Tag Archives: childhood

Self esteem and childhood

Most people develop their self esteem in childhood. A child who is loved, praised, supported and encouraged will have a sense of their own entitlement to exist. Many children however get their self esteem crushed early, or never get to develop much sense of self worth. Obviously, abusive families will damage their children, but there are other sources for this, too.

Many families don’t set out to harm the next generation, but pass on family truths, stories and patterns. They may think they are protecting a child by stopping them from getting unrealistic ideas, above their station. They may have a child who doesn’t fit the family narrative about what’s ok – a queer child, a left handed child, a neuro-divergent child, a child who is too quick, or too slow, or thinks too much or moves too much… Landing in a family that cannot understand your very nature does not make for a good start in life. There’s no malice here, but incomprehension can be pretty damaging.

I’ve met adults who were told at school they were stupid, or lazy, and didn’t get a dyslexia diagnoses until much later in life. I’ve met kids who were set back because no one realised they needed glasses. I’ve also met a lot of kids who had clearly learned some really unhelpful things at home – violent kids, and kids so spoiled they didn’t know how to deal well with anyone else. I’ve never met an ugly, useless or evil child, but I have met plenty of kids who were either treated that way, and thus growing into those roles, or learning problematic ways of being.

We’re learning from the moment we’re born, if not sooner. Every sound and movement from the beginning shapes our sense of the world and our ideas about who we are. Well meaning families can still produce children with no self confidence. Families who take against a child can do massive damage.

As an adult, there’s nothing you can do to go back and change your beginnings. Trying to talk about it with those who were there isn’t always helpful. But I think trying to understand the mechanics can be good. If your family didn’t allow you to grow up happily as yourself, trying to understand why they did that can be productive. It’s easy to end up with a short answer of ‘I wasn’t good enough’ but I invite you to consider whether you can imagine another human being who was not born good enough. If your shortcomings feel vague and hard to pin down, if you just, for some reason, didn’t seem to deserve love, or attention, support or praise then it probably wasn’t about you. It should have been about you, of course.

If you take out the assumption that there was something intrinsic in you to explain why you didn’t have a good experience of growing up, it becomes easier to see what was going on. It can be much easier to let go, when you can find a different perspective on this. It can be easier to forgive, where that’s appropriate, to recognise abuse, where that’s the size of it. The emotional neglect of a child is a form of abuse. It may be that your parents in turn were emotionally neglected and don’t even know where to start. Sometimes these things have their roots deep in our ancestry.

Tell yourself a new story, about how you were as inherently acceptable as any other child ever born, but your environment didn’t really work for you. Imagine what the right environment for you would have looked like. Consider how you can make that for yourself, now. Do some of the things that were missing. Find people who can play the roles you need people to play. Know that growing up feeling like a failure doesn’t make you a failure, and is not a truth about the sort of person you are.


The curious magic of childhood fear

If you breathe very quietly, they won’t hear you, and you will be safe. It is essential that you keep your eyes shut because even though you know this doesn’t work in other circumstances, if you can’t see them, they can’t see you. If you see them, they will become able to act. Keep still and pretend to be asleep, because then they will leave you alone. Don’t be tempted to get up and look under the bed, or in the wardrobe, because that’s how they get you. If you have to go to the loo, there will be a magic thing you can do to stay safe in transit. Hold your breath. Be back before the flush does that thing…

These rules are widely shared, and I was reminded of them the other night when a poet I didn’t know mentioned the whole not breathing too loudly thing. Where do these rules come from, and why do so many of us have them in childhood?

It’s something I remember fairly well. It wasn’t always an issue, but some nights… some nights it was important to get under the covers and not move a muscle. Some nights I did not feel at all alone in my room, and what was there felt hostile. And I find myself wondering what I knew as a child that I cannot explain as an adult.

 


Scaring small children

It used to be the case that fairy stories were dark and alarming things in which small children who did bloody stupid things could expect to be eaten by wolves, bears, witches and so forth. Yes, said the fairy stories, the world is a dangerous place full of things whose motives are different to yours, things that are hungry, grouchy things with pointy teeth. Go carefully, children. And it was a fair point, because death in childhood used to be really normal.

In the last hundred years or so, child mortality in the west has plummeted, and I suspect in response to this, fairy stories have become gentler. It’s ok kids, happily ever after awaits, with a handsome treasure and the frog of your choice. Interested in writing for small children, I’ve looked at what many of them are fed – brightly coloured, stylised creations with no bearing on reality. Stories in which nothing much happens, and nobody dies. Cute fluffy animals doing cute fluffy things.

Back when I was the parent of a young child, I cheated. We didn’t do unbearable fluff for bedtime. I took a leaf out of my father’s book. When I was about three, my Dad read me The Hobbit, and on we went from there. So I read my small son the entire Dark Materials trilogy, and anything else I thought would be interesting. He fell asleep during reads on a regular basis, cannot have had more than a passing grasp of the plot, but he loved Lyra and armoured bears, and all that came after. Now at 11, I have an emotionally well-adjusted child with a realistic understanding of how the world is, and a penchant for books. Right now, he’s reading Jekyll and Hyde.

The world is a scary place for small children, and always will be. There’s so much that makes no sense, and that cannot be explained to you. I remember being four and wanting to know what death meant and what happened afterwards, and no one could help me there. Many parents just won’t discuss sex, death, why strangers are a danger, what actually happens if you put your hand on the iron, and all those other things that regularly feature in your life as ‘stop’ ‘don’t’ and a grownup screaming at you. “You don’t need to worry about that,” is such a common solution to the alarm of small children. But the thing is, some of them do keep worrying.

I firmly believe that scary stories are good for small children. I’m not talking about traumatising them, but a bit of manageable alarm, a bit of feasible unnerving. It creates a safe space in which you can get fear out into the open. Name it, own it, understand it a bit. And don’t tidy it up with just stories that resolve into nothing to be afraid of after all. The world is a scary place, death and suffering are real. Small children are not stupid, and lying to them really doesn’t help. A child who is exposed to a few darker faerie stories is much better equipped than one who only gets princesses in frothy dresses.

We forget, as adults, that children don’t have as much empathy. They often enjoy violence and gruesome details, in part because it’s all a little bit unreal to them. Think about Tom and Jerry cartoons. I remember howling with mirth at those as a kid, while revisits as an adult have left me wondering what on earth amused me… just as my own child howls in laughter. Talking to teachers, I’ve very much had this impression confirmed – many kids like gory stuff. Horrible history sells.

It’s all about scares that you can live with. Learning to cope with being scared makes the world a more manageable place. It’s the same impulse that sends teenagers off in search of horror films where teenagers are eaten by monsters. I don’t have any of that for you today. What I do have is http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/baronmind/lil-eddie-edgar-allan-poe-for-kids A board book version of The Fall of the House of Usher, in which mildly alarming things happen and small children get a viable introduction to Poe. It may also be a sanity saver for parents who can’t take any more cute fluffy animals, or singing furniture and whose eyes are weary from an excess of bright colours. If you need a giggle, watch the video.


Tiger day

My tiger child is eleven today. In both clothes sizes and mind, he’s walking that edge now between childhood and teenager status. Just as when he first arrived, I have a keen sense, once again, that every day represents a small shift. He seems to be physically growing all the time as well, although on the plus side, the analogy stops well before we get to night feeding, being unable to talk, and throwing up all over the place. Like I said, we’re not quite at teen stage yet!

Yesterday, walking back from shopping he settled into step with me and took my hand. It doesn’t seem so very long ago that I was having to stoop down in order to hold his much smaller paw, while he learned to walk. For him, that’s pretty much a lifetime ago. I wonder how much longer we’ve got, before he is too cool, too grownup to be wandering around with his hand in mine. There may come a point, somewhere at the far end, when I am old and decrepit, and I am the one who needs to hold a hand for stability and road crossing.

As he goes forth into the wider world, encountering ever more influences, my scope (and willingness) to steer him will both reduce. The odds are, what he hasn’t learned by now in terms of values, he probably won’t learn any time soon. He’s been raised a Pagan child, not to conform to specific standards of behaviour, but to uphold certain virtues – to be honourable, compassionate, and respectful. He takes an interest in the world, and he cares about things. There comes a point, somewhere ahead when he takes a jump, leaves the nest, and holds responsibility for his life and choices. All I can do at that point is make sure there’s a safe space to come back to should he need it, and support, not judge as he gets to learn from his own mistakes. I can’t do it for him, and I don’t want to, his life is his own adventure.

I know a lot of people look at babies and small kids and express a desire that they stay that way forever. I’ve never thought about him in those terms. He was a person from the moment he arrived. He’s always had his own mind, his preferences, his own way of seeing the world and wanting to be in it, and I’ve never expected him to think and feel the way I do. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t, and that’s fine. From that day when he was born 11 years ago, I saw him as someone who would grow up to be an adult, someone who would need the skills, knowledge, insight and virtues to function as an independent person. I don’t think protecting children from what they need to know does them any good at all in the long term.

By the time he goes out into the world, he will be able to fend for himself in all things. He will know how to handle money, how to eat and deal with all the domestic practicalities. He will know to respect those jobs, and the people who do them. He will know how to take responsibility and how to make choices. I can give him a safe space in which to experiment, and take small risks, and hopefully that will be enough.

Looking at him now, he’s a brave, compassionate and thoughtful chap, who engages and delights people who come into contact with him. He knows how to give and how to hold boundaries, and I have every confidence that he will grow up to be a man I shall be exceedingly proud of.


End of an era

Today is the last day of primary school. It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was buying his first uniform items and sewing in the name tags. Now he’s a remarkably grown up young fellow, poised to turn into a teenager sometime soon. I remember my own reluctance to give up childhood, soon replaced by a desperate desire to be properly grown up.

The boy has had an unusual sort of childhood, not least thanks to having spent 2 years living on a narrowboat. He’s experienced challenge and betrayal, and learned to negotiate some complex relationships with adults. There were times spent in places where he was an unhappy misfit, unwilling to compromise himself to fit in. And then, the joy of being in a place where his difference is embraced and nurtured. A school where teachers take pride in him, rather than wanting him to change. Accepted and supported he’s become more confident and relaxed, still very much the boy he always was, but now fearless about sharing it. Those deep, philosophical thoughts that he used only to share with me, he can now offer to his peers when the opportunity arises in class. He trusts them not to mock him, he trusts the adults around him to respect him, and to honour his choices and preferences. It’s made a world of difference, resulting in a far happier and far less anxious sort of boy.

I hope, when he’s older, that the last few years will colour his memories of childhood. He’s forgotten much of his early life, which may be as well. I hope he remembers sunny days on the towpath, with his cat. Garden rampages with local friends. Bowling and castles, epic train journeys, piloting the narrowboat and feeding the ducklings. The Wild Fowl and Wetland Trust has given him a glorious range of experiences and opportunities, and a very keen sense of what he wants to be as an adult. He’s handled salamanders, dismantled owl pellets, seen rare wild birds, and learned to tell one kind of duck from another.

In the last few years, the boy has become very tolerant of difference and diversity, conscious that he never knows what other people might have to deal with, or what secrets they might carry. He’s intolerant of bullying and cruelty, a firm believer in equality, and someone who wants fairness but also has a sense of how sadly short of it we are. He’s learned to be a fighter, a crusader, brave, bold and willing to take a stance for justice, be that around badger culls, the Canal & River Trust, or the environmental impact of cars. He stops to get caterpillars, and beetles out of the road, when it’s safe to do so.

And so we come to the end of primary school. The amazing year group he’s been part of will go to four different schools, inevitably losing touch to a degree. They are wild, courageous and extraordinary kids, and it has been a joy to get to know them a bit, and share in their triumphs. They give me hope. We’ve made a lot of friends here, some of whom we should be able to keep. And of course we will be back in the winter, to see the swans.

The end of an era also means the beginning of something new. We know the shape of it a bit, but the details remain mysterious, only to be discovered through living them. We stayed here, and lived on the boat so that the boy could stay in school. I have no doubt that was the right choice. It’s been a challenging way of life, but it has given us so much. We’ve been through some things, recovered from some things, and now it is time to gather up what we learned, and move forward. I have a few more reflective thoughts to work through over the coming days, and there is chaos to come.


The politics of childhood

Apparently UK education minister Michael Gove thinks children should have much longer school days and much shorter holidays to bring us in line with Hong Kong. He’s also a fan of rote learning and filling children’s heads with ‘facts’ – names and dates from history and the such. Childhood can be a loaded political issue. I note how much this Gove policy resembles the attitude of early Maoist China to children. That stemmed from a deliberate intention to break family units and make everyone more engaged with the state. So, what’s Gove’s agenda, you have to wonder?

What is childhood for? Obviously children need to grow up into functional adults. They need life skills too. I would argue that developing the ability to learn, reason, analyse, research, create, innovate and the such is the best education a child can have. The world changes all the time. The young person who can flex, learn and adapt is the one who can do best for themselves and their communities. Knowing historical dates and spurious statistics won’t do you any good in the real world.

The Victorians romanticised childhood, and did away with labour for children, taking them out of the workplace and putting them into schools. But, what is education for? Is it simply to keep children out of the way while parents work? Is school there to train the employees of the future, or should learning be more about developing rounded, functional people who are capable of thinking? I don’t think the latter precludes going on to be economically successful. I’d say there’s a case that it makes for a better, smarter, more flexible country having people educated that way. It doesn’t give you cogs for your machine, or people trained to serve and obey. I have to ask, what is the Tory agenda here? I think it’s all about serving the minority at the expense of the majority.

As a Pagan, I feel strongly about creatures being able to live freely in their natural habitats. I include humans in this. Humans are not meant to be battery farmed any more than chickens or pigs are. We too need fresh air, freedom to move, time to rest. Adults and children alike should not be pushed towards ever longer work hours just to serve the corporate machine. It is a morally wrong approach. Humanity does not exist to serve GDP.

As a parent, I want to spend time with my child. I want to talk with him, play with him, share life with him. I did not become a parent with a view to handing over my child to the state and hardly ever seeing him. I suspect I’m not alone in this. Back at the last election, the Tories talked about championing family life. Well, if you want family life, you have to have time for it, and longer school hours, longer work hours doesn’t achieve that. Tired people falling into bed do not have a family life. This is not a move towards a better work life balance.

Stressed, overworked, overtired humans who lack for social and emotional contact are more likely to become sick, depressed and dysfunctional. School is tiring for young humans whose bodies are growing and changing all the time. They need periods of rest, they need unstructured time to learn and grow properly. If we go the Gove route, we will not beget success. Instead we’ll be saving for a long term crisis in mental health and social cohesion.

Hard work should only exist where it furthers human causes. We are not here to make other people wealthy. We should not sacrifice our lives to the insane, dysfunctional and wrongheaded dictats of a ruling ‘elite’ that seems to have no grip on reality whatsoever. It looks like children are the next targets or their insane and toxic policies. We have to fight.