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November 30th, 2012

Christmas, Materialism and Toys

Child Psychologist and play expert Amanda Gummer has warned parents not to give in to pressure and buy kids lots of expensive toys this Christmas. (Research, carried out by Sainsbury’s and reprted in Metro on 30th November, has found that parents spend an average of £104.4 on each child.) She thinks that the lists of top toys released at this time of year and of course advertising add to the pressure on parents. She advises: “Don’t give in to the pressure from the media and the school playground to buy the most expensive, latest toys on the market. Often toys that children will play with over and over again don’t make it into the top 10 lists.” (clickhere to see Amanda’s article).

In Carl Honoré’s book Under Pressure he explores the nature of modern toys and looks particularly at electronic toys and toys like iTeddy which do all the child’s thinking for them and concludes that these do not allow for the child’s imagination to grow. Simpler toys like dolls, construction kits, train sets and cars, ‘house’ items like kitchen sets provide the richest experience for children because they can use their own imagination more. Many parents have had the experience of the child unwrapping an expensive, complicated gizmo at Christmas only to find it discarded and the child playing with the box it came in a week later. The Stockholm based International Toy Research Centre concludes that what children really need is time without external input so that they can process their own experiences. Many modern toys superimpose someone else’s story on the users. There has even been a change in Lego from simple bricks which allow the child to create and problem solve to sets with specific dedicated pieces and instructions which dictate what should be made. If children get spoon fed everything, even in play, their imaginations close down, they don’t develop the ability to pursue sustained thought and they get bored easily, always looking for the next electronic stimulus or experience. This can make it hard for children to focus at school. It also means that children get tired of these toys quicker.

In fact at TPP we were pleased to see a mix of traditional toys on one list of top toys for 2012 (John Lewis’s top ten list) –these included dolls houses, scooters, Lego and Furbys and other soft toys as well as some electronic toys.

This might help guide parents’ choices about what type of gift to give their children but they may still be concerned about how much children get at Christmas and whether or not their children appreciate what they are given.

Last year UNICEF UK released a report entitled Child well-being in the UK, Spain and Sweden: The role of inequality and materialism. The UK did not compare well with Spain and Sweden in terms of the wellbeing of children and the role of consumer products in their lives. “…in Spain and Sweden the pressure to consume appeared much weaker and the resilience of children and parents much greater than in the UK. Families in the UK appear to face greater pressures on their time and money, and react to this in ways they feel are counter productive to children’s well-being….Most children agreed that family time was more important to them than consumer goods, yet we observed within UK homes a compulsion on the part of some parents to continually buy new things for their children and for themselves. Boxes of toys, broken presents and unused electronics in the home were witness to this drive to acquire new possessions. Most parents realised that what they were doing was often ‘pointless’, but seemed somehow pressurised and compelled to continue.”

It is real juggling act raising children in the 21st century (particularly in the UK it would appear), where instant gratification has become the norm, where shopping has become a leisure activity and status is defined by what we own. The shops and TV screens are full of enticements, no more so than in the run up to Christmas…. and everyone wants everything….. and they want it now!

As loving parents, we want our children to have the best we can give, we want to show them how much we love them, and, at the same time, we want them to be appreciative of what they have and learn to value their possessions. Many parents are concerned about falling into the trap of over-indulging their children, fearing that their children will grow up to be overly acquisitive and never satisfied, unable to appreciate the true cost of things or differentiate between their needs and their wants.

So how can we instill in our children the values we want and we believe will equip them best for the future, and yet not always have to be the bad cop, saying no, no, no….?

There is one immediate and relatively simple way we can help our children.

We can protect them from the constant advertising which tells them that their value is tied up in what they own and that they need to acquire certain goods in order to fit in. We need to let them know that they are ‘worth it’ even without the advertised product. We can limit their exposure to TV adverts by cutting down on screen-time, or using Sky Plus, and we can discuss with older children the role of advertising and the manipulation involved. Most kids like the idea of not being conned by the conglomerates!

And then it comes down to being clear and true to our values, and communicating this effectively to our children.

So, first, we need to establish what our values are. We need to ask ourselves what does Christmas mean to us and what is the place for gift giving and receiving? What do we want our children to grow up believing is important? What values do we want them to inherit? Are we buying too much for our children?  These may be uncomfortable questions to answer honestly.

The UNICEF report suggests that there are high levels of social insecurity in the UK which is compensated for by buying status brands. Is it also because we feel guilty about the amount of time we are able to spend with them as is suggested in the report? Is it because we want them to enjoy what we never had? Some parents interviewed for the UNICEF report suggested that they wanted status brands for their children to protect them from the kind of bullying they experienced themselves as kids. Do we not know other ways to make them feel worthwhile? Has the availability of relatively cheap goods made us lazy and undiscerning about consumer choices? Do we buy because we can’t bear to see them unhappy and we are unable to say no?

Having clarified our values, we now have to communicate them to our children.

Children learn by copying as much as by what we say to them. So we can talk about what our values are but this will be for nought if our own behaviour doesn’t live up to what we say we believe in. So if we believe in moderation and then buy each child a mountain of gifts we are not walking our talk. If we say we think Christmas should be about others and do nothing to encourage them to think of anyone other than themselves we are just paying lip service.

Giving – before focussing on what they want to receive, involve children in giving – it
can be just as much fun!
* Can they select a family member to choose a gift for?  Discuss the budget and what the person enjoys and will enjoy getting. Don’t just buy a gift for your child to give without involving them.
* Can they give to others less fortunate? Can you organise a toy tidy-out and donate old toys or books to the local hospital, can they arrange to bake some Christmas goodies and take them to a local children’s home? Even if they’re involved in some kind of charitable activity at school it would really reinforce this as a family value if you did something at home as well. Last year the Oxfam goat was sold out – so get there early if you would like to give a female goat to a needy family in countries like Malawi.   www.oxfam.org.uk
* Can they think of non-material gifts?  Home made gifts can be wonderful and really appreciated. Bake cookies or make confectionery with the children or get them to write a story or poem and illustrate it or even make a power point story for someone else.

Receiving – many parents worry about increasing piles of unwanted toys.
* Can you set up a system so people club together to buy one gift for your child – that they really, really want? Some families eschew the idea of buying for huge numbers and instead concentrate their energies and resources on buying one gift on behalf of the wider family. We do this in my extended family (32 and growing) and choose the donor and recipient by drawing names out of a hat each year.
* Can they practice how to receive gifts with grace even if they don’t really love them – or have the item already. Use role plays.
* Take your time – we wait 364 days for Christmas yet the giving and receiving of gifts often happens in a few frantic minutes of unwrapping. Can they be Santa’s Little Helper and give out the gifts?
* Saying thank you – writing letters may seem very old-fashioned, but young children can do a drawing, or dictate a letter to you. Older children could Skype or send an email.

We can also model appreciation by being appreciative ourselves, and noticing and mentioning it whenever they are. This might sound like: “I love it when you say thank-you for the things I do for you. It’s polite, and makes me feel really appreciated.” or “You’re taking really good care of your new train set –you put it away very carefully in its box each time you’ve finished with it.”  Obviously you’ll love whatever they give you for Christmas –one can never have too many novelty ties or socks or ‘cute’ little trinkets. My now grown up children marvel that I found a use for or display place (in my bathroom) for the holiday souvenirs they brought me. Tip: little shell covered boxes are a great place to keep safety pins. None of you will do what my husband’s great grandmother did when she asked who’d given her ‘this ridiculous thing’ as she discarded a gift from one of her children!

Chat throughs
When we prepare for Christmas many of us prepare endless lists of things to do and things to buy but we often don’t prepare our children except for revving them up for the arrival of Santa. If we want to encourage particular behaviours in our children we need to chat through with them beforehand what we expect. This is not a lecture and in fact they should do most of the talking as they are far more likely to do what they say they need to do.

Ask them questions – what will happen on the day, what are they looking forward to and what might be difficult, what behaviour is expected at different points, in church, at the table, when opening presents etc, and how might the child feel….They need to do the talking if they are to be committed to what needs to happen.  It is important to empathise that the child may feel very excited and get a bit wild, when it comes to receiving presents they may want to rush to open them, they may be disappointed with what they receive, they may feel jealous of what others are given, and young children often get overwhelmed. We can ask how the child could handle these feelings – some ideas include telling the parent or using some safe venting technique like stamping feet or pounding their fists or taking some time out in their own room if you’re at home.  It’s really important we don’t make our children wrong for any of their feelings.

If our children have a meltdown, we need to keep calm – remembering children feel things very intensely in the moment but these feelings pass, and remembering too that it is not our job to keep them happy in the moment; instead it is our job to enable them to make themselves happy in the future, by developing self-control and problem-solving skills. What won’t work is to tell them off for their ungratefulness or other less desirable behaviour.

We are more effective when we can empathise with our children, imagining how they are feeling and reflecting it back to them in words. This is the first step in helping our children understand and manage their feelings. This might sound like: “You wish you could have a car like Jamie’s. You really like it -maybe because it’s so shiny and it’s got cool tires. You know what? I’m proud of you for only making a little fuss about this. I know you’re disappointed and you’re finding it hard to focus on the great things you’ve been given right now. When you’ve given yourself a little time I know  you’ll choose one of your own toys to play with.”

Although this may not result in an immediate improvement in behaviour, it does show the child that they are understood and their feelings are accepted, even though their behaviour needs to be re-directed.

Overall, it pays to take time to prepare and train ourselves and our children how best to cope with life in today’s modern material world. It may help to bear in mind the following tough advice from Dr. Phil McGraw,  psychologist and author:
“Your child does not have to love you every minute of every day. He’ll get over the disappointment of having been told ‘no.’ But he won’t get over the effects of being spoiled.”

Hope your Christmas is a happy one and you enjoy being with your families.

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November 14th, 2012

Lessons from the Lance Armstrong Affair. Modelling is 80% of parenting, part II

My husband and I have been following Lance Armstrong’s career since he started racing in the Tour de France following his battle with cancer.  We read his books, bought LiveStrong bracelets and clothes, and in 2010 we even went to Paris for the last stage of the TdF, when Armstrong raced his final Tour.

Recently it was announced that Armstrong had been officially stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, and that his best race result would have been 36th  – before his cancer diagnosis.  This story has been making headlines for weeks, and has been simmering since Floyd Landis (Armstrong’s former teammate and winner of the 2006 TdF) started commenting on the systemic doping that took place.  The recent news essentially eradicates the career that made Armstrong a household name. Pat McQuaid, the President of the International Cycling Union (UCI) said, “There is no place for Lance Armstrong in cycling.  “ [He is] a serial cheat who led one of the worst doping conspiracies in sport.”

Armstrong wasn’t acting alone.  He was part of a team of doctors, coaches, team managers and other cyclists who were all involved in the doping.  The Tour de France is leaving those 7 years without a winner, as they would be pretty hard-pressed to find a cyclist who wasn’t doping during those years. It’s when the story gets a bit deeper and shows that not only was Armstrong doping, it was how he pretty much bullied former team-mates and others who testified against him.  Many articles appeared that describe abusive voicemail messages that Armstrong used against those who would testify against him.  The wife of one of Armstrong’s former teammate “described receiving a voicemail from an Armstrong friend telling her she hoped ‘somebody breaks a baseball bat over your head,’ after her husband spoke out about doping allegations.”  Clearly doping is not good, but covering your tracks and bullying people into helping you cover your tracks?  Well, that’s quite possibly even worse.

Why is this story so interesting story for me, as a parenting facilitator?  Well, Lance Armstrong has 5 children – 3 from his first marriage, and 2 from his current relationship.  In the past he tweeted regularly about his children and especially the joy he and his partner felt when she fell pregnant – especially after all his cancer treatment and surgery.  I can imagine that he will get through the damage to his career – as he said, “I’ve been better, but I’ve also been worse.”  The side of the story I am fascinated by is how you repair the damage with your family and other loved ones.  This situation provides a wealth of learning.

1. Winning at any cost will most likely catch up with you at some point
When we teach our children to play games, we teach them to play fair and to not cheat.  We’ll say thing like “cheaters never win”, and even though sometimes it seems that they do, eventually some evidence will come out that will stamp out the victory.

We can work with our children to teach them rules, to advise them about what is and is not fair play.  We can set up a system that rewards values like collaboration or accepting successes and losses graciously.  We can always be on the look out for when our children are exhibiting the behaviours we want to be seeing more of. We need to notice and acknowledge such behaviour.

We want to be raising our children to take pride in their efforts, their improvement and their attitude instead of being the best at any cost.

2. Model honesty and integrity

About a year ago, Melissa Hood, the co-founder of The Parent Practice wrote a terrific blog called 80% of Parenting is Modeling in which she writes:

“Once we’re aware of the influence we have we can consciously set out to influence our children. Michael Grinder, communications expert, says “The power of influence is greater than the influence of power”.…

Sometimes our children are not copying the things we’d like them to. And for that there is the other 20% of parenting – we need some positive and effective parenting tools like using rules constructively, setting things up so that our children are likely to behave well, motivating them to do the right thing, understanding the causes of behaviour and responding effectively when they don’t. Sometimes it doesn’t seem as if our children are learning anything in the moment but it may be years later that your children show they have taken on your values.”

It is so important to have an idea of what values you want to be passing on to your children, to model those values and to establish rules that help you bring those values to life within your family.  One of the values we might seek to model is being happy with our own best efforts, measuring our value, not by outcomes, but by our efforts. Model enjoying sport or other games, even if we don’t win. Focus not on the results of our children’s  matches but on their enjoyment of the game and how well they participated.

Find New Heroes
This past summer was one that will go down in history as probably the best ever for UK sport.  Bradley Wiggins with Team Sky won the General Classification in the TdF, Mark Cavendish had his 23rd TdF stage win and that was all before the London 2012 Olympics & Paralympics where this country saw incredible athletes pushing themselves to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.  We’ll never forget Jessica Ennis, or Mo Farah or the amazing Paralympians.  It is so important to learn from our own limitations, as well as from those of others.  In doing so, we can be honest, authentic parents who set an example of integrity and passion that will empower our children.

3. Make Amends and Move Forwards
One word that Lance Armstrong often used in his Twitter posts was ‘onward’ … continuous positive momentum.  It’s a powerful notion that will serve him well after he takes responsibility for the mistakes he has made.  Like Armstrong, we can all move forward once we take responsibility for our mistaken behaviour, put wrongs to right, and explore ways to make sure that the same thing won’t happen again.  We like to call this The Mistakes Process (or the 4As). It goes like this:

1.    ACKNOWLEDGE
Explore (without judgment) what happened and why it was a mistake.  Use the mistake as an opportunity for everyone to learn.  Acknowledge the courage required to fess up to having made a mistake.
2.    Make AMENDS
This is all about putting wrongs to right.  This can look many different ways ranging from a sincere apology; cleaning up an actual mess; fixing something that got broken; writing a letter; or doing something nice for someone else.  Often, it is the simple act of fixing the mistake that provides the lesson so the same thing doesn’t happen again.  And it is so much more effective than shouting!
3.    ALTER
This is where you want to take some time to explore what could have been done differently so that it will be less likely to happen again.
4.    ACCEPTANCE
This is where ‘onwards’ comes into play.  You have taken responsibility for the mistake, you have cleaned up your mess, and you have looked at how to make sure to get it (more) right next time.  It is done.  It is now in the past.  It is time to acknowledge that a positive lesson has been learned.  Onwards!

I imagine that Armstrong’s oldest son has always seen his Dad as a hero, and it must be very hard to hear that your Dad won because he cheated and to witness the fallout.  The damage to Armstrong’s career is vast, but quite possibly, cleaning up this mess with his family and other loved ones will be an even greater challenge.

While cycling has had an inspirational summer, it is likely that the repercussions of the doping scandal will be felt for a while.  But will the sport move forward?  Of course!  As Pat McQuaid said, “My message to cycling, to our riders, to our sponsors and to our fans today is: cycling has a future.  … This is not the first time that cycling has reached a crossroads or that it has had to begin anew and to engage in the painful process of confronting its past. It will do so again with renewed vigour and purpose and its stakeholders and fans can be assured that it will find a new path forward.”

The message from the Lance Armstrong scandal is a clear and inspiring one for parents: acknowledge your children’s strengths and weaknesses and celebrate their effort and improvement; model honesty and act with integrity; take responsibility for (and truly learn from) your mistakes.  By modeling your own ability to take responsibility and clean up your messes, you are sending a very powerful message to your children.  And when you can teach your children to clean up their own messes (both literal and figurative), you are giving them a real gift.

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