Those Two Old Friends – Anxiety and Fear

After Dark: Fear

After Dark: Fear (Photo credit: the_exploratorium)

Let me introduce you to two of my closest, long-standing and most loyal “friends”: fear and anxiety. We’ve been “friends” for so many years, I’ve lost count. Like all friendships we have had our ups and downs – sometimes almost unbearably close, other times we have been apart for lengthy periods of time.  In their absence, I have thrived, come out from their shadow.  As comfortable as I think I feel in their presence, fortunately I do have a wide group of other friends which counter their hold over me: humour, a sense of fun (and the ridiculous), determination and happiness.

I know there are millions of us out there who count these two amongst our nearest and (not so) dearest.  Over the years, I have come to understand that it is these two which actually allow me to experience and appreciate their opposites in sharp relief. They have certainly shaped me, but will never define me.  They have given me the ability to empathise with, sympathise with and understand others.  I am a more rounded person because of them.

Why am I telling you all this? Partly, I guess, because usually my writing is observational and light-hearted but not everything I observe is like this, life is more complicated, and partly in response to an article I read in The Times at the weekend about how you can deal with a child who worries incessantly, who is anxious, unable to relax.  Not only did I recognise myself as that child, but also similar traits in my own children – particularly my eldest.  It got me thinking…is this a trait peculiar to eldest children?  Does that burden of responsibility that the eldest feels from such an early age allow a burgeoning relationship with anxiety and fear which to different degrees stay with you through childhood and adulthood?

I am not just talking about obvious childhood fears, like monsters under the bed (although needless to say I had an veritable zoo under my bed as a child – snakes, sharks, lions, tigers – you name it, they were there – along with the whole cast of Ghostbusters).  No, I am talking about those more intangible fears – fear of failure, fear of not living up to expectation (largely self-afflicted), fear of the unknown, fear about taking risks.

In my experience, the second child, without the burden of forging the way like the eldest, feels a sense of freedom from responsibility and a freedom to take risks, throw caution to the wind, unencumbered by fear and anxiety.  This is, of course, not to say that fear and anxiety are solely the preserve of the eldest child but in my experience, the eldest is far more cautious and less willing to take risks, more concerned about failure and the “what ifs”.

It will come as no surprise then to you that I am the eldest of three children. My greatest wish for my children is that they do not allow my old “friends”, fear and anxiety, to determine their path in life. To that end, I try very hard not to allow my “friends” to stay in my house very often, especially when the kids are around.

Just because something is familiar, it does not mean it is healthy or not to be challenged.  The old adage of “familiarity breeds contempt” is certainly true as far as my old “friends” are concerned and I am finding as I get older (and wiser?) that I am moving away from this circle of “friends” and embracing my new friends – happiness, laughter and joy – much more.  Now, I’m 40, I am also ready to discover new friendships – success (as I see it) and fulfilment of potential.

I have realised over the year, that just because these two hanger-ons are familiar, that does not equate with being comfortable.  Fear and anxiety are largely self-fabricated and built on no real foundations, just years of being allowed to co-exist.  There is no real substance to them, you can just push them away if you really try. Fear and anxiety in a small measure are part of the human condition but you shouldn’t let them be your “friends”.  Real friends make you feel good about yourself, boost you, laugh with you, cry with you and support you.  Fear and anxiety are impostors – see them for what they really are.  Stand up to them and watch them fade.  Well, that’s my experience and that’s what I shall be telling my children.

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Little Princess Syndrome

Cinderella (Disney character)

Cinderella (Disney character) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was a very interesting article in The Times yesterday entitled “Unhappy daughters: how we are raising a troubled generation”.  The article included extracts from a book about to be published , “21st Century Girls”, by Sue Palmer, a former primary school head.

In the book, Sue Palmer writes of three stages of girlhood (as she sees it): From birth (Little Princess Syndrome), From age 8 (The rise of the electronic bedsit), From age 12 (Sex and self-confidence).  It is interesting how all these books on raising girls are suddenly appearing – historically, there seem to have been many more books about raising boys.  Why has this been the case?  Perhaps traditionally boys have been perceived as more “tricky” in the younger stages of life and that problems with girls don’t arise so much until the teenage years. This proliferation of books about raising girls would suggest that there has been a shift and that we should be as concerned about the issues (inherent and imposed) of raising our girls.

The issues raised by the book are far too numerous and complex to discuss in a blog post but the first stage of girlhood – the stage I am currently at with my daughter (and therefore the only one I can really comment on) – the so-called “Little Princess Syndrome” which  the author believes “is now practically endemic across society” –  caused me to stop and think.  Sue Palmer talks about how the aggressive marketing and constant onscreen portrayals of princesses such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty to which our daughters are exposed from a very young age have a serious and long-lasting effect on behaviour and create an obsession with appearance from a frighteningly young age.  She goes on to say that “since princesses are traditionally self-obsessed and high-handed, she [daughter] may then start acting like a small, pink potentate.  If, when she starts pre-school, she meets up with other girls who’ve adopted the same persona, the princess culture may begin to threaten parental authority”.

Is this stretching the point too far?  Instinctively I want to say “Yes” – after all, little girls have role-played as princesses for hundreds of years but perhaps she has a valid point.  Everywhere I look, and therefore everywhere my daughter looks, there is “princess” stuff: the TV is constantly spouting it; the toy shops are full of princess regalia; there are “princess” sticker books, “princess” magnetic dolls to dress, ‘princess” secret journals….it is never-ending. Then again, is anyone suggesting that all the Thomas the Tank Engine or Spiderman paraphernalia that is pushed at our young boys is going to create a generation of train-drivers and arachnid obsessed superheroes (and the associated behaviours of both?!).  No, of course not, so what is it about this “princess” pushing that should be any different?

My little girl adores dressing up and indeed most days after pre-school will come home and immediately change into her Sleeping Beauty (current favourite) outfit.  She will clomp around the house in her faux-high heels, wearing a particularly garish tiara, carrying a handbag “just like yours, mummy” (except, to reassure you, I don’t tend to go out with a neon-pink, bejewelled plastic number on an everyday basis).  If Sue Palmer is to be believed, all this pre-occupation with princesses, appearance and dressing up “can effect her capacity to “lose herself” in play of all kinds.”  I don’t really buy into this.  From my limited experience, my daughter is streets ahead of my boys when it comes to creative play and can often be found lost in her imaginary world (admittedly which usually features Sleeping Beauty or the like, but certainly not exclusively).

I shall admit I probably do indulge her “girliness” – although often through sheer attrition – for example, when she has asked me for the millionth time in one afternoon if she can wear nail varnish, I might just find myself saying “OK”!  Am I as bad as the big marketing men and the TV moguls pushing “princess” behaviour on my daughter?

At the heart of this, it seems to me, is that age-old argument of nature vs nurture.  I can only speak personally but right from the second she was born, my daughter has always been so different to her brothers.  If anyone should prove the nature argument, she should.  By rights, she should be a real “tom boy” – with two older brothers, her first experiences of toys were Gordon, Thomas, James, Diesel and the other engines – was she interested? No, not in the slightest. She gravitated towards more stereotypically “female” toys all by herself.  OK, I admit, she wore a lot of pink (I waited a while for a girl!) but she genuinely likes pink things, the boys genuinely do not like pink things – I don’t think I’ve manipulated that. My daughter has always shown a real interest in the way I look, put on make-up, the clothes I choose.  Have I encouraged this? No, not at all – if anything I find it faintly disconcerting having a little person studying me intently while I jam a mascara wand into my eye. It is just the way she is – nature.

It is my responsibility to make sure she grows up with self-confidence and a healthy body-image and I accept that but the worst I think I could be accused of at this age is perhaps indulging some of her more “girly” traits. Yes, sometimes, she can display some “princess” behaviour but I don’t think it is any more than asserting herself as she grows up and finds her place in her world – childhood displays of behaviour common to both sexes.  I don’t disagree with Sue Palmer about the excess of “princess” stuff out there and of course, as parents, we need to be very mindful of all the exposure our children are getting to marketing and consumerism from such a young age.  However, the old adage of “girls will be girls, boys will be boys” is largely true, I think, and if my daughter wants to dress up and be a princess in her creative play, then that’s fine by me and it is my responsibility to ensure her future self-confidence about her appearance is not affected and also to show her who’s boss (for her own good) if she starts to suffer from “little princess syndrome…when I have to start addressing her as HRH or Ma’am, then I shall worry.

The New Rules of Parenting…

Fireplace

Fireplace (Photo credit: John.Karakatsanis)

A good start to 2013 for me – it would appear that for the first time I am ahead of the parenting curve.  This is no mean feat – as a fully paid-up member of the Gina Ford generation, this does not often happen, if at all in my case. To what am I referring? “The new rules of parenting” in “The Times 2” today.

Let me explain.  My eldest son has been displaying some ‘interesting’ new pyromaniacal tendencies.  Up until a few weeks ago, he has shown zilch interest in fire except perhaps a certain disdain for it as he wrestles with his brother dangerously close.  However, recently, it is all about the fire.  He wants to light the fire in our sitting room all the time – first thing in the morning, lunchtime, evening and most irritatingly at about 10pm.  He not only seems to enjoy the whole fire-building process (very much a male preserve, rather like barbecuing) but he tends that fire and nurtures it in a way a mother would her baby.  I have watched this new obsession with some bemusement/amusement and a fair amount of anxiety, aware that it could only too quickly go horribly wrong.

We decided to allow him to follow this new obsession and my husband has very patiently built more fires with his son over this Christmas period than the 16 years I have known him.  So imagine the smugness (there is no other word for it, I’m afraid) that swept over me this morning when I turned to my newspaper and “A five-stage guide to bringing up boys and girls” by child development expert Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer. There in black and white, under the section for boys aged 8-10, it says “…Help him to develop practical skills, such as lighting a bonfire (he will do it anyway, so we may as well teach him properly)…” Not only did I feel immediately comforted – my son is perfectly normal for his age and not showing worrying tendencies towards arson – but we, as parents, had responded appropriately – high five!

I have to say that this was about the only area in which we seemed to be succeeding and it would probably be fair to say that I am giving undue attention to one sentence in a long article. In the same section, referring to boys of the same age as my eldest, we are also told not to “go over the top in praising him in an attempt to boost self-esteem: he will feel smothered”. Now, please tell me that I am not the only mother who has days when she finds it very difficult to find anything to praise and I am very rarely in danger of going over the top with my praise.  Some days I am forced to praise him (in desperation) for things which one might normally praise a child of two or three for – eg putting on his shoes (not laces just velcro) or worse still, praising him for most unpraiseworthy things such as getting into the car without smacking or kicking his brother.  This is all part of that balancing out the scolding for bad behaviour (sorry, “boisterous behaviour”) with praise (which all the parenting gurus go on about) and which some days really does result in praise for the most ludicrous things.

As for my other son, he falls into the ages 4-7 boys bracket. In this age bracket we should “encourage his growing sense of humour…Telling a joke is a way that boys can experience some equality with an adult…” For me, one of my most dreaded moments is when one of my children says to me, “Mummy, I’ve got a really good joke to tell you”.  What follows is never a “joke”, as you or I might understand it, but a complete nonsensical string of words which I am expected to laugh at manically once delivered.  Something along the lines of “What did the egg say to the sausage – where’s the baked beans?”  – brilliant, hilarious, hysterical.  Those first jokes are quite excruciating but you do gradually see some comprehension dawning and then the endless round of “knock knock” jokes start.  In fact, currently when one of my boys says to me those dreaded words “Mummy, I’ve got a really good joke to tell you”, I find myself saying “who’s there?” before he’s even started.  Now, however that I know these jokes must be encouraged, I shall do my best to force the laughter and praise (but not over-praise) their attempts at humour.

What about my daughter in all this?  Well, apparently for her age-group, I should be letting her be naughty.  I may have totally misunderstood but I wasn’t aware that I had much say in whether she is naughty or not – she certainly doesn’t ask my permission. I have to agree with Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, though, that “a bit of bad behaviour shows a spark of creativity”.  That’s my excuse anyway!

Parentoholic…?

This image shows a white wine glass (WMF Easy)...

This image shows a white wine glass (WMF Easy) with white wine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I settle down to the weekend newspapers, feet up for the first time this week, glass of wine in hand…the headline on The Times Weekend section catches my eye – “Are you a Parentoholic?”. At this point, I have one of my more “dim” moments – perhaps as I approach 40, a “senior moment” – and I think to myself that this must be an article about some odd medical/clinical condition which means you are addicted to parenting.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love my children completely, but I am not some earth mothering, Gina Fording, frankly nauseating example of perfect parenting – far from it!

I open up the paper and it immediately becomes apparent that no, this is not an article about extreme parenting but yet another thinly-veiled attack on middle class, verging on alcoholic, parents, which is the hot issue of the moment for the media.  My eyes settle on one of those cosy little “if you have mainly As…” quizzes which I loved so much when I was about 13 in the likes of “Just 17” or “Mizz” which I would use to determine whether the spotty nerd next door was actually my true love based on my personality type.  However, this quiz was of an altogether much more sinister type – it was a lose/lose quiz which started from the assumption that you were an alcoholic parent and it was just a matter of to what degree.

Look, I’m not trying to make light of what many consider to be a serious issue but I will say one thing.  After a 14 hour day (yes, 14 hour) which starts with one or other child screaming in my ear and ends in much the same vein with a smorgasbord of school runs, cooking, laundry, cleaning, bathing and Peppa Pig viewing thrown in the middle, I do believe it is my prerogative to have a glass of wine at the end of my working day.  For me this glass of wine does not represent a decline into alcoholism but more the fact that I am an adult and this precious two hours at the end of the day are in fact my adult time.

Anyway, I am sure this rant is yet more evidence of my approaching 40 angst, but I am going to go now as my husband has just poured me a lovely, large glass of white Burgundy…