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.

Emotional Health, Not Academic Obsession

When I wrote my book, Barefoot in the City, I put down the heart of my ethos and philosophy for raising children. With the exception of my eldest child, my four children were schooled in the British system, both at home in the UK and at international schools in Asia. For me, with the benefit of hindsight, the greatest thing about the British education system is that it allows me the flexibility to affect my child’s learning. Its creative syllabus and passionate teachers also play a large role in inspiring my children to be internally motivated, intellectually curious and great orators.

However, though I am appreciative of the British education system and what it has done for my children, in truth, I am a passionate advocate of the Waldorf education philosophy. Simply because I believe in the Dalai Lama’s saying that ‘the planet does not need more successful people’.

“The planet does not need more ‘successful people’. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds. It needs people to live well in their places. It needs people with moral courage willing to join the struggle to make the world habitable and humane and these qualities have little to do with success as our culture is the set.” -Dalai Lama

There are some really lovely parents in Asia, not only the fabled Tiger Mums. Haslinda Halim from Malaysia is one, and she gives me hope.

Yesterday, Haslinda simplified our shared philosophy in a nutshell:

1. 0-7yo focus on hands and good things
2. 7-14yo focus on heart and beautiful things
3. 14-21yo focus on the head and the truth

 

1. 0-7yo focus on hands and good things

It’s no secret: my children are late readers. I could never understand the mad rush to get children reading way before they are ready to. My belief is that the focus during the early years should be spent entirely on teaching children about their relationship to the world they live in. This relationship can only be learned by doing and exploring and discovering, not from books or by instructions. The 24 hours in a day is barely enough, given that the world is such a big, magical place.

Young children need to learn that they have eyes, ears, nose and skin that enable them to interact with their world, cultivating an early system of emotional intelligence. Young children need to learn to use their hands too, because it teaches them empowerment. Our little people all could cook, garden, knit, build things. By doing all these, a child feels rooted and develops a clear sense of self, which will help him relate to his world and others around him.

If you feed a child with good things, she will radiate good things. Georgina refuses to read as a child. Rather than getting angry with her and forcing her to read, her father patiently spent years reading to her every night. He read pony stories, he read fairy stories and he read teenage stories. It became their special time at the end of each day, something to look forward to, cuddling up together with a book, these bedtime stories were magical.

English remains her weakest subject because she does not have an affinity for the written word. But she brings such a breadth and depth of insight to the language. For example, she asked us to correlate between the words parent, participant and participle.

The other beneficial thing to emerge from the ‘hands and good things’ phase is that all my children are very confident physically. They have spent much of their childhood naked outdoors, climbing in the Alps, in sunny meadows somewhere, scrambling over rock pools, jumping on cowpats and playing a million outdoor games. I simply love Georgina’s physicality, the way she charges at the world with her arms outstretched, eager to meet the new challenges each day, secure in the knowledge that she is empowered, in control and happy with her place in the world. That’s what her first seven years of life had given her.
2. 7-14yo focus on heart and beautiful things

I take ‘giftedness’ in children with a large pinch of salt, because my fundamental belief is that all children are gifted. And gifted or not gifted, children still have to develop the same skillset to function happily in this world, to be contributing adults that the Dalai Lama and our inner wisdom speak of.

Two of my five children are mathematically gifted, but they are schooled alongside ‘lesser children’ (I say that with tongue-in-cheek). I nurture their gift, but I choose to nurture the hearts more, because a good heart is the platform for the gift to sit on and serve. It is easy to cosset Georgina and buy into the belief that I have a young Einstein, but instead, she learned mathematics from another enthusiastic mathematician Gary Macaulay, her father’s buddy, in pubs, making tetrahexaflaxagon models out of beer mats and loose sheets of paper (try it). No, she does not get special treatment because she can ‘see’ maths.

Georgina does not need our help when it comes to schoolwork, but we subversively entwined ourselves in history, English, maths, business studies, science and the other subjects that she studies. The reason is not to help her achieve better grades – because she is already top of the class for many subjects – but to weave heart and values into those subjects. After all, we must never lose sight of the fact that the real value of learning those subjects is simply as a guide to help us understand ourselves and our world more, and to learn how we can make the world a better place. So onwards with the First World War, company valuation models, chambers of the heart and tetrahexaflaxagons. They are beautiful, if they are learned with beauty in the heart rather than blinkered goal of getting 100%.
3. 14-21yo focus on the head and the truth

Entering this phase, Georgina is beginning to ask us difficult questions, which some parents would consider ‘rude’. (That is the beloved trick of Asian parents, to chide a child for being rude to get out of answering difficult questions or facing uncomfortable subjects). But the fact is, Georgina just wants to delve into ‘the truth’, and at 14, her tentacles are fully extended to gather information to aid her cognition of ‘the truth’ and find her own version of it.

But as we know, truth is subjective.

For example, I believe that primary healthcare should never be in private hands. I also believe that the UK has a weak government at the moment. I believe in many things, which are not necessarily right. I would never influence a child to vote for the same political party as me. Thus it takes a whole village to raise a child, to give her a balanced view of the world to enable her to find her own place in it. We are grateful for the villagers who help us to raise our child. In this month alone, during our long car drive to school, we discussed the possibility that vegetarianism could be unkind to some animals (loss of habitat, etc), the existence of other intelligence in the Universe, creative accounting practices and UK job conditions.

Without exception, my children are all great at provoking, challenging and defending viewpoints on a wide breadth of subjects, and have never been hesitant in voicing their opinions or engaging people in debate from our road-less-travelled parenting ethos.

I have raised an investment banker, a Naval officer, an interior designer and a property developer. The biggest triumph for their father and I, however, is not that we have raised successful professionals; rather, we are imbued with deep joy at the loveliness of our children in the way they care for their grandparents, the manner in which they love each other, their inherent happiness and their commitment to the values that we have brought them up with. I am glad there is now an academic study by London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance to give credence to my deep personal beliefs that a child’s emotional health is far more important to their satisfaction levels as an adult than other factors. You can read more on Professor Lord Richard Layard’s work here: http://cep.lse.ac.uk/_new/research/wellbeing/