Saturday, September 23, 2006

A wonderful childhood

Brew of the day: Apple & Rosehip (nice and autumnal!). Welcome to Saturday Morning Cuppa ~ readers, old and new.

The reaction to the Daily Telegraph ‘letter’ from 110 experts has generated publicity as far as Australia. I’ve been stunned to watch it divide the nation. There are those who think kids have never had it better and there are those people who can genuinely see that modern technology holds the biological needs of childhood to ransom.

I’ve received many emails and letters from people and organisations in full support of the campaigning letter. One in particular is from The Children’s Society which has launched The Good Childhood Inquiry ~ the UK’s first independent national inquiry into childhood, which aims to renew understanding of childhood for the 21st century.

They state that children and young people are at the heart of their inquiry. They have already asked thousands of young people what they think makes for a good childhood. In their letter to me, they want to know what I believe constitutes a good childhood.

To answer this, I needed to reflect on my own childhood. How could I not? My experiences have shaped who I am and are fundamental to my advocacy for freedom in childhood.
My own childhood (except school!) was spent in freedom. We moved from the city (Brisbane, Australia) to a 700 acre property a few hours away, on the Darling Downs, when I was about six years old. Over the years, as a family, we experienced prosperity and failure. One of the reasons my Dad bought the property, was in reaction to my mum and I becoming vegetarian. He bought calves to rear for beef. Do loving spouses do things like that?

The cattle rearing was disastrous. We moved on to growing soya beans (hey, hey, that’s more in alignment with vegetarians!!) but they didn’t cope with the ongoing drought.

My parents wised up and started to think long term. They planted something like 30 000 radiatus pine trees and thousands of walnut trees. They felt it would be of huge value in the future.

A lot of time in my childhood was spent helping to water these trees by hand (not with a hose, but by bucket, with rotted horse manure soaked in the water ~ thanks mum!!). Think: every fly in Australia hovering around your mouth. Aggh.

My dad then moved into horses and we had about 70 horses at one stage. I loved riding and would spend hours up the mountains. My neighbour Cherry (she lived a few miles away) and I would spend every available moment on horseback. I loved to take my sleeping bag and camp overnight on the mountain, baking potatoes over the campfire.

Even when I wasn’t riding, I’d be off exploring. We had an amazing creek that ran through our mountains and it would keep us kids amused no end.

My dad spent most of my childhood working overseas in Papua New Guinea as an oil exploration manager. I didn’t see that much of him as he worked away for months at a time. In his heart, he felt he was providing us with a good childhood by earning plenty of money. What was that song? Money can’t be me love….

Ask any child who loves their parents what they’d prefer. Presence over presents any day. I do believe his absence in childhood is directly responsible for the relationship he has with his adult children now. Clearly I can’t speak for my siblings, I can only observe, yet I know without question, that had my mother worked away from home in the same way my dad did she and I wouldn’t have the bond we share today.

Outside of school, I truly had a rich and fun childhood. Always up trees or creating adventures. One of my favourite times was when we hoisted an old tractor tire up by a thick rope to the large Pepperina tree in the garden. With the inner tube removed, and a piece of wood wedged between both sides to hold it open, two kids would sit inside, facing each other. Another would fill it with warm soapy water..and then!! They’d push us into the tree trunk. Water everywhere.

Waheeeeee ~ splashes, suds, screams! And then there was the time we ran naked through the garden wearing nothing but mud from head to toe.

Another time, we got hold of an old, large, corrugated iron water tank...tipped it on its side and then a few of us climbed inside and ‘walked’ it for miles along the dusty dirt roads where we lived. Kinda fun, yet kinda stupid given you can’t steer such a ‘vehicle’ let alone see where you’re going.

Talking of corrugated iron, my older sister, Heidi, sports a neat scar on her cheek from one of our favourite activities. We would take a sheet of corrugated iron, drill two holes at one end and thread thin rope from one side to the other. Starting at the top of a grass hill we’d sit on top and steer it down the hill (usually a couple of hundred metres). My sister hit a tree! The idea is not to hit trees, but to slide to the bottom. All our fun was child instigated. I don’t recall every being bored as a child. It simply wasn’t part of my vocabulary. We made our own go-karts too. ‘Twas wicked fun on the remote country roads where we lived.

Kids wouldn’t be allowed to do half the stuff we did these days. But I don’t suppose we asked our parents for permission. We just got on and made our own fun. We’d spend days playing hide and seek in amongst fields of tall growing corn. Our neighbours lived a few miles away, either side of us. There was always some distance to cover, on horse, foot or bike, in order to add playmates to the soccer or cricket team in our orchard. Having seven siblings clearly shaped me as a human being in a way that would have been impossible had I been an only child ~ even though I always wished I was the only one!

Many of my cherished childhood memories involve my mother. I loved it when she’d let me stay home from school. She just ‘knew’ when I needed to stay away. We’d eat together in the garden and chat, chat, chat. During my childhood, we spent many nights together sleeping on the trampoline just making wishes on the umpteen falling stars that fell our way. Somehow, as a kid, any cares or worries just slip away when your tiny body is face to face with the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere. You come to realise that all this earthly stuff is just an illusion. I learnt a lot about life from experiences like that.

Mum had a unique way of making life special. Every day was a celebration. I try and bring some of that magic into my daughters’ childhoods. It’s the simple, yet priceless, moments upon which we build memories. Each morning I’d awake to a freshly squeezed orange juice. Do you know how many oranges it takes to make a glass of juice? About four! She made this for all of us children. Every morning.

When there are eight children, it is pretty well inevitable that there will be fall-outs from time to time. The one thing my mum was always clear about was making sure we never went to school or to sleep without resolution.

I’d come home from school to a meal on the table. Every day she made each of us a plate of freshly chopped, grated, sliced assorted vegetables.

Mum bought fruit and vegetables in bulk and was always juicing apples and carrots for our growing bodies. It didn’t rain that often where we lived, but when it did thousands of mushrooms would emerge. We’d go off collecting them with my mum and then she’d make the most incredible mushroom soup I’ve ever tasted.

Her nourishment went way beyond food though.

At night, without fail, she’d read or sing or play the harmonica or mandolin as we drifted to sleep. Both of my parents always kissed me to sleep at night. My mother always tucked me in. It takes but a few moments for such a ritual, yet this act of love has an enormous impact on a child.

I’m 38, and my mother is one of my best friends. We have a fairly similar outlook on life, share a very wicked sense of humour and have a bond that has come from the many years she invested in me. It hasn’t made me dependent on her in a way that people often fear if a mother and child bond well. I love her dearly and often wish she lived with us or nearby. And yet I chose to leave home at sixteen and spread my wings. Since then I’ve nearly always lived in other countries. I believe this trust in my self came because of the unselfish nurturing which enfolded every day of my childhood. She was a constant in my life.

We had a tv growing up, but there were very strict rules. I was allowed to watch Little House on the Prairie, the Waltons and the Disney movies. My tv watching was very minimal and well and truly balanced out by the active outdoor lifestyle I was afforded in sunny Australia.
My own children have been raised without television. Now they’re older, they do get to watch DVDs ~ no surprise if I tell you that it most often comes in the form of the Little House and the Waltons! Good wholesome programming, that’s what I say! The deal is though, if they want to watch an hour’s worth of DVD then they have to spend the equivalent time on their bike or walking. They are not allowed to spend hours watching a screen. And I insist that they are as far away from the screen as possible. Chores, music practice and exercise always come before any screen based leisure. I watch DVDs with them, and certainly shows like the ones we watch always bring up lots of questions about morality and life ~ so we are able to use it as the basis for a learning experience, not just entertainment.

From the heart of my childhood, I bring to my children a desire and determination to give them the most nutritious food I can. I make meals from scratch, often with the girls alongside helping me.

My mother never took me to doctors, instead she used colour healing or herbs if I was not well. I clearly remember one day needing to stay home from school because I was under the weather. My mum put me out to sleep on the trampoline in the sunshine!! She brought me water throughout the day. I often wondered, as a kid, if she was unsympathetic but I can look back now and see that she taught me not to be a victim of my own misery.

We always ate our meals as a family ~ without a tv or radio blaring in the background. This is the same for my children. And we say a prayer of gratitude before each meal. From the earliest age they’ve learnt to be grateful for the journey our food takes from field to plate.
A few years back, the Sunday Mirror did a feature on our diet. At the time we were eating a 100% raw vegan diet. The sensational title to the article was These kids have never had coke or crisps!

Can’t you just see it now? EVIL MOTHER denies poor children life’s staples.
My chiropractor told me this week of a family in the USA who decided to feed their dogs the same as they fed their children. That is, coke, crisps and other junk food. The RSPCA heard about it and took the dogs away. CRUELTY!! They didn’t take the children…

Funny, isn’t it, that we don’t consider our body to be worthy of the same understanding and respect as we show other animals.

My children hear how much they are loved about half a dozen times each day. They’re kissed and tucked into bed each night by both parents. Despite being prolific readers, Bethany and Eliza still love to be read to.

Now the nights are drawing in so quickly, we find ourselves snugged up in bed together while I read from their favourite books.

My children laugh a lot. We all do. We have unpleasant times too, make no mistake. For the most part though, we enjoy each other’s company.

It’s easy, sometimes, to question my parenting and wonder if we are giving our children the very best. And then I have times, little moments in a day, which come forward begging me to take notice and realise “YES”, they have got a wonderful childhood.

A few days ago the girls turned up with lots of red above their eyes.
They’d gathered blackberries and created ‘natural’ eye shadow from the deep purple juice!

And then, a few weeks ago, there was rather a lot of noise coming from the bathroom. I checked in to see what all the laughter and screaming was about. Eliza had created some bubbles from the shampoo and was scooping them together to ‘read’ the bubbles (like tea leaf reading). She predicted Bethany was going to marry Johnny Depp!! They were howling with laughter.

What’s your average 10 year old doing these days? Odds are they’re texting, chewing gum or wearing the latest brand clothing to impress their mates!

I’m very conscious that my upbringing was aided enormously by the environment I grew up in. And equally, my girls have a rural lifestyle even if we don’t have property of our own. They have the freedom of a small, safe village (ok, apart from the dangerous speed at which the farmers whiz by on their tractors). I do know though, that even if we had to live in the world’s largest city without so much as a garden, that I would ensure we spent as much time out in nature as possible. Every city and town has green space. Parents just have to prioritise their time to give children opportunities for REAL play.

So, what do I think makes a great childhood? I certainly don’t believe it includes testing and learning useless things by rote for the duration of childhood. Nature didn’t create us to learn in this way!

None of my heart-warming memories from childhood include school (except, of course, school camps where I got to practise my mischievous skills: like vegemite on black loo seats, or Vaseline on white ones; or cling film over the toilet bowl. TOP TIP: Gotta do it last thing at night though so when people go they don’t notice . Eliza thrives on my *naughty* stories!)

My experience has shown me that love, freedom, respect and honouring the biological needs of a growing body is vital to happiness and glowing health. Freedom to play; freedom to learn in a way appropriate to each human being’s learning style, as well as healthy, nutritious, life-giving food and beverages. To quote Jamie Oliver, “If you’re giving your kids fizzy drinks you’re a f***** ar*****”. That’s m’ boy!

I completely had my buttons pressed this week to hear of mums boycotting and sabotaging Jamie’s healthy school dinner campaign. These mums are turning up at lunch time with junk food for their kids. They’re taking junk food orders for other kids! Apparently these mums don’t like what Jamie Oliver stands for!!

READ: They don’t want their growing children to have their body optimally nurtured.
How do you work with that sort of mentality? Clearly they are acting from what they believe to be a place of love. In this day and age, though, there is hardly any excuse for such ignorance when it comes to something as fundamental to well-being as what we put in our bodily vehicle.

This week in the news we hear that eating a packet of crisps a day is equal to drinking almost five litres of cooking oil every year. A recent British Heart Foundation survey of 8-15 year olds revealed that one in five children munch their way through at least two packets of crisps per day - the equivalent of nine litres of cooking oil a year. Crisps are just one aspect of today’s nutritional norm. What happens when we add all the soft drinks, burgers, pizzas and so on? The parents of these kids clearly don’t seem to care.

The Times’ response to the Daily Telegraph letter can pretty well be described as sour grapes. They’d declined to publish our letter and instead one of their columnists called us the Toxic 100. They used all sorts of excuses to dismiss our letter.

I feel The Mother magazine has been a voice in the wilderness on the issues discussed for these past five years and finally there is an outpouring of acknowledgement from all sorts of places about the issues which I hold close to my heart.

I’m not pretending that there was once a golden era of childhood. What I am suggesting is that actually, with everything we know about the human mind, body and emotions, this should be the BEST time in history to be a child. But it isn’t. One in ten kids has clinical depression. 91% of 12 year olds have a mobile phone. I don’t even have a mobile phone!
51% of ten year olds have a mobile phone. Why? WHY???

Those anti the Daily Telegraph letter say kids are so lucky to have mobiles and they’re so proficient with modern technology. How can it be harming them? Clearly these parents have never taken notice of all the research showing the connection between brain tumours and overuse of mobile phones.

TV (or any screen based leisure) does not promote imagination. There are some fundamental differences between children and adults in how their brains develop. And these differences apply to how we view a television.

All children suffer from watching television because it stops movement and poorly stimulates the senses. They don’t get to scan the picture or practise eye/hand co-ordination; they tend not to ask questions or explore topics. They don’t practise gross or fine motor skills. Initiation or motivation is not needed. Creativity or analytical thinking is suppressed. TV does not promote logical thinking because of the nature in which tv programmes are made. Adults get so caught up in television being an educational tool (which it can be) that they simply don’t want to hear about things like cathode rays. There is a huge difference between tv being a source of information and a distraction from living. As parents we’ve chosen to guard against the latter for the sake of our children.

In issue twenty of The Mother I’ll be publishing an exclusive interview with our very own Dr Richard House and Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood. They were the instigators of the now infamous letter. (See below.)

Our culture HAS to sit up and take notice of what is happening to our children. We can’t kid ourselves that the computer generation is doing ‘just fine’. This has become the era of lazy parenting and the cost is high ~ both to individuals and to society.

Go out and play with your kids today. Go on. Have some fun. Make a memory. Let today bring some magic into their impressionable hearts which will then go on to ‘feed’ your grandchildren in ways you may never know.

And do the same tomorrow. And the next day. And the next….

With love ~ Veronika ~

Dear Letters Editor,
As professionals and academics from a range of backgrounds, we are deeply concerned at the escalating incidence of childhood depression and children’s behavioural and developmental conditions. We believe this is largely due to a lack of understanding, on the part of both politicians and the general public, of the realities and subtleties of child development.
Since children’s brains are still developing, they cannot adjust - as full-grown adults can - to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change. They still need what developing human beings have always needed, including real food (as opposed to processed ‘junk’), real play (as opposed to sedentary, screen-based entertainment), first-hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives.
They also need time. In a fast-moving hyper-competitive culture, today’s children are expected to cope with an ever-earlier start to formal schoolwork and an overly academic test-driven primary curriculum. They are pushed by market forces to act and dress like mini-adults and exposed via the electronic media to material which would have been considered unsuitable for children even in the very recent past.
Our society rightly takes great pains to protect children from physical harm, but seems to have lost sight of their emotional and social needs. However, it’s now clear that the mental health of an unacceptable number of children is being unnecessarily compromised, and that this is almost certainly a key factor in the rise of substance abuse, violence and self-harm amongst our young people.
This is a complex socio-cultural problem to which there is no simple solution, but a sensible ‘first step’ would be to encourage parents and policy-makers to start talking about ways of improving children’s well-being. We therefore propose as a matter of urgency that
public debate be initiated on child-rearing in the 21st century
this issue should be central to public policy-making in coming decades.
[Any readers wishing to contribute to this debate can contact us by logging on to:]
Yours sincerely,
In alphabetical order:
Professor Peter Abbs, University of Sussex
Liz Attenborough, Manager Talk to Your Baby Campaign
Robin Balbernie, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist
Jean Barlow, Teacher Consultant, Rochdale Children’s Trust
Sally Barnes, writer and consultant on early years education
Geoff Barton, headteacher King Edward VI School, Suffolk
Camilla Batmanghelidjh, founder, Kids Club
Virginia Beardshaw, CEO, I CAN
Dr Robert Beckford , University of Birmingham, Documentary maker, Professor of African Diasaporin Studies
Professor Ron Best, Roehampton University
John C. Beyer, Director of Mediawatch UK
Sir Richard Bowlby, President, Centre for Child Mental Health
David Brazier, Ph.D., Rev. author, abbot
Professor Tim Brighouse, Commissioner for London Schools
Mick Brookes, General Secretary, National Association of Head Teachers
Professor Greg Brooks, University of Sheffield
Dr Christopher Houghton Budd, economic historian
Christabel Burniston, President, The English Speaking Board
Jean Clark, Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
Paul Cooper, editor Soccer Coaching International
Pie Corbett, author and literacy consultant
Arthur Cornell, Chairman, Family Education Trust
Jill Curtis,
Professor Tricia David, Canterbury Christchurch University College
Marion Dowling, President, British Association of Early Childhood Education
Dr John Dunford, General Secretary, Association of School and College Leaders
Margaret Edgington, Early Years specialist consultant and author
Peter Elfer, Early Childhood Studies, Roehampton University
Michele Elliot, Director, Kidscape
Professor Colin Feltham, Sheffield Hallam University
Anne Fine, author and former Children’s Laureate
Helen Freeman, Director of Publications, Scholastic Magazines
Dr Marilyn Fryer, C.Psychol. The Creativity Centre Ltd.
Di Gammage, Play Therapist, University of Plymouth
Jan Georgeson, University of Gloucestershire
Melanie Gill, child forensic psychologist, Commonsense Associates
Christopher Gilmore, Atma-Dovetales Educational
Sally Goddard Blythe, Director, Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology
Diana Goodey, educational author
Prue Goodwin, literacy specialist, University of Reading
Rob Grant, Lecturer in Development Economics, University of East Anglia
Baroness Susan Greenfield, Director of the Royal Institution
Dr Natasha Grist, University of East Anglia
Andrea Halewood, Chartered Counselling Psychologist, Roehampton University
Grethe Hooper Hansen, former head of S.E.A.L., educational consultant
Robert Hart, Analytical Psychologist
Colin and Jacqui Hawkins, children's authors
Sylvie Hétu, international trainer, International Association of Infant Massage
Brenda Hobbins, founder, Osiris Educational
Patrick Holford , Chief Executive of the Food for the Brain Foundation
Dr Richard House, Research Centre for Therapeutic Education, Roehampton University
Dr Frances Hutchinson, economist
Virginia Ironside, journalist and author
Julie Jennings, Chair of the Early Childhood Forum
Sue Johnston-Wilder, Senior Lecturer in Mathematics Education, Open University
Dr Paul Kelly, Senior Clinical Psychologist
Martin Large, author of Set Free Childhood
Dr Penelope Leach, author, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Institute for the Study of Children, Families & Social Issues, Birkbeck College, London
Dr John Lees, University of Greenwich
Professor Del Loewenthal, Roehampton University
Dr Christine Macintyre, Hon Fellow, University of Edinburgh
Neil McLelland, Chief Executive, National Literacy Trust
Dr Peter Martin, Principal Lecturer in Counselling Psychology, Roehampton University
Mildred Masheder, writer on childhood, author of Positive Parenting
Dr Brien Masters, Director, London Waldorf Teacher Training Seminar
Dr Roland Meighan, educational publisher and author of Comparing Learning Systems
Montessori Education UK
Michael Morpurgo, author and former Children’s Laureate
Professor Janet Moyles, emeritus professor at Anglia Ruskin University
Craig Newnes, C. Psychol., editor of Making and Breaking Children's Lives
Vincent Nolan, Synectics Education Initiative
Chris Oakley, Psychoanalyst, The Site for Contemporary Psychoanalysis
Haya Oakley, Hon Sec of The College of Psychoanalysts
Lynne Oldfield, Director, London Waldorf Early Childhood Training Course
Jayne Osgood, Senior Research Fellow, London Metropolitan University
Sue Palmer, literacy consultant and author of Toxic Childhood
Dr Lindsey Peer , CBE
Professor Michael A. Peters, University of Illinois
Gervase Phinn, former school inspector and author
Professor David Pilgrim, clinical psychologist and academic author
Sir Jonathon Porritt , environmental campaigner
Denis Postle, psychotherapist and author of The Mind Gymnasium
Linda Pound, Early Years Consultant
Philip Pullman, author
Tom Raines, Editor, New View magazine
Dr Graham Rawlinson, educational psychologist, University of Sussex
Professor Colin Richards, HMI (ret.)
Dr Alex Richardson, Mansfield College, Oxford; author of They Are What We Feed Them
Denise Roberts, (Editor, My Child magazine)
Veronika Robinson, Editor of The Mother magazine
Dr Dorothy Rowe, psychologist and writer
Professor Andrew Samuels, University of Essex
Sally Schweizer, Early Childhood Advisor, teacher trainer, author of Well, I Wonder
Wendy Scott, former early years adviser to the DfES
Dorothy Selleck, Early Years consultant
Dr Aric Sigman, writer, broadcaster and author of Remotely Controlled
Pippa Smith and Miranda Suit, co-founders of Media March UK
Professor Margaret Snowling, University of York
Professor Ernesto Spinelli, psychotherapist and counselling psychologist, Regent’s College, London
Dr Pat Spungin,
Dr Stephen Sterling, Schumacher Reader in Education for Sustainability, Centre for Sustainable Futures, University of Plymouth
Professor Sarah Stewart-Brown, Director of Health Sciences Research Institute, University of Warwick
Professor Brian Thorne, University of East Anglia and the College of Teachers
Dr Sami Timimi, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, Lincolnshire
Nick Totton, Editor, Psychotherapy and Politics journal
Dr Rona Tutt , OBE , SEN Consultant, Speaker and Writer
Norman Wells, Director, Family Education Trust
Dr David Whitebread, University of Cambridge
Hilary Wilce, columnist and author of Help Your Child Succeed At School
Bryony Williams, nursery manager
Jacqueline Wilson, author and Children’s Laureate
Sarah Woodhouse, Right From the Start education and support project for parents

1 comment:

Star Khechara said...

Gosh, those parents taking junk for their kids is disgraceful!!!!
I've always found it really strange that social services never check up on those kids being fed nothing but junk day in day out, but they'll find time to hassle someone whose kids are vegetarian and are not vaccinated (yet are in excellent health and very intelligent!). We live in a backwards world, it's enough to make you cry sometimes. How to get through to people who just don't care?? It's beyond my understanding.
Overheard by myself in a pub in wiltshire:
12 year old duaghter: "My friend Rachel is vegetarian, she won't wear leather and cares about the environment"
Overweight gobby dad: "If you ever turn out like that I'll give you a thump"
I had to almost physically stop my husband going over and taking the dad out!!
Also overheard by myself...
Very overweight mum with snotty child: Well, the Dr said if she's fussy just feed her junk then"