December 07, 2022
By Dr Cassie Rhodes
There is a lot going on in the world and our perspectives (whether we like it or not) are shaped by the news media that we read and hear and the extent to which things resonate in our own lives. In the last week, you’ve likely seen a number of issues which might have stopped you in your parenting tracks and left you puzzled over how best to respond.
Recent news articles, in Britain at least, have highlighted that a quarter of older teens now have a probable mental disorder and have surfaced musings around what parents can do in the face of the powerful force that is social media, and how to ask curious questions about others’ ethnic and cultural backgrounds in a way that is sensitive, inclusive and respectful?
In some ways, the ‘answer’ to these issues is complex. In other ways, it isn’t. It is easy to feel a lack of agency as a parent (Kate Winslet articulated it clearly regarding social media), but parents should always be reassured that they occupy a powerful and central position when it comes to influencing their children’s mental health, wellbeing and ability to relate to others. All is not lost! Focusing on life’s controllables is a positive antidote to the tides of information that float into our inboxes daily and threaten to make us feel inadequate and hopeless.
Last week, my 13 year old was lying on the floor watching the telly, when he suddenly blurted out the observation that, in his short lifetime, he had lived through a global pandemic, a war on Europe’s borders and the death of a monarch. It sounded like something he had discussed elsewhere, perhaps in school, and had yet to make sense of. I was taken aback with how casually he said it and, for a few moments, struggled to come up with a response that wasn’t dismissive or that minimised the gravity of what he was saying. I immediately felt a sense of sadness, irritation perhaps, that these things were on his childhood radar.
My children, like yours, have had to learn early on that life is uncertain; full of twists and turns that can take adults by surprise too. They’ve had to learn that disappointment, when it comes, is something that has to be faced head on. My son’s remarks reminded me that we can’t just move on from difficulty without some consideration of what we have been through. In some ways, we are still in the midst of coming to terms with the disruption that the pandemic caused, practically and psychologically. Denying that, or resisting discussion about it, won’t be helpful.
However, even though it was a tough experience, we got through it. We likely all experienced some moments of joy during lockdowns and families may have even generated new habits or ‘Covid keeps’. Perhaps you never used to exercise together and now do, perhaps you learned a new skill and have kept it going. Being able to extract some meaning, some learning, from the experience is just the sort of gentle reframing that allows us to cope with difficulty and can help sustain our children’s and family resilience.
Since the pandemic has officially ended, we have, naturally, packed in as many activities, parties and getaways as we can muster. We have likely worried about things like ‘learning loss’, children’s mental health and the social catching-up that we have all missed out on.
Perhaps, as we move into the holiday season, we should take the opportunity to slow down again, to say ‘no thanks’ to one or two social invitations that come into our inboxes and to set aside time for solitude, 1:1 time with our children and an altogether imperfect festive break. At this time of year, it’s tempting to rush, cram in as much as possible and try to please everyone. But by focusing on things that we can control or influence, and injecting humour and joy into our lives, we can strive to make the holiday period happy, rather than hectic.
When we, like Kate Winslet, feel puzzled about how to future-proof our children, or at a loss with some of the things going on in the world, we should all remember that, as individuals, we do have the ability to prompt change, through our everyday actions. At this time of year, gift-giving is one simple area where we can exert a positive influence on our children’s growth and development. I’ve decided that my aim this festive season is to give the young people in my life gifts that focus on their specific interests, encourage them to create, build and explore, which make them feel like active participants in society and which challenge the gender status quo. In short, gifts which might empower them with a sense of agency and hope about the exciting future that lies ahead.
Take gender stereotypes, for example. We know that they can form and become embedded when children are very young. We also know that these stereotypes are not beneficial to their development. In fact, research has shown that, by the age of 6, gender stereotypes result in girls avoiding subjects they think require them to be “really, really smart”, which may be linked to their lower participation in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) when they are older, and can result in boys developing lower reading skills than girls. Buying non-stereotypical gifts, discussing non-stereotypical present choices with friends and family, and chatting to the kids about play choices, likes, dislikes, and where these come from, is empowering. If you want some tips and ideas, check out Let Toys Be Toys, The Good Play Guide and gender equality charity, Lifting Limits.
Equally, engaging in responsible social activism about causes that capture their interest (climate change, animal protection, poverty, race and equality, for example) can provide children and young people with a sense of purpose and identity. This can help to build resilience to the onslaught of bad news and crises that they are bombarded with on the TV and elsewhere. Advocating for meaningful change might also help to reduce any anxiety that they feel about these important issues. To engender this sense of social responsibility, why not opt for gifts that help them to understand global challenges, that feed their curiosity about different cultures and which fuel their desire to innovate? Try to support organisations which are ethical, fairly traded, slavery-free and ecologically sound, and use small businesses where possible.
It might sound easier said than done, but there are a whole range of ideas to consider. Why not adopt an animal in the UK or further afield? Gift a magazine subscription to foster an interest in science and nature? Attend an online family cooking class led by refugee and migrant chefs on their journey to integration? Give them books to help them appreciate diversity and foster tolerance and respect? Gift an experience, rather than an object, regift, gift vintage finds, or gift your time. If you are still stuck for ideas, this list has some interesting suggestions for younger children.
Helping children to process ‘social shocks’ like Covid, war or climate change was the subject of an inspiring webinar that I attended last week.
This event celebrated the launch of a new children’s book called Learning to Live with Fog Monsters. The book, which is beautifully illustrated by Luci Gorell-Barnes (check out the image at the top of this newsletter), has been produced by researchers at the University of West England, Bristol. It is part of the ‘Voices in a Pandemic’ project which works with children to capture their voices and ensure that their worldviews and experiences are heard and considered by those who support them. The research showed, strongly, that children want to be listened to and that they want the caring adults in their lives to help them to develop a sense of agency in enacting positive change.
Much like this edition of Wednesday Wisdom, it’s a book about hope. It starts with a warning siren and the arrival of the invisible Fog Monsters, who enter Layla and Arlo’s world and change it, forever. These horrible monsters and the swirling fog which are ‘spoiling things for lots of people’, are actually metaphors for hidden risk, and the story goes on to explore how the children respond to it. As the book progresses, and Layla and Arlo begin to adapt, they formulate an ‘awesome plan for making things better’, making active decisions about how they want to move forward.
Rightly, the story doesn’t offer a single solution for dealing with difficult social issues. Different children will have different coping mechanisms, different communities will have different needs. Its message about building a sense of efficacy is inspiring and thought provoking. As the book says, ‘talking through ideas, planning, and making things happen really works! It’s amazing what people can do when we listen to each other and help each other out’.
Back to the school holidays. The festive break is never going to be perfect. Mine certainly won’t be and nor should it be. But if I can share conversations and experiences with my family which give them hope, creativity and curiosity about the future, it will be a good one!
Are you a Tooled Up member?
If you are interested in Tooled Up resources on gearing up for the festive season, take a look here.
Looking ahead to next year, we are very excited to announce that our programme of webinars for spring is taking shape. We have webinars coming up on:
Q&A on low mood and teen depression with Professor Shirley Reynolds (will be pre-recorded later in December)
All about allergies follow up with Professor Adam Fox
Q&A with former Saracens captain and head teacher, Floyd Steadman
Misogyny and sexism with Dr Lisa Sugiura
Paediatric cardiology with Dr Gareth Morgan
Andrew Tate and toxic influencers with Dr Lisa Sugiura
Elite rowing with Caoimhe Dempsey and James Ball
Practical strategies for supporting children with dyslexia with Sarah Cox and Kate King
Developing an understanding of disability and self-advocacy skills for children and young people with Miranda Eadonable
Early reading with Keya Elie
Got any questions for our experts? Please get in touch, making it clear which webinar you are referring to in the title of your email. Booking is already open for any event with a link.