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Parenting: Who’s afraid of the big bad… princess?

19 January, 2016

I looked across the paddock last week to see both my children standing on top of the chicken house, jumping up and down in their own revelry. I had to smile, as it looked so incongruous. They were dressed in their fanciest princess outfits – one Cinderella, one Elsa. They had smudges of poultry poo across their silky torsos, tulle caught on stray wires. They are brave climbers and dedicated builders, they are fierce in battle and verociously loud. They race the dog through puddles, slide down mud hills, ride their bikes through cow pat… and they do it all in tiny royal ball gowns.

I never, ever thought I would be parenting a princess or two. But I’ve come a long way since my ban on Barbie and my pride that we didn’t have a single dress in our daughter’s wardrobe. I now relish the royal games we play and beam with joy when I see my youngest child struggling into another princess dress to go on top of the first, and with an extra tutu tucked underneath. But I do understand that belly squirming anxiety that our children are being shaped by values that are ugly and toxic – disguised by glittering tiaras.

I’ve come to believe we have less to fear about princess culture and more to fear about rejecting something so important to our children. 

So here are some thoughts- I’m not advocating a blith acceptance a la Lego theme song Everything Is Awesome (“Allergies- they’re awesome! Pathetic female role models – they’re awesome!) but rather an analysis* that is child and relationship focused.

*if an analysis can be written on a bench outside the library using the free, slow, wifi

Why we don't need to fear princess culture

Good princess vs bad princess
Not all princesses are created equal. I admit that there are plenty of stories out there of the passive princess, the one who is forced to marry against her will and do other things that are a shocking portrayal of consent and body autonomy. Early on in my parenting I actually used to get out scissors and glue and edit tales like the Princess and the Frog, and replace “princess” with “prince” and “got married” with “became besties forever”… these days I am more likely to instigate a conversation with my children about why the father thought it was okay to make his daughter sleep with a frog.

But there are also a stack of amazing princesses! We have watched Brave about 187 times, and Frozen about 393 times, they are brilliant films with awesome female heros in them. (There is also some good feminist critique of both of those films, but how it is experienced by young girls, for me, is the most compelling. Read a cool story of that here.)

Princess doesn’t have to be a bad word.

Talk about it
Fairytales and Disney movies provide heaps of material for discussing gender roles through history and how things have changed/ are changing/ still need to change. Conversations stick in a child’s mind. They will love sharing their opinion and hearing some insight from you. That is, if you are coming from a place of connection, rather than disapproval. They will pick up on you trying manipulate their likes and likely to be saddened if they feel you deep down hate something they are getting a lot of joy out of. Which leads me on to what, for me, is the most important thing…

Let’s love what our children love
I have spoken about this before, in regard to ipads. I am big on learning to love what our children love. It isn’t hard to do, because joy is contagious, and once we learn to love something alongside our children we open SO MANY doors to connection. I read in the recently published parenting book All Joy and No Fun about how little “flow” parents experience at home with children. (Flow is that lovely state of being so completely into something that time disappears.) It made me spend some time monitoring my own experience of flow at home. One of the times I really experience it is playing Barbies with my girls – untangling their hair, sewing princess dresses for them- this was a huge shock for me, considering how much I used to HATE Barbies as a mother. I swore I would never own one, any that came into my home (usually by way of my sister who is a right stirrer) I’d find a way to get rid of it. Slowly, as I have become better at seeing my children and being with them, I’ve come to discover that there is very little we need to be afraid of, and that disconnection, rather than barbies or princesses is really the thing to fear. Imagine if I hadn’t come round to this idea – I’d be depriving my kids a lot of joy, and even myself, the experience of flow in the home.

Trust the learning
Sometimes it is hard to gather what out children are learning when they obsess like this. But be assured that they will be learning HEAPS – it is a child’s only setting! (And also, question the word “obsess” – it is pretty negative even though we tend to admire focus in adults!) The potential for your child to be learning about power and responsibility, clothing and fabric, history and culture, royalism and democracy is enormous!!

There’s a thoughtful analysis of what is going on for children going through a Princess phase here in Psychology Today. “In clinging to pink and princess culture, perhaps a girl is celebrating and acknowledging a variety of things: her gendered body, her generative capacities, her ability to captivate and mesmerize (as all children can) as well as her place in the surrounding culture.” I have read that young girls go through a massive yearning for dresses between 3 and 5 because that is when they are trying to figure out what it means to be female. They soon learn it isn’t much to do with wearing skirts, and the phase is sucesfully navigated. I believe we can support them through this by seeking out amazing skirts for them while discussing sex and gender and transgender and identity…!

A leading female role
Have you seen any of the Princess Barbie movies? You’ll know that Princess Barbie occupies a pretty important role in her society. I used to run ahead in the video shop and put all the Barbie movies on the top shelf so I could say to Ramona “Choose any film you like!” and know we wouldn’t be coming home with a Barbie. It came to a head one day when I was kneeling in the aisle of Blockbuster, my four year old clutching a Barbie dvd that I hadn’t spotted to hide, saying patiently “I know Barbie is an idiot, but I love her!” I was so scared of Barbie! But I didn’t really know her! I realised I was giving the impression that it was okay to call things we are scared of/ don’t understand idiotic. So we got that movie, and as I watched it I was impressed by Barbie’s strong, kind character and was relieved to find a bunch of movies where females had leading roles.

Almost every single kids film we had otherwise got out was filled with male-only characters, with females being very rare, and if featured at all, tending to be love interests. Of course, we also talk a lot about the characters in Barbie who were obsessed with clothing and make up who tended to nearly always be stupid and ditzy. (Noone here is saying Barbie movies are directed by feminists!) Please see Sacraparental’s excellent posts on the Maisy Test for more on non-misogynist kids films.

I recently enjoyed the argument that Princess Culture has been going on for two decades, and what we have now is a situation where women are more likely to pursue higher education, and graduate, then men and perhaps this is because they’ve grown up in a world where little girl’s likes have been catered too, where they have, as children, played leading roles.

How about reframing princess culture as being pro-women in leadership, celebrating a space that females occupy successfully?

Loving women
I can’t help but wonder if our problem with princess culture is ever so slightly sexist, with roots in a patriarchal society. Bear with me. Do people have a similar problem with their male children wanting to be knights all day? Violent, sword wielding, massacring knights? I don’t hear about it much, if it is a thing. Why are we so bothered by the princess thing? Is it because we live in a society where a woman is undermined constantly, where whole sections of society are cut off to her, that this one role she can inhabit because of her gender, one that is exclusive to men, is slammed for not being good enough?

The problem isn’t so much with princesses, pink, gowns…
For me these days it is more that things (colours, roles, clothing) are exclusive, based on gender. A dress is an amazing thing. To feel it swishing around your legs, flowing out when you dance. And who doesn’t want to wear a crown and point a sceptre and boss everything around? But let’s not allow it to be just the realm of girls. Dresses are for everyone! (Read Freedom Kids on this) Pink is for all! Trucks aren’t operated by a penis! Speak up to marketers who claim otherwise! Rant and rave against those who want to make certain colours and toys exclusive to any gender! Power to the people!

A love of clothing isn’t necessarily dooming your child to a life of oppressive objectification or materialism
I LOVE CLOTHES. Love, love, love clothes. I have loved them all my life. I wonder if this was worrying for my mum when I was a kid. I can remember being 7 and having a crush on a boy and going home to put on my neon tutu (it was 1989) and then swishing around in it in front of him and being completely delighted when he noticed it and said “nice skirt”… that should be worrying, don’t you reckon? I went through a phase when I was 21 of being so disgusted with my love of clothes that a friend and I went on a clothing fast together and for 3 months allowed ourselves only 5 items of clothing. A jumper, two pairs of trousers, and two tee shirts. I wanted to tackle what I saw as a deep set materialism in my life. It was quite a fun experiment, but if anything taught me that my love of clothes, of wild colours and different fabrics and playing with styles wasn’t inherently bad. In fact, it bought me a lot of joy. History tells us that homosapiens have always done this- it is one of the distinguishing things- that we carve beauty into objects and embroider clothing and dye furnishings. We don’t have to fear that our children’s talk of beautiful clothing and desire to change into different skirts 60 billion times a day is going to mean they will be an insecure adult who can’t leave the house without a full face of Maybelline. I hope I am a good example here – like, I LOVE CLOTHES (did I mention that?) I have a pair of sequined shorts that I sometimes where around the farm just to cheer me up, but at the same time, I care so little about other people’s opinions that the others day this conversation between my husband and I occurred:
Tim: Er, are you going into town like that?
Me: Like what?
Tim: With your henna on your hair?
Me: Yeah, cos it needs to be on for four hours and I put it on and now I want to go into town.
Tim: Okay
Me: What’s the problem?
Tim: It looks like you have poo all over your head?
Me: *drives into town*

So, y’know. Humans are complicated. I bet you a million bucks that if you are consciously building your child up and letting her know that insides count more than outsides she isn’t going to grow up with an oppressive mantle of beauty upon her.

Nurture your child’s faith in herself
The thing that will most likely make your child sway with the winds of a consumerist, objectifying society, rather than the stirrings of her heart is if she learns not to trust herself. If she feels undermined in the things she loves, if she feels your approval is conditional on what YOU like, if she gets the impression that her opinion is dubious.

So be conscious about what is in your home, talk about things, buy books with kick-ass princesses in to sit alongside the Cinderella she found at the library, ask big questions of corporations that attempt to make any one thing exclusive to girls or boys, address your own insecurities about your body shape, analyse the latest Disney flick with your parent friends, but do, do, do allow her freedom of mind and heart. Instill in her a great faith in herself.

Revel in princess culture
Have you ever dressed up as a princess? No? Get thee to a second hand shop immediately and buy up a ball gown! Nothing beats hanging about in the house looking ridiculously opulent! Buy all the tutus. Sew capes. Watch Brave and Frozen and download the soundtrack. Weave crowns of daisies. Enter into the imaginative world of your children. Whittle swords with them. (We are nearly always warrior princesses.) Keep talking about all the models of “princesses” out there.

This too shall pass
It will pass. You might even be sad to see this phase leave, because you’ve now begun having SO MUCH FUN with your kids! But trust in the fact that very few adult women actually want to be rescued by a man, and even fewer want to actually be a princess.

Trust in yourself, your model as a strong, creative mother or equality loving father. Trust in your children, that this phase is important to them. This princess thing won’t last forever with your child, so find joy and connection in it while it does.Feminist parents don't need to fear princess culture

Featured, Parenting

Girl Body Parts Name: 5 reasons vulva is not a dirty word

5 August, 2015

Hey, we’ve all been there, googling Girl Body Parts Name. What on earth do you call your child’s privates? We don’t want to be cute – but we don’t want to have to say vulva, or vagina!

Or do we?

“That woman has a vulva. And that one. She’s got one, probably, and her too. There are vulvas EVERYWHERE.” We were at the pool, in the changing room, and Ramona was quite accurately pointing out that there were vulvas all over the place.  Did I want the slippery, pube littered tiled floor to open up and swallow me? Just a little? Oh Yep. I had taught my daughter the word vulva on purpose… but I wasn’t ready for that.

I’ve come a long way since then, I like to think that these days I would barely bat an eye lid at the word vulva announced loudly across a public place. In fact, now when my children talk about vulvas I am pleased as punch.  (Read more about my sex positive parenting here.)

I read in the news at the weekend about a new entry into the Swedish dictionary “snippa” – a version of “willy” but for girls, because none of the nicknames or the anatomical words seemed to be good enough.

I don’t know Swedish, and despite being a massive, MASSIVE fan of the Dime Bar cake they sell at IKEA,  I can’t comment on how worthy the Swedish version of vulva is.But I do hope we don’t create a new British word for female genitals as VULVA is a beaut. There are many reasons ‘vulva’ should be a part of our vocab, but the very last reason is vital, something every parent needs to know.

I reckon it just needs a campaign team. I’m here and I am stepping up as the Alistair Campbell of Team Vulva.

Vulva is powerful

Would it have been better if Ramona had pointed out all the “minis” or “nonnys” or “fuffs”? I wonder if it would have felt cuter, and I think that’s partly why I feel those are not good words for female genitals. They reduce these powerful parts of a woman to a strange little collection of fairy syllables.

Where as “vulva” – it sounds powerful. Like it could be the entrance way to a portal of intense pleasure and the exit for a ten pound human. Or something.

A mother once told me her child refers to hers as a “Volvo” – which perhaps sums up partly why it feels like a good word- like the car, it is solid, reliable, hard to break. Even by a baby the size of a watermelon. (Okay, it can sometimes feel broken, but nothing that a few stitches, a bag of prunes and a gallon load of birth hormones can’t fix.)

Vulvas themselves are rarely dirty

Sometimes we might be tempted to discourage vulva- exploration because we have a feeling it is genuinely a bit grubby. Well, guess what. The mighty vagina is self-cleansing, and the vulva needs only the most very basic of water washes to keep the whole thing spick and span. (For a funny diagram about not getting the V’s mixed up see here.)  It has the perfect balance of microbes to keep it healthy and clean and in a good environment it will thrive without any effort at all.

One small child I know for a while there would thrust a finger under any nostril and shout YUMMY! It was, of course, laden with vulva microbes. Fortunately the parents knew enough about this stuff to simply explain, without any shame or horror, that “Yummy Finger” was just for her nose.  Little children often know more truth than adults, for a healthy genitalia is designed to smell good- jam packed with appealing pheremones and things.

There really doesn’t have to be any EW GROSS factor about vulvas.

Vulva-talk is natural and an important part of development

Talk of vulvas is rife in our family at the moment- exactly as it should be, according to natural, healthy child development. Intrigue, exploration, play and learning about genitals happens between the ages of three and, well, I guess, forever, really, and these can be precious moments for a child picking up a sense of being okay, of shamelessness, about their private parts and their sexuality.
There was one part of the article about Spinnas that I enjoyed. The creator of it suggested that when parents see their child touching their vulva to “smile encouragingly”- how inspiringly different to world where children are shamed when they show a healthy curiosity about a part of their body.

The origins of the word are perfect 

Do you know “vulva” most likely comes from the Old Latin “volvere” meaning to roll it or, more literally “wrapper”- our vulva is the wrapping on one jolly bonanza of a gift. Women’s bodies are the vessel of humanity! The genesis of generations! Our wombs BIRTH THE FUTURE! And our vulvas are the golden ribbon around the present and the icing on the cake.

Knowing the words “vulva”and “penis” are critical for child sexual abuse prevention

And here is the most important, the really serious case for why “fanny” and “vajay” don’t cut it. People who work in child sexual abuse prevention understand that knowing the anatomical terms for genitals can actually protect children from abuse. It is three pronged- children knowing anatomical terms for private parts usually indicates that there is healthy communication about genitals meaning children are more likely to discuss any scared feelings/ scary situations they experience with their parents or carers. Using these words also deters predators as it shows an understanding, and finally it helps specialists in the aftermath of child sexual abuse as children can accurately describe what happened.

In The Atlantic Laura Palumbo, a prevention specialist with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), explains how teaching the words vagina, penis and vulva promotes positive body image, self confidence, and parent-child communication; discourages perpetrators; and, in the event of abuse, helps children and adults navigate the disclosure and forensic interview process. 

Stop googling Girl Body Parts Name and get on Team Vulva!
Stop googling Girl Body Parts Name and get on Team Vulva!

Activism, Featured, Parenting

10 habits that infringe on Rights of Children (and how to change them)

14 July, 2015

Do you dream of a fairer world, a cherished earth, a more peaceful community? And do you interact with children? As a parent or teacher or aunty or kind member of the public?

Nuzzle in, you. This post has your very name on it.

A few years ago, during my Masters at LSE, I spent three months studying the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child under the tireless child rights advocate, Peter Townsend. The course was heavy but inspiring and I vowed to work on child rights for the rest of my life.

I went on to work for Oxfam as a campaigner, and imagined I would end up working on the rights of children through social policy.

And it would be easy to see me now, sitting in my pyjamas drinking tea, and wonder what happened to that vow.

But in actual fact,when it comes to human rights and social change, I feel as powerful in my role as a parent as I did as a campaigner.

When we studied the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) we covered poverty, child labour, hunger, trafficking, homelessness, but we didn’t ever look at the home and family life.

I’ve come to believe that the UNCRC can inspire us to observe children’s rights as parents and teachers and neighbours, and that this in turn this will lead to societal change that makes all those huge, global issues, much less likely to occur.  And, if we can raise a generation who have had their rights observed, the impact on global social justice will be boundless. 

Unicef say “The Convention changed the way children are viewed and treated – i.e., as human beings with a distinct set of rights instead of as passive objects of care and charity.”

Unicef is slightly optimistic when it uses past tense here  – I think we are in the process of changing our view on children, but things haven’t quite got there yet. This post is going to take 10 everyday, simple habits that impede children’s rights, and consider a way to change them.

I did begin by going through the Convention, article by article, and pulling out the relevant bits – freedom to express views (article 12) and to impart information and ideas (article 13) and the right to dignity (article 23) but it got almost as heavy as my Masters, so I stopped that.

Instead, the guiding principles of the Convention, cover most bases:

All rights apply to all children without exception.

  • It is the State’s obligation to protect children from any form of discrimination and to take positive action to promote their rights.

  • All actions concerning the child shall take full account of his or her best interests. The State shall provide the child with adequate care when parents, or others charged with that responsibility, fail to do so.

  • Every child has the inherent right to life, and the State has an obligation to ensure the child’s survival and development.

  •  The child has the right to express his or her opinion freely and to have that opinion taken into account in any matter or procedure affecting the child.

And actually, these guiding principles can be distilled even further, I reckon. I think most adults have a good sense of what their rights are, and when their rights are being abused or repressed. This means that it might be helpful to think about upholding child rights simply by asking the question “how would I hope to be treated in this situation?” 

Here are ten things lovers of human rights and warriors of social justice do regularly to impede the rights of children.  We can break habits, and form new ones, humans are amazing like that. Let’s do this….Habits that impede rights of child in the home (and how to change them)

1 – Taking things off children. We do it in the name of safety sometimes; snatch scissors from a toddler or a phone from a baby. Sometimes we just do it absentmindedly- we want something they have, so we just take it. This act is discriminatory – excluding children from using something that they would like to.

What to do instead: Even with the very smallest child we can ask for something back, and explain why we would like it. If we are patient, and allow them to fully process the request (for young children this can take longer than you think!) with our hand out, it is highly likely that they will return it. We can explain things to children just as we do other adults.

We can also question our motivation for taking it – is it really unsafe for a toddler to use sharp things? I don’t believe so. At all. Juno has been picking up knives with our supervision since she could first handle any items. She has learnt to use sharp things very carefully as a result. Being committed to child rights means questioning a lot of assumptions we have about our children’s abilities!

2 – Talking about children in front of them. “Ah, yeah Ramona, woke up so early this morning!” – it is such a seemingly harmless conversation to have, sharing stories about our children while they are there. But would we EVER do this to an adult? Can you even imagine it? Being in a room with a friend, discussing the toilet habits / sleeping problems/ hilarious anecdote about another friend sitting next to you? It doesn’t protect dignity and privacy and you can stop it!

What to do instead: Weigh up the reasons for sharing that anecdote. If you need advice or support, consider sharing it in private, away from your children. But you can also ask your child, if they are there, if they mind you sharing a story. Or, you can include your child in it “Oh, Ramona, you woke up early this morning didn’t you – were you super keen to get up?” – involve them in the conversation as we would an adult.  This goes even for the tiniest baby. Defend your newborns dignity and it will be a parental habit formed for their whole life.

3 – Laughing at children.  Children can be hilarious, sometimes in a purposeful way – laugh right along to their jokes. But they are also funny sometimes in an intriguing, surprising way – and I’d you to consider not laughing at children. Sometimes, adults  find it hard not to smirk, to catch each others eyes and laugh at our children as they go about their lives. Just yesterday Ramona said “Don’t laugh at me, mum!” when I had giggled at something in a kind hearted way. It pulled me up short – even our loving chuckles as they fumble a word infringe on their personhood. I love laughter and joyfulness – it has to be up to you to discern whether your laughter fits with the idea of your child as a rights bearer.

What to do instead: Consider things from their point of view . It is tough not being able to reach things you need, learning all the unwritten rules of society, figuring out who you are. The very last thing they need is “kind hearted” adults giggling along. Dwell on this and it should help you hold it together when you want to snort-in-love.

4 – Picking babies up We get rights all mixed up on this one – we think it is our right to pick up our baby. Well, erm, your baby isn’t really, exactly, yours, you see. You don’t own her. She is not a possession. She is a person. With her own body.

Or we think we are helping when we pick up another child when they’ve fallen or  a baby when they are crying. Would you like a stranger to come up to you and pick you up? Nope. It’s the same. It is.

What to do instead: The alternative isn’t not picking babies up. Babies love to be in arms, it is one of the biggest ways babies and adults connect. PICK UP BABIES! But, do what you would like to be done to you: ASK THEM! Yep, even a newborn. If babies are spoken to this way they soon respond. The “I’m going to pick you up now” spoken to a baby soon becomes “Can I give you a cuddle?” to a young child. This practice of consent from birth could change the world. 

5 – Wiping children’s noses Sometimes we do things to kids in the name of health and hygiene. Sweeping in to wipe their nose for example – I used to pride myself on a swipe that came from behind Ramona’s head, cleared all snot that wouldn’t interfere with her play time.  Yep: stepping all over her right to influence decisions that affect her.

What to do instead: Say “I see you have a wet nose, can I wipe it for you, or would you like to wipe it yourself? and then wait.  It was Pennie Brownlee that opened my eyes to the possibility that most children, if given the option to not have a huge slimeball of snot dripping into their mouth would take it! Same goes with dirty nappies- in a respectful relationship, giving the child the option to come and get their nose wiped or their nappy changed, and given time to process it, is likely to result in them coming over for a wipe/ change themselves.

6 – Deciding things without their input “Right! We are off! Let’s go, COME ON!”  The amount of times I have seen parents suddenly decide it is time to leave the park and expect their children with no warning to come right along happily! We plan our days, our holidays, our visits, our lunches, our leaving times, every thing with very little input from our children because we think we know best. And it is a complete flouting of their human right to have a say in things that impact them.

What to do instead: Give them an opportunity to influence plans. This grows with the child; they are VERY good at letting people know when they are ready to have a say! It might start with a two year old choosing what friends to have a playdate with, and then can grow into a four year old helping the family decide where to go on holiday. Contrary to what people may think, having children as fully fledged decision makers is not a burden – it is a great joy, and it leads to a far, far more harmonious family life. 

7 – Photographing (and sharing) them without permission This one that really challenges me, and I have been on quite a journey with it. (In fact, you can see that my Instagram pictures are far less frequent as I try and do this 100% consensually.  When we are snap happy and post these photos publically we are in danger of disregarding children’s right to privacy. And don’t get me started on when we use those photos to publically shame our children… *ragey face*

What to do instead I do have a couple of friends who have sworn never to post anything about their children online ever…. I, erm, am clearly not there! I simply ask their permission to take a photo, and then ask them if I can share it online.Habits that impede rights of child in the home (and how to change them)

8 – Putting children in Time Out Yeah baby I’m calling it! Time Out is a Human Right’s Abuse! Putting a child on a step and not letting them move does not allow our children to experience the right to be a full participant of the community, it erodes their dignity and suppresses their right to have a say in things that are important to them. It just shuts things down according to an adult’s, often quite arbitrary, rules.

What to do instead  In our family, we generally feel that if a hiccup has occurred, it is because the child needs MORE connection, not less. Not to be excluded from our love, but to be encompassed in it.  So we go for something that is highly connecting. Some families however, might have found Time Out to be helpful in cultivating a thinking space.  If you like rules and things, you could consider coming up with rules that EVERYONE agrees with, and then coming up with the matching consequence. A family guide book by consensus – whole schools are run on this principle. (Personally, we go for less rules, more connection.)

9 – Telling them to stop crying It is hard to hear our children crying, either because we are sad for them, or triggered by them, or because we think its not worthy of tears. We “Shush” our babies and say “Don’t be silly, cheer up” to our kids. It’s probably not surprising to hear but: every child has the right to cry, to feel things, and to express their feelings as they wish. (Even if it was because their nutella wrap got torn in two.)

What to do instead: The HuffPost recently published a great article about how accepting feelings is the last frontier in parenting. But it doesn’t have to be a huge one to change. Firstly, if we are being triggered, we need to deal with that.  And then we need to cultivate the practice of validation. “I hear you.” “You are upset”. “You wanted that.”  “It sounds like you are feeling sad.” These words of validation, of letting your child express themselves, becomes second nature when faced with tears.

10 – Telling them what to wear. I would LOVE to have kids that wear cool retro style, ironically sloganned tee shirts with perfect pineaple print shorts. Instead, Ramona and Juno tend to opt for either fourth hand pilled fleecey onesies, bright pink tutus or nothing at all. But, it is more important to me that they know they are in charge of their clothes and their body and things that effect them. Their bodies, their choice, right?

What to do instead: Create more time in the mornings for them to choose their own clothes – with support if needed, particularly at the start. And mostly stop having an opinion on what you think they should wear. It is minutiae that doesn’t impact you in the least (as far as I can see) but very much impacts a child’s perception of himself in the world.

Supporting child rights doesn’t have to mean throwing things we know to be good out the window- but we do need to make the rights of children the framework for which we hang our family life on. 

I think there are quite a lot more – for example, not forcing them to eat certain things, not forcing them to kiss or cuddle. But I feel like this list of ten is a good starting point – possibly the easiest to change. Do you have any that you are working on at the moment?

And also, before I sign off, I want to disclose fully that I am not able to say “I am a true upholder of child rights!” – some days I am great at it, and other times my only aim is to try and stay sane.  But I have absolutely seen my own child rights record improve by being committed to working on these everyday interactions between myself and the children in my life.

I want to live in a world where everyone can experience human rights – and I believe this world is being built not only in UN offices but also within kitchens, playgrounds, schools. Places where children play, where they have their rights observed. Where adults change ingrained habits and children take their place as fully human, with all the rights attached.

A fairer world begins in the home! 

This is part of my slow burning Parenting for Social Justice series. Read all about Non Violent Communication for Parents here

If you found this post helpful, please consider supporting my work on Patreon. Patrons get access to all sorts of extra stuff for as little as $1 a month.lulastic patreon

Featured, Parenting

What makes us explode? Parenting Triggers and the Mother’s Wound

7 July, 2015

I realised last month that I was jealous of my four year old daughter.

Not her clothes – she wears My Little Pony pyjamas most days and whilst they are comfty my look is more vintage, y’know?

Not her running skills- she is fast, but I’d crush her in a race for sure. (Not that we do winning as such, our new motto is “If you had fun you WON!”) But I’d definitely come first.

Not her hair – she is growing it long, but is very anti-brush, so it mostly hangs in a big dreadlock. Clump-chic.

This is what I’m jealous of:

I am jealous of the way she is fully able to be 100% herself. I am jealous of the way she expresses her massive emotions with her whole body and voice and every drop of energy. I am jealous of the freedom in which she occupies her place in the world.

It’s a huge word, jealousy.

It doesn’t mark our relationship in a big way. Not like how I was jealous of my best friend when I was 14 for getting to go out with the boy we had both fancied for two years. We used to have competitions about how much we fancied him; “I love him so much I would steal one of his sweaty socks and sleep with it on my pillow” and I’d say “Well I would eat his bogies!” and now she is his GIRLFRIEND? I was consumed with this whole body ache. I’d wake up jealous and go to sleep jealous and inbetween times think about his bogies jealously.

It’s not like that with my daughter.

We are deeply connected, we shower each other in kisses, we laugh until we cry, we play hard.

But every so often, when I am analysing the moment that I exploded into a shout after asking her to stop doing something 7 gazillion times, I discover that the blast came out of this deep place rooted in my childhood.

Here’s a list of the sorts of things that, once or twice a month, will give rise to a deep bubble of anger in my belly:

  • The zip on my dress being undone 8 times a day
  • Bouncing on Grandma’s bed
  • Bouncing on our bed whilst I’m trying to get Juno to nap
  • Insisting on changing her outfit for the 7th time before 9am as we’re about to leave
  • Refusing to move out of her seat after the aeroplane has landed
  • Emptying a whole jar of my homemade sunscreen into the sink
  • Crunching on a load of vitamin Cs when she usually helps herself to one
  • Needing to take all her clothes off to go to the toilet, in a public loo

Now nearly all of these are wholly natural, fully understandable urges – irresistible things kids are almost created to want to do. I love urges, I love creating space for them to happen. Furthermore, a lot of these things are a child’s RIGHT. It is her right to change her clothes, to take them off, to stay sitting when I want her to stay. And you know how I love children’s rights.

So I am pretty generally okay at just sitting back and not getting cross and creating space and getting joy out of their joy when all these things happen. Not a drop of annoyance in sight – just pleasure in connection, or curiosity about the way she has chosen to connect. Like, with my zip.
I'm jealous of my daughter! Healing the mother woundBut sometimes I’m not. Every so often my rational mind that loves urges and rights just leaves me hanging and my stomach fells with the big balloon of fury. And a lot of the time I can breathe and deal with it and then sometimes I just. get. mad.

And I am beginning to realise that this is the four year old Lucy, inside, saying HEY WHAAAAT?!  THATS SO NOT FAIR I NEVER GOT TO MAKE A POTION OUT OF SUNCREAM OR JUMP ON THE BEDS OR BE MY FULL EXUBERANT SELF…

(I was a bit precocious as a kid. Well read. I probably would have said exuberant.)

Teresa Brett, author of Parenting for Social Change, calls these “parenting triggers”. We can also get triggered when we are faced with a child’s experiences that remind us of something that happened to us as a kid. For example, when I see another kid being cruel to Ramona? My little inner 4 years wants to bust out yelling NO! YOU ARE THE POO AROUND HERE THANKS VERY MUCH! A BIG SMELLY POO HEAD! My inner 4 year old is totally unreasonable.

Last year Robin Grille came to New Zealand and he did a fantastic talk about emotional memory. (I write about emotional memory in our children, and as parents, here.) He advised us to look in with one eye, and out with another. Because unless we deal with emotional baggage from our own childhood we won’t be able to support our children with their own emotions.

At the heart of people not being able to cope with a child’s loud noises, their huge will and determination, their sheer physicality,  there is a little wounded child, feeling a bit jealous and wishing their own childhood could have been so free and so fun.

The bloody patriarchy 

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about this recently, particularly in the way mothers carry it. Because as women, we have been trying to thrive in an oppressive patriarchal culture, and must, to some extent, carry around baggage handed down through our lineage.

My friend sent me an article recently by Bethany Webster, Healing the Mother Wound, that articulated so perfectly some of my feelings. It discusses the role that living for generations upon generations within a patriarchal society can have on women, their daughters, and their daughter’s daughters, in a never ending game of pass-the-pain.

The hangover of women having to fulfil certain roles and expectations for so many years can leave us feeling like we are not quite good enough, that there is something wrong with us, that we must be a certain way to be loved, or plagued by guilt for wanting more than we have.

It gave me a how and a why for some of the deep emotions I have felt as a mother.

How I can be one minute sitting at the table doing crafts with my two girls, full of peace and joy, and the next minute battling a deep feeling of offense at how they want to push the ink pads directly on the paper, rather than using the stamps? WHY WOULD THEY WANT TO WASTE INK THIS WAY? IT DOESN’T EVEN MAKE COOL DINOSAUR SHAPES JUST BIG WET BLOBBY SQUARES. I have to sit, breathing with myself for a while, telling myself it doesn’t matter about the ink pads, they were only from the charity shop.

Webster says;

“In our society, there is no safe place for a mother to vent her rage. And so often it comes out unconsciously to one’s children. A daughter is a very potent target for a mother’s rage because the daughter has not yet had to give up her personhood for motherhood. The young daughter may remind the mother of her un-lived potential. And if the daughter feels worthy enough to reject some of the patriarchal mandates that the mother has had to swallow, then she can easily trigger that underground rage for the mother.”

Is it possible that when I see my daughters being so liberated and wild, so completely able to be themselves,  a small part of me remembers that phase in my teenage years, when I acted like an idiot, a classic bimbo, because I thought that’s how I, a pretty blond teenage girl needed to be in the world? My sister sat me down one day and said “Lucy you are intelligent. Stop pretending to be an idiot.” I did snap out of it, but I still sometimes recede into that place, perhaps to make people feel comfortable, or to like me, because somewhere along the line I’ve picked up that women need to be somewhat small. And this, eventually, is rage making. I'm jealous of my daughter! healing the mothers wound
My sister and I with our mum

I’m not happy with this rage. It isn’t fair on my daughters, for them to bear the brunt of thousands of years of gender inequality! Doesn’t that just take the mick? We’ve had the suffragette movement, women’s lib, and yet our daughter’s suffer because of a mother’s deep unhealed wounds.

The most important thing we can do as parents is acknowledge and validate our own pain, either from society, or childhood. It is a gift to become aware of how deep, untended to stuff can impact our relationship with our children.

A safe place to vent

The week I read about the Mother’s Wound I got involved in a small, very private women’s circle. A place to be honest, to acknowledge pain and rant and rave if necessary. I think it is a crucial step to dealing with these strange, unwelcome, unconscious feelings I have, a safe place to vent my rage.

Writing this has made me think of other ways to deal with emotional pain from childhood that I’ve found helpful – I thought I’d share these:

  • Finding a place to talk is so key – do you have a group you can form? Or an online place?
  • It sounds a little, er, quirky, but can you write a letter to you as a child? Address the pain you still carry.
  • Talk to yourself in the mirror. Tell yourself you are worthy of love, you are a good parent, you are kind. I recently had a very sad week, 3 things happened to me to make me question my work as a writer and general onliney person. I ended up going for a big rambly walk in the dark and began an inner monologue with someone I felt needed to trust themselves more. I began saying it over and over, like a mantra, and then realised I was talking to myself; “Trust yourself. You are a good person. Trust yourself.” It was really healing.
  • Change your brain. I know, it is like a proper insult. But it is science! Our brain acts like a muscle. With practice we can form new neural pathways. Keep doing something and you will get better. When you feel the bubble of rage, take a step back, count to ten, breath deeply, acknowledge and validate your feelings, and then address your children with love in your heart.  Eventually this will become your default. You can totally do this. You can change your shoutiness.

That best friend I had? When I was 14? She is still my best friend, two decades later. If I can get over the kind of jealousy that saw me madly eating bogies in my dreams, I am SURE I can address this subtle mother kind.

For my daughters’s sake, and my daughter’s daughters sake, I want to heal my mother wound, and show my inner 4 year old some love.

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Featured, Parenting, unschooling

How to start an Outdoor Play Group

12 June, 2015

I stuck my head out of our door to call the kids in for tea a few days ago. Ramona and Juno and our neighbours had been playing on the 6 foot high mud pile outside our house so I was expecting a bit of dirty wreckage…. I wasn’t expecting one of the boys to pop out of the sludgey mountain completely and utterly covered, from scalp to toe. The whites of his eyes shone out of this thick, black, magnificent dirt. They were playing mud ninjas, so, y’know… obviously. It was all I could do not to collapse in a hilarious heap. It was exhilarating to see someone so abandoned and wild and free.

And I was a weencey bit glad he was walking the 50 metres home to his own bath…

One of the things I have loved the most in our last 15 months living in New Zealand has been this sense of being nestled right amongst the mud and trees and birds. Whenever we are feeling a bit down we can just open the door and pick some fruit or climb a tree (time outdoors is one of the five best keys to happiness and we have really experienced that) and the girls are developing a whole education in the natural world. Ramona surprises me almost daily with little observations she has made about the animals that surround us, and then there’s Juno who mostly speaks Animal, with 3 or 4 perfect bird calls under her belt… amidst a tiny human vocab.

“‘Is the spring coming?’ he said. ‘What is it like?’ …
‘It is the sun shining on the rain and the rain falling on the sunshine, and things pushing up and working under the earth.’”

—Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

Early last year a few of us got together and began an Outdoor Play Group – a group of parents and children that simply play in nature. It is pretty much the one thing in our week that we are committed to, every Tuesday we spend from 10-2 at our friends little slice of wilderness. It is a hugely important part of our lives, where the girls can play uninhibitedly and where I get the chance to be nurtured by time and conversation with other parents. I’ve written before about the many, many reasons to get outdoors and play in the wild. 

Here is a little video I made today about our own outdoor Play Group, Nature Space:

(It looks quite wholesome, I know, and it sort of was, with a lot of chatter about penises and poo muted out!)

I thought I’d put some ideas out there, that might help parents set up their own Outdoor Play Group. Here are 8 steps for setting up an Outdoor Play group – follow these and you could have your own group in a matter of weeks!How to set up an outdoor play group amongst nature

Check that an official Nature Play doesn’t already exist close by

Firstly check there isn’t an official Nature Play Group already in your area – you could be one of the lucky devils able to jump on board with one already rolling. Clare Caro (she is an inspiration) has developed an organisation that is leading a well supported movement of Outdoor Play groups in the UK, under the banner Nature Play. Double check this list to make sure you don’t already have one near you. If you do, find out how to get involved through Clare’s web site.

Find a team
Find two friends who are interested too. I watched a video a few years ago that has stuck with me ever since. It is about how the first guy that jumps up to dance will stay just a loner until a couple of other dancers join him – then a movement begins. (Watch it here. It’ll make you smile!) This goes for beginning pretty much anything and everything. You alone are FANTASTIC but you need two friends to build momentum. Once there are three of you, you are good to go!

  • Ask around your friendship group – you might be surprised who will commit to this with you. It is my experience that almost all parents are looking for ways to be more outdoors with their children.
  • Post on local Facebook groups or community forums- your two buddies might not be known to you yet! “Want to get outdoors with your children more? Let’s begin a regular meet up for parents and children! Looking for two team members, please call.”
  • Ask wider Facebook groups to help you with your search – the Attachment Parenting and like minded groups admins might be able to help, as an example.
  • Go offline- put little notices up in the library and at local Tots groups.

“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

—John Muir, Our National Parks

Have an open meeting
Draw on your whole community to give your Outdoor Play Group a good boost right at the start. Get people (parents, La Leche group organisers, wise people, elders, any stakeholders)  in a room to share your vision. Advertise this open meeting widely. This is a great way to pool resources, discover fresh ideas about location, and you could well end up with a list of contacts that might form your first attendees.

Location (public)
Scout for a location. The UK and New Zealand are fortunate to have lots of little woods and reserves dotted around the place, or failing that little pockets of “nature areas” within parks. Ideally you will have a little grove of trees, with a small clearing amongst it, enough space to really roam and feel a little isolated from the busyness of a city, enough peace to be able to spot birds. We are lucky to have a little stream running through our area which makes for a great amount of fun in winter and summer. A tiny pond would also be great – as would, even, a tree-less beach. Is it free from buildings and human-made structures? It’s a winner. Even if it’s a public place, being in touch with the council about your plans could be really valuable.

Location (private)
If you don’t have anywhere public try thinking about private spaces. There are privates gardens, or backyards of neighbours or stretches of land owned by trusts… get together with your team mates and start getting in touch with people.  I am sure you will be surprised how many private land owners would be delighted to step in and help provide a beautiful space for your group.

Get grounded in the principles of Outdoor Play
How hard can it be, right? Walk outside, play in the nature. Sort of. I like to think that there are some foundations for really free and beautiful parent-child time spent outdoors though. These include allowing play to be totally child – led. Giving space for children to work through challenges, and conflict. Clare has given a lot of thought to this and I massively recommend being inspired by these Nature Play Guidelines together. We introduced ukelele playing at our own Outdoor play group as a way for the adults to have fun, and to give the children more space to explore autonomously. We were finding that idle parents can spend too much time focusing on their children and almost interrupting their play.

Sort out the deets
Find a day and a time that suits your core team. We do Tuesday 10 – 2/3pm because we all make lunch and eat together. The official London South East Nature Play group do 10-12 on a Thursday. Figure out the slot that will suit you three, trying not to overlap with another local group that parents might attend,  and then let others arrange their timetable around you.

Promote it
Nothing’s really stopping you now, apart from other families joining you! Start a Facebook group and start inviting people to it, visit local tots groups and make an announcement at the end of each group, put flyers up around local venues. It can take 6 months to a year for a group like this to really build up. If there are three families committed to this you will be able to ride this bumpy first stage, as people come and go and get a feel for it. Soon enough you will be maxed out!

Hooray! Here’s to your own mud bath, river paddling, weed ripping, fire toasting Outdoor Play group!

“These people have learned not from books, but in the fields, in the wood, on the river bank. Their teachers have been the birds themselves, when they sang to them, the sun when it left a glow of crimson behind it at setting, the very trees, and wild herbs.”

―Anton Chekhov, “A Day in the Country”

Activism, Featured, Parenting

Parenting for Social Justice: Non Violent Communication

16 February, 2015

This post goes out to a legend of our time who sadly passed away last week. Marshall Rosenberg dedicated his life to peace and created tools that resolved conflict in the most tricky of situations. I read his book, Non Violent Communication, and became sure that if everyone read it, and put it into practice, the world would be a much more harmonious, beautiful, just place.

I felt it had massive potential for use in the home, that the principles and methods of talking and listening could transform parent- child relationships, that it could restore connection where a disconnect had taken place.

So, I want to kick off a short blog series, Parenting for Social Justice, with Non Violent Communication. (NVC, because life’s too short.)

Who jake change begins at home- here's how

Not because I am amazing at it (I am pretty sure my beg, every early morning, “Let me sleeeeeeeeeep moooooooore because otherwise I will diiiiiieeeeeee” flouts all the NVC guidelines) but because I TRY to bring this kind of communication in my life, and I believe it is KEY in raising social justice loving children.

NVC is a strategy for communicating, but it can also be a lens through which we see life. The four components are observations, feelings, needs and requests.

First, we observe what is actually happening in a situation: what are we observing others saying or doing that is either enriching or not enriching our life? The trick is to be able to articulate this observation without introducing any judgment or evaluation—to simply say what people are doing that we either like or don’t like. Next, we state how we feel when we observe this action: are we hurt, scared, joyful, amused, irritated? And thirdly, we say what needs of ours are connected to the feelings we have identified. An awareness of these three components is present when we use NVC to clearly and honestly express how we are.

For example, a mother might express these three pieces to her teenage son by saying, “Felix, when I see two balls of soiled socks under the coffee table and another three next to the TV, I feel irritated because I am needing more order in the rooms that we share in common.” She would follow immediately with the fourth component—a very specific request: “Would you be willing to put your socks in your room or in the washing machine?”

This picture shows how we can phrase what is going on for us using the four components- it is from a really helpful slideshow on NVC here.

NVC FOR PARENTING You can possibly also see how with small children, this could be a bit heavy, and you will need to be sensitive to that, and never, ever use the revealing of your feelings as a tool for manipulation.

NVC holds an awful lot of insight that I think is especially helpful for parents (well, like, on top of The Whole Thing):

Connection is the key to peace

It is the reason, the how, the why, the everything. Rosenberg is adamant that human connection is the way to unlock violent or angry situations. As parents our number one goal for each day should be connecting with our children. NVC shows us how to keep those doors of connection open no matter what.

The world needs more Empathy

“Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing. We often have a strong urge to give advice or reassurance and to explain our own position or feeling. Empathy, however, calls upon us to empty our mind and listen to others with our whole being.”
NVC is a process that gets us into an empathetic place- it has been successfully used to nurture understanding in situations from warring street gangs to international conflict. When we parent with understanding and empathy we are likely to see our children showing understanding and empathy- things the world needs in order to prevent warring gangs and international conflict. The pathway to world peace begins in every home. (What’s good enough for the Gangs of New York is good enough for my Tribe in a Yurt.)

Our needs as parents are real

I love that NVC is about being real. Our feelings are valid and not to be hidden, and yet, yet, it asks us to take a breath and recognise what lies beneath our feelings and how we can actually get what we need. Sometimes I get the impression that attachment parenting relishes martyrdom…. The fact is, if the intense sacrifice of parenting a baby stretches into the toddler and older child years we are denying the importance of our own needs.

The world needs more Self Empathy

And therefore Rosenberg doesn’t just talk of giving empathy to others, but of receiving empathy. We can not keep being empathetic to our children if we aren’t getting dosed up ourselves. We need to find support people to top us up, but mostly we need to be empathetic to ourselves. Being kind to ourselves is one of the most important foundations for empathetic parenting. Funnily enough, I think it is the thing we struggle most with. We experience guilt piled upon guilt and give ourselves a break NEVER. Dive into self empathy, your children will love you for it!

Non violent communication for parents

Being a judgey judger doesn’t help us connect

Importantly, it asks us to not judge our children when they do things we find difficult. We asked constantly to put judgements on our kids- are they good, bad, naughty? And it is hard sometimes to take our judgemental specs off.

We have actually been working with an NVC trained mediator recently and she inspired me with the idea that there is very little “good” or “bad” in day to day situations…. What there IS are people with basic needs trying to get them met in a way that we don’t really like! Never is this more apparent with children. Most of the time children are just expressing a need – for connection or belonging or security- with a strategy that really grates! “MUM I DO NOT WANT YOUR DISGUSTING PASTA FOR TEA!!”

Non Violent Communication in Parenting

What a change of perspective when we can see that our children are just working out the best ways of getting their needs met- and that we are able to have a sincere, kind discussion with them about this.

Non Violent communication in parenting

We need to find alternatives to R ewards and punishments

If there is anyone I going to listen to about how to avoid big, global conflict it is a dude who has dedicated his life to resolving it. Rosenberg says “Punishment is the root of all violence on the planet”and he isn’t referring just to institutional punishment but punitive measures taken in the home- smacking and shaming and bribing. He advocates more connection based, more empathetic ways of communicating with our children- only when children experience empathy will they be able to give it. When children act out of fear of punishment, or in order to receive a reward, they are not acting from the heart, which lessens the good will and peace in the world.

Here is Rosenberg with his dad hat on, using NVC in one of those really tricky situations (that I know too well) when your child hits another:
In such situations, I recommend first empathizing with the child who is behaving violently. For example, if I saw a child hit someone after being called a name, I might empathize, “I’m sensing that you’re feeling angry because you’d like to be treated with more respect.” If I guessed correctly, and the child acknowledges this to be true, I would then continue by expressing my own feelings, needs, and requests in the situation without insinuating blame: “I’m feeling sad because I want us to find ways to get respect that don’t turn people into enemies. I’d like you to tell me if you’d be willing to explore with me some other ways to get the respect you’re wanting.

Take a deep breath

And then, to finish, I think NVC holds one very practical tip that I reckon could be the big change from a volatile parent-child relationship to a peaceful one, and that is: taking a big deep, reflective breath before we react or reply.

Parenting can trigger an emotional response in us- sometimes my child’s behaviour unleashes a small, angry dragon in my belly. If I react from that dragon place out come the bribes and warnings and manipulation. But if I take a moment to understand my feelings, to empathise, to listen, then my fiery breath is much less fierce, and stinky.

NVC conversations are slow and quiet, they involve silent space, reflection and observation. Have a look at this Youtube video to get a sense of how softly, softly these parenting chats can go.

Non violent communication for parents

So there we have it, boom shack, a little overview of how NVC can work in the home. NVC has bought about so much peace worldwide- I believe if it is implemented between adults and children the impact will be multiplied a google times.

Parenting for Social Justice series

You know, I have an undergrad and post grad degree in social policy, and spent the majority of my career in policy and campaigns- determined that this was the way to a fair world.

Then I had children. I began to see that social justice begins in the home; that peaceful adult- child interaction has just as much a role as the UN, the NGOs, all the Nobel Peace Prize nominees. I will raise warring tyrants or peacemakers (or somewhere in between!) depending on how I treat my children.

This series has been on my mind for a year- I want to take a look at how common themes and concepts within the global social justice movement apply to childhood.

I’d love to explore this with you, if you have any ideas we can look at, it’d be awesome to hear from you.

A just and beautiful world is nurtured every time a child is loved and respected….