Rewild the Child (no Rewiring Required)

A quick thought while the baby is asleep in the sling…

It’s an ongoing thing for most of the mothers I know, the complaint that ‘my kids just don’t know how to play’. The blame usually gets put at the feet of gadgets, things that can be used to while away long hours on planes (those rubbery iPad covers with alien-like protuberances so kids can play car games spring to mind) or car journeys, or sitting in dentist’s waiting rooms, or just hanging out at home. The 3 month Spanish summer holidays are looming and the thought is troubling me as to what my kids will get up to all that time.

When there’s no toys or electronics to play with, any length of time seems unbearable; one friend recounted how her son (9 y.o.) had a tantrum at the thought of a 40-minute wait in an office yesterday, but once he’d finally accepted the reality of it he calmed down and waited patiently. It was the idea of having ‘nothing to do’ in all that time that freaked him out initially. “We used to be able to wait for much longer!” she recalled, “We didn’t need stuff to play with…we’d just play.”

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2015/apr/08/time-to-rewild-your-child-george-monbiot-video?CMP=fb_gu

Another contact, a city planner, gave a great resumé of how kids aren’t really able to play ‘wild’ as most of us used to do when we were kids: ‘Urbanist Enrique Peñelosa once said “The measure of a good city is one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can safely go anywhere. If a city is good for children, it will be good for everyone else. Over the last 80 years we have been making cities much more for car mobility than for children’s happiness.” And that’s the crux of it, cities are built for cars, not kids/people.’

Although I get a lot of ‘Muuuum…I’m bored” at our house, I’m relieved and delighted whenever I see my kids playing (always with other kids, or at the very least with each other) without anything in the way, not even a swing or a roundabout. Creative types often comment that boredom was essential to the development of their art when they were children. I’ll rehash an old theme by saying the same’s true for me: I grew up in a couple of small villages where I did a lot of reading, making up stories, fiddling about on the guitar and just daydreaming.

Visiting my son’s old Waldorf school recently, which has moved (strangely enough) to my parent’s old house, I noticed a breeze block with a large piece of wood on top in the garden. The teacher commented that they don’t put anything to play on in the yard so that the kids will invent things: the wood and brick were put there by the kids to balance on. In another corner was a teepee made of bamboo. Kind of cool, don’t you think?

What it really comes down to, and what makes me sad when my kids pester me for Lego et al (it’s been birthday week…always the cue for weeks of pre-emptive materialistic preoccupation) is that we’ve become so accustomed to seeking happiness outside of ourselves, in an object, a phone, a toy…even another person. Playing with friends isn’t deriving happiness exclusively from them – it’s finding it emerges spontaenously from the alchemy of toegtherness.

We were at the plaza yesterday for a reading of Don Quixote in 30 languages (the most exotic being Mongolian), Cavegirl buddied up with some English kids who were playing by some rocks, pretending it was a kitchen, and I was warmed by the thought that imaginaton isn’t dead, and kids’ society is still capable of pulling out fantastical games from the ether. Innocence isn’t dead; we just need to have the space sans gizmos, to remember it. That’s a comfort.

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Sufism and Motherhood: To the Walrusnut!

The Prophet Muhammad (s.) once said that “Paradise lies at the foot of the mother”.
When I gaze down, mostly I see at my feet cake crumbs, bits of Ancient Egyptian Playmobil, ripped up paper, pens without lids, and the occasional puddle for which I shall not be held accountable.
I see his point, though. After having a few days in a row of luxurious kid-free time, in which I slept way past 8am, performed music, went on spontaneous wanders through London with friends and had uninterrupted conversations, it is all the clearer to me how much of a grind on the ego it is to spend all day every day with your own kids.
My irritability crept in after about 24 hours. I was unnerved by how fast my bachelorette turn had diminished my tolerance for screeching, spats, brat-outs over toys and their ilk. I could hear myself using that exasperated tone of voice that I would so hate to hear from anyone else. Does this sound familiar? “All this mess needs to be cleared up in five minutes or the My Little Pony gets given away. Come on, I want to see some movement here! Chop chop!”
However, when I really scrutinise my flashpoints, I recognise that they fell into four general categories:
1) Mess. Lego all over the floor. Rice, ditto. Pens left unlidded (see above). Generally, things not being in the place they should be.
2) Screeching. Theirs usually provokes mine, thus forming a vicious cycle.
3) Brat-outs, spoilt behaviour, over food, spoons, plates, toys…any action indicating that things mean more than people. Really gets my goat.
4) Fighting, hitting, bruising, throwing things (especially when it’s at my head). Often involves all of the above.
Essentially, all this is boils down to something happening that I don’t want to be happening.
This in no way means that it should not, in fact, be happening. I’m sure there is some psychologist out there who has definitive proof that children need to screech, leave Lego all over the floor, brutalise their siblings or freak out because the plate is the wrong shade of green as it’s essential to their brain development. Who am I to argue?
Now, the process of trying to simultaneously manage a household, not let your child die from eating poison berries, and stay remotely sane is a serious grind on your ego. Oh, the ego. That sumptuously curved, glossy-haired chick you see in the blurry periphery of a photo only to discover she is a warted frog with prickles all over its back that lives permanently in your spleen.
Our egos get a serious jolt when we have a baby. All our ideas about ourselves – so tenderly nurtured throughout our teenage and college years, attested to by thousands of photos at various stages of our well-staged lives – is thrown into the gutter, to be replaced by a shaky-legged, stretch-marked, tearful dairy cow who doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing.

And then heaven sends us one last chance to patch up our relationship to our old selves – Facebook! Here we can post selfies that have been Photoshopped to remove the black bags under eyes, wrinkles, grey hairs and look of raving desperation in our eyes.

Of course, there are lots of genuine benefits. (That’s the addict in me talking.) We can reconnect with old friends, send out requests for second-hand buggies, read endless articles about health, education, psychology, world politics and anything else that will fill us with fearful concern for our new baby’s future. And whereas the real world is full of dangerous, nasty people who sneer and criticise, Facebook language is almost always interspersed with hearts, emoticons, lols and lots of loves. So much emotion in so few characters.

In fact, we mums seem to spend an awful lot of time on FB. Quite a few mothers I have met who dash off to check their profile while the kids aren’t looking, race to the computer once the kids are in bed to post pics from that day, whose phones beep notifications which they check whilst boiling pasta.

I’ll save the platitudes about how none of this was necessary twenty years ago, when we still lived in communities and we had mums to tell us what to do about mastitis instead of Mumsnet, etc. etc…only, after reading this article about social media and narcissism, I can’t ignore the link between my FB use and my outbreaks of irritability any longer. Among the symptoms of narcissism – which were linked to excessive social media – along with believing oneself to be above the rules, hyperchondria and inability to accept criticism, was being quick to anger.

Oh dear. Not only is it a prerequisite to using social media, it’s actually making me MORE narcissistic. I was much calmer with my kids after reading that. Can’t have them thinking I’m a narcissist or something.

On a completely different spectrum of motherkind, the kind of mum whose example is passed around by Sufi-type women is the sort that has a dozen children, takes in waifs and strays too, teaches literacy and ethical values with compassion and patience, and reads Surat al-Baqarah in her spare time.

I’m not sure these women have ever existed. If they still do, I wonder if they don’t freak out when the kids are asleep and turn into vicious trolls, leaving scathing remarks on every YouTube video ever to be left open to comments.

And yet you do meet women who, eight or so children down the line, despite various health issues concomitant to those births, shrug off trouble quite well. Perhaps it’s because they’ve borne their fair share of it and have learned not to sweat the small stuff – or, indeed, any stuff. They have stories that would make your eyes pop out, or at the very least treasure your washing machine.

The allure of websites like Facebook (and to some extent WordPress, though I don’t find nearly so much time to write here) is that they present a window of opportunity to fly out of the mundane, hamster wheel existence in which your image means about as much as a raisin squashed into a sheepskin rug, and to relive, in some small measure, the lives we had before, when the world was a mirror of what people thought of us.

The thing is that in between issues 1), 2), 3) and 4) above, there are a whole host of moments spent with children that are riproaring fun without that old vampire bat, the ego, getting its feed.

Silly games or made-up words – just today we had walrusnuts, nasalnuts and toilet trees – provoke laughter that blocks the chattering mind for a few seconds at a time. Hugs do the same in a golden, peachy kind of way. Racing breathlessly through a puddly park. Painting, cutting random shapes out of paper, mucking around with clay, anything that gets you engrossed like them and not concerned with ensuring that they fulfil orders (unless you have a hard time letting go of order – in which case some messy paint is probably just the ticket).

The reason those moments are precious is because you were totally present, without the veil of your self-consciousness clouding the view. Once you’re there you access that limitless space in which imagination, innocence, and spiritual awareness become realities again. You can let go of the inner fascist and feel part of the infinite, beautiful harmony that is always in Divine hands.

Apart from all that, who wants to be remembered as that woman who cooked dinner and spent the rest of the time staring at a screen?

There’s always going to be more interesting stuff out there. It seems to me the only way to make any sense of it is to see what in here first.

School: The Ultimate Desert Island

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  Another teenager ends her life after being bullied relentlessly by schoolmates, both in person and online. The heartrending story of Izzy Dix’s suicide, told by her mother – a single mum, for whom Izzy was her only child – has hit me at a particularly emotional moment: my kids are away and the house is thunderingly silent. God only knows how Izzy’s mother is coping with her solitude.
  And it makes me wonder – not for the first time – what the deal is with education. What good is a school if it teaches kids how to regurgitate facts for exams, which they will certainly have forgotten two weeks after finishing school, and yet is so blinkered to the facts before its eyes that it cannot see when a child is teetering on the edge?
  What, more to the point, are they teaching their students about social responsibility, ethics, compassion? At times it looks more like the mechanical imprinting of information than the careful nurturing that a bunch of insecure adolescents need.
  After blogging about my trepidation in taking Caveboy to state school, concluding that it wouldn’t harm him since, comparatively, we live in a beautiful, open, natural wonderland, by the end of term he’d come down with double pneumonia and ended up in hospital on an antibiotic drip for three days. (He did fine with treatment, thank God, and even went to the UK for Christmas).
  But he was still not back to peak health by the beginning of the spring term, so I took the executive decision to keep him out of school. It was only Infant’s, in any case, and therefore not obligatory, though if you don’t take up the offer of free state education most Spanish people look at you like one of those creepy mums who tell their kids that everyone is evil and probably still breastfeed their teenagers.
  Since I had to organise a babysitter to look after my daughter (then nearly three), I got together with two other mums and we had a babysitter-share at my house, three mornings a week. It worked a treat. There’s lots of space to play here, lots of sunshine to be out in, trees to climb, kittens, toys, craft materials…I think I can safely say they had a ball.

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  I was, meanwhile, optimistically planning a home school co-op for the following year. I could teach music! I thought. And poetry! And history! We could do whole theatre productions! And make up group stories! And plant things! If, that is, I could generate the extra six hours a day I needed to get everything else done…
  Thank heavens, then, that someone else did know that particular conjuring trick. Two wonderful friends got together and had a wooden cabin built in an olive and orange grove, filled it with Montessori equipment, kitted out a patio to the side with art things, and set up a Montessori-inspired playschool.

  Three days a week, too – the magic number I figured would work best with my kids, so I’d still get enough time to see them and be able to juggle all my other projects.
  It seems that in the two years since their dad and I split up, I’ve felt less like I needed my own space and more like I want to relish my time with my children. Partly that’s because they are growing older and more able to potter around with paints and playthings, without leaping on my back and pulling my hair or wailing over something inexplicable every five minutes.   
  And partly it’s that they go to their dad’s for days or even weeks at a time, and I realise that the house really isn’t so much fun without them in it. I don’t really inhabit it when I’m on my own here; I barely cook, which means the washing up pile is slow to accumulate, and the same could be said for the laundry too…which might sound like every housewife’s dream, but in a strange way, I appreciate these little daily tentpegs that moor my restless mind into something tangible and satisfying to finish.
  So the idea that next year Caveboy will be starting primary school leaves me feeling quite bereft. Before I know it he’ll be doing after school activities, going to friends’ to lunch, or having to contend with the increasing amount of homework that kids are being set – often, it seems, by blockheaded teachers who make them repeat the same inane tasks over and over, until all love of learning has been thoroughly stamped out of their tender heads.

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  Learning, I believe, is something that any child who has been encouraged to do so from an early age will do quite instinctively. And once they can read for themselves, the pedagogical world is their oyster. Some of the best read people I’ve met have not gone to school.
  “But it’s the social thing!” anti-homeschoolers rant. And they’re right: there are those kids whose parents, in their earnest wish not to see their kids being bullied, end up stymying their children’s own ability to work things out for themselves.
  However, it’s an argument that is just as valid in many schools, especially large, impersonal schools in which kids like Izzy Dix can fall through the net. Izzy had moved back to the UK from Australia two years before she died. She came into a high school eager to make friends, but instead found nothing but cliques with their backs turned to her, firing bitchy comments from behind their battlements to keep the stranger at bay.
  It makes me want to work hard to keep this Montessori project flourishing through to primary. Not just because the kids seem happy, interested, relaxed, engaged, alive, but because they would be fortified on all sides by a society they understand, people they know, kids whose parents meet and chat and laugh together in the street. I wonder if this isn’t really the secret ingredient to a successful school ingredient – the wider society being something that children do well to mirror.

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  I went to a state school, quite large (1500 at the time, and it’s grown a lot since I left). It was competitive; we had dozens of sports teams and dance shows and charity performances; people talked about Oxbridge at Sixth Form.
  But my parents had nothing to do with anyone from this microcosm of society, except on Parent’s Evening. There was not much point me telling them about things that happened to so-and-so; they didn’t know who they were. We were relative hermits, bookworms inhabiting a miniature classical Islamic library, or making music to ourselves. We had our own friends, other Sufis who’d come to our house to sing and do dhikr (the remembrance of God) together. We made sense among ourselves.
  Nobody from my school would have understood us. I know why my parents didn’t want to hang out with other parents; our lives ran on different runners. We didn’t drink alcohol, that ubiquitous social lubricant. We didn’t watch EastEnders. We didn’t take much of an interest in the usual English things (house prices, football, Jonathon Ross). The weather was about the only thing that affected us equally as our neighbours.

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That, of course, and our sense of humour.

  But growing up in this bisected way, with one outer life and another inner, was not much fun. I developed a hard shell to deal with everyday England that took many years of difficult work to emerge from. My interaction with people was premeditated, edited, cautious. Nobody got the full picture, which perhaps is what made me turn to writing and music with such passion.
  So in the imaginary schools of my children’s future, I hope I will always be there, brandishing trays of prawn blinis at every event, enthusiastically welcoming other parents and insisting on being their acquaintance, not just for the sake of appearances but so that my kids won’t feel that I am deserting them on a strange island every time I leave them off at the school gates.
  I intend to make it plain who I am, without shame, without fear of judgment, since if you have no shame about your real self, there is nowhere for any hater to pin their hate onto you. It’s as if you have become a transparent ball of light, melting their needles whenever they get close. And if you carry baggage around, writhing with embarrassing secrets, you can be sure that someone, bully or snark or spineless invertebrate, will take pleasure in opening them for you.
  Don’t let your light be barnacled by self-doubt. You are every bit as awesome as you wish you were. And you always have been.