miss Hazel did not take a dim view of the child who told her, “I can read, but no thank you, I won’t read. My Daddy reads very nicely to me so I don’t have to.”

Didn’t matter that she didn’t do so well in school in the early years. She asked great, insightful questions and she was learning a lot.

“How do you make a Human Bean, Daaaad?” was one such question.

Her father would hug her close and told her his secret recipe with a big smile, “First, you fill her up with lots of cuddles, lots of kisses and lots of love. Then you put the lid on and …… you shake her hard to mix all the good stuff up.”

And he would shake her up and down in his arms until her laughter filled the whole house.

This was she at five. You could literally see joy emanating from her, the joy being a product of her endless happy days:

In the beginning, I was more traditional. I believed in a set bedtime and pre-discovering green smoothies, I believed in children eating up all the greens on the plate. This child just wanted to eat ice cream. My mother reminded me that I was just the same. “You got your calories from ice cream and cake,” my mother reminded me. “And look at you now, a health food fanatic.”

Once, I popped into her father’s office unexpectedly because I locked myself out of the house. To my surprise, six-year-old Georgina was sitting smugly next to him, chatting away nineteen to dozens. “What is she doing here?” I asked. “Shouldn’t she be in class?”

“I’ve had enough of class,” she piped up. “So I came to my Daddy’s office to help him with his work.”

Today, this little Human Bean is sixteen and preparing for medical school (though her parents are trying to entice her to choose a simpler life). She plays football and basketball internationally, and often struggles to balance her sporting commitments with the heavy academic workload.

“Chill a bit,” I would advise her. She spent the whole of her Saturday studying Chemistry instead of going to the beach with her friend.

‘I’ve chilled all my childhood, Mum!” She exclaimed.

Her father sneaked up on her and grabbed her into his arms. He then proceeded to shake his 60kg heavy child up and down. “How do you make a happy Human Bean?” he asked merrily, shaking her like he did in the old days though he is now 57-years-old.

“Stop it, Dad, you’re going to hurt your back!”

How come she’s not lazy and undisciplined? I asked her father.

His answer, which I thought was very insightful is something and that I wish to share: “Because we kept her busy all childhood long, and because all that sunshine, laughter and cuddles in her are just bursting to get out.”

The storms in her teenage years are short and temporary. Her over-riding joy rules.

Here’s the face. Her father is right. My own mother is right. Happiness comes first – always! – when raising a child. The rest will find a way, as surely as night follows day.

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Raising my girls to be strong women

I have been asked, given my traditional views on parenting, if I raised my girls to be subservient to the boys, their protectors. Do I raise my girls to know how to cook, clean and be good parents? Yes, in the same way that I raised my boys to know to cook, clean and be good parents.

But in addition, I raised my girls to honour their evolutionary biology. Our strength as women is not gained from trying to be ‘better’ than the boys and beat them at their own game. Physiologically, women are weaker. Biologically, women have periods in their lives when they are reliant on others (during pregnancy and nursing). Emotionally, women are peacemakers and homemakers to ensure the survival of our species. Why change something that had served us so well for so many millennia?

Our great strength lies in our ability to cooperate with each other. Women need to trust and work together rather than regard other women as competitors in the fight for men and top jobs.

“I am more of a man’s woman than a woman’s woman,” an Asian woman brought up in Germany once told me proudly. What does that mean? Does that mean you are more European than Asian, this ’emancipation’?

“I have no time for women,” this person told me. “I prefer the company of men. I have more in common with them.”

Oh, I see.

We gain so much more from working together, especially with other women. Our biology supports that. In the periods when you need to rely on others, that others do not have to be a man. It can be other women who form your protective blanket. When I was gravely ill, apart from my male partner, my strongest supports were three amazing women.

You might denounce this article as amateur psychology, but just look at the success of Grameen Bank founded by Mohammed Yunus that concentrates the bank’s microcredit efforts on women. Women work so beautifully together.

And thus, I raised my daughters to be great friends with each other first and foremost, to learn this basic quality that makes us stronger than tempered steel IF we honour our difference. This is truly our real strength, the inane ability to build and grow together.

Back to my daughters. There are nine years and a son between my two daughters. Their lives together started with Kat, the older one, nurturing and caring for baby sister G. Kat was like a little mother hen and a fierce lioness all at once, protecting her young. She was so proud and defensive of her younger sister.

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But over the years, that role slowly evolved. Though still very much the respected one, Kat was relaxing her strictness towards her little sister bit by bit. They began doing things together like shopping for clothes and going to parties, though they are very different as individuals. They began having secrets with each other than no one else was privy to. And slowly, they became equals of sorts, evolving from mentor/protege to confidantes. You couldn’t find two young women who are closer friends, and that is indeed truly lovely to see.

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Insurance for your child’s future

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A few days ago whilst we were driving along the backroads of Phuket we saw these three boys in front of us. The oldest one who was riding the bike did not seem a day older than eleven, swigging Coke from a can whilst confidently navigating the roads like a seasoned rider.

“What a lovely way to grow up,” my children’s father commented. “When they are all grown up, they will have such happy memories of days like this.”

I have a different mindset. My immediate thought was about the tiny boy in front pitching forward and suffering catastrophic brain damage. I looked at my children’s father’s face. I could tell he was remembering his own childhood. He was the South East London version of these three boys. He and his mates would go off cycling deep into the Kent countryside from a very young age. They would go for miles. Once they decided to try to find Dartford Tunnel. They were gone for a long time and when darkness fell the police was called. The tired little boys were given a severe hiding by their mothers but no harm done, there was so much love. It was all part of growing up in a childhood couched with love.

Money and social status counted for nothing. There were no playdates, enrichment classes or tuition where my children’s father grew up. Sure, he could have done better at school and he could have done better socially if his parents were more educated, if they were more ambitious for their son or if they had more money to spare. But they did not and I am glad.

For he has grown up with beauty in his heart from his happy childhood days and has the simple ambition to create the same for our children. In my 48 years of having lived a rich and varied life, I have seen how important a good foundation is in building a happy and successful life. Though academic success is often hailed as the most important foundation of them all, look around you: how many people in successful careers are actually truly and deeply content with their exalted status quo compared with those with humbler lives? Do they actually live ‘better’ lives than those with less grand jobs, the teachers, the office workers, the carpenters, the shop assistants?

It is never worth sacrificing substance for form. It is my strong belief that a child has to have a strong foundation and that foundation is a happy childhood that they can always return to in their minds when the going gets tough, a safe refuge in the belief that there is a happier place always however dire the present is. I strongly believe that as parents, we should invest in building that place for our children. It is their insurance against bad days in their adult lives, far more so than a ticket to glory.

Here’s an analogy. This is one of the many stray dogs (called soi dogs in Thailand) who lives on the beach near my house. I see him almost every day. He is smart, sociable and healthy. The food vendors feed him well. There is a charity called The Soi Dog Foundation that takes care of strays. Someone put a collar on him but he belongs to no one, according to the food vendors. I thought of taking him home to keep as my pet. But I ask myself this, will this dog be happier in a ‘richer’ life than he is living free on the beach? A nice house means nothing. I once knew a person who said he couldn’t wait to leave home – and home for him was a big house in an affluent suburb.

This comes to my point: life cannot be measured in achievements or possessions but in happy moments that make up the story of our lives. To use the old adage, it is not the destination but the journey. It is how you lived the days of your life that matters.

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Pancakes & Parenting

My youngest child Georgina does not like to cook. She thinks it’s a waste of time. She thinks she has more important things to do with her time. If she needs food, she’d rather blitz something in the blender and chug it down. We have enough chia seeds, maca, acai berries, Udo oil and stuff like that in our kitchen to open a health food store. Optimum nutrition, she calls it.

Me, I come from the school of old-fashioned parenting. My Ma who asked very little of me, insisted that I spend time in the kitchen when I was growing up. That, rather than studying for exams. “I don’t care, Jac, even if you become the Prime Minister of United Kingdom, you are still a woman, a wife and a mother first and foremost.”

I rebelled (of course) but took on board her indoctrination. In time, I began to love cooking. “You can’t teach someone how to cook, you’ve got to teach people how to love domesticity and to have the desire to nurture others and build a home,” my Ma said when I told her I wanted to run a cooking course years ago. “It’s not just about putting ingredients together.”

A couple of days ago, I made this flourless, sugar-free pancakes which went down a treat with my family:

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Last night, my undomesticated child asked, “Mum, can you make me more of those pancakes, please?”

I told her that the batter was in the refrigerator. She could easily make some for herself. This was her result:

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The first pancake was burnt because she put the pancake pan on too high a heat (typical of her, rush rush rush). She tried again. Her logic: cook for a shorter time. The result: the second pancake was not burnt, it actually looked nice on the outside, but it was sticky and uncooked on the inside. it never occurred to her to turn the heat down, because turning heat down would imply more time to cook, more time in the kitchen, more time doing something she does not enjoy.

Her pancakes made me think: this is just like parenting! As parents, we are given raw batter when we have children. Notwithstanding fatal diseases and accidents, we end up with a pancake after 18 years when the child grows into an adult. What sort of pancake you get depends on what you do in the 18 years. Thus, I strongly believe that slow-parenting with a deep love for the path produces the best result.

This is Georgina’s latest attempt, once she realises that you can’t hurry life if you want to bring out its full flavour 🙂photo 1-130.JPG

You can browse my cookbook, inspired by my mother-in-law, here.

Related article: Killed by Busy-ness.

Legacy of love

The best thing I will ever do in this life is raise my five beautiful children. They are beautiful not because of genetics but because they are filled with beautiful things only. No unkindness, no harshness and er, not much discipline but just lots and lots of love.

The amazing thing was, my children’s father and I weren’t ready when the babies came. But our amazing mothers showed us how to pass on their legacies of love to the next generation. Success was never in our parenting vocabulary, but magic, joy and beauty.

I am so moved each time I see the love of my parents-in-law for my children over 25 years ago, but lovingly preserved. These toys were made by them so painstakingly, with so much love. You can’t fake unconditional love like this, and this is why my children grew beautiful. We have not increased our wealth or social mobility this lifetime, but we have left a legacy of love. May they go on to raise the next generation as beautifully and as joyously as they have been raised. Amen.

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With Kindness, Not Love

Many of us, by our thirties and forties, have built and established the veneer and persona of a successful and happy person to fit within the social infrastructure and to gain peer acceptance even if we are a seething mass of unresolved issues beneath the surface. We accumulate those charges against us from our childhood years, from our early relationships, from days long bygone. And often, we do not do anything to heal the old hurts; we just suffer in silence and plaster over the pain. The prevalent belief is that if we are outwardly successful, the old inner pains will go away over time.

Thus, the ignored inner child within us is subdued in this head-led environment, forgotten except in private moments occasionally, because who would want to sound like a loser bleating about Mummy and Daddy and how hurt still we are about episodes that happened decades ago?

A few weeks ago, I was in a therapy session with a small group of good-looking, outwardly successful professionals who were trying to make sense of the bad hand Fate dealt us.

Here’s the story of a 38 year old investment banker whom we shall call Abby. Abby’s father left the family when she was four, and she has not seen her father since. She decided not to let that pain of abandonment ruin her life so she worked hard and became successful at her job. She had several good relationships but never felt the urge to settle down. Then when she was 35, she met Paul. Paul was her Mr. Right in every sense of the word. Though she wasn’t the marrying kind – possessing such a dim view about marriage based on her parents’ – she and Paul began to make plans for a life with each other. They even talked about having a child together, despite her reservations. All was going very well, until Abby’s inner child spoke up and ruined her perfect plans.

Paul was divorced with a young daughter. His ex-wife had met someone whom she was planning to emigrate to Australia with, taking Paul’s young daughter with her. Paul was inconsolable. He sought legal advice, he also thought about emigrating to Australia with Abby to be near to his daughter and remain a part of her life. After weeks of pleading with his ex-wife, Paul was almost suicidal.

But just when Paul needed support most, Abby’s hurt inner child lashed out. “Why are you acting like this? Men are not supposed to love their children. Only women love their children.”

Abby is intelligent. She is outwardly normal. She has a huge social circle. Though her father abandoned her, she had read books and watched movies where men love their children. She even had male friends who love their children. Intellectually she knows that there are men who love their children, but her inner child, not having experienced that love, refuses to believe in it. Her inner child, still suffering from the pain of abandonment 34 years earlier, wasn’t going to lose this opportunity to be heard, whatever the cost.

And here’s the thing: we can’t subdue our inner child forever. Now and then, especially at the most inopportune moment, he/she will lash out. We can build as many layers as we like through self-deluding stories, positive affirmations and outward signs of success, but he or she will break through the barriers, angry and destructive, speaking with the illogicality and unkindness of small children, often ruining the good for no reason, as in Abby’s case.

I am not a psychologist and I know that releasing childhood emotional trauma is a big complicated area. I wouldn’t know how to start advising people, but as a mother of five children, I follow the old adage, it is easier to raise a happy child than mend a broken adult.

Parenting requires some thought, some very deep thought, though many stumble upon it accidentally. And here’s mine from living a well-lived 48 years, 30 of which I was a mother: raise a child with kindness always. I said kindness and not love, because love can be harsh, whereas kindness is always the soft marshmallowy feeling that makes a child feel safe, secure, happy and loved.

But most of all, do be mindful of how you speak to your sons and daughters. Be mindful about the words and the intention behind those words, because your voice becomes your child’s inner child, who stays within them for life. I hear my mother’s and my mother-in-law’s voices in my children all the time. I am blessed that my kids have wonderful voices from their past because that is truly the best we can give our children, this Culture of Kindness.

In the words of Albert Einstein, “Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value” if you want your child to be truly happy deep within himself as an adult. Outward success is a cold bedfellow when the inner child is still crying out.