June 21, 2023
Tenacity and Technique
By Dr Kathy Weston
If you live in the UK, you may have seen a programme last week called “The Girl Who Sails with Her Breath”. It told the story of one’s family’s experience of supporting a young adult with cerebral palsy in her mission to sail across the Atlantic.
Witnessing the family’s resilience was quite something. It was particularly inspiring to hear Natasha, who has no control over her body except for her breathing, say, ‘Life is full of walls and it is my job to bring them down’. She considered crossing the Atlantic to be similar to the challenges she faces on a daily basis and was not deterred in the slightest by the difficulties she was likely to face. Aided by the most devoted and innovative parents I have ever encountered in my life, she did it! Her dad seemed to be an inventor or engineer who could magic anything she needed. A boat that she could steer using a straw and that she controlled with her breath? No problem! A helmet so she could see underwater? Easy. A new boat to accommodate a trip across the Atlantic? Let’s see what we can do. An apparatus to enable her to climb mountains? Let’s rustle something up in the shed.
I have never witnessed such tenacity, courage or innovation driven by parental love and a desire to ensure one’s child was able to fulfil her potential. It was a humbling programme and there was so much to reflect on as a family. Every member of Natasha’s family was extraordinary, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her dad in particular. He could literally fix certain things for Natasha and that must have felt amazing. He could problem-solve practicalities on her behalf and fed off her boundless enthusiasm and ambition. There was a real sense that they felt ‘in it together’, a beautiful and supportive dynamic existed between them.
Talking of being ‘in it together’, the GCSE examination process drew to a close in our house this week and, from a parental perspective, it feels surreal, exciting and unnerving at the same time. The structure imposed by exam schedules on family life has suddenly evaporated. No more nudging (some would say ‘nagging’) for teens to get up and make the most of revision time, no more thinking about the need to top up ‘study leave snacks’ and no more driving them to and from exams on a daily basis (an incredibly disruptive addition for working parents).
When a child takes these high-stake exams, the whole family does so too. I truly feel that we went through something together and I have learned a lot from the process. Firstly, pace is everything and it isn’t easy to manage. It takes a group effort to look at the extraordinary list of exams (it totalled 21 in the end) they have to face and consider how and when revision should take place. In the year before GCSEs, get your child into the rhythm of looking for the ‘knots’ across each subject and owning up to struggles. It saves so much time longer term.
I know it sounds like a simple piece of advice, but behind every exam is an examiner and a mark scheme. Knowing how an examiner thinks and what they are looking for is important. As I told my son, examiners are real people! They are generally kind and understanding teachers who are sitting somewhere on a sunny day marking hundreds of papers. Our children need to make it easy for them. Familiarisation with mark schemes becomes increasingly important close to the exams, so whilst we want to nurture a love of each subject as far as possible, the reality of the matter is, exam strategy and technique really do matter.
If you have a child facing GCSEs next year, encourage them to talk to older students who have just been through them. They have fresh information in their heads and lots of advice to pass on. Perhaps a neighbour’s teen has some words of wisdom to hand down? Older students, fresh from exams, are adept at teaching younger students tricks of trade; useful mnemonics, advice on the best revision guides or resource websites. Every student will have had their ‘go to’ sites. We ended up relying heavily on one called Save My Exams because it contains all the resources needed for most subjects, 10,000 past papers and 70,000 exam questions, mark schemes and some amazing PDF and video tips.
The other very important tip I want to convey is around allergies. If your child has any kind of hay fever, consider months and months in advance how to manage it over exam season and whether you need to get ahead of the condition by investing in particular nasal sprays or medication. Don’t leave it to the last minute. Many students have felt horribly depleted by conditions like hay fever and research suggests that it can affect their final grade. Equally, it is a good idea ahead of a big exam year to book in those eye, ear and dental checks before school re-starts.
At this time of year, children and young people’s emotional resilience can be tested in multiple ways. They have sports’ days, prize days, exams, school reports, performances and exams to get through and are contemplating transitions of all kinds. It is our job to help them feel psychologically anchored, calm and positive about the progress they have made and upcoming changes. The courage displayed by Natasha in the TV show is something all of us can learn from and feel inspired by. No matter the challenges churned up this coming autumn (new school, new year group, new friends, new setting, new teachers), let’s try and encourage our children to face the uncertainty with the wind in their faces and with a sense of hope and belief in their own abilities to cope.
In the UK, it was Father’s Day last Sunday. This is meant to be a day where we come together to honour fathers, father figures, paternal bonds and the influence of fathers generally. Apparently, it was founded in the state of Washington, United States, by Sonora Smart Dodd in 1910, but is celebrated by many different countries and cultures all over the world.
When my own Dad visited last week, I asked him what he wanted to do for upcoming Father’s day. He replied that it is a load of nonsense and he doesn’t see the point of celebrating. Many might feel the same, but perhaps it is worth using the day to think about fathering in general.
In recent years, the role of the father within the family unit has transformed. According to sources like the American Psychological Association, fathers are no longer always the traditional, married, breadwinner, authoritarian figure in the family. Fathers (or father figures and non-birthing partners) come in all shapes and sizes, but most importantly have the capacity to be capable caregivers and powerful role models in their child’s life.
While the COVID-19 pandemic was disruptive for everyone, research has noted that work and living arrangements were particularly impacted for fathers. A number of fathers found themselves working from home or being put on furlough (though we know from other data that mums were more likely to opt for furlough or take reduced hours for childcare reasons), which meant many had more time at home with their children. Survey reports found that the overwhelming majority of fathers loved spending this time with their families; so much so, that a substantial number of fathers opted to spend more time at home on an ongoing basis. Fathers also reported feeling more confident as parents and felt they had a better relationship with their children.
This being said, not all fathers had a positive experience. Separated fathers reported seeing their children less during the pandemic and, sadly, only a minority left lockdown feeling like they had a good relationship with their child. This further highlights the importance of relationship building between fathers and their children, and the imperative need that they are supported where appropriate.
In our post-lockdown world, the fact that more dads are staying at home; either working remotely, or working in the role of stay-at-home parent (because that is also a full time job!), has been acknowledged as one of the ‘most important social developments of the 21st century’! So, how does this increased family time impact on children’s development, motivations and interests? There is limited evidence to draw upon, but we do know that increased levels of father involvement can lead to a number of positive outcomes for their children, including a decreased likelihood of regular smoking or behavioural problems in adolescence, a better ability to navigate social situations and develop and maintain healthy relationships, and better educational outcomes.
We also know that children tend to mirror their parents’ activity levels and evidence from a review of articles spanning seven years suggests that there is a modest relationship between a dad’s level of physical activity and that of his child’s. Research illustrates that this is particularly impactful for girls. Within a sports context, a healthy, positive relationship with their father whilst growing up appears to help female athletes navigate male-dominated sports later on in their adult life, and studies with Australian female footballers found players reflecting on powerful father-daughter bonding experiences in their early days in the sport.
Bonding with your child doesn’t have to cost the earth and carving out quality time together doesn’t necessarily mean doing ‘something special’. Some of the richest conversations and moments can happen in the most mundane situations. For example, sitting side by side in a car on the journey to football practice (as opposed to face to face) can lead to enlightening and meaningful chats. Don’t overlook these opportunities for discussion or time spent together. Recent evidence found that most family favourite leisure time activites for non-resident fathers (or fathers who don’t live with their children full time) and their children were home-based and free. Gardening, walking the dog, bike rides, board or video games, and drawing or painting, were top of the list, followed by community based activities such as cinema trips, shopping, visiting the zoo or park. Non-resident fathers were found to have a much higher degree of parenting satisfaction when they regularly engaged in these types of activities with their children. If you are in this situation, and would like some inspiration for community based activities, local charities and groups may put on meetings or trips to attend. One charity in Edinburgh, ‘Dads Rock’, not only puts on regular music groups for dads and kids, but also runs hair styling workshops for fathers, which is adorable!
We know family makeup can be complicated. Perhaps your family doesn’t have a father figure and that is also okay. Father’s day can be difficult for many people in a myriad of different family situations, so over the weekend we were thinking about those who have a good relationship with their father; those who never knew them; those who knew their father for a short time; those who wish they were one; fathers who have lost their children; fathers who have an estranged relationship with their children; and those who are holding their families together on their own.
It’s challenging for both mums and dads to balance busy work lives with parenting. I clearly remember a conversation I had with Paul Pomroy, then CEO of McDonalds UK. He told me, “People often ask me what it's like being the boss, and I always ask them if they are a parent, as being the boss of McDonalds is far easier than learning your way as a dad”.
It reminded me of something that expert in child development, Professor Michael Lamb, once said to me. He remarked that, whilst there are skills that we can learn as parents, it is also critically important for us to feel confident in what we bring to our children’s lives. He mentioned that, for dads’ confidence to grow organically, it’s crucial that they just be themselves. Much is made in research of the role that fathers often play in adventurous or boisterous play with their children. However, all dads are different. Some play in a stimulating way or enjoy sports. Others might like quieter pursuits, such as drawing and art and that’s great! Professor Lamb advised dads not to feel pressured to do things that don’t feel authentic. To create an enduring relationship with your child, it’s more important to ensure that quality time feels rewarding for you both.
When we are thinking about acquiring parenting abilities, those that we develop in the workplace can transfer brilliantly to family life. In fact, during our chat, Paul highlighted various skills that he strives to use both at home and work, including mentoring, asking good questions (rather than supplying all the answers), showing sincere curiosity, nurturing talent and recognising a diverse range of perspectives.
It is worth noting, however, that the kind of problem-solving hat that we might put on at work may not always be the most successful strategy at home. Whilst Natasha benefited greatly from her dad’s practical expertise and ingenuity, children don’t need us to solve all of their problems for them. Often, they simply need us to listen patiently and act as mentors, nudging them to think about different strategies and come up with some solutions themselves. It’s good for them to understand that we have problems and make mistakes too. Where appropriate, I always recommend any parent to chat to children about things that went a little awry during the working day. Talking to children about our own failures and modelling a proactive and positive way forward can help to establish a family culture where mistakes are welcomed and seen as part of effective learning. This normalisation of mistakes in family life isn’t just about getting homework done without a shouting match. It is about cultivating our children’s future employability and creating an atmosphere that ensures they are able to reach their learning potential. It will help them to look forward to feedback (in the form of GCSE results perhaps?) and see it as motivating, and it can help to protect them from problematic perfectionism.
When I spoke to Paul, he had some useful advice for striking the kind of work/life equilibrium that we all aim for. He noted that it is entirely possible to balance the demands of a busy (and in his case, high profile) job with being an active parent, but that this kind of culture needs to start at the top. He hopes that people like him, in senior positions, can start to reduce the pressure felt by employees to stay late in the office or workplace. He quoted the advice of a former boss, who told him never to tell anyone to ‘finish their work’, as it’s rare that work is ever finished (too true). Instead, set a time to stop and go home! He described himself as a ‘noisy leaver’ each day – someone who makes his colleagues aware that he is going home to help with bath time and is not working late. Perhaps something for my readers in managerial positions to ponder?
Are you a Tooled Up member?
We’re really excited to announce that, in recognition of International Fathers’ Mental Health Day, we’ll be hosting an online event with a panel of experts about dads’ and mental health. Look out for more information coming soon.
If you are a Tooled Up subscriber and want to hear more from Paul Pomroy, why not tune into our podcast interview? He talks openly about his parenting style, help-seeking, finding a good work/life balance and how many workplace skills can be transferred to family life. If you’d like to learn more about research into fatherhood, don’t miss our interview with Adrienne Burgess, joint Chief Executive and Head of Research at The Fatherhood Institute, the UK’s fatherhood “think-and-do-tank”. We also have interviews with Professor Michael Lamb who discussed effective fathering and Justin Bowen who talked to us about his experience of becoming a single dad through bereavement. Same sex dads might wish to listen to an interview with Professor Susan Golombok on different family forms and outcomes.
On a different note, would you like to know more about key issues surrounding ADHD? What are the root causes? What does the diagnosis pathway look like for a child and their parents? How can teachers best support children with ADHD? Are social media apps such as TikTok having an impact on diagnosis rates? We’re really excited to announce that we’ll be joined by an expert panel for a live event on July 13th at 12pm to find out answers to these questions and many more. Book your place now. If you have any questions to put to our panel, please get in touch.