The Wind Catcher

I grew up in a time and a culture that valued men who were “real” men and boys who were “bruisers”. Indeed my own household, despite my fighting back, was largely testosterone-driven. My children’s father had brought that insidious way of being into our lives –in his twenties, he was powerfully built and traditionally male. Our children idolised him; he was a huge presence in our lives. He was our anchor.

“My Daddy is the strongest man in the world,” our children would announce proudly to their classmates. Never mind that other people’s daddies were professional footballers or PE teachers.

I was secretly delighted when my youngest son Jack turned out to be different. It took us a very long time to figure out what ‘different’ was. For the longest time, everybody in the family thought Jack was a mummy’s boy, because I spoilt him.

How that hurt me.

I cossetted him because he was different, not the other way round, because there was a certain fragility and a vulnerability in him that I saw but nobody else did. “Nonsense,” my mother-in-law used to say impatiently to me. “There is nothing wrong with him at all!”

Just because he was a handsome boy, it did not mean that he belonged to the group where bruisers belonged. He did not even belong to the sub-group of quieter boys, the ones who are labeled ‘wimps’. He was just different.

“You’re my Apple Head Jock,” I used to say to him, because in a strange twist of genetics, Jack has been blessed with the most beautiful Celtic colouring of his forefathers: creamy white skin and jet-black hair of the Celts. And no, he did not have to toughen up. He is beautiful just as he is. He is special.

A man who understands this is Toni De Coninck. Like me, Toni has a very special son. For Alex is a Highly Sensitive Personality (HSP), a little known condition that makes him ‘different’. And like me, too, Toni has fought countless battles, simply because things are not what they seem.

How could ‘sensitivity’ ever be described as a symptom, even a disease?

HSP has the inability to cope with new situations, whether pleasant or unpleasant. It leads to meltdowns and awful situations that the public simply does not understand. In our world of unexpected changes and fluxes, it presents a huge, if not impossible, challenge to maintain constancy and predictability at every instance. A handful of sand – normality in the childhoods of others’ children – caused a huge upheaval in Toni’s life whilst on a holiday.

“Dad, there are other people,” Alex had said to his father poignantly.

The main challenge for Toni and parents like myself is trying to get our special children to talk about their emotions, and trying to keep these emotions from overheating. And for us to know that it is OK, have faith, and love will guide the way.

Toni has written a deeply touching book about his relationship with Alex. It is called De Windvanger (The Wind Catcher). My only regret that the book is written in Dutch, but it has given me comfort to know that I was never alone in my difficult journey.

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To order: https://www.lannoo.be/en/de-windvanger

 

Six ways of raising unfussy eaters

My childhood home had too much food. My Ma is addicted to food. She uses food to celebrate and she uses food to commiserate. Food, food, food. At 48, I still feel jumpy if there is no food in the house. I am suspicious of women who can’t cook. I don’t believe that people can be genuinely happy without proper home cooked food. Yeah, inherited prejudices. And oh, my kids can push my buttons so easily when it comes to food.

Many of us have an unhealthy relationship with food and we unconsciously pass that on to our children. To compound our inherited problem, small children are pretty smart creatures who learn from a very young age that they can use as a blackmail tool. Does ‘if you eat another mouthful, you’ll get ice cream’ sound familiar to you? I was guilt of saying this once to my eight year old son Kit, “If you don’t behave, you won’t get another cup of Ribena until you’re 20 years old.”

This is what I have learned from my 30 years of bringing up five children:

START THEM EARLY

I am a great believer that children should eat the same food as adults, with some modifications, of course, viz-a-viz salt and spices. Eating is a natural part of family life and I love this old adage, a family that eats together stay together.

EAT AS A FAMILY

Eating should be a celebration, not a battlefield. Even if you are eating simple takeaways (seen here), make it a lovely experience.

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MAKE FOOD INTERESTING

Involve children in the food preparation process. Make it child-play. Even boring food can appear interesting if (1) they enjoyed making it and (2) it looks funky.

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THEM ABOUT FOOD

There is so much to learn and it is all very fascinating. Even for parents. And learning about food is wonderful thing to do because you learn about staying healthy and taking responsibility for wellbeing. I think the best way is to actually grow something, even if you don’t have a garden. Container gardening works very well for growing herbs.

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ALLOW THEM TO EXPERIMENT

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it gives children the opportunity of finding their own way to loving food. My daughter makes the most disgusting concoctions which she tries to get us to drink, expounding on the health benefits of her lethal sludges.

You could try new foods together, explore together. It is about you, too, after all.

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TEACHING RESPECT

It’s about respect. If I respect your wish not to eat mushroom, you have to respect mine and eat carrots. I suggest having a “NO NO LIST” – allow your teenager to list six things that they have amnesty from. In return, they have to respect you back and eat what you painstakingly cook for them. It is a two way thing.

Bon apetit!

 

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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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.

So You Want To Be A Parent?

My mother is a ‘ground-up’ type of person. She is like an iceberg. What you see is merely the tip, a lot goes on beneath the waterline to solidify the top that you see. She is a firm believer of substance, not form.

Thus, my mother had always taught me that I had to learn to love cooking before becoming a mum. Not merely to learn to cook, but to learn to love cooking. Her rationale is learning to love cooking is not merely about putting food on the table, but cultivating a mindset where there is a genuine desire to nurture and care for another human being.

“Saying ‘I love you’ is easy. We can say it without too much effort, without any sacrifice,” she would say. “But at the most basic level, feeding someone with the food that you have prepared with your hands and heart speaks more meaningfully.”

My mother made a lot of comfort food, especially in the winter months. I complained about her tendency to over-cook. I chided her for using too much cream, too much cheese and too much butter. But I fly home like a homing pigeon to her sunny kitchen in Portsmouth, Hampshire, lured by sweet memories of sitting here in her kitchen, doing my homework, waiting for her simple food to be served.

My mother’s food healed me, and slowly, as I grew into a young woman, I grew to love cooking, though it was not an intuitive thing for me to do. I was a physical, outdoorsy person, impatient and driven. Spending time in the kitchen was definitely not on my agenda. In my youth, I have always felt I had more important things to do in life than the menial task of cooking.

But slowly, there was a shift in my paradigm as I understood my mum’s philosophy. It doesn’t have to be cordon bleu. It doesn’t have to be show-off food. It can simply be a bowl of creamy mashed potatoes; it can be a piping hot bowl of spaghetti. It can be hearty soup made from leftovers. It is just something that you have dedicated your time to giving someone; it is the embodiment of your intention to care for another person’s wellbeing. It is like giving your energy to nurture someone else without the grand gestures or easy words.

When I lived in Jakarta, a man called Antonio Castellano cooked for me. He wasn’t a professional cook, but a management consultant working for McKinsey & Company. His specialisation is the global energy industry, but he has an Uncle Sal who sends him Sicilian recipes from home. Unusual food that you couldn’t get in an Italian restaurant in Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, or probably anywhere in Europe for that matter, except perhaps in Sicily. Spaghetti coated in anchovy oil and breadcrumbs, sprinkled with capers. I watched him cook for me, this diminutive blue-eyed Italian, and I finally understood the power of my mother’s philosophy. I rather think I fell in love a little, just a little, for this is the first time a man has ever cooked for me.

I saw the beauty of food cooked with love through Antonio’s giving. I morphed into someone who genuinely loves cooking. I began to smile and hum whenever I cooked. And in my late thirties, I went back to my mother to tell her that I finally understood what she meant about a love for cooking. I had met someone who showed me his love in this deep, honourable and beautiful way.

But my mother, she said, “You have to love gardening, if you want to genuinely love cooking.”

I disliked gardening, though I have put in the hours as a teenager.

“Gardening is like raising children, Jack,” she said to me. “You nurture a plant, watch it grow, and be pleasantly surprised by it each day. There is something to love about your plant each day. And most of all, it teaches you patience and acceptance.”

“I don’t see what it has to do with cooking,” I said sulkily.

And my mother told me. Cooking is not about what you put on the table. The process starts long before coming to the stove. It is about feeling Nature, and being thankful for what we have been so abundantly blessed with. It is not a science, but a primal emotion. If we can translate that thankfulness into the food we cook, we create family consciousness.

“I don’t know why cooking schools start with the fancy stuff,” my mother mused. “It should all be about going to the garden, smelling the herbs, tasting the fruits, being familiar with the earth first. Not knives and pots and pans.”

“Ma, I buy organic food,” I sulked, as I dug the earth this summer at the vegetable patch. “It’s good enough.”

“Oh, Jack, put more energy into your digging!” She laughed gaily at me, watching me with love in her eyes. “We need good soil for the new plant we bought.”

I frowned and sulked. She came to stand by me. “You need to get to the soil on the lower layers. “

With some difficulty, she knelt on the flowerbed beside me, and took the small spade from my hand. She began digging energetically, scooping the earth from the lower layers into the flowerpot.

“Jack, this is like parenting and grandparenting. We, the parents and grandparents, are the top layer. We have had our time. But the layers beneath, that’s where all the top layer’s nutrients have leached down to. We want that layer, because that’s the best of us. See?”

I looked at her in amazement. Yes! That is the true gist of parenting – we pass our goodness down to the next layer, protecting it, nurturing it, for it is our continuity, our immortality. From here to the kitchen table, the circle of life. It’s all related, in a magical way. Thank you, Ma, thank you.

“And Jack, no short cuts,” my mother said with a small smile that carried the warmth of the whole sun in it. “Learn to enjoy gardening, love.”

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A positive parenting/teaching style

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 10.51.52 PMA few days ago, I posted about G’s father trying to help her with her homework, and although her father has a degree in Mechanical Engineering, had worked as a research engineer at the National Maritime Institute, and had taught A level Electronics in some of the best schools in England, she wasn’t just going to accept his word unquestioningly.

“I disagree with why you have to convert everything out of Newtons, Dad,” she said sullenly. “Seems a dumb way of doing things.”

My post brought in several messages from Asian mothers along the lines of “Aiyoh, you allowed her to challenge her father?” and “Your daughter must learn some humility.”

I agree, in part. Being a secret Tiger Mum myself, I could not have taught this child. And I am glad she has a father who has the patience of a saint, and a school that supports her learning style.

Today, I sat through a presentation by the Head of her school, the British International School, Phuket. Mr. Neil Richards spoke passionately about his vision. A couple of the things that resonated deeply with me were the following words of his:

 “I am committed to giving your children as many opportunities as possible to express themselves” and “Taking them beyond examinations.”

Yes!

Too often, schools and education systems (and by extension, teachers) are focused solely on getting their students to pass exams through memorising and rote-learning, thereby robbing the next generation of the opportunity to use their brains productively and richly. Learning to score top marks in exams without understanding the rationale behind the subject constitutes a narrow band of learning how to solve specific problems only, which given enough time, even apes can do. You don’t grow your brain by drilling for hours on past exam papers or memorising things that make no sense to you, just because some long-dead Professors said so.

“Teenagers are messy, they are control freaks. It is part of their DNA to want to take control back from the parents. We allow them to do so, but not too much too soon.” Wise words, Mr Richards, and the questioning, challenging and debating are all part of the process of making sense of the world around them, which they will be custodians of. We want to raise thinking leaders, not meek sheep.

My Richards spoke of his belief that Success = Attitude + Teacher + Ability. And surprisingly, Ability is only 20%, according to his 20 years’ experience as an educator. He believes strongly that all learning is emotional. How a child feels inside relates to how he will learn for the rest of the day. A child who is comfortable and happy in school will learn better throughout the day. And perhaps even influence his life’s choices.  Mr Richards himself was influenced by Mrs Griffiths, the history teacher who taught him when he was eight, and the positive influence she has on his life. And all Mrs Griffiths did was made the eight year old Neil Richards feel confident in himself academically.

The British International School in Phuket has succeeded in implementing its Head’s vision of creating a happy, comfortable place. The environment is indeed collegiate, non-threatening, sunny and relaxed. G, in her second week at the school, was not too intimidated by her new environment, and dared to put her hand up in class to correct her teacher. I give full kudos to that particular teacher, who was gracious enough to check the answer on the Internet, and concede that G was indeed correct.

G feels good in the school and I am confident that she will achieve great things, though she comes home and says that her teachers goof around in class. Today, I will tell her what her Head said, that this is all part of the grand plan.

 

Footnote: I am working on an article about teaching children how to think.  Follow this blog and read it, if you believe in raising thinking leaders, not meek sheep. And get ready for the questioning, the challenging, the debate. 🙂