Parenting in a world gone mad

I wrote this article a number of years ago for a Parenting Magazine. The concepts that had been birthed in me eventually turned into a book that I co-wrote with Nikki Bush, “Future-Proof Your Child” (Penguin, 2009 – see here for purchasing options).

It was the early morning of Thursday, 10 August 2006. We had just landed after a long haul flight, the overnight non-stop from Johannesburg to Heathrow airport in London. Even though we hadn’t slept very well, we were all excited – after all, it was the start of our two week family holiday in England. Imagine our dismay as we were told on landing that we had to wait on the runway as there was some kind of security alert. Having already spent a night trying to stop our three daughters, Amy (7), Hannah (5) and Rebecca (16 months) from dismantling the plane, each other and the other passengers, this seemed like an announcement from hell.

We soon discovered that it was the morning that British police had taken some terrorist suspects into custody. They were part of a plot to blow up airplanes leaving from UK airports. Heathrow had been shut down.

The inconvenience and extra security was a pain, but understandable, of course. You’d rather be delayed and safe, than have terrorists be able to do what they want to. But what really alarmed me that day was trying to explain to my daughters why bad men would want to blow up planes. “Daddy, why don’t the bad men just speak to someone about what made them so angry? Daddy, did they want to kill us?”

It’s a Mad, Mad World

Living in South Africa, and more particularly in Johannesburg, we should have been prepared for questions like this at some stage. My oldest daughter is increasingly taking in the information from half-hourly news bulletins. I fear that Hannah, outgoing and fun-loving as she is, is beginning to sense that there are many ways in which her idealistic world can be shattered. My youngest daughter is currently oblivious to the bigger issues in the world. But, as an orphaned Zulu girl adopted into our family, she is a daily reminder to us that the world is very much less than perfect.

We live in a world seemingly gone mad. At a macro level, there is an increase in the “clash of civilizations”: East vs West, Poor vs Rich, First vs Third world, Christian vs Muslim, Black vs White, and so many other conflicts at a global level. The news is filled with war, natural disasters, crime, death and destruction. It is the same at the local level, especially in South Africa, as our fledgling country continues to grapple with the consequences of 40 years of simmering struggle, deliberate under-education of an entire generation and rampant unemployment. All of these contribute to unacceptable crime levels. Our whole world is very fragile indeed.

One solution, of course, is to try and run from the chaos. However, many people find that by emigrating, they simply swap one set of problems for another. Certainly, this is what the Americans (especially those living in the lower end of Manhattan on “9/11”, or in New Orleans), Londoners (on “7/7”) and those living in Madrid (on their “3/11”), not to mention those in SE Asia (on boxing day 2004), Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, the island paradise of Bali (bombed twice!) and many other places around the world, have discovered in the last few years. And let’s not even think about mass shootings around the world – especially in America. Wherever we choose to live, one thing is clear: there are no safe places.

Yet, I don’t want you to think that I am a doom and gloom merchant. In fact, I am a proudly and passionately optimistic African. I believe that the future is brighter than the present even if not altogether safer. But the reality of the world in which we live is that we, as human beings, need new skills and attitudes in order to survive and thrive in a world gone mad.

The world has changed deeply, and we need to adjust our expectations, our attitudes and our horizons. If we, as adults, battle to do this, how difficult is it for our children? How do we assist our children to learn the skills and attitudes that will help them to cope? I am not sure there is a definitive answer to that question, but it might be helpful for you to know what we have been considering for our three girls.

New Lessons for a New World

1. Talk about the Chaos
For children younger than 12, it is important to keep the concepts of good and evil very concrete. Children are capable of distinguishing between good and bad, and we can help them by talking about “bad people” and the fact that their actions are “ugly”, unacceptable and can hurt others. This is especially important if your child has personally experienced some form of trauma. In that case, you should seek professional counseling assistance.

2. Diversity
As a business strategy consultant, I often see companies attempting skin-deep diversity – basically requiring people to act, think and even dress like middle-class, middle-aged white men in order to become leaders. Even companies committed to “real diversity” (as opposed to window-dressing) can fall into the trap of thinking that diversity is about outward appearance. True diversity is actually about differing worldviews and value systems. It is about genuinely seeing the world in different ways. The greatest gift we can give children these days is confidence and comfort with diversity. Here are some suggestions:

  • Actively encourage children to celebrate their differences, in everything from what food they like to their favourite colours.
  • Of course it goes beyond food and clothes and “favourite things”. We have tried as a family to expose our daughters to different ways of living and diverse worldviews. Trips to townships, travels overseas, visits to different parts of our wonderfully diverse country and an active engagement with the cultures we find there are all part of what it means to live in the Codrington home. You could even do this without leaving the house, using magazines, books, the Internet and television (especially the educational channels).
  • Support your children as they learn different languages at school. Why not learn a new language with them?
  • At about age four, children start noticing that other people look physically different from the way they do. They will ask questions about skin and hair colour, and height and size. “Parents sometimes panic when they hear these questions, but children are naturally curious, and they’re simply trying to learn,” says Alvin Poussaint, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and coauthor of Raising Black Children. “The message you want to send is that, though people may look different on the outside, they’re all the same inside.” Making too big a deal of the question and overexamining differences can signal that there’s something wrong with diversity.
  • Children can learn stereotypes based on what they see on television, as, for example, cartoons aimed at toddlers often portray villains as Middle Eastern and beautiful princesses are blond and Caucasian. When you see a negative stereotype in the media, point it out and let your children know you think it’s wrong, suggests Dr. Poussaint. Try to find examples that defy the stereotype. Ensure your child knows that it’s never a good idea to make generalisations about people based on race, culture, gender, religion, etc – even when they’re positive ones.

3. Respect
Treating children with basic respect and dignity is the best way to help them develop self-esteem. “Happy, well-adjusted kids tend not to be bigots,” says Dr Peter Langman, director of psychology for KidsPeace, a not-for-profit children’s-service agency. “Kids who feel like they aren’t valued tend to look for targets – someone they deem ‘different’ – to release their own anger and frustration.”

Help children to treat others with respect – even as simply as teaching good manners, with “please”, “thank you” and “you’re welcome” as part of their natural vocabulary. These types of things demonstrate the preciousness of others. Research shows clearly that pre-teen children learn by doing. Their actions precede their beliefs (this switches around during early adolescence as they develop abstraction abilities), so enforcing good behavioural patterns is key to shaping their attitudes.

Make sure your own actions support your words, being careful to avoid stereotyping or cultural slurs, telling racist jokes or mimicking ethnic accents in an attempt to be funny. As always, your actions speak louder than your words.

4. Generosity
Teach your children to be generous – seeing the world through other people’s eyes, developing empathy and compassion, and a desire to help others. Here are some possibilities:

  • Volunteer with your child. Make community service a regular part of your family’s life. Not only will this be for a good cause, it will also be a great family time together.
  • On birthdays, Christmas and other gift-giving times, make it a rule that the person who has received presents must select one present to give away to those less fortunate. This must apply to everyone in the family, not just the children.
  • Have three piggy banks for their pocket money – one to store their money, one for their savings, and one to give away. Two or three times a year, make a decision about what to give the money away to. The entire family’s giving can be pooled, and a family decision made about how to use it.

5. Religion, Humility and Seeking the Truth
I grew up in a religious home. I am very proud to be a Christian, even though I acknowledge there are many reasons not to be proud of Christianity. Many of the atrocities in our world are committed in the name of one or other god, and many intractable political positions are held on the basis of some or other religious belief.

As much as I believe my religion to be true, and probably even worth dying for, I do not believe that it is worth killing for. In fact, if I ever did feel that my religion led me to want to get rid of other people, I’d have to seriously question it. Most religions in the world have love and peace as core principles. Most religions have a vision of a better world, and that invariably includes a world at peace with itself. However, parents who want to raise compassionate, peace-loving children are starting at a disadvantage – we have to help our children rise above what they are exposed to through television, films, video games, music, cartoons and the news.

While my wife and I do believe in truth, we are extremely concerned at what some people are prepared to do in truth’s name. We intend to help our daughters to be humble about their beliefs, to desire to seek truth wherever it may be found, and to seek first to understand before seeking to be understood.

6. Conflict Resolution, not Avoidance
Be your child’s problem “helper” rather than problem solver. Guide and support your children as they work through conflicts or struggles, but avoid doing for them what they have the skills to accomplish on their own, as they learn to manage differences and the almost inevitable conflicts that difference brings.

7. Innocence
Our girls need to know that there are bad people in the world. They do have to develop a healthy fear for strangers. But, we want to protect their innocence and idealism as long as possible. There aren’t any hard and fast rules for getting the balance right – the balance between a healthy fear that will lead to actions and behaviour that will protect them, and an unhealthy fear that will cause them undue distress and even psychological harm. One of the keys to getting the balance right is for my wife and I to get the balance right in our own lives.

Like everyone in Johannesburg, we know people who had been hijacked, assaulted and even raped. Our next-door neighbours were victims of an armed robbery in their own home. I don’t want to deny these realities, but equally I want my daughters to enjoy their innocence. We have decided to limit their exposure to the news and to media until they are ten.

Go MAD – make a difference

No amount of whining is going to fix this country. No amount of complaining is going to fix any problems in the world. It requires action, activity, resources and energy. It requires the appropriate organisations and officials to be held accountable. This is what I intend to do. And as my daughters get a little bit older, I intended to involve them in these activities as well. We were not put in this world simply to make our own way, and live in our own comfort. Sure, the world is not what we would like to be. But that’s partly why we are here – to make a difference.

As we consider the enormity of this vision – the often impossible nature of the task of fixing our future – I am reminded of the words of Mahatma Gandhi, which are both a challenge and a comfort: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It’s not a quick fix, but it’s a great start!

One thought on “Parenting in a world gone mad”

  1. Thank you for an insightful post.

    I am the mother of two young boys and I have recently started to worry about exactly this; how to prepare my children for the real world and its ugliness, without making them afraid and distrustful of life and all the joys that it holds – in spite of all the pain. Your post has a number of useful pointers.

    As a non-believer in a Christian-dominated community (I’m Afrikaans), I particularly appreciate your consideration towards non-Christians. It’s a refreshing change to what I typically encounter.

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