Here’s how to be a Finnish parent: kalsarikänni

A few years ago, a quiet country called Finland came to world attention suddenly: from relative obscurity, its education system was suddenly hailed as the best in the world.   One was the documentary, Waiting for Superman, about the poor state of American education (despite the No Child Left Behind policy and large investment in education), and the second was the stellar performance of Finnish students in PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment.

I was in Asia at that time, with three or four school aged children in a very competitive, academic school. I looked on with bemusement as folks here scrambled like lemmings to emulate Finland’s success. There’s even a Chinese word for it, kiasu, meaning ‘afraid to lose’.

Private schools and international schools of course capitalised on this kiasu-ness of parents. Words such as lifelong learner, problem-solver, resilient thinker, etc began popping up in marketing material, vocabulary and curricula already laden with homework, tuition, assignments, more tuition.

And here’s the thing: I think these schools AND parents who are suddenly longing for Finnish education are schizophrenic. They want to emulate Finland’s success, but the very nature of Finland’s success when it comes to education is its non-competitive nature:

  1. There are no mandated, standardised tests in Finland except for ONE exam at the end of a student’s senior year in high school;
  2. There are no rankings, no comparisons, no competitions amongst students, teachers or schools;
  3. If one method doesn’t work for a student, try something else rather than beating him/her to finish first amongst the strong finishers.

My view as a mother of five who have always been keenly involved in education (I was a school governor of my children’s school in Portsmouth) is that pushy parents and relaxed Finnish style education simply do not mix. You have more chance of mixing oil with water.

Finnish children climb trees. Finnish children use sharp blades to build their own playhouses. Finnish children don’t go for tuitions. Finnish children don’t spend all their hours indoors. And most of all, Finnish parents simply don’t compare …. since comparison is not in the national ethos.

Equality is the most important word in Finnish educationOlli Lukkainen, president of Finland’s teaching union.

And as we well know, it all starts from the home though of course, schools and national education systems do have some impact on how your child will turn up. But I would always maintain that parents are the main teachers.  Your ideologies, your values, your ethos and your philosophies shape your child’s psyche as surely as the river shapes the landscape it flows through every day. If you are pushy, stressed out, competitive about your kid’s exam scores, you’re not going to have a relaxed, happy, curious kid with an inquiring mind. Your kid would be too afraid to fail (or worse still, not care a jot about failing) have the time and space to explore, expand, formulate, rationalise, grow….because all his/her available resource would be invested into the pointless task beating the exams and beating “competitors” rather than actual learning.

So, in the interest of education, let me share with you the mindset of the Finnish people that perhaps is the key factor to the success of the Finnish education system: kalsarikänni.

It basically means sitting around in the home, drinking beer in your underpants, watching some TV maybe. Yes, I kid you not. But at the heart of kalsarikänni is optimal peace of mind, comfort and equilibrium.

Here’s an enlightened article about it in The Guardian, written by the Finnish author Miska Rantanen:

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Though I have just learned about the word for this particular way of being only a couple of days ago, it is something that my children’s father and I have always practised in parenting: I never go to school meetings with my children’s teachers (my communication with my children are honest and frequent enough for me to know if there is a need for my intervention) and my children’s father often (like four days a week) took my youngest to the pub after work when she was young. Even the damn dog went to the pub in Sri Hartamas, Kuala Lumpur. I wrote about my daughter’s beermat-flipping skills (as the result of spending 4 days a week waiting for her father to finish drinking with his mates in the pub) in my book. She actually did most of her homework and studying in the pub.

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So why am I so chilled? Because my thesis is that a happy, well-balanced, and kind child with good social skills will always succeed as an adult So focus on the important bits.  Take a leaf out of the book of the Finns. Relax. The more you try to grab hold of something, the more it seeps out of your fingers like sand.

Here’s something for you to think about:

Schools are not just places for transmitting technical know-how. They must also be places where children can learn to be happy, loving, and understanding, where teachers nourish their students with their own insights and happiness.

– Thich Nhat Hanh, in “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching”.

And from Great Parenting Simplified:

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My book, Easy Parenting For All Ages: A Guide For Raising Happy Strong Kids, is available for free download on kindle unlimited. Click on this link.

To order a copy of Pantsdrunk: The Finnish Art of Drinking at Home. Alone. In Your Underwear by Miska Rantanen, (Square Peg, £9.99) for £8.59, go to guardianbookshop.com

 

A very challenging puzzle to challenge a very challenging child

Teaching children to think independently, creatively and bravely – rather than just parrot, rote-learn, copy –  is of course one of the goals that parents and teachers aspire to.  I could write a whole book on this subject (and I might, one day), but for now, this is about my fifth child and a little puzzle for her (and you…go on, give it a try to understand the process).

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My fifth child has the restless sort of brain that loves puzzles. She wrote a Sudoku book when she was about five and sold it to family and friends (OK, there were a couple of mistakes in her solutions).  Oh lovely, you might say, BUT….

She chats non-stop in the car and expects us to be engaged in her musings and theories, such as “Do you know there are fourteen possible way to say this word in Spanish?”, “In Tagalog, these are the words that are similar in Malay language”, “I hate it when words are not symmetrical”, “What do you think of the arrangements of these words: PATONG SHOOTING RANGE?”, “It’s soooo annoying…PHUKET PHOTOGRAPHY!”

Yes, she fried our brains. Big time.

Worse when I had to tutor her Chemistry. She would grab the calculator off me and punch the long numbers in with lightning speed. Or looked at me pityingly because I couldn’t do the log conversions in my head. “Are you quite sure you can’t work this out without a calculator, Mum?” She would ask with deep sympathy.

She does maths to relax. Say no more.

OK, it’s our fault. It started a long time ago. We didn’t have a colour television set at home, only a small black-and-white one.  And then of course, we never forced her to learn how to read or sit down to rote-learn multiplications and divisions.  As a result, her brain’s neural network grew in an unconstrained, free-range, organic sort of way. She has such a vociferous appetite for living and learning, HER way, of course.

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She created this beautiful mind map that takes up a whole wall:

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She is always creating maps to link discrete pieces of the world, from the physical sciences to languages to mathematics.  Somehow, she sees the connections where not many could and I can often feel the cogs in her brain turning furiously trying to piece things together, storming ahead to the uncharted territories of this vast and complex universe. Could we ever begin to understand the universe, consciousness, inter-relatedness of all things, technology?

Interestingly, a Google executive recently said that understanding of LANGUAGE is the key to the next giant leap in technology. So, here’s a puzzle taken from the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad by Patrick Littell (based on the Aymara language) that I redrew for my fifth child:

Which fisherman caught what, and who is lying?

Can you solve it?

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Answer (scroll down):

.

.

.

.

.

From the Guardian. 1g, 2b (LIE), 3a, 4c, 5d, 6f, 7e

Here are the patterns that will have helped you work this out:

challwataxa is the last word of each sentence. It means “caught” or “fish”

paya, and kimsa are the numbers 1, 2 and 3

challwa is the root “fish.”

lla indicates the little fish, whereas hach’a indicates the big fish.

-mpi occurs whenever there are two kinds of fish.

wa occurs at the very end, but before challwataxa.

Hope you enjoyed it 🙂

 

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.

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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).

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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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Adaptogens: for your body’s maintenance

I turned 50 last year and people often ask me what I do and eat to keep my youthfulness. Actually, I am quite a naughty girl: I am partial to dairy (milk and cheese!) and to the odd bottle of wine. And though I live an active and healthy lifestyle, my body does need additional nutritional support (especially in the last two months, where I have been stressed out – and in the next few months, when I go back to work!).  Here’s what I take:

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Our body needs so many things, especially if you live a busy, stressful lifestyle in a polluted city.  You’ve heard of co-enzymes, but what about adaptogens? These herbs and mushrooms have been used for centuries in Ayurveda and Chinese medicine.

Though it is not “hard science” yet, there is increasing evidence that these group of nutrients have the effect of normalising the body’s imbalances (adverse effect of stress, pollution and poor nutrition)  and slowing down ageing effects.

Personally, I incorporate adaptogens into my diet to balance out inflammation caused by dairy, alcohol, sugar and stress. I also use very little products on my skin, choosing instead to nourish it from the inside.

The most well-known adaptogen is of course, ginseng.

For women, these are particularly good:

  • Ashwagandha: Soothing.
  • Rhodiola: Calming.
  • Holy Basil: For vitality.
  • Shatavari: The Hormonal Harmoniser, Queen of Women’s Adaptogens.
  • Eleuthero (Siberian ginseng): For brain alertness and stamina.
  • Reishi Mushroom and astragalus: For the immune system.

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Photo: astragalus, licorice root, ginseng and holy basil stems.

I just throw the roots and barks (of what I need) into a slow cooker and boil overnight with some organic chicken carcass and vegetables. Seen here: fresh stalks from the holy basil.

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Living in Asia at the moment, I can get hold of these roots and barks very easily from traditional herbal shops.

Whilst home in the UK, I use the powder form.

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But it doesn’t have to be that complicated. For example, holy basil, which I put in my green smoothies and raw on my spaghetti, is a powerful adaptogen. Turmeric is another powerful one, which functions as an anti-inflammatory.

If you are not feeling 100% but can’t quite put your finger on why, then perhaps adaptogens might be what you need to bring your body back into balance. That’s what people in the olden days do to maintain wellness, instead of pill-popping. So do your research, speak with a few specialists and maybe try this.

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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?

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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.”

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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/

Save the planet by giving a piece of you

OK, I have been told by my readers to stop going on about plastics and the environment. I agree, there has been too much preaching in both the media and social media. But hear me out – this is about a solution. This is about you making a difference. I promise 🙂

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Back in those days, the greengrocer would put our purchases into my mother’s old-fashioned wicker shopping basket. Occasionally, he would wrap some types of fruits and vegetables up in old newspapers (like the beetroots my father loved, for example, or those juicy cherries). This is the greengrocer in my hometown (Southsea, Hampshire).

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These days, greengrocers are fast becoming extinct, pushed out of business by supermarket consortiums and megastores, which are able to sell products at very competitive prices that independent, family-run stores cannot hope to match. And the worst thing about this subversive takeover of the traditional way of life is that we, the customers, have no say in the packaging. Recently, Marks & Spencers’ was shamed for packaging ONE lime leaf in a plastic bag. You think that’s awful? How about individually wrapped jelly beans?

These are from the Instagram account, Pointless Packaging (@pointless_packaging). Do have a look, feel outraged and get galvanised into taking action!

So, I have joined the crusade against plastics (as if you haven’t guessed!). And thus, I have bought several reusable shopping bags. But to be honest, I don’t always remember to bring them along.

HOWEVER, recently, my niece sent some stuff from the UK to me (in Phuket) and she put my goodies in a cloth bag that she sewed. Oh, I cherish the bag so much that I carry it around all the time, folded up, in my handbag. It is so useful for my impromptu purchases, ranging from books to vegetables to picnic food!

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So my suggestion is, how about you giving your friend(s) a nice reusable shopping bag? If it is from you, given with affection, I am sure it will be cherished and used again and again.

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Note: I love this cotton string macrame bags (remember them?). Would love to be able to source them locally. These are from estringbags in Australia.

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What to do when the youngest child leaves home! Help!

My psychologist-friend told me with grave seriousness, “Read back your last 10 Facebook posts to me.”

Eeek ….. food, food, food, misbehaving teenager, misbehaving twenty-something, food, chemistry tests, medical school application for the youngest, friends, food.

“That’s where you are at,” my friend said smoothly. “Mentally and emotionally.”

“Jac, I hope you are not going to fuss over me instead when Georgina leaves home,” my partner said with a heart-felt shudder. “I don’t need a mother, housekeeper, cook, office manager or tutor, you know.”

“I don’t fuss,” I told him haughtily.

“Yes, you’re right. You don’t fuss. You OBSESS.”

“Well, that has always been my nature. I give 100%. That’s what makes me successful in everything I do.”

“Just don’t make me into what you do,” he muttered.

Truth is, my whole world has shrunk to encompass only green smoothies, bone broths, energy balls, organic food, the forthcoming international baccalaureate exams and running 35 kms a week.

Sure, I am content enough with my life. Who wouldn’t be? It is a blessed existence. And I am fortunate enough too that I write books that win awards that people want to read. But a small voice inside me asked, “Will this be all?”

Yes, a very small part of me miss getting dressed to go to work and not care about food, kids and a properly-run home. I feel like not nagging sometimes or not getting all huffy when my bread goes wrong. Hmm, I didn’t used to be like that…..

I began putting out feelers for the D-day, which is the last day of my youngest child’s all-important exams (May 2018). You know, JUST IN CASE.

What’s out there?

A few years ago, UK’s National Health Service talked about working with Harvard University to train leaders for the health service. That scheme came under a lot of criticism because currently, the NHS is so poorly managed that it is always in deficit. Hospitals are closing, wards face severe shortages, staff over-worked…..there are certainly challenges and opportunities there for reform. With the right training, it could be the perfect desk job for someone who has strong views (and experience) about how the health service should be run.

Mumsnet, the leading UK website to support parents, have a Returning to Work section within its careers area.  The Return Hub is a specialist recruitment agency working with financial firms which are supportive of women returning to work after a career break.  Credit Suisse runs a very interesting programme for senior returnees who undergo a 12-week trial period before walking back into top positions (yes, with lots of mentoring, emotional support and learning new technologies):

If like me, you are thinking of the “just in case” scenario, do get your CV shipshape. Just in case, you know. There are certainly plenty of opportunities out there.

To help you, here’s some good advice I found: https://jobs.barclays.co.uk/how-strong-is-your-cv/

Who knows, I might do another postgraduate degree.

“Just not in my area,” everybody at home gasped, aghast, even my beloved father. My daughter threatens to have extensive facial reconstruction and change her name by deed poll should she find me lecturing at the medical school she intends going to. But you know, the world is my oyster in my second stage of life.

Main photo: in the days I used to get dressed and go to work.

Why Emotions Coaching should be on the school syllabus

At a certain stage in their lives, our young-adult children leave an institution of higher education (be in high school, college or university) with a piece of paper that declares them literate and numerate, and thus ready for the world of work.

Unfortunately, there is no syllabus, tests or qualifications on the very important subject called Emotions.

In a bygone era, it was kind of taken for granted that children learn that from the home. That was in a time where families lived close together and children had the luxury of playing with neighborhood friends after school. It is amazing how much children learn from unstructured play and from being outdoors; how to get on with others, how to make up rules, conflict resolution, self-regulation, handling playground politics, coping with losing, managing own safety and the world they live in, to name but a few.

When unstructured, outdoor play and the benefit of extended families are removed from children, the task of Emotions Coaching is left unfulfilled. To compound matters, growing up in emotionally cold households does not provide children with the opportunities to learn about Emotions – theirs and other people’s.

Emotions are living beings within our physical selves, vibrant and alive. We have to learn how to connect with the Emotions within us and to manage them, rather than control and suppress a part of the human being that is meant to live and breathe. Controlling and suppressing are the cornerstones of Discipline. I think a more positive coaching path is to teach children how to connect and deal with the entity within.

We tell children to stop crying, without finding out why they are crying. We tell them it is silly to be frightened, without knowing what their fears are.

If we don’t know the Emotions that live within us, we feed them the wrong diet. They either grow into beasts or they die. If they are unloved, they will someday rebel or they will simply stop breathing. Even if these worst-case scenarios don’t happen, isn’t it sad that we are strangers to our own Emotions?

I have known adults who have successfully built cages for their Emotions, but there are incidences when their caged Emotions break free – as they do when they grow too large or too strong to be successfully suppressed by will power.

In some cases, Emotions die from neglect or never had the chance to grow to their full maturity. I have known a successful professional, a very charming friend and an attractive looking individual. But peel back the layers and you find a hurt and frightened little boy who lashes out uncontrollably, who was never given the chance to mature into a grown-up lover, a strong husband, a tender father. No outward career success, long line of exciting lovers or big address book of acquaintances can ever compensate for not knowing the deep joys of really loving and being loved, that only comes when we are connected with our own Emotions.

Thus, we have to step up to the mark and implement Emotions Coaching, first on ourselves, then our spouses and children. Be literate in this subject, because you have to know love before you can love; you have to love yourself the way you want to be loved before you can teach someone how to love you in the same way. Yes, it is deep. Yes, the syllabus is arduous and can be complicated. But you can’t afford not to invest in Emotions Coaching. Leave no child (including yourself) stunted, silenced and dying.

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