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Is “Keeping Up” Keeping Our Children Down?

 

It’s nearly 3pm and, at schools around the country, parents stand outside classrooms in small groups, chatting as they wait for their children to come out of class.  I am one of the waiting parents and I have noticed that there’s topic of conversation that comes up repeatedly – our children’s after school schedules.  We list off swimming lessons, rugby practices, art classes, play dates… and commiserate over how busy our children are and the effort it is to ferry them around as well as getting dinner on the table and making sure homework gets done.  Many, parents and children alike, seem to spend their afternoons rushing around and, by the end of the week, are ragged.

Once the kids come out from class, I watch a number of them drag their feet as they dawdle behind their parent, who is making a beeline for the car and urging them to “hurry up, we need to get to ballet”.  The kids can’t keep up literally or spiritually.  The reality of going to ballet every Thursday afternoon isn’t as exciting as it had seemed when they were begging Mum to sign them up, especially after having soccer on Monday, piano lessons on Tuesday and a playdate with Rebecca on Wednesday.

Why do we put our kids (and ourselves) through this?  Here are some of the things I hear parents saying –

“He wants to do all these activities”.
“It’s good for her to learn new skills”.
“The afternoons are so long when the kids don’t have something to do”.

Are any of these really good reasons for exhausting ourselves and our kids?

I think the variety of after school activities available to our children is great but I also think our children need us to pace them, like a pacer might for a marathon runner.  It’s like when they order the enormous piece of chocolate cake at the cafe but only manage to eat half of it – they couldn’t judge in advance how much they could eat.  If we set up a lifestyle of constant doing and achieving for our kids, they will come to believe that they must always be “productive” in some way.  They will go into adulthood overstretching themselves and not really enjoying any of what they do because they’re too tired trying to keep up with the lifestyle and expectations that have been created for them.

Overscheduling is symptomatic of our attitudes and isn’t the only pressure that we, as a society, are putting our kids under.  There are many other ways that our children experience the expectation to keep doing, to achieve and to keep up too –  anxiety from their parents & teachers to do well at school, complex dynamics within their peer group to negotiate, time spent on devices playing addictive games & subject to the impossible standards of social media, bedrooms overcrowded with more toys & gadgets than they can use…  All these things have a place when well managed but, they also all take a child away from him or her self.  A day crowded with activities, expectations and material things doesn’t allow our children time to know who they truly are.

Because, it is knowing who we are without our schedules, our achievements, our things and, even, our relationships, that is our source of peace. 

I watched a very candid, thought-provoking documentary on Netflix this week called Not Alone in which a young woman who had lost her best friend to suicide as a teen interviewed other teens who had experienced depression and suicidal thoughts.  At the end of the documentary, the teens spoke about what they were doing to find peace and move forward.  They all mentioned things that were essentially about knowing and being their true selves – talk therapy, meditation and doing activities they deeply enjoyed, for example.  These things had been missing from their lives previously.

One thing I noticed about the teens who spoke so openly in Not Alone was that they had been tuning in to the wrong things for their sense of self.  Things that, in the end, sent them spiraling downwards – the expectations of their parents & teachers, trying to fit in with their peers, careless comments & dishonestly perfect images on social media feeds… It seemed that, if they had had a greater sense of themselves, they may have had more perspective and possibly avoided getting sucked into the black hole of comparison. It was in trying to “keep up” in some way that most of them had found themselves spiraling downwards.

 

WHAT WE CAN DO TO MANAGE THE PRESSURE ON OUR CHILDREN

I often hear reports that anxiety, depression and self-harm among teenagers is rising and showing up at an earlier age, even in children who are still single-digit by age.  This weighs heavily on my heart – we used to think of teenagers as vibrant, optimistic, carefree young people but, instead, they are crumbling because society has created for them a lifestyle that feels impossible to keep up with.  We’re all responsible.  I’m sure there are things we parents can do while our children are young to nurture a perspective and a lifestyle that supports a sense of self strong enough to withstand some of the inevitable pressure.  Here are some of the things I try to do for  my boys with that end in mind –

  • Pace their activities – I leave time in our schedule for doing nothing in particular.  My boys savour a day at home in the weekend – playing, pottering, doing whatever they feel like in the moment.  Every child will have a different appetite for stimulation & activity and we need to be tuned in enough to find the right balance for them.
  • Encourage them to do things simply for the fun of it, without evaluating or measuring their achievement.
  • Introduce them to meditative & mindful activities Here’s a post I wrote about how I’m doing that.
  • Have conversations that help them to know and express themselves eg. to explore and share what they really think and feel about things so that they can make good decisions for themselves, based on what they think, not what others think.
  • Provide an example – show my boys an example of how to live a well-paced life, in which I put my sense of who I am at the centre of my life rather than other people’s expectations.  (This is the most difficult one for me)

 

CONCLUSION

The message that our children have to be working all the time (to achieve a goal, improve a skill, appear positively to others and generally keep up) is setting them up not for the happiness we expect but a sense of constantly having to prove themselves.  Of, course, we are intending to give our children a “good start in life” but we’re often coming from a place of fear (eg. fear of our kids not fitting in or fear of them not being successful in life).  It’s fear which we end up passing on to them.

Reaching for goals needs to be tempered with stepping back to get perspective and to rest.  Being overscheduled during the primary years is a step onto the treadmill of always doing and never being.  Being themselves.  I’d rather my boys were happily themselves than unhappily keeping up.

 

Much love to you and your little souls,

 

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Is Screen Time Really Bad for My Kids?

Giving our children screen time is something we parents can feel uneasy about sometimes.  Seeing my boys staring at a screen in that zoned-out state makes me uncomfortable.  The media regularly reports on research that shows screen time can contribute to attention issues, obesity and violent behaviour, among other things.  I take all this on board but I am of the opinion that there is very little in life that is all bad or all good.  Most things have the potential to be both and it’s how we use them that is important.

The reality is that our children have been born into a screen-centric era.  Technology is used to communicate, entertain, do business and so many other things.  I think it is less important to raise our children screen-free than it is to raise them screen-savvy.  Use of technology is unavoidable and as parents, we need to teach them to use it thoughtfully.

My boys, aged 3 and 5, only watch children’s programs.  They don’t play games because they’ve never asked and I’ve never shown them.  Sometimes, I’ll search the internet with my eldest because there’s something he’s interested to find out, – such as, the answer to a question that arose at school, or how much pocket money he needs to save for the Lego set he has his eye on.  Since my boys are so young, I perhaps haven’t encountered yet some of the issues you may have if your children are older.  Even so, I hope today to offer food for thought to help you determine whether the attitudes and behaviour around screentime in your home are right for your family or need adjusting.

 

GOOD USE OF SCREEN TIME

So, here are some of the good reasons for children to have screen time, taking into account the needs of the whole family.

The child is at ‘breaking point’ in some way.  When I can see that one of my boys is exhausted and struggling to cope, I find a bit of screen time gives him a chance to rest physically and a break from coping with the day.

The parent is at ‘breaking point’ in some way.   When I’m feeling that my resources for coping with my boys have run out (perhaps because I’m underslept or they’ve been bickering all day), screentime can give me a break to make sure I don’t take my mood out on my children.  (This relates to a recent post, Why Am I Shouting At My Children?!)

For enjoyment.  Amongst all the motivations we have for our parenting decisions, we can at times forget that enjoyment is important too.  I love to cry over Long Lost Family and my boys love to join in with all the Paw Patrol songs and catchphrases.

For the parent to get stuff done.  This is a practical one, especially for those with younger children.  When I’m packing for our family to go away on holiday, for example, I find it almost impossible to get done with the boys around so they might get a bit more screentime than usual.

As a practical motivator.  In the mornings, my boys are allowed to watch tv once they are completely ready for school or kindy, including bags packed and shoes ready at the door.  It provides incentive to keep them moving so we can get out the door in time.  I think screen time should be used for mutual advantage when possible.

As a point of discussion.  Programs and movies especially provide good material for discussion and we can talk with our children about them just as we might when reading them a story.  The possibilities are endless.   For example, we can discuss characters’ motivations & emotions, ask our children what they would’ve done in the same situation or which character they would want to be friends with & why.  As they get older and are using the internet & social media there will be lots to discuss about how to determine if information is valid, what advertising is trying to do and how to use social media positively (but this is a whole other post!).

 

REASONS NOT TO USE SCREENTIME

Before I write this list, I put my hand up to doing every single one of them…more than once.

To avoid dealing with difficult behaviour.  Needing a break sometimes is one thing but avoiding dealing with real issues is another.  Sometimes getting to the bottom of our children’s difficult behaviour or sibling arguments can feel too hard and we know a bit of screen time would diffuse the situation for now.  But, for a long-term solution, we have to figure out what’s happening and provide the necessary guidance for our children.

To soothe an upset child.  Sometimes I find it hard to deal with my youngest’s emotions because he doesn’t have the language to explain all that’s going on for him.  It is tempting to turn the tv on to distract him and allow his emotions to settle.  But, by doing this, I teach him to avoid his emotions.  I don’t want to teach my boys to soothe or distract themselves with the screen (or other things like food).  Our emotions are important indicators of what’s going on for us and I want my boys to have the strength to face theirs.

Instead of play, physical activity and quiet time.  I’ve heard it said that play is the work of childhood.  It has so many benefits to all aspects of a child’s development – physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual.  No one can argue that screen time isn’t sedentary (that’s often part of the appeal!) so it needs to be balanced with activity.  I also think it is essential for children to have quiet time alone each day to connect with themselves for their spiritual well-being  (see my post Just Be: Presence and Stillness)  Screen time should be as well as these things, not instead of them.  If our children are bored, it is not the time to turn the tv on but to encourage one of these things.

 

TIPS FOR MANAGING SCREEN TIME

It’s all very well to be clear about when we’re happy for our children to have screen time and when we’re not but we parents are just one side of the equation.  Our children have their own intentions around screen time and they often don’t match ours.  This can result in some difficult behaviour.  This is what works in our house…for now.

Have clear guidelines for when and how long children can have screen time.  When the rules are clear, consistent and fair, there is less arguing over them, the children just accept them.  My boys are allowed screen time twice a day for 30 minutes at a time.  I expect this to change as they get older.

No fussing allowed when it’s time to turn the screen off.  We used to have loud whining, stamping and crying whenever it was time to turn the tv off and I dreaded having to announce that time was up.  So I explained to my son how unpleasant & disrespectful his behaviour was and asked him not to do it.  He kept doing it so I introduced a new rule – if you fuss when it’s time to turn the tv off, there’s no tv the next day.  He missed out once…no fussing since.

Monitor the content and how it impacts our children’s behaviour.  When my eldest discovered Star Wars, he started wanting to watch it.  I’ve never let him watch a real Star Wars movie but I figured the Lego Star Wars movies would be child-suitable.  Well, they weren’t suitable for him.  After watching them, every interaction with his poor little brother was a reinactment of what he had seen.  He made violent threats, rough and tumble got too rough and he wasn’t respecting his brother’s requests for him to stop.  We gave him the chance to improve his behaviour but he didn’t so he’s no longer allowed to watch Lego Star Wars.

Be the example of moderation.   Nothing speaks louder to our children than our example.  If they see us glued to our screens, unable to get out attention, they will consider that the norm.

 

IN SUMMARY: KEEPING SCREEN TIME IN PERSPECTIVE

I wrote this post because I don’t think we need to feel bad about screen time in our homes but we need to be intentional about it.  My intention is for my boys to be able to use technology as one of many tools for enjoyment and learning in their lives.  Because they are young right now, I mostly manage their screen time for them but, as they get older, I hope they will develop an attitude that helps them to manage it positively for themselves.

 

Much love to you and your little souls,

 

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Spirituality & Depression – What’s the Relationship?

MY STORY

“What’s the relationship between spirituality and depression?”  This is a question that I have had swirling around inside for a number of years.  When I look back on my own experience of depression, more than anything, I think of it as at time of spiritual crisis.  I didn’t have faith in myself.  I didn’t have faith in the world.  Without faith, I didn’t have the strength to manage the challenges in my life or the hope of better days. Everything felt black.

It was a slow, gradual journey back to health.  My circumstances changed and I found myself drawn toward spiritual content (books, tv, magazines…) which altered my way of thinking and being in the world.  My faith has grown and my fear has reduced.  Now, I am well – thriving, actually.

I am even grateful for the contrast between the period I was depressed and my life now.  It reminds me not to take my joy for granted.  It highlights what works for me and what doesn’t.  As I write this, I realise that I no longer even worry about getting depressed again in the future.  I had presumed that would be a concern of mine for the rest of my life, but it’s not there now!

 

THE SCIENCE

This blog post has been brewing for a while.  My hypothesis that active spirituality could be a significant factor in protecting a person against depression made sense to me, based on my own experience, but I had no evidence.  When writing about the darkest times of a person’s life, I didn’t want to simply be “playing with ideas”.  Then, this past week, through a series of synchronistic events, I got my hands on a copy of “The Spiritual Child”, by Lisa Miller, PhD (Picador, 2015).  In it, Lisa shares the research on children’s spirituality in easy-to-read, often poetic, language.  On the back cover of the book it says that children who have a “positive, active relationship to spirituality are…60% less likely to be depressed as teenagers”.  When I read that, I felt I was being given the go-ahead to write this post.

I love the word “thriving” – that’s exactly what I want for my boys (for everyone).  Lisa seems to love the word too.  I’m less than a quarter of the way through the book but she has said this many times and in various ways:

The only thing that science has shown to reliably predict fulfillment, success and thriving: a child’s spiritual development. – The Spiritual Child, Lisa Miller, p24.

To give you a piece of the evidence sited in her book: brain scans of those whose lives are led by spirituality show a number of distinct features.  One is the thickening of sections of the right brain where, in depressed people, it would be thinner.  If spirituality and depression have opposite effects on some areas of the brain, it suggests that it’s much harder for them to co-exist.

I don’t know all the ins-and-outs of the science but I’m wondering if there are specific aspects of spiritual thinking that particularly aid the prevention of depression.  I’ve often heard, for example, that the brain can’t be in a state of appreciation and fear at the same time because of the way the brain operates.  A person in a depressed state can alternate between grateful and fearful thinking many times in a day but it would presumably be the proportion spent in each that determines their overall experience?

 

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR OUR CHILDREN

Given the genetic component of depression, I was nervous about having children burdened with a higher likelihood of experiencing it.   Fortunately, I made the choice to go ahead and my beautiful boys have played a big part in the deepening of my own spirituality and sense of thriving.  I don’t often worry about whether or not they will experience depression in the future.  By attending to their spirituality, I am comforted that I am doing what I can to support their mental health.

I am showing them how to connect with Love and how to put it into action.   From a scientific perspective, I am strengthening the loving functions of their brains, building the neural pathways of loving thought. What is spirituality if not Loving (ourselves, others, the world)?  What is depression if not fear (in a multitude of forms)?

I think that building my boys’ Love begins with offering them a loving world view.  After all, it is our beliefs that shape our thoughts and, therefore, our emotions & actions.  To show you what I mean, I’ll contrast a fearful world view with a loving world view –

These are a few examples of the fearful beliefs I had when I was depressed:

  • I don’t trust the world to be kind or for things to work out well for me (so I have to work super-hard to control everything and make life work myself).
  • I can’t do all that is expected of me.  I’m not good enough.  I’m not worthy of happiness and other good things
  • Everyone else is better than me.  Things come more easily to other people.

These are some of the loving beliefs I have now and wish to pass onto my boys:

  • I have faith in myself and in the universe.  The universe is working for me, in my best interests.  I have everything I need.
  • I belong here.  I have value.  I am worthy of happiness and other good things.  (See my post – “A Child’s Worth”).
  • Everyone is equal and has equal access to support from God.

If we compare the fearful and loving beliefs, we can see that they encourage entirely different ways of being. Depression is a complicated condition with so many contributing factors, but I think that, through showing them a spiritually-led life, I can steer my boys’ thought, biological/neural and lifestyle patterns so that they will have a head start in a joy-filled life and an understanding they can draw on if they ever do find themselves on the downward spiral.

 

IN SUMMARY: SPIRITUALITY, DEPRESSION & THRIVING

Just to be clear – I am not staying that actively spiritual people cannot have depression or that a person is not “spiritual enough” if they do experience it.  I know it is a very complex condition with multiple aspects to it.  In both of my boys’ early days, I experienced sustained anxiety which I attribute to insufficient sleep, biological (hormonal) factors and the stress I felt from the demands of a newborn.  I was worried at times that I was on my way to depression again (fortunately, not).

I’m also not saying we “should” grow our children’s spiritual strength in order to reduce the likelihood of them experiencing depression.  I wanted to share my scientific findings because they have confirmed what I felt I already knew – that the spiritual life I’m building for myself and modelling for Jake & Thomas is an advantage when it comes to reducing their chances of experiencing depression and increasing their chances of thriving.

 

 

Much love to you and your little souls,

julie_signature

 

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