Update To Success At School

I am going to take the liberty of sharing some personal information as many of the authors I admire in my field do.

The original article ‘ Success at School, What Are The Secrets?’ was written when all three of my children were at school. Two were in high school and my youngest was in primary school.

Twelve years on they have are all grown up, all have been to university and, as I write this, two of the three are completing post graduate degrees – that is success at school!

I was not overly involved in my children’s school work. I did the mandatory reading and spelling homework with them in the first three years of primary school and really enjoyed this time. It was essential that these basic skills be consolidated at home but I also think another benefit was the close one on one time with each child. We would sit close together on the couch and it was a fun activity. Likewise their father, who had more of a maths brain, assisted with the basic times table homework that was required.

Beyond that I do not recall doing much else. Life was busy, I would sign the homework book and assumed that the homework had been done. I do not recall making this a priority of my day. Perhaps one of the reasons for this was that I was working in my chosen field, the one I am still in now, and simply did not have the time to get too involved.

We also did not believe in helping with school work unless it was something very difficult. Even then I would encourage them to seek out the assistance they needed from their teacher. I had a saying that I often repeated to friends and clients which went as follows, ‘the more you do for your children, the more you rob them of the opportunity of ‘doing’ for themselves’. So my three just got on with it and this was the key to their success at school. I was more interested in having fun with them and ensuring they were happy.

In fact the two who are currently completing their higher degrees both had quite profound learning difficulties which were picked up at pre school. So many hours were spent at speech therapy which produced excellent results. There is no sign of those issues now as adults. What I have also noticed with children I have watched growing up, some family, some children of friends, is that kids sometimes take a while to come into their own. I know a young adult whom I recall had some learning difficulties during primary school and was pretty average in terms of grades. In fact I recall that their sibling too was quite average in the primary school years. Well today one is a top lawyer and the other is completing a Masters degree. Both are now definitely high achievers. What I also know is that they came from a family where there was love and support and I do not recall any worry or pressure around academic achievement.

As I write this update I have something waiting for my attention in my inbox. It is the final version of my youngest child’s honours thesis and Mum has been requested to have a quick read through to check on grammar and the correct use of present and past tense. What an honour, what an outstanding achievement from someone who had quite significant extra support during the primary school years.

My eldest child was in an HSC year that attained the most outstanding results. There were four UAI scores of 100 and many more in the high nineties, my child being one of them. I think most of these individuals who achieved such excellence were simply clever and probably gifted. I think many came from homes where both parents worked. They did not have tons of extra tuition in the hope of getting a good final mark, they were just a very talented year group.

I also know of people whose children did not do well in the HSC and yet they are at university and are doing well.

So I guess the benefit of this hindsight is like my own unplanned long term research study. Success at school can happen if you give your children just the three most important things in the world and then let them get on with it. What are these you may ask? Yet another of my home grown pearls of wisdom: love, love and love!

Update on Food, Weight, and All Things Body Related

The first food related article I wrote, Hunger, Appetite and Eating, was written in in the late nineties. I was asked to submit something interesting, related to children, for a fundraising publication. It was known that at a much earlier stage in my career I had run a diet counselling practice and still retained a passionate interest in all things food related.

The next article, Food Weight and the Perfect Body, article was written in 2002. When I wrote this my children and all their friends were at school. Some were skinny, some were chubby and some were just right. What I observe now, all these years later, is that most of the children I watched growing up seem to have a normal and healthy body weight. Most of these individuals are embracing healthy eating and an active lifestyle in terms of exercise and the joy of movement. So, the message about just letting kids learn to eat in a comfortable manner, without too much interference, does generally work. If there are weight issues that are significant enough to warrant attention, these must be handled with the utmost sensitivity by parents.

I have noticed another significant change since 2002 and that is the size of the models we see in the media. There are still stick thin models that are being used, but there are also many fashion houses that are making a policy of not using models under a certain body weight. In Time Magazine, April, 2015, there was an article that spoke about France being the latest country to ban excessively skinny models from working in the fashion industry. This ban was already in place in Israel, Italy and Spain. This legislation was described as being an attempt to stop the idealisation of the dangerously thin and perhaps curb anorexia.

The Daily Mail of Australia, March 2015, had a headline, “THE BIGGEST MODELS IN THE WORLD! THE NEW BREED OF PLUS SIZE SUPERS ARE CURVY, BEAUTIFUL….. AND CHANGING THE FACE OF FASHION”. They go onto to say that the arrival of the plus size model has been heralded as a new era for the average woman, who would prefer to see their favourite clothing store showcase items on a body they can relate to.

An Australian, Robin Lawley, is one of the most famous plus size models in the world. She made history in 2015 for becoming the first plus size model to pose in the Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated. She initially worked as a regular model from the age of 17 but was unable to maintain the super slim figure required. She eventually signed up with a plus size modelling agency. Since doing this in 2011 her career has taken off and she has featured in famous international fashion magazines. This is a great leap forward as it is often young people who are most influenced by the ‘ideal’ body types seen in the media.

In Australia there are also shops that stock elegant clothing for people from a size 14 upwards. Hopefully these trends will assist people to feel comfortable with the body they are in and to maintain good physical health regardless  of their body size. Not everyone aspires to being slim, not every person is looking for a slim partner.

It would be wonderful if there could be more initiatives to assist the public with the notion of diversity and health at any size. There is a movement in psychological circles that addresses these issues and there are clinicians who focus exclusively on eating issues.

There is also now the option of gastric surgery to address obesity in people who have simply not been not been able to reduce in any other way. I have seen some excellent results where individuals have finally been able to get to a weight that they are comfortable with and stay there.

My professional journey related to food and eating has been an interesting and exciting one. At Zetland Psychotherapy you are most welcome to discuss any difficulties you may be experiencing with food. This often comes up as part of a larger issue. I might be able to assist you myself or I can refer you to an appropriate specialist.

Success At School, What Are The Secrets?

The summer holidays are almost at an end and children everywhere are starting to prepare for school. Some are anticipating, with the mixture of anxiety and relief, their final year, the HSC. Others are entering high school having to face the pressures of an increased workload, plus all the demands and responsibilities that are part and parcel of growing up. Then there are the little ones that are starting school for the first time.

It is safe to say that most parents want their children to be successful at school and to do the best that they can. There are often many issues to considered when trying to decide what is best for one’s child educationally. Should the school be public or private, is extra tutoring outside school hours a good idea, how much time should be devoted to sport and extra-curricular activities?

These are all worthwhile questions. However there is one consideration that is perhaps more fundamental than all of the above: whose school career is this—ours or our children’s?

Many parents through circumstances beyond their control may not have been able to fulfil the educational or career dreams they once set for themselves. So what happens? The dreams are not dead, just maybe deeply packed away in some hidden emotional recess. So, with the best intentions in the world, parents unwittingly try to relive these dreams through their children.

On a practical level what do we see? Parents who can ill afford private education making huge financial sacrifices to send their children to private schools. Pressure is placed on children to achieve in the belief that this will lead to automatic success. There is often frequent communication with teachers in an effort to understand why their child is ‘not achieving’ which can often be a parent’s very subjective point of view. Homework is strictly monitored with the parents sometimes doing the tasks themselves. The effects on the children—anxiety, an obsessive need to please, and a continual feeling that just being who they are is not quite good enough. I am using strong statements here as I am illustrating a scenario where things can start becoming dysfunctional for the child.

We as parents do not have it within our power to make our children more clever or achieve more than they are capable of. What is within our control is the ability to love them for exactly who they are, to praise and affirm them for every effort that they make and to make them feel that in our eyes they are winners. Doing anything else will instil a sense of shame and failure.

Having said all this, the fact remains that children differ enormously in their academic abilities and in the application of that ability to their school work. Of course, as parents, if our children are blessed with academic excellence, they are to be encouraged to do the best that they possibly can. They may be the future scientists and intellectuals of our next generation!

If our children struggle in certain areas or have remedial difficulties they should receive all of the assistance available to them. Our role as parents should be to remain in the background, quietly monitoring progress, giving encouragement at every appropriate opportunity and then getting on with our own lives.

So then what is this mysterious ingredient that leads to scholastic success? Maybe it is the simple term motivation. If we can engage in some of the above mentioned confidence building behaviours then maybe we can instil in our children the desire to succeed because they want the success for themselves. We then have a motivated child and the sky is the limit!

The more we affirm and the less we intrude, the more we are saying ‘I trust you, I believe in you. I know you can do this on your own but if you need my help just give me a shout’.

Now, what about those parents who believe it is too late for them and who may be living their lives vicariously through their children? It is never too late, take time to think about what changes you may wish to make, what new directions you wish to explore. Do some fact finding, check out available resources, talk to people and maybe even seek out professional guidance.

The more fulfilled we are as individuals, the better we are able to parent our children.

Food, Weight and the Perfect Body

An obsession about food, weight and the size of your body is a painful and engrossing activity and can become a way of life. There are many adults who have spent half their lives grappling with the issues around what is the ideal weight for me, how can I get there, how can I stay there, how can I look good and still eat the foods that I enjoy?

There are two central themes that emerge here. One is, what is your ideal weight? Is it some number on a mass produced chart or is it something more subjective? Perhaps we can say that when you feel healthy, energetic, physically attractive and comfortable with your body, then you are at your ideal weight. Each of us is entitled to determine this measure for ourselves. This is of course very difficult because everywhere we look we are being shown artificial, media-generated notions of what the human body should look like. This deluge of skinny stereotypes only reinforces our inability to realistically assess ourselves. The second theme that then emerges is, if we are not at our ideal weight, what can we do about it? Therein lies the subject of food and eating.

In first world countries where food shortages are rare, and most food items are abundantly available, the issue of eating has become, for many people, very complex and confusing. The primary purpose of eating, which is to nurture our bodies and keep us alive, has been lost. Consequently we eat for a host of other reasons that are often totally unrelated to the concept of nurturence

Let us begin at infancy. When a newborn baby is being fed it knows exactly when it has had enough and will pull away from the breast or bottle when satisfied. A six month old enjoying it’s meal of pureed pumpkin will close it’s mouth when full and even the most persistent of parents will probably not be able to get in another spoonful. The point here is that we are all born with an in-built mechanism that tells us when we are satisfied. Sadly, at some point, this natural instinct that we have gets interfered with and we often lose touch with what we need and how much?

Eating occurs for all sorts of reasons. Many are probably familiar with the term ‘comfort eating’. This is eating in response to feelings of boredom, loneliness and despair. Food can truly feel like a friend during difficult times and the mere preparing of food can give one a sense of control when other areas of one’s life seem unmanageable. Over eating can often take place because we are repeating old forgotten messages about not to waste and ‘remember , some children are starving’. This is all eating in response to messages other than the one ‘I am hungry, my body needs nutrition’. Eating for reasons other than true hunger leads to weight gain in many of us. We then start to become uncomfortable with our bodies and try to reduce. Often the method we choose to try and reduce involves some outside source determining what we should eat and how much. We might not have had much input into this ‘plan’ and end up feeling deprived. We continue for a while, become frustrated and bored and may start to overeat all over again in response to these feelings.

There must be thousands of people who yearn for a reality where they can eat the foods that they enjoy, achieve a weight that they are comfortable with and stay at that weight. What if this was actually possible? Well, maybe it is. Deepak Chopra, the renowned physician and author, describes the body as a “miracle of biological engineering”. He writes that nature has given us a physiology that is perfect and knows exactly what it needs. He believes that we should embrace the feeling of hunger and not be frightened of it. True hunger is simply a message from the body that food is required and that the body is prepared for the metabolism of that food. If we then eat something that is enjoyable and nutritious and we stop when we are satisfied, not bursting at the seams, we will not gain weight. By eating this way we can actually lose weight if there is indeed weight to lose. By getting in touch with our own unique needs for nutrition and responding to these needs accordingly, we then develop an internal locus of control for what we need and how much. This is an art which takes a little practice, but once we are truly in touch with our bodies in this way, we need never experience the discomfort of an externally controlled ‘plan’ that is imposed upon us.

In a nutshell, the message is to try and simplify the process of eating and reducing and to give hope to those of you for whom achieving a comfortable balance between body and mind seems unattainable. Eat when you are hungry, stop when you are still comfortable and don’t eat when hunger is absent.

For the other hungers that are currently being addressed by food, perhaps there are alternatives.

Hunger, Appetite and Eating

As babies all of us send out many cues that kept us alive and healthy. Some of these are messages around sleep, temperature control and pain and hunger. Hunger is an internal cue from our body that tells us we need nourishment. Mary Pipher PhD, in her book Hunger Pains, writes that hunger pangs are a survival tool; after a certain point starving people no longer feel hunger. When this happens they are close to death.

People make decisions about eating in two fundamentally different ways. One is by an awareness of how one’s stomach feels and the other is wanting to eat in response to the sight, smell or thought of food. Eating in response to an empty stomach is an internal cue, eating in response to anything else is external. So there is eating in response to true hunger and then there is eating in response to appetite; ‘I just feel like it’.

All of us eat in response to our appetite to some extent, e.g. we eat at mealtimes with our families even when we are not that hungry. It is when we rely almost entirely on external cues that we run into trouble. Research has shown that externally controlled eaters are more likely to be obese than internally controlled eaters. Their eating habits are more easily manipulated than those of the latter.

So, with the abundance of food cues in our society, how do we pass on healthy messages about food to our children?

Firstly, it is important to help our children to learn to discriminate between hunger and other internal states. Some children can easily confuse anxiety, boredom, loneliness and anger with hunger. Well meaning parents can further add to this confusion by using food as a pacifier or as a reward for good behaviour. Here we are teaching them that food is a multi-purpose solution to any situation. It is important from a young age to teach children to pay attention to their stomachs and to ignore the manipulation of others, even ourselves. They do not have to become a member of the ‘clean plate club’ or eat for all the starving children in Africa!

As parents we need to de-emphasise the importance of physical appearance in how we describe and evaluate ourselves, our children and others. We need to emphasise other characteristics such as intelligence, good humour, talent ect.

Boys somehow seem to have an easier time as we teach them that their bodies are useful and can be used for many purposes, eg. work or athletics. Stereotypically girls, on the other hand, are constantly being told that their appearance is what matters. If we want our daughters to believe otherwise we need to work to counteract our culture’s propaganda which defines physical attractiveness in a very narrow way.

It seems then that we should be teaching our children to only eat when they are truly hungry and that how they look should not be that important. In reality however, as an adult, a positive body image is important and can greatly contribute to one’s overall self esteem. If we can therefore find a middle ground by enabling our children to use food for the purpose it was intended, nourishment, and assist them in understanding that the way we look is only one part of the way we define ourselves, we can hopefully send them into adult life uncluttered with illness, both physical and emotional, that is food related.