Resolutions 1: Start by accepting what is

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Having been mulling change – which is something I don’t find very easy, I was struck today by the reason that I so often fail when making resolutions – by starting in the wrong place.

Change comes with accepting reality. Acceptance brings peace and often acts as a turning point for change. By acceptance I don’t mean some kind of resigned victimhood – but more being at peace with what is. In my experience this doesn’t come without a struggle, without recognising the beasts of anger, denial, sadness and hopelessness. It comes from stopping running away, fighting and attempting to control and  instead simply being.

There are days – in particular those when everything is going my way, when it’s an easy practice and there are others, full of loss, pain and upheaval where denial,blame or distraction are the go to stratedgies. Sometimes reality is simply more than I can bear.

The problem is that until we accept where we are in the present, we can’t look objectively and peacefully at our situation – and without that we can’t make helpful decisions and act from a place of peace and stability.

It’s the ultimate paradox – until we really accept and understand who and where we are, we’re living in a state of delusion and are not in a situation to make changes.

I’m running alot at the moment, partly in training for next year and partly because the Christmas excesses of body and mind – in both social and calorific terms seem best remedied by some exercise. The past few days have been a struggle, the Christmas Holidays are still in full swing, with children in hectic, happy, fully present evidence and the eldest siblings who usually supply my respite childcare  away for a week. I’ve felt the resentment brewing internally, spilling over into irritation, frustration, a feeling of claustrophobia. I haven’t been able to run – and to my shame have blamed my small children who have bourne the brunt of my “bear with a sore head” attitude.

Today I woke with the clouds of angry denial clearing, I could see that my reaction was unjustified and instead of casting myself as victim I was able to make a change. Instead of lying ruminating in bed, dark thoughts brewing, I decided to exercise where I could – in this case half an hour of unpleasant but deeply satisfying hill repeats (runners will understand…) on the road outside the house, whilst the children finnished their list of jobs.

It sounds to good to be true – but it worked. By accepting how life was in the moment without being clouded by emotion I had my running fix, the training plan continued and life was balanced once more. I did return to a couple of broken pictures as a result of Paddington’s attempt to hoover the stairs – but it was a small price to pay…..

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Sheep

Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.

Albert Einstein

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Moon over Tennyson Down

OK – this is going to turn into something of a rant….

Last week one of my children, whose school topic of the moment is “Space” came home having been encouraged to consider whether the reported 1969 footage of astronauts walking on the moon was fact or fiction. Fantastic! This was a ten year old being encouraged by a creative, confident and far sighted teacher to actually question what he had hitherto assumed to be a fact.

It was brilliant – isn’t this what education should be about? Challenging, not taking the written or spoken word as gospel, critical thinking. It’s ever more important in the age of global communication where (as I mentioned in Skinners Pigeons) the research shows that the majority of young teenagers actually believe without question what they google. Given the internet is to a large extent unregulated, aren’t skills to question, to objectively evaluate what they’re being told and act accordingly, what we should be instilling rather than filling the curriculum with facts to be regurgitated when required and as a result ticking the boxes of “normal” development – with those kids who don’t tick the results somehow being made to feel less than.

I went through an extended essay with one of my older kids recently – initially it read rather like a Phd thesis – it didn’t flow, the child didn’t really understand what she was trying to say, it had a “copy and paste” feel about it – even though it wasn’t. When we tried together to work on is, I constantly came up against “The marking scheme requires….” The marking scheme is the thing that gets “points” and the points are the things that determine overall grades. The sad thing is that in this case, the marking scheme seemed to make no allowance for individual interpretation, for a fresh way of structuring the writing in a way that made sense to the child. It was actually discouraging individualism.

We want to teach our kids to be themselves, to celebrate their individualism, to create, to explore, to get it wrong sometimes and to learn resilience. This is not in any way a criticism of teachers – who I think are actually trying to develop these things in their pupils but are fighting a constant battle against lack of time, funding, testing and constraints of the curriculum.

So my thought for today is to celebrate and encourage the individual – don’t get caught up in feeling that you – or anyone else “should” be a certain way. Keep testing, don’t blindly follow the flock, learn and encourage a pragmatic, suck it and see approach to life. Don’t live “through a glass darkly” for fear of being seen to be different.

 

 

Parenting Paddington

It’s been a remarkably peaceful few days in my household and without too much statistical analysis, I’ll hazard a guess that this is as a result of the absence of one of the smallest members of the tribe who I shall refer to as Paddington Bear.

I’m not a huge fan of children’s films – they are usually too loud, too vibrant and too overwhelmingly active for me and result in me leaving the cinema in a state of frenetic exhaustion. A couple of weeks ago however, I found myself unwittingly in front of Paddington The Movie. I enjoyed it – but perhaps more importantly something resonated with me which took a while to recognise. I realised that somehow, completely apparently by chance, Paddington himself, he of the marmalade sandwich and hard stare – or at least one of his relatives, had taken up residence in my house a few years ago…..

The curious brown furry creature is one of the most endearing children you could imagine – but also one of the most exhausting, infuriating and exasperating. A wonderful mixture of affection, curiosity, individuality, logic and persistence with an insatiable appetite for almost everything food related, a special interest in the footpaths of Southern England and a hugely exuberant need to express himself physically and in words to pretty much everyone he meets.

I veer between immense reverence for his individuality and his sunny life view and complete despair at the task of bringing up one so at odds with the conventional quiet well behaved child. I have to admit that when things get really tough, almost always because I’m tired or some other life event has interceded to put the pressure on, I do end up rolling down the familiar victimhood root, why me? Life would be so easy if he was “normal”…. you get the picture.

The realisation that Paddington had taken up residence has had some interesting consequences, not least, there has been a shift from myself and the other younger members of the clan, in the treatment of our errant one. It’s as though our judgement of him has softened. Instead of interpreting his chaotic often clumsy disruptive behaviour as a problem we are tending to see it more as part of the idiosyncrasies of a large and furry mammal trying to make sense of a chaotic world not really designed for creatures like him. Instead of constantly chastising him for his eating habits – which incidentally closely resemble that of a particularly hungry chocolate labrador, we are more gentle, reminding him now and then with a half smile, that knives and forks are laid by the side of his plate for a reason.

So what to learn from this.

The biggest lesson is that it is a choice to see someone in a particular light. All too often an unconscious choice made as a result of hundreds of past encounters which have shaped our reality. A slight shift in perception can have dramatic results in terms of the quality of our lives and in particular in terms of our relationships with others. If we view life as inherently positive and people as trustworthy we will certainly have a very different experience from people who view life as a dangerous jungle inhabited by savages who are out to get them. Of course the reality in this situation is probably somewhere in between – but by looking on somebody as a problem, in your own reality this is what they become and since we suffer when we want things to be different from the way they really are, we then seek to solve the problem or suffer in our desire by wishing what is, was not.

As for my own personal Paddington. He has become less of a problem and more of a pleasure. The films underlying messages about tolerance and acceptance and the dry British wit with which it was delivered made it an unexpected favourite in my book.

I’ll leave the last words to the films eponymous hero:

“I’m not a criminal” said Paddington hotly. “I’m a bear” – Michael Bond. A Bear Called Paddington

 


Unlearning Learning

12112308_10153708374273829_2470997090873670660_nPhoto courtesy of  Paul Blackley and surfing provided with just the right balance of practice and wise advice by Chris from Isurf

There is a real skill and joy to be found  in learning how to learn – rather than getting everything from a book or a manual – or these days a you tube “how to” video and sorting it out in your head  before you even dare to begin.

It seems to me that with our huge bank of readily accessible knowledge and expertise, we are somehow disempowered from the learning process. This works OK under controlled conditions, – but in the real, messy, creative and unpredictable space that most or our life takes place within, it can leave us paralysed, afraid to start.

So much of our everyday lives are now governed by complex systems far beyond our control  and this in turn leads to a kind of helplessness:

We rely on cars that can only be diagnosed by computer systems, the results requiring analysis by “experts’

Other experts in the form of “life coaches” tell us how we should plan our futures, “diet coaches” and “personal trainers” tell us how to look after our bodies, “Super Nanny” tells us how to bring up our children.

The goal of perfection leaves no room if you’re not careful,for not knowing, for learning, for trying things you’re not very good at, for finding joy and contentment in the process itself. There’s a danger of living in the “never quite there zone” or even worse, of giving up trying.

There’s an overall sense that we are no longer capable of running our own lives, of taking responsibility for ourselves. We have become the passive occupiers of our environment divorced from the hands on, dirty, messy reality.

From this the individual learns that it’s dangerous to take initiative and to think outside the box, native intelligence is suppressed for fear of making mistakes and personal confidence and self reliance disappear. This seems to be particularly obvious in children, many of  whom seem to  fear the consequences of simple interaction with the natural environment – with rain, cold, wind, mud and physical fatigue.

To learn in a way that nurtures resilience and self-reliance requires just the right balance of challenge and safety, it requires wise teachers modelling techniques, giving encouragement and laughter. It  also requires the confidence to get it wrong, to suck it and see. To start with  a beginner’s mind and learn with humility.

Learning in this way can  bring with it a sense of meaning and personal value – together with a connectiveness of shared wisdom, cooperation and trust. Once you leave the mind behind – at least now and then, there is an oportunity to connect directly with the body – something that seems a relative rarity in our hectic technology driven world.

It’s a way to develop a kind of earthy grounding – it seems to work best for me outside, when the feeling of weather on skin is providing a connection to the environment, in the company of nature, practicing basic human intererlatedness skills of generosity, humility, listening. Simple hands-on stuff. That’s why it works.

 

Letting children be

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“If there is anything that we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves.” – C.G. Jung

Despite having half a dozen children, I’ve never felt that I was a naturally, nurturing “earth mother” kind of parent. Maybe this is partly as a result of the sheer overwhelmingly complex logistics of managing such a large tribe, or maybe  I tend to have an approach that’s more pragmatic than most. My children are certainly the most important thing to me in life – but I feel that my job as a mother is more along the lines of allowing them to become themselves, to gently allow them to develop emotional and physical resilience rather than to protect them from life’s inevitable peaks and troughs.

Of course parenting is one of lifes greatest experiments – since none of us are experts, we are all learning on the job so to speak and for me at least, there’s always been a vague underlying concern at my sometimes unorthodox and frequently somewhat chaotic attempts.

Much of the unease comes from a feeling that things should be done in a certain way –   with an emphasis on academic performance, highly tuned social skills, – and of course children with perfectly coiffed locks, who arrive at school on time every day without the marmite stained faces of my small urchins.  In my household this seems a complete impossibility  – something which has sometimes secretly led me to doubt that my  children will ever “succeed” in the conventional sense. The nagging concern beneath this is  that their failure will have been as a direct result of my inability to coax, control, cajole or bribe them into submission.

It’s been an extremely welcome surprise, as the older members of the family begin to leave school, to notice that at some point along the line, they’ve made their own decision to become – for the most part –  responsible, hard working, interesting and likeable. There have been plenty of moments when I’ve been pretty sure that one or other has been destined for a life as an unemployable and irresponsible hooligan  and in these moments I’ve often made some kind of frustrated and angry attempt to take control, only to find that this kind of aggressive assertiveness is bandied straight back at me by the enraged teenager and we enter some kind of escalating friction filled war zone, where all communication breaks down.

Pretty soon in my career as a mother, it became obvious that this kind of approach didn’t work for my children – that they were very much their own people and that the most respectful and effective way to look after them was to allow them to be themselves – putting forward a scaffolding of boundaries, values and integrity and then to a large extent letting them find their own way. Letting go of the part of me that wanted to say that I knew best and instead making some kind of attempt to lead by example has been liberating for us all. It’s a lesson in curiosity, in the realisation that diversity is a good thing – that our way is not necessarily the only or the best way – and that even if we are “right” we can’t and shouldn’t force our view of rightness onto other people – even our own children.

It’s something I still struggle with – but I’m beginning to notice that dropping the expectations that your children should be a certain way – whether it be sporty, sociable, kind, mild, hard working or whatever –  and replacing it with kind curiosity about how they actually are, is worth doing.

Trust is a big part of this – trust that things will work out in the end regardless of my attempts at control – and more importantly trust in my children that they will find their own way and that in doing so they’ll gain the confidence to carve their own  future.

The media famine experiment

Patience - polo pony resting

Patience – polo pony resting

We have had a quiet, still Autumnal morning in my household – one that wasn’t punctuated by the familiar background chatter of computer noise. It was a brave move on my part to break the morning routine which usually allows the small people of my house to scamper quietly downstairs and plug themselves into the electronic drug of their choice. Brave because those few golden morning minutes spent warm and still under the duvet seem like a haven of calm before the launch of the day.

The incentive for this new rule was the realisation that all of us – and in particular my two children on the autistic spectrum, function so much better in a quiet and ordered environment – it’s a tall order indeed in a family with six children, but the new system, which means that all homework and chores need to be done before any screen time, has had remarkable results already with homework completed without the usual battle, one child having taken himself on an early morning cycle and the car cleared of the beach detritus from the previous evening’s revelry. The day’s tasks were written clearly on the kitchen blackboard and followed without a squeak of protest.

Let’s hope my resolve continues after a late night and a couple of glasses of wine…..