Let Them Eat Baked Beans – is there something in the UNICEF report for us all?

After several years of dealing with our childrens’ challenging behaviour (as it is somewhat euphemistically referred to) we were lucky enough to get help from a brilliant social worker specialising in fostered and adopted children.  If I could boil his message down into one easily digestible mouthful it was this: spend every moment you can with your children, it will help them to feel secure and will lessen their opportunities to fail at things.  He did not recommend that we kit up with Apple products, a flat screen television and an x-box kinect.

Ground down and brain turned half to jelly, this didn’t sound too appealing at first.  And I thought I was already spending lots of time with them.  He persisted.    ‘Forget about what the house looks like, forget about making wonderful meals, eat Heinz beans every night if it means you can be with them and do whatever they want to do.’  That part was music to my ears.  I bought baked beans, plus eggs and some grated cheese (I still have my standards) and therein began a big transformation in our family.  We watched hours of Almost Naked Animals, Barbie Swan Lake and Deadly 60 together.  Then after our beans on toast, we watched The Simpsons, or rather the children watched me laughing at The Simpson’s (why’s that funny mum?/well that man there is Richard Nixon… never mind’).  It wasn’t all television.  We made things, like paper money and toilet roll people, we cooked, we had a sports day in the garden.  Hardly the stuff of a mumsnet blog, but it made the most remarkable difference to both of our children.  They became calmer, less confrontational, we talked about things, we had fun.  They came to understand when I was tired and needed to doze through ‘Tracy Beaker’ and sometimes they happily took themselves off to play in their bedrooms.  Whenever things get difficult now I restock the tin cupboard, ignore the mess and get down with the kids.

In 2007, a UNICEF report found that children in the UK are the unhappiest in all of the industrialised world.  Yesterday they issued a report which tries to explain why this might be.  Their conclusion?  We try to compensate for spending inadequate time with our children by showering them with material goods.  And guess what?  It doesn’t work.  And this applies to families of all social classes and all races.  Maybe there is a lesson in there for all of us.


Doing it for the Kids – why school can be particularly difficult for some children

In my first year at secondary school, during a maths lesson, I wet myself.  The teacher barked an order at me, I didn’t understand her and was too scared to ask for clarification.  When inevitably I carried out her order incorrectly, the forces of hell were unleashed upon me.  She screeched and screamed and spittle was propelled from her anger on to my face.  I had never felt such fear before, nor such humiliation.

Now I am all grown up I can see that she was a milicious child-hater who should not have been working anywhere near children.  Back then we used what little power we had by calling her Davros behind her back and whispering ‘resistance is futile’ whenever she came near.  Davros for those not familiar with Doctor Who of the 1970s was the emperor dalek.  He had a dalek bottom half with a grotesque human head, arms and torso perched on the top.  The maths teacher was a close match both in looks and temperament.

It was my son Jamie’s first day at secondary school yesterday.  Many aspects of his transition into the next stage of education have been managed well and I wish that my secondary school had been half as good as his appears to be.  But Jamie has found school very difficult, so when he came home yesterday smiling and reporting on a good day, I was relieved.  At bedtime though, traditionally the confessional time in our house, he said he had felt humiliated by the maths teacher. For a child who has struggled with education I was immediately impressed at the use of such a long word and then saw the tears in his eyes.  Children with early trauma can see humiliation and put down where none was intended and Jamie is no exception.  But a public mocking can also inflict a painful wound on a child with deep insecurities.  So not knowing the whole truth of the matter and aware that secondary schools expect some distance from pesty mothers, I will bide my time and see how things go.  I decided instead to recount my Davros story to him and he listened wide-eyed.  At breakfast this morning he told his sister that mummy wet herself at school and they both choked with laughter.  Jamie went to school looking happy. There’s no maths today.

The Riots – in response to Tony Blair’s Observer article

Every newspaper, every current affairs television programme has been bursting with social comment on the recent riots.  Anyone with an agenda, whether that be anti-cuts or anti-single mothers, wants to hang their thesis neatly on the peg marked ‘Riots – the Cause’ and to show us all that they were right all along and if only we’d listened earlier, none of this would have happened.  But sometimes if a theory doesn’t feel right, then it is worth thinking about further.  And it just doesn’t feel right that young people were burning down homes and businesses because of the forthcoming withdrawal of the Educational Maintainance Allowance.  And it feels crass, lazy and cruel to blame a group who already have the rough end of things; single mothers (who exist only by virtue of absent fathers).

Tony Blair’s article in the Observer on 21 August was a refreshing take on it all.  There was a lack of sweeping statements, political games and axe grinding.  He put aside for a moment those who were carried along in a ‘life-changing mistake’ which left him able to shine a light on those for whom this behaviour fits into a more general pattern, those who ‘are from families that are profoundly dysfuntional, operating on completely different terms from the rest of society’. Those of us who have adopted or fostered from within the UK are likely to have taken on children from these ‘profoundly dysfunctional’ families and will have more idea than most what that means.  

For a child unlucky enough to be born into a profoundly dysfunctional family it will find little nurture when it is at it’s most vulnerable and during the most important period of it’s brain development.  As other babies develop safely with the experience that carers are constantly available to provide food, comfort and soothing words, these children learn early on that no one else is to be trusted to take care of their needs. They will frequently experience hunger, fear and loneliness and some will be physically and mentally abused.  Their primary lessons are firstly that no one else can be relied upon so they must take control of their own needs and secondly that they are worthless and to blame for their misfortune.  These lessons become hard-wired into their brains and I can promise you, are extremely difficult to unstick. They grow up fighting to retain control and they see and hear in the world around them only those things which match with their appalling view of themselves.  They feel doomed to failure and will try hard to live down to this pre-conception.  They also miss out on one important lesson that the more fortunate amongst us learn early on from our loving carers; empathy.  Now picture those strutting, smirking young people, breaking into shops, destroying livelihoods, emerging from the youth courts full of bravado, smiling and laughing.  Maybe some of them are living out the life that was laid out for them in their first few months of life as they sat in dirty nappies, having given up crying for food and comfort: you will never be the boss of me because nothing you can do will make me feel worse about myself than I do already. 

We watch the film footage of the rioters and looters with anger surging up inside us, we want to form a quick opinion, it feels better, temporarily, to blame, to label, the word ‘scum’ trips off the tongue.  But we must reach for the better part of ourselves, make the effort to really, deeply understand and to see that at least some of these young people are the damaged products of these ‘profoundly dysfunctional’ families.

As the adoptive parent of two children who were born into such circumstances, but who were removed at a young age, I am able to provide a small insight into the damage that can be done to small children below the age of two.  It is profound, long-lasting, destructive and almost over-whelming, for our family of four.  We live with the fallout of their terrible early experiences day in and day out.  And yet society at large shows little understanding and provides almost no support.  So I applaud Tony Blair because he has hit the nail on the head and he understands broadly what the approach should be, ‘to intervene literally family by family and at an early stage’.  But when the state does intervene, it must do so properly and for the long term.  It must educate us all on the reasons why it is intervening and the benefits to society of doing so.  And it must not forget those of us who are trying to raise these children for it is a difficult and often lonely job.

Read Tony Blair’s article at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/20/tony-blair-riots-crime-family/print