Growing Pains – our kids and the internet

There’s so much reported about the terrors of technology including alarming statistics, with psychologists even saying it’s harder to be a parent of teenagers these days than for previous generations because of the perils of screen time, social media, grooming and gaming, not to mention cyber-bullying.  As the first iPhone was only released in 2006, the same year as Facebook became generally available to anyone over 13 (Javis, 2017), we’re only just becoming aware of the pitfalls.

The challenges posed by social networking are ironically due to its advantages (Boyd, 2014): the durability of content over time, breadth of the potential audience, as well as the ease of ‘sharing’ and ‘searchability’ of content.  These attributes make the usual process of growing up (including working out who you are, taking risks, being influenced by peers) is now done online, in public, in what’s basically a global version of an unsupervised youth centre. Some argue that the use of social networking has risen in response to parental concern for environmental dangers in the real world.  Kids may be no longer be hanging out on street corners, but are roaming the internet from their bedrooms (Boyd, 2014).

Although the risks associated with social networking are not unique to teenagers, psychologists feel that they are more vulnerable because of their heightened need for approval, tendency to over-share, fear of missing out, susceptibility to peer influence and attitude to risk.  Teens haven’t established a clear sense of who they are (their brains aren’t fully formed until their mid-twenties) – and as they lack such inner anchors, are more susceptible as a result.  There have also been incidents where kids haven’t realised the seemingly obvious – that material can be seen by people beyond their ‘friends’ and that whatever they post leaves an indelible trail.

This idea of a digital footprint has given rise to the notion of a ‘tethered identity’ – where they may feel unable to leave behind the person they were in their adolescence and those with whom they associate (Tukle, 2011). Whilst making mistakes as teenagers is not new, making them so publicly with an unknown audience is.  As the BBC’s documentary ‘Child of our Time’ highlighted, people change considerably through their formative years – it therefore seems unfair to hold a person prisoner to what they were like in their teens once they reach adulthood.

The situation is seemingly exacerbated if (like me), you have boys – as they’ve hit the headlines for needing the drastic action of a headmaster who confiscated games consoles from their homes to break the spell held over them.  It also seems that young men are the biggest consumers of online porn, with boys being first exposed to it at scarily early ages.

Just to add another kick in the proverbials, the former headmaster of Harrow School (Barnaby Lenon) was recently quoted as saying “Ninety-nine per cent of boys I have had to deal with are lazy” (words of a man who taught boys, but only has daughters himself).  Here’s hoping his experience reflects a peculiarity of the privileged.  Otherwise boy-bashing may become a self-fulfilling prophecy – it’s not the current generation’s fault that their gender may have conferred advantages for their forefathers (and still would certain parts of the world).  This backlash seems to be doing little more than creating a gender inequality in reverse.

So, the tsunami of panic gathers momentum amidst warnings of an unavoidable social Armageddon involving those closest to our hearts – but as with all ‘problems’, solutions are also being proposed.  Psychologist Ian Williamson (2017) gives a useful steer for getting through those tricky teenage years.  He suggests that we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff (untidy rooms and moodiness) to avoid diluting the message and distracting from what’s important.  It’s music to my ears that not everything matters, after all, we’d drive ourselves (and our kids) nuts if it did.  Never mind the stresses facing our youth, what about us? There’s so much to worry about, we’ll need a rota to get through it soon.

Of course, some remove their families from the perils of modern life (as highlighted by Channel 5’s ‘New Lives in the Wild’), but it’s harder to tread a middle line.  I don’t want to deny my kids access (and then face the insatiable lure of forbidden fruit), but nor am I champing at the bit for them to be on the internet, updating their status or texting into the night. Whilst I don’t like idea of snooping on them, we face the problem that these days ‘Katie, aged 13’ could be Tony, aged 47.

Despite lacking in the charm department, Lenon does however some good tips for dealing with teens.  There are some reoccurring themes in the advice for dealing with teens amongst psychologists and social commentators alike, with the following offered by Williamson:

  • Don’t try to be your child’s BFF, there should be consequences for misdemeanours, so we shouldn’t avoid conflict, but accept being a good parent doesn’t mean always being in their good books, or being their best friend
  • Let the small things go, e.g. messy bedrooms – one less thing to argue over can only be a good thing
  • Rules and curfews for internet-use are a help not a hindrance – such as no phones after 7/8pm for under 16s (apparently kids can’t self-regulate at this age); nor should they have passwords on their phones at this age.  He also suggests parents should periodically check their messages (but not stalk them!). Elsewhere, others say computer-use should be restricted to two hours per day for those who are under 16
  • Don’t get drawn into tit-for-tat arguments – as teenagers love drama and a bit of door-slamming, he suggests that it’s best not to rise to the bate, but accept that a degree of irritability and self-centredness is part of growing up, so we should let some of it go
  • Use consequences, but don’t lecture – he cautioned about the value of ‘talking it through’ with kids, saying that it doesn’t work.  Instead he suggests implementing consequences that have a real impact them, for example, by restricting their money and mobile use.  He advises to ‘link responsibility and trust to independence’
  • Beware if it’s going well – he says that the 15-19yr age group are masters at deception, so if all looks fine on the surface, things may not be as they seem (eek…)
  • Low grades for effort show fear of failure – this muddies the water a bit with Lenon’s view that most boys are lazy, but it feels a bit less damming to consider other explanations for lack of effort

He concluded by saying that kids really just need “resilience, a work ethic and a moral compass” to get by in life and that it’s our job as parents to help our kids build them. But maybe there’s also something to be said for trying to ensure the real-world offers real pleasures, so that the online world is less mesmerising as a result?

Further Reading:

Read similar articles about parenting and child development

Invisibly Blighted: The digital erosion of childhood (book)

References and related content:

Biddulph, S. (2017). 10 Things Girls Need Most to Grow Up Strong and Free

Boyd, D. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens

Candy, L. (2017). Parenting: How to help girls grow up happy (references Biddulph’s book).  The Times 16 April 2017

de Botton, A. (2014).  The Dangers of the Internet, The School of Life

Whitworth, D. (2017).  The trouble with boys (are their dads to blame?) (Interview with Lenon). The Times 11 April 2017

Jarvis, P. (2017) ‘Caution: Identity Under Construction, The Psychologist, p.28-41, May 2017

Lenon, B. (2017). Much Promise, Successful Schools in England

Rachel Carlyle (2017). Raising teenagers: The top psychologist’s guide for parents (cites Williamson’s book). The Times 22 April 2017

Tukle, S. (2011). Alone Together

Williamson, I. (2017). We Need to Talk (published on May 4)




Life Beyond Marshmallows – the test revisited

I have a confession to make – I did the Marshmallow Test (“one now, or two later?”) with my son when he was four years old. The time-honoured finding of the test is that those who can sit it out for a bigger reward at the age of four are more likely to have higher educational attainment, more fulfilling careers and lives in adulthood due to their ability to delay gratification.

The self-control that they exhibit when waiting for the sweets predicts that they are more likely to work hard for exams, promotions and that they are less likely to succumb to excesses and even resist temptations to stray in relationships.  I know.  I bet you’re thinking I was an idiot to do the test on my son.  After all, how would I feel if he didn’t manage to sit it out? Would this supposed prediction into the future be a difficult burden to bare?

Perhaps I wouldn’t have done it if I thought too much about the ramifications, instead I was tempted by a combination of curiosity and opportunity.  I was in a phase of feeling like I didn’t really know what made my son tick and coincidentally I happened to be reading Mischel’s book where the infamous studies dating back to the 1960s are explained.

Whilst my son chose to wait, it turns out I needn’t have worried if he didn’t.  Recent research suggests that behaviour during the test may not give us the full picture of why those who wait are more successful in their later lives.  The fuller explanation which is now emerging suggests that the potential benefits bestowed upon the 30% of children who wait are accessible to all – given that it has less to do with an inner trait and more to do with teachable tactics.  Mind you, it’s also worth noting that critics of the test say that it doesn’t test the child at all, but instead reflects the degree to which the adult can be trusted to fulfil their promise of “two later” (and by implication, the consistency of care given to the child).

It’s the research conducted by Oxford University (Levy, 2015) that’s refined the understanding of self-control (and therefore the implications of the Marshmallow Test) by distinguishing between two contributory factors affecting our ability to delay gratification: (1) our willpower and (2) our use of self-management strategies.

  1. Willpower is best described as ‘control exerted to do something or restrain impulses’, a case of mind over matter if you like
  2. Self-management strategies are made up of two elements (Paul Dolan, 2014):
  • Practical steps we take to nudge ourselves towards the desirable behaviours that will take us closer to achieving our long-term goals, e.g. eating off smaller plates to lose weight, or putting our gym kit out in the evening to make it more likely to go in the morning (to get fit). These strategies remove the need for us to rely on conscious effort to do certain things and therefore make us more likely to do it.
  • It also includes changing our attention, either by distracting ourselves (e.g. those successful at the marshmallow test sang to take their mind off the sweets in front of them); ‘reframing’ target of our focus (e.g. seeing marshmallows as ‘fluffy clouds’ rather than edible sweets, seeing cigarettes as ‘cancer sticks’).

The researchers found:

  1. Willpower is a limited resource and is susceptible to fatigue – we only have so much in our tank.
  1. It’s like a muscle, the more you use willpower, the stronger it becomes.
  1. Those with high self-control rely on self-management strategies and therefore have surprisingly low willpower (because they don’t practice it). If they are given a test which prevents them from using their self-management strategies, they perform worse than those with low self-control.
  1. High self-control subjects are also more susceptible to the debilitating effects of fatigue than low self-control subjects.
  1. Glucose indirectly counteracts the effects of fatigue, by signalling to the old part of our brain that “reward is coming” (i.e. “food” in caveman terms) – which helps us to hold out for longer. This effect is more pronounced in those with high self-control (a scientific excuse for chocolate…).
  1. So, if you want to improve your self-control (or your child is a potential marshmallow-guzzler), then you can do so by developing self-management strategies, rather than relying on willpower alone.
  1. As adults, it also implies the need to be realistic, in that we can’t expect ourselves to maintain our self-control across multiple areas of our lives over a sustained period – something is going to give. We’ve only got to look at Tiger Woods and other celebrities who are famed for their seemingly uncharacteristic lapses in self-control in certain areas of their lives, whilst maintaining absolute control in others.

But what do self-management strategies look like in the real world? Well, I’m sure if you look at what you do on a daily basis with your kids, you’ll be using heaps.  Here’s a couple of examples from our family which illustrate the two types of ‘self-management strategies’:

  • Example of diverting attention: We tell our sons to distract themselves when they are drooling with hunger before mealtimes and that they’ll only make it harder to wait if they stand and watch us cook. ‘A watched kettle never boils’ as they say…
  • Example of a nudge: We leave the list of spellings that need to be learnt out on the kitchen table overnight to serve as a prompt to practice them straight after breakfast in the morning. If they are not done then, there’s lots of huffing and puffing about it. But by doing them routinely in the morning, he barely bats an eyelid.

So, we can all no doubt breathe easy in the knowledge that there’s stuff we’re already doing which demonstrate effective strategies and which will pave the way for them developing their own.

You could therefore argue that if that’s the case, there’s no need for us to bother unpicking the meaning behind marshmallow-eating.  For many, that may be true, but by understanding how these inner processes work, we can retrain our brains to get the outcomes we want and prevent ourselves (and our kids) falling off the proverbial bandwagon. Whilst some four-year olds may utilise the self-management strategies more naturally than others, the great news is that we can all learn.


Leverhulme Lecture (1): Self-Control: A problem of self-management (Levy, 2015)

Leverhulme Lecuture (2): The science of self-control (Levy, 2015)

Leverhulme Lecture (3): Marshmallows and moderation (Levy, 2015)

Mischel (2015).  Marshmallow Test – Understanding Self-Control

Paul Dolan (2014) Happiness By Design

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Piano Pain – only practice can cure it

 What do pianos and broccoli have in common?

Sadly it’s no joke, they both make my son squirm.  They’re banished to his Room 1O1 (along with prawns, gherkins and beetroot).  But unlike prawns, gherkins and beetroot, we’re going through the rather painful process of trying to repatriate them back into non-squirming territory.

I’ve got the classic torn-in-two-thing going on. My words of encouragement (“don’t give up, you’ll get there in the end”), are a Pavlovian response to an unofficial childhood mantra (“if in doubt, try harder”). However, I also feel uncomfortable with going anywhere near Tiger-Mum-land.

I get that it’s good to establish a strong work-ethic, but when it puts me in conflict with my kids, I feel quite conflicted myself.  I know it’s a bit naive of me to think it’s always going to be plain-sailing, but trading-off short-term pain for long-term gain is tough. I know that being an effective parent is not about winning popularity competitions, but faced with a wall of opposition it’s easy to doubt whether I’ve made the right call.

Looking at the big picture, learning the piano isn’t just about learning the piano, but also a lesson in how to keep going when you want to throw in the towel (it’s one of the ‘hard things’ that the proponents of Grit recommend). Great in theory, but the reality is quite another thing. Although my son wants to play the piano, he’s understandably frustrated when he struggles to master a hard piece. However, he’s also been doing it for long enough for us to see a predictable cycle of ‘hate-it, practice-it, love-it’ going on. He likes the outcome, not the process (a bit like me and gardening really).  Hopefully in time he’ll grow to enjoy the practice too and not feel like a wrong note is the end of the world.

At the moment though, his approach to learning a new tune has a lot in common with his approach to eating broccoli: painful, elongated, full of histrionics, tragic monologues, and lots of writhing-around.  Until he turned two (and decided he hated one of his first foods), I was unaware of the pain and suffering that a broccoli floret could inflict.  Call me a glutton for punishment, but I keep putting it on his plate in a bid to go beyond the limited selection of his preferred toddler-style veg.  I’ve got the vague recollection that mothers of babies are advised to continue to offer a food up to seven times after it has been rejected.  I have no idea if this applies to older children (I have a feeling not…), but the plan is that he’ll become desensitised to it eventually – after all, isn’t that what they do with phobias?

Mind you, I had a taste of my own medicine the other day when he spotted that I’d left the salmon skin on the side of my plate.  He was quick to point out that if he had to eat broccoli, I should eat the skin.  I hate fish skin.  It wasn’t even crispy, it was disgusting, but I channelled my inner ‘I’m a Celebrity..’ and suggested that we could both eat together on the count of three.  I thought it best not to faff, but to just go for it.  I went through with it and in doing so, ate both the skin and my words with my eyes shut tight.  When I opened my eyes, he was still staring at his broccoli skewered on his fork – although by then he had started, rather inexplicably, to talk to it.  Perhaps he thought that was going to help. He ate it eventually during what can only be described as an Oscar-worthy performance.

As for the dreaded new piano piece, we just focused on a line at a time. Whilst it was no party, it was the closest we’d get to a win-win.  A week on and he’s demob-happy that he’s now able to play it, cue sighs of relief all round (that is until we got the next piece...).

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Grit: what is it and how can we build it?

Scores on the doors – the trials and tribulations of parents’ evening

Parents’ evening has the curious ability of turning well-balanced adults into nervous wrecks.  Do our kids listen, have manners, have friends?  Are they kind? Are they blessed with an uncanny ability to understand complex equations (forgetting that we can barely calculate small change)?  We may be rational in all other areas of our lives, but our kids are our Achilles’ heel.

On the evening itself, we perch on miniature chairs, trying to understand rating scales, decode the euphemisms and remember our questions.  Despite understanding the need for impartiality, we want the teachers to like our kids and to feel that they’re on our team.  We want them to understand our child’s quirks (AKA their hidden genius) and to fan the flames of brilliance buried deep (perhaps very deep) within.  We expect them to be the love-child of Mary Poppins and Robbin Williams from Dead Poets Society.

Reception teachers have the most unenviable task of all, having to induct not only the children into school-life, but their parents too.  Every ten minutes they’re faced with a new set of parents who only really want to hear that their child is popular and resembles Einstein crossed with Mother Theresa. They may be the first to give us the reality-check that our kid’s amazing achievements are just ‘Expected’ for their age.  Until now, relatives may have laughed at their jokes without punchlines and nodded intently to their baffling ramblings.  Rather bizarrely we’re unprepared to hear that our children are human, just like us.  Any variation on “brilliant” seems like a criticism and despite teachers’ efforts to avoid comparisons, the elephant in the room remains – “where does my child sit in the pecking-order?”.

We’ve also got the age-old problem that we can lead a horse to water, but we can’t make it drink.  It’s the same with our kids.  We can help them with their homework, go to science museums and allow them to run wild outdoors, but the desire to be rule-abiding and hard-working can only come from them.  School is where they learn independence, to make friends and hopefully to think for themselves.  There’ll be some slip-ups along the way, but we need to pace ourselves – it’s a long haul!

Having said all that, parents’ evening can also surprise and delight.  As I hear so little about what my guys learn at school, seeing the contents of their trays is like the great reveal. This time, the following sentence caught my eye: “I live in a world of happiness”.  Despite it being some work on suffix endings, seeing that written by my eldest still made me smile.

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Move over Snowflakes, the Sun Kings are next in line…

The ‘Snowflake Generation’ was apparently one of the terms of the year in 2016.  I didn’t know what it meant and wrongly assumed it was directed at my kids’ age.  Instead it’s been described by the Collins Dictionary as “the young adults of the 2010s, viewed as being less resilient and more prone to taking offence than previous generations”.  Apparently Millennials who are between 18-24 years old believe they’re special, but are more fragile than previous generations – hence the term ‘snowflake’.

After breathing a sigh of relief that my kids aren’t implicated, it got me thinking about what their generation will be called and the long-term impact of current parenting trends (something I previously wrote about in my Guilt article).

Parental approaches have reflected our view on childhood through the ages.  We’ve gone from seeing them as economic entities (being sent up chimneys), to being seen and not heard, to rearing snowflakes.  Even more recently, our child-centric parenting practices focus on increasing self-esteem and reducing conflict (e.g. “Calmer, Easier Happier Parenting”).

We empathise more with our children, there’s less ‘tell’ and more discussion.  Rather than control them, we want to influence them.  This paradigm shift manifests itself in:

  1. Choice: today’s children are often allowed to exercise their choice in what they wear, eat and do (to name but a few…).
  1. Listening: we’re encouraged to talk eye-to-eye with our kids and have conversations with them, rather than preaching at them.  In return, kids these days expect to be listened to and heard.
  1. Apologising: I recently phoned my 5 year old up (via his Grandad’s mobile) to apologise for shouting at him before he left the house.  He’d traipsed half the garden inside, but five minutes later my guilt set in (needless to say, the phonecall confirmed he appeared unaffected by my tirade).  Apologising to a child in previous generations would have been seen as undermining the role of the adult.  Now we consider it the opposite.
  1. Answering-back: the days of “because I said so” are long-gone.  Parents now find themselves using their best persuasion tactics to do even the most simple things.  Rather unbelievably, I found myself recently praising my son when he said “you’re annoying me” (TBH I was grateful for any alternative to a melt-down…).
  1. Feelings: just as we try to get our kids to explain how they feel, parents are also talking about their feelings more.  Explaining to our children that we’re tired, have made a mistake, or are losing patience contrasts with previous generations where more authoritarian parents presented themselves as infallible.
  1. Table manners: there’s no longer the expectation that kids will finish the food on their plates.  In the light of concerns about over-eating in the West, we encourage our kids to decide when they’re full by ‘listening to their tummies’.  The slightly harsh “you won’t leave the table until you’ve finished” is no longer in tune with our democratic mantra.

More relaxed approaches to mealtimes invariably result in kids not learning to sit still, remain at the table, or eat anything at all – preferring instead to snack on the rolling buffet offered from the depths of mum’s handbag.

Most child-friendly restaurants offer colouring sheets and crayons as a distraction tactic; a park cafe near us has wide-screen TVs showing cartoons and it was even reported that a UK restaurant has introduced a 5% discount for families with well-behaved children.

  1. Supervision: kids from previous generations would disappear for the day and entertain themselves. Nowadays ‘baby-proofing’ is a verb.
  1. Over-scheduling: lots has been written about kids doing too many activities and not having enough free-play and time to themselves.

By being so child-centric and hyper-invested, we may be unwittingly setting our kids up for a difficult adjustment into adulthood and a lifetime of disappointment.  Following such carefully-curated childhoods, will they become entitled and egotistical? Will they expect to call the shots, make the decisions and take the lead (despite lacking the life experience to do so)?  The advent of the internet means that the notion of doing anything as boring as grocery shopping and queuing is an anathema to them. How then will they have the staying-power to make lemonade out of life’s lemons?

After having their needs met almost instantaneously, their desire for instant gratification may land them in hot water later on.  Used to having their parents hang on their every word, will they expect the world to indulge them similarly?  Growing up with parents as dedicated cheerleaders, they will feel capable of anything – but is this a recipe for narcissism? Having had their parents resolve disputes for them, will they expect life to be ‘fair’, yet paradoxically, to come out on top?  Will they be able to sit still, use cutlery, or take responsibility for themselves?

We’ve put children on a pedestal like never before, but here’s hoping we don’t pay the price by rearing a generation of Sun Kings who see themselves like their namesake, Louis XIV: “omniscient and infallible… around whom the entire realm orbited”.

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“Forget work-life balance, I’ve got crayoning to do” (Giles Coren, January 14th, 2017, The Times)

Grit: what is it and how can we build it?

Grit. Even saying it makes you screw your face up into a grimace. Ready for battle of some sort. It evokes images of Rocky Balboa training in the rain to “Eye of the Tiger” for his big fight. The analogy cuts deeper still, as grit’s about not taking flight, but having the fight. About standing our ground when things get tough (cue Billy Ocean…).

At my dad’s football club, they have jumped on this bandwagon by adopting Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping (“I get knocked down… But I get up again…. You’re never going to keep me down”) as an unofficial anthem to rally supporters’ pre-match hopes and dreams.  If I told you he supports Sunderland, you’d understand their need for optimism…

Even as long ago as 1895, Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” covered similar territory.  Despite the references to being a ‘man’, I got the sentiment when first received it on a good luck card as a child:

“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you…

…Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!”

And the references just keep on coming.  What about the proverb: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” (Palmer, 1840)? ‘Grit’ as a principle is far from new.

However, it’s reached prominence recently following the publication of Angela Duckworth’s book last year (‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’, 2016).  She defines grit as: “commitment to finish what you start, to rise from setbacks, to want to improve and succeed, and to undertake sustained and sometimes unpleasant practice in order to do so. – her book responds to her father’s focus on the importance of ‘genius’, by arguing that genius doesn’t create greatness, but instead it’s all about the grit. She has a great TED Talk on this topic.

Duckworth explains that passion and perseverance for long-term goals, matters more than IQ, even EQ.  Writing this reminds me of an earlier blog about life lessons we teach our children and I had a wry smile when I heard Duckworth utter the words “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” in her TED talk – exactly the words my Dad said to me.  She also talks about the importance of cultivating a ‘growth mindset’ in our kids so that they understand that ability is not fixed, but that it can grow with purposeful practice.

I can trace my first awareness of it to some feedback a teacher gave me when I was at school aged 12.  My school friends and I had been set a task to sweep leaves (a task which is probably unheard of now in schools).  She later praised me for my “stickability”.  I’m not even sure it’s a proper word, but for some reason it’s stuck with me.  It’s interesting that wasn’t told that I was doing a good job, just that I kept going. That in itself motivated me to keep going (I guess I didn’t want to prove the teacher wrong).

So what can we do to cultivate grit in our children?  A fine parent website recommends:

  • Emphasise that the secret to success is failure
  • Implement a ‘Hard Thing’ rule
  • Talk about our own set-backs
  • Share our experience of failure and how we’ve persevered
  • Allow our children to experience some frustration                                                          

Great as all this sounds.  It does come with a health warning when Duckworth says: “the point of true grit, is that no one ever gets there”.  We need to be careful that it doesn’t just end up being perfectionism in disguise.  To re-use a phrase: “we need to know when it’s time for grit and when it is time to quit”.

After all, whilst perseverance is laudable, there’s no point in flogging a dead horse.

Was Aristotle right when he said “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man”?

If you happen to have a 7 year-old, this well-known saying may make you feel a bit queasy.  Despite waxing lyrical about various parental topics, in reality I’m governed by instinct rather than best practice.  I just can’t help it.  But when faced with the possibility that the past 7 years have made an indelible mark, I feel the burden of responsibility.

So reading this line recently resonated in a way it’s never done before.  It also changed the way I felt about the quote itself.  I’d previously thought that it seemed fair enough – especially given that Bowlby’s attachment theory suggests that our recipe for relationships is established in babyhood.  More recently a link’s been found between maths/reading ability of 7 year olds and their future socio-economic status.  Whilst this may all be true, now that it has direct relevance, it feels too constraining.

On the one hand, the seventh year of life seems rife with rites of passage: it’s when kids sit their SATs in the UK; with some even sitting exams for highly selective schools; it’s when medieval pages would train to become knights; when boys started school in ancient Greece; and when Danish kids start school nowadays.  It was also the age of the children when they first appeared in the ‘Seven Up’ documentary charting their lives.

Some of these milestones are associated with ability and maturity, but maybe they also coincide with when they start to become them?  That’d make sense if important decisions are being made which may influence their futures.  However, the reality is that it’s the parents not the children who are making the decisions (although selective schools must believe that there is some predictive validity in ability at that age).

In contrast, as parents of toddlers we often attribute melt-downs to a host of external factors (sleep, hunger etc.) rather than to themselves.  I once euphemistically described my 4 year old to a future teacher as an ‘unfinished story ’ – a bit cheesy I know, but I didn’t want to put him in a box.

But the truth is that we’re all ‘unfinished stories’.  In the words of Bob Dylan, ‘if you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying’ – it’s just that some of our ‘stories’ are longer than others.  With more years under our belts we develop a consistency that becomes ‘us’.  Before the age of seven, kids try out lots of ‘new ways of being’, then they plateau and settle into patterns which feel right for them.

A case in point is that I find it easier to describe how my older son is wired than his younger brother (who is 4 years old).  Whilst I have a general gist with my youngest, I feel that I may not give him the credit he deserves by confusing ‘age and stage’ with ‘character’ (hence my reference to him as an ‘unfinished story’…).

My other difficulty with this rather fixed view of a seven year old is that conflicts with what I tell my kids after testing times: ‘tomorrow is a new day’.  Viewing ourselves as able to change and adapt is something I feel quite strongly about – along with the notion that we can choose how we want to be. Nothing is set in stone.  But that view makes Aristotle’s phrase feel restrictive as it could stop us from seeing the potential for future growth and development.

Whilst I’d like to hope that my seven year old has a solid foundation, I’m also hoping that age and experience will help him become more rounded.  With this in mind, I could adapt Aristotle’s line to say:  “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the foundations of the man”.

However, this may be a moot point.  The average life expectancy was only about 30yrs in ancient Greece, compared to 80yrs now.  Back in the day a boy would have already lived 23% of his lifetime by the time he reached 7; compared to today’s 7 year olds who are only 8% of the way through theirs.

If we adjust the relative age of Aristotle’s ‘7 year old’ to a modern day one, they’d actually be 18 years old.  We could therefore re-write the saying for modern times: “Give me a child until he is 18 and I’ll show you the man”.  

Now, I don’t think anyone would argue with that?

Further content:

Happiness is there for the taking (more from Aristotle…)

Kindness – could small acts make a big difference?

Related content on parenting and child development

The Power of Imagination: Use it, or Lose it

Our imagination can be both wonderful and scary.  I’m not sure how good mine is on the ‘wonderful’ side, but I definitely blame the ‘scary’ side for my inability to watch the news.  My eldest appears to be wired similarly – he’s prone to nightmares from the merest suggestion of something unpleasant (even impacted by his lesson on the first world war at school).

In general, I think people view imagination a bit like a sense of humour.  We all like to think we have got a good one, but we don’t consciously learn it – it’s just something we pick up by osmosis.

But does it matter where we are on the imagination-spectrum?  When I think of people with good imaginations, I think of qualities such as ‘interesting’, ‘creative’ and ‘captivating’ (my father-in-law tells legendary stories about the naughty zookeeper and the three monkeys – Cuthburt, Horace and Peter).  Moreover, it just sounds so appealing to be described as such.

I also have this hunch that it’s a useful life skill – that a good imagination is the basis of creativity, innovation and problem-solving.  Drifting off to the recesses of your mind during a long car journey or stint in a doctor’s waiting room can also be a handy distraction. In contrast, when I think hypothetically of those not similarly blessed, I think of a grey world.  However, nothing operates in such extremes.

So if it’s a useful thing to have, to what extent is it cultivated by parents, nurseries and schools?  I certainly remember hearing about the importance of role play at my sons’ nursery and about getting the balance right between teacher and child-led activities.  But what happens once play is replaced by times tables?  My Dad recently made the observation that children may start out with a rich imagination but as they grow up, their focus becomes narrower (getting funneled into GSCEs, A-levels and sometimes down to just one subject at University).  As they progress through school, we need to emphasise activities where children have to think for themselves if we’re going to end up with independent thinkers.  After all, we all know the saying “if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it”

But the challenge for my eldest when he was younger was that he needed something to get him kick-started.  To use that cringe-worthy metaphor: seeds need water to grow.  Give him a blank sheet of paper and well, you’d end up with a blank sheet of paper.  Either that or being asked “what shall I draw?”.  I think he needed a bit of confidence just to let his mind run away with itself.

My second child is the complete contrast: a creative soul whose drawings are a stream of consciousness; whose desire to transform himself into all manner of characters knows no bounds.  Whilst his drawings still need a fair bit of interpretation, his mind is brimming with ideas he wants to share.

Whilst there’s clearly a difference in predisposition, some of it is due to me.  I was a classic helicopter parent with my first-born.  I didn’t let him get frustrated, or figure things out for himself (at the time, it just seemed cruel when I knew I could help him).  In retrospect I can see these struggles are an opportunity for kids to develop their independent thinking.  They can practice trying to solve problems and build both their self-efficacy and appetite for it in the process.

Unsurprisingly, with only two years apart, my second son has had the ‘benefit’ of more space.  At the time, I used to beat myself up at not giving him the same VIP experience as my first, but now I’m starting to see the advantages.  Who knows how much is nature and how much is nurture, but either way, I love seeing their imaginations develop and watching my youngest have a positive effect on his older brother.  Age is but a number and all that.  As time’s gone on, we’ve ended up talking quite a bit about imagination at home – openly blaming my eldest’s ‘good imagination’ for his nightmares and in giving praise for creative ideas and home-designed Lego constructions.  My belief is that if I tell them they have good imaginations, I’ll be tapping into the power of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’ll see.

At the same time, as my youngest seems to have been given a fast-track pass to Bing Bong’s world in ‘Inside Out’, he’s providing the stimulus for my eldest’s imagination.  With his uninhibited younger brother in tow, my eldest is letting himself go bit-by-bit. I love hearing their phoney American accents as they act out a make-believe story in their dens and when they bring their Lego men to life.

In fact, you could say building their imagination is a lot like the Lego Movie: it’s about becoming a Master Builder and learning to build off-plan.  To go their own way and write their own story.


The Art of Discipline: Lessons from the French

I belatedly read “French children don’t throw food” (Pamela Drukerman, 2013) and loved hearing about France from an outsider’s perspective; I was also intrigued to hear about the French recipe for raising a family.  Whilst the French have also received some flak for being harsh, as a Francophile, I was happy to be swept up in the portrayal of their supposed parental utopia – and belief that their chicness translates into a similar tour de force en famille….

One of the main things that stuck with me from the book was the notion of a bêtise – meaning ‘a small act of naughtiness’.  It reminded me of the ‘green warning’ cards that are given at my sons’ school.  The appeal lies in the distinction between a grand mal (or ‘red card’ in the school context) and something which isn’t ideal, or advisable, but is recoverable.  This brings shades of grey into the telling-off process.  If everything is nuclear, kids don’t have space to breathe, test the boundaries or make mistakes.  Green warnings and bêtises give them scope to be on the edge of trouble, without the wheels falling off.

At home the equivalent is the rhetorical “do you want to go into the corner?”.  The irony is that I’m sure we try harder to keep our kids out of the corner than they do.  I always hope that the threat of it may work magic, however I remember a painful day about four years ago that I put my then three year old in the corner before 7.30am (I know, I know…).  I knew it was going to be a long day, but the threat of it didn’t work, so I felt my hands were tied…  My prediction was right though, having already been there once, he was like a boomerang in/out of the corner all day.  Let’s just say if he’d got out of bed on the wrong side, it would have been a better bet for him to go back to bed and get out the other side instead…

Even at the time, I knew all was lost with that first visit to the corner.  His ego had taken a knock in the battle for dominance and ‘the corner’ became a self-fulfilling prophecy – he stopped trying to be ‘good’, he was no longer trying to live up to an expectation.

Trying maintain our kids’ self-esteem  when they’re being told off is certainly tricky, but is essential to give them the confidence that they can do things differently in future.  Whilst they are liable to over-generalise (‘I’m in the corner, I must be bad’), it’s up to us to explain behaviour is just that – it’s not a personality trait.  After all, it’s entirely their choice what they do and how they behave.  Like a lot of things, this is of course easier said than done because as well as them whipping themselves up, they also whip us up.  Each difficult interaction is wearing and our patience is likely to wane as a result.  We may then be quicker to chastise than we would otherwise be for a similar bêtise on a different day.

That’s why the notion of a bêtise is so appealing.  It’s an allowable weakness and enables the kids to see that whilst they’ve had a minor lapse, it doesn’t have to continue.  A case of ‘your past does not define you’ if you like.  And for us, a bêtise is just an early warning sign that they need a little support to get back on track.

Guilt: It doesn’t make you a better parent, It just makes you worry more.

Famously the preserve of Catholics, guilt seems to be the hallmark of modern day parenting.

It’s seemingly universal, whether you work or not.  I’ve even known mums feeling guilty for not feeling guilty when they returned to work. It seems to start from the moment people find out they’re pregnant (“did I drink alcohol before I knew?”; “am I eating the right things”…). Indeed, a friend of mine’s reaction to her youngest not getting a wristband from the hospital after he was born was “he’ll think we didn’t care as much about him as his brother” (See my blog on Birth Order for more on the worries that come with having multiple children).  I know it’s only natural, but it’s probably not helpful to think that our kids are going to be judge and jury over us as they audit keepsakes from their childhood.

Guilt can also set in when we are doing a good job parenting – especially on those occasions where we won’t be receiving accolades from our kids.  They’re those times that we’ve all had when we ask them to go to bed when they don’t want to; when they want another helping of pud; or when we confiscate their felt tips after they’ve drawn on the wall.  Whilst we can love them more than life itself, parenting is not a popularity contest and it can feel difficult to be ‘bad cop’.  They are never going to thank us for setting limits (until perhaps they have kids of their own).

I guess you could say that guilt shows we care, but it’s also dangerously cultivated as badge of honour.  An ever escalating series of Debbie downers does not show you love your kids more than the next person.  Too much rumination can only be a bad thing – it’s an endless cycle.  It’s also a waste of time – we’re only human so we’re on a hiding to nothing pretending that we’re not. Just get on with doing the best you can and living your life.

In terms of the practicalities of understanding it in order to manage it, Robin Grille wrote a great article called “Parent Guilt – a silent epidemic” (The Natural Child Project, 2016).

He explains:

We need to understand it to tackle it:

To do that we need to distinguish between remorse (focused on the ‘other’ and prompts us to repair damage caused) and guilt being internally-focused – a way of beating ourselves up.  I’m not sure about the definitions, but my take on his meaning is that a feeling which prompts action is constructive, whereas inaction doesn’t achieve anything.

Our expectations are unrealistic:

  • Modern-day parenting ideals are often impossible to achieve – previous generations never parented in the way we try to;
  • Counsellors spend years learning how to listen, so it’s unsurprising that we can sometimes get it wrong;
  • If “it takes a village to raise a child”, then our Mumsnet generation are ill-equipped to do so. With geographically dispersed families, there’s often no helping hands at hand;
  • We therefore shouldn’t blame ourselves if we’re at the end of our tether – but instead see it as a signal that we need more support. That doesn’t mean drafting in a team of nannies to rival Kim Kardashian, but simply connecting with like-minded friends.

Yet don’t minimise what children feel:

  • The commonly uttered get-out clause ‘kids are resilient’ brushes over the fact that all of us will at some point need to apologise to our kids;
  • Instead of focusing on their resilience, we should instead ask ourselves whether we have enough resilience to hear when they tell us we’ve let them down.

But there’s light at the end of the tunnel:

Whilst Grille urges us to think back to how we felt at our kids’ age to enable us to respond with more compassion, when we’ve not been able to do so, he suggests:

  • Being kinder to ourselves by acknowledging that we are coping with challenges unique to our generation;
  • Acknowledging that we’re learning as we go along. We can learn from our mistakes and that learning will make us better in the future;
  • Accepting that we all have blind spots (often in the very areas that our own parents had lapses) – so there will be times when we will upset our children unintentionally and we need to apologise;
  • Trying not to shoulder the burden of living up to a perfect ideal – taking the pressure off will help us be more resilient to the realities of day-to-day familiy life.

Perhaps taking some of these ideas into account will help us get on with living our lives rather than worrying about them?

You can read Grille’s full article at