pursuing discipleship through the haze of early parenthood
I'm a stay-at-home mum to four kids between 1 and 6, and was formerly a teacher. I blog about living life as a disciple of Christ whilst coping with the demands and excitements of having small children. I've been battling an addiction with chocolate for many years. I'm generally winning, but my teeth are not.
Excitingly, I now have a new home for Desertmum, which you can find here. Please pop across and keep me company while I wait for everyone else to turn up.
You could also, you know, add me to your bookmarks, share the new website with everyone you know and write the words ‘lucyrycroft.com’ in beautifully artistic brush-strokes across your bathroom mirror.
Recently, a young lad of 13 came to our church alone.
My husband recognised and remembered him as the same boy who’d come with his Dad, three years ago. They’d attended services for maybe two or three weeks – then not again. Until now.
At the time, the boy’s Dad said, “I’m not really interested, but he’s been asking to come”. Quite astoundingly, this young boy has claimed the identity of ‘Christian’ even though he has not been brought up in a Christian home, and has had very little Christian influence in his life other than the Christian group who led half-termly assemblies in his primary school. (If you do this job, be encouraged – it has an impact!)
I find it fascinating when parents who don’t hold a religious faith tell me how interested their children are in God. Kids can ask deep questions, that’s for sure, and if there is a God behind human design, then it’s unsurprising that children would have a deep-rooted longing to connect with something greater than themselves – a longing which doesn’t come from what their parents or teachers have taught them, or from the ‘religious’ experiences they’ve had, but from within their very beings.
And what of children, like mine, who are being taught about God’s existence, and who are having regular ‘religious experiences’ through church, children’s groups and Christian camps?
These children have deep questions too. Yes, they may frame them within the context of God’s existence – at least until they are of an age to question this – but that’s not to say that doubt and uncertainty can’t exist too.
So our question, as adults helping to raise spiritually-healthy children, is – how do we encourage these questions? How do we initiate debate? How do I permeate the deep recesses of my 9 year old son’s soul, when he only really wanted to tell me about the Newcastle-Man United game?
The closed approach of “That was your question – this is the answer” is not always appropriate. Of course sometimes there is an answer we can give – and I’m not dismissing this – but when our children have deep struggles and questions, I think that the simple black-and-white answer can often trivialise their experience, and devalue their thinking.
This is where creativity comes in: lots of questions, lots of responses, lots of deep thinking and forming of opinions. An understanding that one question may have many answers.
Let me back-track a little and inform you, if you didn’t already know, that Christian publishers don’t usually do Books Like This.
For example, we’re used to the 15-chapter teaching guide on a particular area of discipleship, written by someone with more experience than us. We’re used to someone telling us (or encouraging us) how to think.
Sorry – that sounds a bit cynical, doesn’t it? As if Christian writers are trying to brainwash their readers – and I don’t mean that at all.
But, generally, when I read a Christian book, I’m out to learn what the author has discovered through experiences, training or qualifications that differ to my own. It doesn’t mean I will agree with every word, but these books offer fodder for my mind, new interpretations of Scripture that I hadn’t come across, different opinions which strengthen my own.
“Where is God”, however, breaks this stereotype. It is, essentially, a coffee-table art book – hardback, with gorgeous pictures throughout, and empathetic commentary by Ann Clifford, who I interviewed for this blog on Monday.
And here’s another difference: Christian books, on the whole, tend to be written by Christians – right?
The art in this book has been produced by a variety of people from a variety of faiths and none.
Each of the 60 pieces of art was shortlisted for the Chaiya Art Awards, and is as diverse and beautiful as you would hope it might be, given the brief of “Where is God in our 21st-century World?”
Now this isn’t specifically a children’s book, but as any age group can enjoy and gain from art, I was keen to see what my children made of this. I viewed it as a PDF on my phone, but even without the ‘glamour’ of an open book with its glossy photos, my children were interested.
“What does it mean? Why is he wrapped in a bin bag? Who’s that? What’s happening?” were the initial questions, which I tended to follow with some more questions of my own. My children ended up providing their own ‘answers’ and interpretations.
We were able to bring our Christian beliefs into the discussion, but not in a forceful, dogmatic way – more a kind of, “The artist might be saying this… Jesus said this too” or “Do you remember when Jesus did…?” or “There’s a verse in the Bible that says something similar”.
I love the way that this book brings the question of God’s existence into regular situations that we and our children encounter. I already mentioned here about the picture of homelessness. Another I was struck by was a modern take on the Virgin and Child – except, in this version, both of them are wearing life jackets, linking to the Syrian crisis, still fresh in our minds, and the fact that Jesus and his family were also refugees.
Of course there’s plenty of more abstract pieces that my kids (and I, for that matter) looked at and, with screwed-up faces, asked, “What’s THAT??!!” – but that’s okay. Not all art will speak to all of us.
In fact, author Ann Clifford gives us this very caveat. “Perhaps [a particular piece] doesn’t look like art to you and it evokes nothing. That’s okay. Turn the page.”
Ann’s commentary is wonderfully incisive and articulate. She doesn’t comment on each piece, but offers short pieces throughout the book on themes expressed in the artwork.
‘Where is God in the 21st Century?’ is out now (you can buy it here) – but if you’re local to me, let me know as we can benefit from a bulk order discount.
Affiliate links are used in this email. If you click through and make a purchase, I receive a small commission at no extra cost to yourself. Thanks for your support.
It’s National Adoption Week, which seemed like a good opportunity for a rant.
As you know, I tend to blog positively and (I hope) humorously about adoption, and its impact on our family. It’s not all roses, of course, and I’m honest about the struggles of raising four children, two of whom have early life trauma, but generally our life is good and we have much to be thankful for.
Please read the following, then, in the context of what you’ve just read. Our life is good.What I’m about to say is just a niggle, really, and it shouldn’t get to me – but, then again, it’s such a common faux pas, and one so easily fixed, that I’m surprised more people don’t realise the impact of what they’re saying.
The niggle is this: people I meet are usually very interested in our adoption story. “What made you want to adopt?” “Did you always want to adopt?” and so on. Very good questions. In fact, any question is a good question. I like questions. They encourage honesty and transparency, both of which I’m a huge fan of.
But then, on hearing that we have two older, birthchildren (take note, this is the correct phrase), I’m met with a response such as, “Oh, so you have two of your own as well – that’s lovely!”
Of my own?
Does anyone realise how patronising that sounds? Not to mention how unsettling for my boys as they grow older and start to understand the full whack of what’s being suggested.
Are you really saying that, in some way, my adopted children are not as good, not as entitled, not as deserving of us as our birthchildren are?
Are you really saying that my adoptedchildren aren’t really mine?
Are you really saying that there is some difference between how we would treat the four of them?
Are you possibly suggesting that our adopted children don’t really fit into our family? That once they hit 18, they’ll be fending for themselves?
Sure, I went through a lot to get my two birthchildren. There was the initial, er, act. And then nine months of the usual fatigue, nausea, increasing discomfort, pre-eclampsia, blah, blah, blah.
And then a few more days of the same becausewhich Rycroft has ever turned up anywhere on time?
And then the labour. Urgh.
And then the feeding, the sleepless nights, the reflux, the weaning, the tummy that refuses to bounce back. OK, maybe this last one is more the fault of insane amounts of chocolate consumption rather than the kiddoes, but you get the picture.
These kids are my own kids, for sure. No one would doubt it. Legally, they are ours too – I can show you their birth certificates which bear my name.
But then again, I went through a lot to get my two adoptedchildren also.
There were more than three years of discussing, praying, talking to adopters, attending events and meetings. And then a few frenzied nights of form filling, capturing every tiny detail of our lives in a seemingly infinite line of boxes: personal details, job information, financial situation, home safety audit, NSPCC safeguarding checks. You name it, we filled the form.
And then there were two months of intensive social worker meetings – a bit like free therapy (we rather enjoyed this, I won’t lie). We shared the story of our own family upbringings, how the two of us met and married, the relationship we have with our birth children, our working history, our views and values on disability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, expectations of our children, and a whole range of other things.
By the end of this stage, our social worker knew more about us than our closest friends.
Oh, and four days of an adoption preparation course. Basically four days designed to put you off adopting.
Then the panel, maybe just 15 minutes or so, but a dozen faces, each one prompting us to defend why we really could parent two more children.
And then there was the waiting, the scrolling through child profiles, more waiting, the adoption event where I first caught a glimpse of their sweet faces, more waiting, the phone calls, the ‘what-ifs’, more waiting, the meetings, the plans, the starting-to-get-real moments, the decorating, more waiting, more forms, more meetings, more desperation to meet our own children.
And then they moved in and we had regular visits from the social worker, health visitor and independent reviewing officer. Things Which Had To Be Done. Forms Which Had To Be Filled.
Because, by heck, they don’t leave you to flounder with an adopted child like they do with a birth child.
And – finally – nearly a year later, the court visit, the words, the photos, the celebration, the joyous knowledge – and the bit of paper which legally proves – that these are our children. OUR OWN CHILDREN.
Calling them our ‘own’ children does not diminish the place of their birth family. It does not wish away a story which, however sad, is a key part of who they are. We still have indirect contact with birth relatives, and will continue to do so, maybe one day turning that into direct contact, if our boys are keen.
No. Calling them ‘our own children’ gives them the total security of knowing they are totally loved, totally wanted, totally right in our family. They are not outsiders, they belong – and everything we have is theirs. There is nothing we give our birth children – in time, love, sacrifice or money – that we do not also give our adopted children.
I’d argue that the journey towards our adopted children becoming our children was longer, busier and more intense than that which we made when we embarked upon birth children. Wouldn’t you agree?
In that case, can we all be a little more careful in the language we use?
Artists entering the Chaiya Art Awards 2018 were asked to respond to this question, and the results are showcased in this beautiful coffee-table book. All faiths and none are represented, and insightful commentary is provided throughout the book by author Ann Clifford.
I’ve really enjoyed looking through this book (full review coming on Friday!), and was delighted to have the chance to catch up with Ann Clifford to find out more about the book, and especially how we can use it as parents seeking to widen our children’s faith experience.
Welcome, Ann! Congratulations on such a beautiful, thought-provoking book. I found your words a perfect complement to the images. Tell us a bit about your background and how this book came about.
Katrina Moss (founder, Chaiya Art Awards) and I have been friends for 35 years. We have had many adventures together: the one about the ugly sisters; the Cannes Film Festival; the feature film to name a few.
My passion to encourage Christians to be involved in the arts began many years ago. For ten years I ran an initiative which brought artists from many disciplines together. My own discipline at the time was writing plays, acting and theatre directing.
When Kat came to me with the idea of Chaiya I wanted to do everything in my power to support her. The idea for the book evolved and of course having just had my first book published (Time to Live: The Beginners Guide to Saying Goodbye), I was wonderfully placed to help make it happen and am grateful to Instant Apostle for creating and publishing it so beautifully.
I am so proud of Kat for the vision of this initiative and feel privileged to outwork it with her. There will be another competition and art exhibition in 2020.
I imagine it’s hard for you to choose a favourite piece of art from the book – but was there one section which was particularly enjoyable to look at and/or write?
My heart is so full of gratitude to the artists that are featured. Their passion is for all to see. The spiritual content of the work is undeniable and it is thrilling. I think Suffering and Death struck a deep chord as it resonated with what I had just written and it contains one of my favourite (amongst many favourite) pictures, The Suspense of Living on the Edge by Ashar.
Ann, you’re a mother and a grandmother, and you’ve worked as a special needs teacher. In your experience with children, how do you think art can open up their understanding of the world?
Low self-worth is the killer in our children. When reading and writing are a struggle, the arts can redeem so much in them and bring success.
I directed The Wizard of Oz in a primary school with Year 6s. As my heart is for special needs I used unexpected children in the main roles. One child found reading so difficult but he had stage presence so I cast him in a main part. Learning the role took him hours his father told me, but he was absolutely determined to do it. He was brilliant.
I taught visual art for a year to a class. The mess was unimaginable but it was a joy. A parent came to me at the end of term and said his daughter had been captivated by my Picasso classes.
When she told him he went upstairs to his loft and brought down a dusty book on Picasso he and her mother (who had sadly died) had bought together. Father and daughter then sat together enjoying chatting about all the pictures of the painter’s work and of course talked about her mum as well. He left and I cried.
When I heard about this book, I was hoping that Mister (9) would be ‘old enough’ to access it.
In reality, when I first looked at it, I happened to have my Meerkat (4) and Missy (7) climbing all over me! I was amazed that they were not only engaged by the images, but had some very thoughtful comments and questions about them.
I shouldn’t have been surprised really, should I?
Art is like music. It reaches places that other things cannot.
When my daughter was about eight I took her to what is now the Tate Britain. She had her sketch book and pencil in case. I thought I would start with David Hockney as his pictures are accessible. The Splash, the figure in the shower.
She sat on the floor and drew them. We moved onto Degas and the Little Dancer but it didn’t do much for her.
The powerful and huge Jacob wrestling with the Angel by Epstein was instantly riveting, again she dropped to the floor and drew. This is how the visit went.
We walked past some paintings by Joan Miro and she stopped and laughed. I don’t think I’ve laughed at a painting much. I looked again and saw the fun.
If we ask children what they see I guarantee it will open our eyes. That is the beauty of visual art. Images are part of their lives now as never before. This is why I feel it so incredibly important to allow space for faith-filled visual art to be created and exhibited.
Children are so wonderfully open and without boundaries and their world has much to give us. There isn’t anything on the market like this book. It is a great opportunity to talk about many important things together.
One image which my children found particularly provocative was Maxwell Rushton’s ‘Left Out’, in which a homeless person sitting at the side of the path is wrapped in a bin bag.
They related to this scene as, sadly, walking past a homeless person is a fairly regular event for them (and of course I get the innocent and loudly-voiced “WHY’S THAT MAN SITTING BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD, MUMMY?” when we’re clearly within earshot of the man in question).
We were able to chat through the idea of value and rubbish, precious and worthless, wondering what makes us special or important in the first place.
What I loved about the artworks in the exhibition is that some were immediate, authentic and emotional, so we could relate to them easily. Some were more challenging but so worth exploring.
Some of us can find art scary. We wonder what we are ‘supposed’ to think or feel. To start with we need to be ourselves and trust ourselves. It is okay to feel what we feel.
Different people will see different things. Sounds to me like your children had a fab conversation with you that will make both you and them think.
I remember my son still in primary school noticing homeless people and having conversations with him about it. One day I found him emptying his moneybox into a plastic bag. When I asked him why, he said it was to give to the homeless man sitting on the main road of our village.
Everything in me wanted to say ‘don’t give him everything’. I shut my mouth and went with him as he gave it away. Who says children can’t teach us things?
In an earlier section of the book you write:
“Many artists desire to contribute into a hurting world. They do not necessarily bring actual food. They may have little money to give, but they can bring beauty… We human beings cannot survive on ashes – the ‘things’ and ‘stuff’ of our consumer society: horror, abuse, degradation, isolation, sickness, objectification. Or social media with its poisoned ashes of language that defame and destroy the chosen offender. The murmuration of electronic clutter, while essential, overtakes and dulls. We need food that empowers, food that causes us to lift our eyes beyond the material, beyond the constant soundscape; we need beauty.”
Children, similarly, cannot contribute ‘actual food’ to a hurting world. They have few monetary resources, and their lack of independence limits what they can contribute in terms of voluntary work. But in many ways they too bring the beauty you write about. What’s your experience of this?
My grandson Judah is now twenty months old. I have watched the untrammelled joy he brings into my husband’s life.
My husband is the General Director of the Evangelical Alliance and there is always so much going on. Positive, wonderful things, but his head gets full and tired.
Little Judah is such a happy giving child that his very presence and gorgeous smile banishes everything except the present moment.
We have a large painting by Dinah Roe-Kendall of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple which Judah loves. The painting is not only beautiful, it also worships God twenty four hours per day whether someone looks at it or not. I love having it in my home: the power of a faith-filled painting.
Our children are more influenced by more sources than ever before – not only friends and teachers, but books, TV, the unlimited ‘voices’ screaming at them from YouTube, and – eventually – social media. Where can they find God in all of this?
Firstly I think put as much of God in them as you can from the moment you first hold them. Pray over them, cover them with prayer daily.
What you put into them, and their acceptance of God, will become their plumb line of choice in the future even if they could never articulate it. Many children have no deep plumb line, indeed many adults as well, but that’s another story.
The early years are crucial – give them the time you can. When most of us have to work it is difficult and demanding as the last thing you want to do is give even more.
Ask God to expand you, grow you. Give, give and give again. Love, love and love again. No-one will see most of what you do, except that God will see everything and He is no person’s debtor.
I thought when the children went to secondary school that’s when we would be having deep discussions, but they start much younger!
That’s great advice – thank you! Finally, what is your hope for those who read this book?
I have three hopes:
That artists will be encouraged in their making to express spirituality and be emboldened and encouraged to do so.
That faith is given space in the visual arts as we search for meaning, relevance and hope.
That all sorts of people would look at the work and grow a fresh delight in and understanding of the importance and relevance of art in our culture.
I would like to leave a quote from the end of the book as part of my answer.
“This is about allowing ourselves the freedom to search for and expect ‘magic’ again. It is about walking into a hidden place and experiencing the feel of a fur coat on our face. As our eyes adjust, the light of a lamp reveals glinting snow. We walk through the wardrobe, our feet crunch, and before us lie stone animals, mysteries, things to explore. Excitement mounts.
The artists featured in this book stepped through a wardrobe, they discovered the snow, heard its crunch underfoot. They invite you to join them.
Spring is coming.”
Look out for my review coming this Friday!
To make sure you don’t miss another blog post, why not sign up for my mailing list? I send a simple Friday evening mail-out to summarise what I’ve written that week, so you never need remember to check the blog again!
Along with my Book Club, this month I read My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. I really enjoyed it, bearing some similarities to Eleanor Oliphant, which I read in June.
The title character, like Eleanor, has had a less-than-ideal upbringing, in a dysfunctional family, and now struggles to cope with aspects of everyday life that the rest of us take for granted. Lucy doesn’t necessarily notice or verbalise these struggles, but they become implicit through Strout’s deeply incisive writing, which I enjoyed very much.
The book however, is not mainly about Lucy’s struggles (as an adopter, I tend to read everything through an ‘early life trauma’ lens even when the author hasn’t necessarily intended that!), but more about her relationship with her mother, who comes to visit for a prolonged period when Lucy finds herself in hospital. The pair haven’t spoken in years, and now Lucy is married with two daughters. The ensuing conversation sheds light on Lucy’s upbringing, the characters of the two women, and on what might be going on elsewhere in Lucy’s adult life.
I found it a fascinating read, if slightly frustrating in its ambiguity. I like a little bit of uncertainty (“it could have been this…”, “maybe she felt like this…”) but I also like to know what the actual story is, as I never trust my instincts to have got it right! But maybe that’s the point.
Anyway, it was not a long read, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys this type of story.
There has been A LOT of party food (read: cake) kicking around Casa Desert this month. ALL four of my kids had the audacity to be born in September, and I know that every time this month rolls round, God is laughing at His amazing joke of putting all four of these September-born kids into the life of a Mum who is liable to get a little too party-obsessed.
Yeah, funny. Thanks God.
Actually, the joke is working. I’m chilling out about the kids’ parties. They’re not as much of a mission as they used to be. These days I’m tending to just book a bouncy castle, open a packet of cheesy balls, and let everyone create their own fun. Imagination never hurt anyone, right?
And, to bring this back to the subheading, I don’t really do much with the food. It mainly comes from packets. This year we made some (pretty nice, if I say so myself) chocolate cupcakes from Twist (quite possibly the most helpful, foolproof and scrumptious baking book ever) – but only really for something to do with the twins, who can’t get enough kitchen time at the moment.
Then there were the Birthday Cakes. Listen, I’m hardly Bake-Off material, but I like to try, OK? A mermaid one for Missy (now 7):
Spiderman for Monkey and Meerkat (now 4 – geez, where did that go?):
And a football one for Mister (9! He’s 9! Double figures next year! Someone remind me when I’m supposed to get the hang of parenting?):
That’s about it really. He sits neatly in the very small overlap section of our family’s Venn diagram when it comes to musical preference. The catchy melodies and simple, repetitive words appeal to our kids, who can remember all of them (even the 4 year olds). The Orbison-esque voice and use of brass give it a vintage sound that Desert Dad and I appreciate. Perfect!
And – for those of you who are fans of George Ezra AND a cappella (as well as those of you who are not) – you absolutely have to watch this:
I love that this isn’t even a gig…they’re just warming up!
This month’s piece for More than Writers explored one of my (many) misadventures with DIY this summer, and its application point for writing and editing.
Home for Good published my piece on What the Church needs to know about Invisible Needs. I feel a bit arrogant saying it’s an essential read for all those in church leadership – but I’m going to put myself out there, uncomfortable though it is, for the sake of all the many traumatised children who attend our churches each week and struggle in ways many of us never notice.
My Aussie friends Mike and Helen started an awesome company called XCeptional, which helps people with autism get into employment. They run training, provide software testing for clients, and work with companies who want to become more inclusive.
Do you ever read something and get the feeling the writer has reached inside your brain, pulled together all of your incoherent thoughts and expressed them more eloquently and articulately than you would ever have done?
I love it when this happens! When my friend Laura shared this article on Facebook, I have to say I was blown away. You try reading When Kids won’t bow to your Idols and see if you don’t feel mightily challenged and entertained all at once.
Parties! Three of them, to be precise. Missy had Unicorns and Mermaids, the twins had Spiderman (very loosely adhered to, I might add), and Mister had the easiest one of all: Football! (Think: kids, muddy food, a ball and some food, and that’s pretty much it.)
Sleep! Actually, not much of it. Pray for me in October!
Books! Some progress! Still nothing to report to you, but hopefully very very soon… Suffice to say, there’s been enough progress that I’m feeling pretty excited!
Christmas Anthology! Out soon! I have a reflection in it! If you’re on my mailing list, look out for a special subscribers-only offer in your inbox very soon. And if you’re not on the list, join now! It’s fun – I promise.
I mean, I barely have time to read my own name on an envelope, so working through all the many articles contained in a broadsheet is a luxury belonging – for the moment, at least – to another existence, one where I’m not permanently covered in PVA glue.
(Also – the Internet. Free news stories at your fingertips.)
But if I did get a paper, it would be The Guardian. (Ooh, I can feel you judging me already! Intellectual middle-class elite, as Stewart Lee would say – and I, of course, would howl with laughter whenever he did because there’s no point denying it – and anyway, as an Oxbridge-educated middle-class person, surely he’s pretty safely in this demographic too?)
I had some glass to wrap, so thought I’d buy me a paper, and thought it should be The Guardian since if I found myself with any spare time I might prefer reading a few of its words over, say, The Yorkshire Herald. (Not knocking the latter – I’m sure it’s an excellent read. It’s just – you know – time.)
It was one of the front page stories, though, that sealed the deal:
“Sharp fall in number of girls who feelhappy”(The Guardian, 19.09.18)
You can read the full story here – but, to summarise, a recent study has found that only one in four girls aged 7-21 describe themselves as ‘very happy’.
I asked my daughter, barely two weeks into this age bracket, whether she felt happy. “What – now?” she replied.
“Now, yes – but more generally too. In life. Do you feel happy?”
“You’d tell me if you didn’t, right?”
“Look at my colour-change sequin armband, it’s so cool!”
It’s fair to say I don’t have a lot of ‘deep’ conversations with my daughter, whose idea of a disaster is forgetting to bring her unicorn squishy to bed.
Of course I was mildly relieved by her answer, but I’m not resting on my laurels and giving myself a parenting trophy just yet – she still has adolescence and young adulthood to come, and the wheels may yet come unstuck.
Is there anything I can do, as a mum, to prevent this?
To answer, I need to go back a few stages and ask why this story bothers me so much. Why do I care that lots of girls are unhappy?
Primarily because it feels like feminism is failing.
We are trying so hard to ensure girls are able to access what boys can in terms of opportunities, jobs and family life, and yet we’re failing to enable them to access lives which are happy, content, low in stress and enjoyable. Does this seem slightly off-balance to you?
The media thinks people like me, who choose to stay at home for their children’s preschool years, are a failure. The statistics say that I’m a bad example to my daughter, who is less likely to have a well-paid job, and more likely to make the same waywardly irresponsible decision I’ve done, if she ever has kids.
I disagree. Or maybe I agree, but I don’t think it matters. What’s the good in having a well-paid job if you’re not happy? What’s the good in a glittering career if your mental health is in a poor state?
I mean, you can do both, right? It is possible to be simultaneously successful and happy. And having a stay-at-home parent is by no means a guarantee of future happiness. But if such a high number of the 7-21 age group are describing themselves as ‘unhappy’, I’d wager that a decent proportion of the 21-35 age group are struggling too – and that means we need to rethink some of the identity information we’re feeding to our daughters.
I’d love my daughter to do well professionally – and, trust me, I’ll be her biggest cheerleader in this – but at the expense of her happiness? Not a chance. We need to hear more feminists validating girls simply for being who they are, not endlessly needing to achieve more than the generation before them.
The two major reasons girls cited for their unhappiness were exams and social media.
Let’s look at exams first. Please forgive me for the gender generalisations – I know this doesn’t apply to all girls, everywhere – but, on the whole, girls get more anxious, care more what others think, and take what others say more to heart than the boys around them.
As I said – not every girl is like this, but then we’re not talking every girl – we’re talking about 75%, so hear me out.
Teenage girls don’t need to be told how important their exams are – they’re already far too aware. Every time you mention a deadline or an exam, they take it on board and their stress goes up a notch.
Teenage boys, on the other hand, could be repeatedly told how much work they still needed to complete, and the short time frame they had in which to do it – and still they would choose video games over coursework. Every time. They’re just not that fussed – and, at this age at least, they don’t tend to have as much personal motivation as girls.
I’ll repeat my caveat: this is not all teenage boys. But, when I was teaching, this described a majority of the boys in my classes.
And there’s another aspect at play. I wonder whether girls are a little more conditioned to work hard at school, because we’ve grown up being told to believe in ourselves, yet aware of a history which has trodden us down, dismissed our views, and diminished our achievements?
Deep-down, we feel like the underlings (even though we know we’re not), and that gives us a drive – sometimes a desperation – to put our all into school exams.
Again, this isn’t true for every girl – but I think, with hindsight, that this might have been me at school.
Girls usually outperform boys in school exams – but it’s boys who end up with the higher-paid jobs in adulthood. So clearly school exam success is not an indicator of future life success. There are multiple factors, many circumstantial, that propel someone into a well-paid or high-level job.
Most girls won’t be told this, though. Our high level of personal motivation, as well as our ability to enjoy intrinsic rewards, mean that we want to do well for ourselves – not just for the glitzy job waiting for us in our 20s.
The other chief cause of girls’ increasing unhappiness is social media. As the report says, “Relationships are an essential element of contentment and it may be no coincidence that 10 years ago, girls of all ages were socialising more and comparing their lives online less”.
If you want a statistic to go with that, in 2009 69% of girls met up with their friends at each others’ homes, compared with just 21% in 2018.
It’s not rocket science, is it? If you replace real, deep, committed, do-anything-for-each-other friendships with shallow, image-based liaisons through Instagram and Facebook, who are you going to unwind with, offload onto, rant at? Pent-up feelings will just increase your anxiety and stress, and decrease your overall contentment and happiness.
So, the million dollar question – can we do anything about this?
I don’t speak as one experienced in the ways of hormonal daughters, but – never one to withhold my opinion when there’s an opportunity to inflict it upon others – here are some thoughts anyway. Please add yours in the comments.
Encourage a healthy attitude towards exams. Offer perspective. Speak of the future. Allow adult family members and friends to share their stories of school success and failure, and how their lives have turned out positively, especially if school wasn’t always a positive experience.
Encourage hobbies and interests from a young age. It’s no good trying to persuade your 15 year old to take up judo at the start of Year 11. Start young: let your girls (and boys) explore different hobbies, so that they learn how to relax without the requirement of a screen, and also so that they know where their strengths lie, if not in academia.
Have clear boundaries for phone use/screen time. You can find ‘contracts’ all over the Internet intended for parent and son/daughter to agree and sign, regarding phone use. It’s pretty much impossible to control everything your child sees or hears online, but you can at least help them to set healthy boundaries in terms of usage so that they don’t get burned.
Make it easy for your daughter to socialise. Build friendships from birth. Teach the importance of loyalty and kindness, and how we repair friendships after disagreements (particularly important for girls). Have an open home to her friends – let her know she is always welcome to invite them round for actual, meaningful interactions.
Don’t spend so much time instilling your own dreams in your daughter that you squash her ability to develop at her own pace. We need to stop pushing our daughters towards greatness, and start spotting where they shine, where they’re happiest, and encourage them in that. We can do this from birth, and it pays dividends in the long term.
Encourage healthy body image. Let her see your own flawed body. (Sorry, no offence. But it is. And so is mine.) Talk about ‘staying healthy’ rather than ‘losing weight’. Shield her from your own obsession with image, if this is a problem area for you (or talk together about battling it).
Do things as a family. If family habits are forged early on, such as eating together, taking Saturday day trips, or playing board games, this gives your daughter a solid base from which to explore the world. Our ability to relate to others come first from our relationship with our parents, so invest your time wisely. It’s not the occasional ‘deep chats’ which build a parent-child relationship, it’s the regular hanging-out, the silly and the absurd, the laughter and the not-doing-much.
Don’t blame yourself. Exams and social media might be the biggest two factors in unhappy girls – but they’re not the only ones. And you can’t protect your daughter from everything. Neurology, friendships, school environment and many other factors can play a part in a child’s mental well-being. If your daughter is struggling, don’t beat yourself up about it – but do try and get as much professional help as you can. Brushing issues under the carpet is no place to start.
Over to you – is there anything we can do to change this ‘unhappy’ generation?
I was so delighted recently to discover this lovely book for young-ish children.
Granted, I don’t have a lot of time to research Christian books for kids, but the ones we have do vary in quality. (Actually, it’s probably less variable than it once was, as I’ve chucked the awful ones!)
Sometimes it feels like our children have all these beautiful books, with lovely illustrations and poetic language – and then the Christian books which sit on their shelves are some kind of second-best, low-budget option.
While I know full well that Christian publishers do have smaller budgets, and a smaller audience, I do think that there are ways of getting round these obstacles to produce beautiful books – and Scripture Union has certainly achieved this with ‘A Really Incredible Feast’.
When I first opened the envelope, I was impressed by the book’s size, look and feel. It’s hardback – always a great start, as it just feels so weighty and lovely! – and the illustrations are bold and striking. Fabulous!
It’s also incredible value for money, retailing at just 4.99 for a hardback book with six long-ish Jesus stories included. This makes it affordable and accessible for many – and SU should be applauded, again, for creating such a low price point.
Johanna Baldwin’s poems are really lovely, and make for an engaging story. There are six stories from the life of Jesus, including calming the storm, feeding the 5,000, and healing a blind man. I love the way she brings these all to life with fun language, without resorting to ‘extra’ details or digressions which aren’t in the original Bible story.
Bible references are given for each story, in case you want to look it up and read it to your child, but actually Baldwin’s poems don’t really leave out much. Still, it’s worth noting as it can be good to help your child make the connection between a picture book and the Bible.
The blurb states that this book is suitable for 5s-8s. I read it to my brood of 8-6-3-3, and, unsurprisingly, it was my 6 year old who took to it the most.
My *slight* quibble is that there are rather a lot of verses on each page – which makes for great value for money, of course, but wouldn’t perhaps engage a pre-schooler who needed more scene changes for that amount of words. I guess that’s why the age range doesn’t include under 5s.
However, the illustrations – I felt – were more geared to younger children. As such, Mister (8) didn’t engage so much in the book. He listened, and he didn’t dislike it at all, but as he’s at the stage of reading smaller ‘novel’ sized books, with more text and fewer pictures, I can’t see a situation where I would sit down and read this solely to him.
If you know a 5/6 year old, or mature 4 year old, this book would be excellent for them. The hardback cover, great illustrations and fun rhyming language make it a brilliant (and inexpensive gift) for a birthday, Christmas, or baptism/dedication.
And – of course – I’m not ending the review on that note… The author, Johanna Baldwin, has kindly offered a FREE copy to a Desertmum reader!
To enter, simply join my mailing list here – or, if you have already done that, simply leave a comment on this post. That’s it! Simples.
I’ll pick a winner (using my trusty random number generator) this Sunday, 23rd September, at 9pm BST. I’m happy to post internationally, so if you’re not based in the UK, don’t let that stop you!