Of fussy-eaters and two way respect

My 60 kg 16-year-old daughter is strictly a carnivore. She eats greens under sufferance, namely to neutralise the acidity of the meat she eats. She often blitzes these greens up into a smoothie, fibre and all, and chugs them down. I have her sports to thank for that. As a footballer playing in high level, demanding international tournaments, she has been taught how to pay close attention to her diet. She herself can see the consequences of not eating well.

Since commencing football training four days a week and following a professional programme, she has filled out nicely from a skinny 14-year-old into a powerfully built 16-year-old:

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Georgina has an informed and healthy attitude towards food (she does not drink, do drugs, smoke or stay out late because of the strict Academy rules) though she eats more meat than I would like.

I, on the other hand, love my greens. I could eat salads all day, fresh greens with just a light, homemade dressing. I would rather my family just eats greens, no meat. Indeed, in my militant vegetarian days in my misguided youth, I used to enforce a no-meat policy in the house. Looking back with hindsight, I realised it was the wrong decision in my household as a family who values kindness and Self very highly. I should not have tried to impose my ‘right beliefs’ on my loved ones, in the mistaken belief that I know what is best for them.

These days, I honour my family’s tastes and choices, but at the same time, I integrate my own wishes and likes into the food I make. I strongly believe that food is a two-way respect thing, not a warring turf. Unfortunately it has been that way in many families for decades – food has been used as an emotional blackmail tool and we often have unhealthy relationships with food stemming from our childhood battles with our parents and from our parents’ unhealthy attitude towards food.

Georgina has several friends who suffer eating disorders in varying degrees of severity, a couple of them requiring hospitalisation. The biggest tragedy is one who lost her life to anorexia. I do not think good eating habits alone can prevent this, but I do believe that good eating habits fostered at a young age goes a long way towards keeping children healthy. Here are my tried-and-tested tips:

(1) Never fight over food. That’s why it is important to exert your authority in this matter when your children are still young.

(2) Introduce children to a wide variety of food at a very young age. I don’t believe in cooking special food for 1-year-olds. They do not need special porridge or special bland food. They can eat what we do and they jolly well should. Just be careful about fish bones and small things like peas and sweetcorn that are choking hazards, and ensure that there is not too much salt in foods.

(3) Terrible Twos is the stage when food battles begin. This is the time to manage it right. Never allow a toddler to win the battle of wills. Be firm (but not unkind or dramatic). When I was in my early twenties, I had three children under 5 years old and was a full time student at University. There was no way I had the time or the patience to pander to food squabbles. My children simply had to eat what was on the plate. No force-feeding and no chasing toddlers with food either. Make the dining table a fun and happy place to be and everybody will eat well.

(4) If they choose not to eat then they can go to bed hungry. They won’t die or suffer malnutrition overnight.

(5) Foster good eating habits in the home.

(6) No snacking in between meals.

(7) Ensure that children understand the consequences of their food choice but no empty threats (for example, if you don’t eat carrots, you will die).

(8) With older children, have a dialogue with them. No drama. I respect your food choices, now you have to respect mine. It is give and take always, as is everything in life.

Here’s my burger, loaded with nuts, seeds and vegetables:

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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.

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.

“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.”

Turbans?

“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.

Motivating a teenager

Parents often ask me, “How do you get your children to be motivated?” The simple answer is, a happy child wants to do well. There is no need to bribe, persuade or cajole – a happy child wants to keep the status quo of her environment.

I also truly believe that every child started off in life as a happy being. That is the natural state. So full of curiosity, optimism and wonder. It is what we do that shut them down, and we bog them down with our expectations. Sure, children need rules and boundaries, but not parental ambition.

And as someone wise once told me, “The best job for the next generation hasn’t been invented yet.”

I have lived through that. When I was growing up, those who can do medicine, law, dentistry, accountancy, science. Nobody heard of IT. Nobody heard of hedge funds. Yet these two areas provide a world of opportunities for my peers undreamed of by the previous generation.

So we are relaxed about exam grades. However, to our surprise, G loves school. Today, she is marching off into her school happily, looking forward to a good hearty lunch and lessons which she fares well in.

Well, she must really love school, because she turned down our invitation to sit on the beach with us. “I’ll do that on the weekends,” she said. “Not on school days.”

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