How you can help your child’s mental health
Anxious, stressed, unhappy... words now regularly applied to describe children. In National Mental Health Awareness we're asking - are there simple steps parents can take to ease the pain?
We all know that over the last decade mental health issues generally – and particularly in children – have reached Code Black. With the royal family and celebrities opening up about their own struggles, thankfully the stigma of mental illness is slowly being challenged.
One of the interesting questions not often asked though is how, as parents, we may be unwittingly adding to our children’s anxiety, stress or unhappiness. Is our constant need to protect actually harming their self-esteem? Are our jokey comments about our kids actually not funny to them at all deep down?
I came across Esther Wojcicki’s book, How To Raise Successful People last year when I was compiling Muddy book column and was taken with her refreshingly laid-back take on parenting. At a time when we’re surrounded by tiger mums, and helicopter and snow plough parents (who clear life’s path of all obstacles for their precious ones), it’s a relief to read about a more common-sense approach.
Wojcicki’s method can be distilled down to the acronym, TRICK – trust, respect, independence, collaboration, kindness. My current method, meanwhile, can be boiled down to asking once and then shouting so I thought I might benefit from picking her brain. Aged 78, she’s certainly worth listening to – she’s got 35 years of teaching at Palo Alto High School under her belt and is known there as the Godmother of Silicon Valley (Steve Jobs’ children were among her pupils). Then there’s the 50 years of parenting from which came three high-achieving daughters – the CEO of YouTube, a tech entrepreneur and a professor of paediatrics, no less. Shall we hear what she has to say?
What does ‘panda mum’ mean?
I was called this after I had a debate at a conference with Amy Schua [author of the parenting book, The Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother]. So she’s the tiger mum and I’m the panda mum. Pandas are cuddly with their children, give them freedom but if they see them falling they pick them up. They help their offspring to navigate their environment rather than controlling the environment around them. When the tiger mum spoke, she said how much she disliked being a parent, how every age was stressful. She was trying to do her best and carrying on the tradition of how her parents parented. Whereas, my approach is a total contrast. I told the audience I loved being a mum, that we always had fun and I was supportive of everything they were doing but I didn’t over protect.
We’re all so obsessed with the art of parenting – it didn’t used to even be a verb, people just used to get on with it, didn’t they? You must have seen things change over the years?
Absolutely. In the 1950s, ‘60s or ‘70s you were just a parent. What your child did or didn’t do did not reflect on to you to the same degree it does today. Today, parents take responsibility and/or credit for how their children do, for getting into a good university, for finding a job that has prestige and pays well, for marrying well. That makes the parents really stressed and takes the agency from the child, as well as putting a huge amount of pressure on them. As a parent, you’re there to nurture and take care of your child – but that task how now somehow become an extension of the parent’s ego.
You call it a “crisis in parenting” – as a teacher, what do you see?
Students are much more stressed about grades, tests and getting into the college of their choice. I have a student who has perfect test scores and has not succeeded into getting into a good college. The parents are very upset and have asked me, “What did we do wrong?” That question alone assumes they take responsibility. And I often see parents projecting fear for their child – sometimes they don’t even say it. But children can always sense when their parents are worried.
Any tips for those who tend to hover around being helicopter parents?
One thing you can do is stop micro managing the child’s time. It’s not good to have every single hour accounted for by someone else – so today is ballet, tomorrow is violin, then it’s tennis, with the child doing it, whether they want to or not. Research shows that creativity comes from boredom – I’d suggest you give the child more opportunities to be bored.
Be collaborative too – get the children involved in running the house. Maybe they can plan (and possibly shop for and cook) dinner one day per week. Or ask them what they want to do at the weekend and let them help plan it. The benefits mean that they learn to collaborate, a skill that’s crucial in life, plus when you plan something and it’s successful it makes you feel good about yourself. One of my daughters is currently living in Tokyo with her children and her 14-year-old wanted to spend the day going around the city by himself. In America, no one would allow this but he quoted my book at his mum about letting children be independent and off he went!
And was he OK?
He was fine! He stayed within a five mile radius, met up with a friend and went to the movies.
So it sounds like your daughters follow your advice with their own children?
For the most part but they’re impacted by this grip of fear encompassing the western world where people are afraid to let their children walk 10 feet ahead without them. Research shows that the world is much safer now than it was in decades past, with the threat of kidnap is lower than ever, but we get spooked by things we read online and jump to conclusions. When my older daughters were about 4 and 5, we lived on the fifth floor of a tall apartment building in Geneva. I’d let them go down the stairs by themselves and go to the boulangerie a few doors down and buy a baguette.
Wow, that’s a lot of trust.
Yes it was and of course I was apprehensive at first and would keep looking over the balcony so I could see them from five storeys up. But what it did was build into them very early on that sense of “I can do that”. They’ve always had a sense that they can control whatever they’re involved in and feel confident about their environment. You should always prepare your child for the world, not the world for your child. You have to let your child experience the real world. There’s this epidemic of ‘safe’ playgrounds in America right now, where you can’t fall and hurt yourself because everything is padded. That’s not the real world!
And you never checked your children’s homework, did you?
If they asked me for help I would do so but I didn’t go out and say, “Let’s see what you have and we’ll do it together.” I’d say, “Let me know if you need me to help you”.
Being a Silicon Valley teacher, you’re a good person to ask about screen time. Thoughts?
Don’t give your baby a cell phone to entertain them – screen time for children aged two and under should be zero. Later on, collaborate with them to agree what they can view and for how long. And check out Common Sense Media which ranks apps and movies as to how child-appropriate they are.
What’s your approach to grandparenting?
Ha, I’ve seen so much inappropriate grandparenting behaviour I’d like to write a book on that! Letting them eat sweets all day seems a major source of contention. As for me, I’m learning from my mistakes. You have to remember that your grandchildren belong to your children and they get to parent the way they want to parent. You can support your child in parenting but you can’t tell them what to do. There was a time when whenever I visited my grandchildren I’d take a beautiful toy. In the end, my daughter said I had to stop as there was no more room in their house and they wanted to buy some of those toys themselves. You need to respect and trust your child to do the best job as a parent because you brought them up.
If people take home just one piece of advice after reading your book, what should it be?
The acronym TRICK works not only with children, it works with your colleagues and in your relationship too. So you can also use it when you communicate with your partner.