Hard Work vs Raw Talent

Why instilling admiration for hard work rather than raw talent is the key to fostering a well-adjusted mind.

Despite ample evidence and countless testaments to the opposite, there persists a toxic cultural mythology that creative and intellectual excellence comes from a passive gift bestowed upon the fortunate few by the gods of genius, rather than being the product of the active application and consistent cultivation of skill. So what might the root of that stubborn fallacy be? Childhood and upbringing, it turns out, might have a lot to do.

In The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves (public library), psychoanalyst and University College London professor Stephen Grosz builds on more than 50,000 hours of conversation from his quarter-century experience as a practicing psychoanalyst to explore the machinery of our inner life, with insights that are invariably profound and often provocative — for instance, a section titled “How praise can cause a loss of confidence,” in which Grosz writes:

Nowadays, we lavish praise on our children. Praise, self-confidence and academic performance, it is commonly believed, rise and fall together. But current research suggests otherwise — over the past decade, a number of studies on self-esteem have come to the conclusion that praising a child as ‘clever’ may not help her at school. In fact, it might cause her to under-perform. Often a child will react to praise by quitting — why make a new drawing if you have already made ‘the best’? Or a child may simply repeat the same work — why draw something new, or in a new way, if the old way always gets applause?

Grosz cites psychologists Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller’s famous 1998 study, which divided 128 children ages 10 and 11 into two groups. All were asked to solve mathematical problems, but one group were praised for their intellect (“You did really well, you’re so clever.”) while the other for their effort (“You did really well, you must have tried really hard.”) The kids were then given more complex problems, which those previously praised for their hard work approached with dramatically greater resilience and willingness to try different approaches whenever they reached a dead end. By contrast, those who had been praised for their cleverness were much more anxious about failure, stuck with tasks they had already mastered, and dwindled in tenacity in the face of new problems. Grosz summarizes the now-legendary findings:

Ultimately, the thrill created by being told ‘You’re so clever’ gave way to an increase in anxiety and a drop in self-esteem, motivation and performance. When asked by the researchers to write to children in another school, recounting their experience, some of the ‘clever’ children lied, inflating their scores. In short, all it took to knock these youngsters’ confidence, to make them so unhappy that they lied, was one sentence of praise.

He goes on to admonish against today’s culture of excessive parental praise, which he argues does more for lifting the self-esteem of the parents than for cultivating a healthy one in their children:

Admiring our children may temporarily lift our self-esteem by signaling to those around us what fantastic parents we are and what terrific kids we have — but it isn’t doing much for a child’s sense of self. In trying so hard to be different from our parents, we’re actually doing much the same thing — doling out empty praise the way an earlier generation doled out thoughtless criticism. If we do it to avoid thinking about our child and her world, and about what our child feels, then praise, just like criticism, is ultimately expressing our indifference.

To explore what the healthier substitute for praise might be, he recounts observing an eighty-year-old remedial reading teacher named Charlotte Stiglitz, the mother of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who told Grosz of her teaching methodology:

I don’t praise a small child for doing what they ought to be able to do,’ she told me. ‘I praise them when they do something really difficult — like sharing a toy or showing patience. I also think it is important to say “thank you”. When I’m slow in getting a snack for a child, or slow to help them and they have been patient, I thank them. But I wouldn’t praise a child who is playing or reading.

Rather than utilizing the familiar mechanisms of reward and punishment, Grosz observed, Charlotte’s method relied on keen attentiveness to “what a child did and how that child did it.” He recounts:

I once watched Charlotte with a four-year-old boy, who was drawing. When he stopped and looked up at her — perhaps expecting praise — she smiled and said, ‘There is a lot of blue in your picture.’ He replied, ‘It’s the pond near my grandmother’s house — there is a bridge.’ He picked up a brown crayon, and said, ‘I’ll show you.’ Unhurried, she talked to the child, but more importantly she observed, she listened. She was present.

Presence, he argues, helps build the child’s confidence by way of indicating he is worthy of the observer’s thoughts and attention — its absence, on the other hand, divorces in the child the journey from the destination by instilling a sense that the activity itself is worthless unless it’s a means to obtaining praise. Grosz reminds us how this plays out for all of us, and why it matters throughout life:

Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself, is always hard work. But isn’t this attentiveness — the feeling that someone is trying to think about us — something we want more than praise?


Occupational Therapy (OT): Why Do So Many Children need it?

This article is borrowed from www.babble.com, with local input and images from SingleDadDays.

A harsh reality I have come to learn about separate parenting is that one parent can’t parent for the other. It can be a bitter pill, especially when you see parenting behaviour directly contrary to what you believe are healthy values. I’m not talking physical abuse.

In fact as long as the child is not being physically abused, a parent can pretty much do what he or she wishes, irrespective of whether or not it’s good for the child. It’s easy for a 7 /8 /9 year-old child (especially a boy) to end up at occupational therapy if they aren’t given play-dates with mates, climbing, running and roughhousing – those activities that help develop their muscle tone. Climbing trees and messing around with other boys only every two weeks, for two days, for example, is insufficient, and will probably result in that unnecessary visit to the OT therapist. As parents, we have to be aware of a child’s developing needs, as the years from 0-12 are critical to their development. The below article is a instructive at many levels.

“When Dina Petringa’s son, Winston, was born, he was “definitely on the ‘floppy’ side,” she says. At ten months he was diagnosed with “hypotonia” – low muscle tone – which can present various developmental challenges. Through California’s early intervention program, at 18 months Winston began to receive occupational therapy (OT), a type of hands-on intervention designed to help children (and adults) perform the tasks that make up daily life, from writing to concentrating to motor skills to following classroom rules.



While Petringa, who lives in Los Angeles, is positive that Winston benefited from OT, she says her intuition tells her that Winston was just “a bit of a forest creature – a quiet boy with developmental delays” that he might eventually have “evolved” out of on his own schedule. But in navigating the system, she did encounter parents with children who, in a different generation, would just have been called “late bloomers,” she says, “and who now want OT to get extra help.” To be sure, the increased availability of OT has allowed us to identify and treat issues that might have left certain not-quite-special-needs kids floundering back when today’s parents of young kids were in school. But when we were in school we also weren’t expected to know how to add 3 + 1 by the time we were four. Is it today’s intense, achievement-oriented school culture or what some have called “the learning-disability industrial complex” – and not the eccentric, poky, or “different” kids – that needs an intervention?


What no one denies is that there has been a boom in OT in the past 20 years, as students with disabilities from mild to severe have received special education services, including occupational therapy, through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975. Data from the Department of Education shows that between 1991 and 2001, the number of five-year-olds receiving special services under IDEA increased 31 percent; the number of four-year-olds increased 76 percent; three-year-olds by 94 percent. The numbers have continued to rise. But the prevalence of occupational therapy today is also measured more anecdotally: in the not-uncommon waits of several months for services, or even preliminary evaluations, both in schools and in private practices.

“OT is definitely on the rise,” says Shannon Roberson, founder of the Total Poss-Abilities pediatric occupational therapy clinic in Oklahoma City, who was inspired to go into OT when her first son, now 10, was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. Although Roberson ascribes much, though not all, of the intense demand she sees for OT to increased incidence (or at least awareness) of autism – according to the CDC’s 2009 figures, 1 in 110 8-year-olds had an autism spectrum disorder in 2006, up 57 percent since 2002 – OT is also commonly used to treat manifestations of ADHD, ADD and, more and more, sensory processing disorder (SPD). With SPD, the brain has trouble handling information from the senses, resulting, for example, in unmanageable aversion to certain smells, sounds, fabrics – even to sitting still. Where in the past the consequent restlessness, overstimulation, or total freakout might have been considered bad behavior, now kids with these issues may be evaluated for OT.img_5502 ABUSE OF OCCUPAITONAL THERAPY: PRESSURE & SUCKERED PARENTS?

No one’s really questioning whether OT is legitimate or effective, for isolated delays or full-blown disorders. One thing that has come into question, though, is OT’s alleged misuse by uber-parents – as portrayed in a recent New York Times article, for example – whose kids, they fear, will flunk their interview at a fancy preschool if (God forbid!) at age three they still hold a crayon with their fist. “There was this pressure: if your kid is not making X milestone by X age, you need to ‘get evaluated!’” says Tawnya Gibson, now of Salt Lake City, of her experience while living in San Diego. (Her late-to-talk son, after OT in California, has now caught up with his peers.) “When you’re a first-time mom, it can really freak you out. I was even like, ‘What if his limitations are my fault? If I hadn’t scrubbed that tub that one time and inhaled fumes!’”

Still, the implication that OT is just a trendy tool of the Ivy-bound rankles experts and parents alike. “Parents do not want their kids ID’d as needing any kind of therapy,” says Paula McCreedy, a founding partner of New York City’s Special Programs in Occupational Therapy Services (SPOTS). “Parents want their children to be happy, to have fun, to play.” img_5047One Manhattan mother, whose 5-year-old daughter was recommended for OT (for an apparent brain-body disconnection that caused general “klutziness” and reading and writing delays) by her public school teacher, did not rush to get an evaluation until her daughter started to show signs of distress (“I’ll never learn to read and write!”) “In our school, at least, this is not some privileged white person trendy diagnosis,” says the girl’s mother. “This is not the fibromyalgia of the elementary school set.”


What some experts cite as a more pressing concern than fussy parents or fancy schools is the academic rigor of your average kindergarten. “There’s so much pressure to move them through the curriculum,” says McCreedy, speaking of today’s educational culture in general. “There is a developmentally appropriate rate and time for all these tasks. School is supposed to socialize our children to participate in society. But when we start pushing them too quickly we don’t realize that there are other foundational skills that are as important.” With school standards intensifying and school budgets shrinking, children are expected to accomplish much more, much sooner and often with less recess. If, for example, you need to know all your letters and numbers by kindergarten, you’re going to need to sit still at some point to learn them. If so many kids have trouble with that, do we need to evaluate them – or the ramped-up expectations?

“I’ve been in kindergartens where the kids are expected to sit in circle time for 30, 40 minutes – that is too long,” says Shannon Roberson, the Oklahoma City OT. “Then they’re cutting out recess and PE time which kids need in order to be able to go back and focus in class, whether they have sensory and attention issues or not.”


Likewise, when it comes to the 3 Rs, it seems they’re teaching too much of the 1st and 3rd, not enough of the 2nd. By many reports – and as kids spend more of their time typing or texting than writing – lessons in “penmanship” are rare. And when it comes to kids on the less dexterous end of the spectrum, more handwriting instruction could go a long way, experts say. (Kids these days are more likely to eat with their hands than with forks – hello, chicken nuggets and fries – which can also delay manual dexterity.)img_5117Larger economic and societal issues, such as affordable childcare and family-unfriendly workplaces, mean many children are in school too long to begin with, points out one occupational therapist in Brooklyn, NY who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Some kids are in school from 8 to 6, if you count the after-school program,” she said. “How frazzled are you at the end of a workday that long?”

This is not to say OT isn’t a godsend for those who need it or that all problems warranting OT would magically disappear if we brought recess and penmanship back and let kids read and add at their own pace. OT, McCreedy argues, should be part of a “wellness” as opposed to “deficit” model in which all children are given the best possible opportunity to function and participate in their world. But perhaps the explosion of OT is, in part, a symptom of an educational system that, in its focus on helping kids perform, may sometimes fail to help them flourish, quirks and all. There’s no more, “Eh, he’s a late bloomer,” says the Brooklyn OT. “That’s great for business, but it’s a little ridiculous.”


Encouraging Interests – When to do it ?

_dsc4022Do you worry if your daughter plays with a tractor, or one of your son’s clone-troopers or cowboys ? Exactly. It doesn’t matter what your boy likes. I write this because of a Facebook post about boys playing with dolls, and if parents should be worried.
Everything he shows interest in adds to his development, is another brick in the eventual house that he will become. They see moms with children, maybe their siblings, or being pushed by the woman in the greed dress in a pram in the park; it’s a part of life they may be curious about.
It’s our function as parents to encourage and guide when it comes to our children’s interests; obviously we steer them away from the stuff that does harm to the develping mind of a young child who is not yet emotionally capable of processing complex thoughts and actions, like shooting, sex and violence. When our son was two he developed an obsession – not a passion – with aircraft. A few years later Lego star wars took hold. He still loves them both.
With the planes, I made the conscious effort to see if he still loved planes, driving a few hours out of town to an aerobatics airshow at a small, rural airfield. He couldnt get enough.
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Since he’s been small, he’s loved his planes. So you don’t have to wait until he’s seven, you can encourage from day one.

Which brings me to the age when interests start, and when they should be taken ‘seriously’.  Those professionals who study children and their physcial development tell us that it is around age seven that big mental leaps occur; whether reading, hobbies, activities or simply curiosity, like how long it it will take for jelly to set in the freezer (which is what happened occasionally when I forgot it the night before my girl came for her visit), and “imagine if that road just kept going uner the sea all the way to America, wouldn’t that be cool….can it go to America, Dad ?”.
 My son has this past year been showning an intense interest in soccer. It pretty obviously stems from him seeing me watch the odd game, maybe getting excited (we’re big Liverpool FC fans), but also his interest in kicking the ball around, with me or his half-brother mastering some basic skills and being part of a team.

 He also enjoyed rugby, but as it required the permission of the other parent on her Saturday mornings, that didn’t happen. So wIth the involvment of a facilitator he ended up being allowed to play the game he loves, for the first time. We joined a club here in the Cape Town city bowl and he’s thus far loved every minute. It’s the same with reading, whether Dahl, blyton or activity books; until his mother took the kids when he was 4 yrs old, I read to him every single night. We still do on our nights together.
No matter how tired you are, try to encourage every interest they show. The stuff they’re serious about will rise to the top, and you will have set an important foundation for their future.
As for playing with dolls, one day there’s a good chance they will be Dads too.
* even tho’ it is engineered that my children’s time with me is restricted, with their mother insisting that I have a supervisor (nanny) present when I see my daughter, she created them with me, for which I will eternally be grateful and acknowledge her.


Parental Alienation

So I had to check with her creche ‘teacher’ to find out how my little girl (4) is. She’s well apparently, and told the creche teacher that she wants me to take her to our local park. I’ve seen her once in the past month at time of writing; our contact is entirely at her mother’s whim. The ‘facilitator’ – he who is appointed to negotiate communications in difficult relationships – has not acted within the powers of the brief given to him by the court. But as the first psychologist noted, my ex ‘presents well’. The fact that she is attractive, with acting skills, won’t harm her cause.
This is where my heart goes out to those fathers deprived of seeing their children; women acting with no regard for the consequences of such deprivation. Just because they can, because they have ‘the power’. Ditto the case for women similarly deprived. This surely questions love for one’s children? 
In some countries, the infliction of such deprivation on children is called parental alienation. The sad truth is that the Family courts here in South Africa don’t seem to have the resources to deal with anything beyond the obvious – like alcoholic fathers and abusers. The bar for fathers is set so very low. I couldn’t sleep, and often still struggle, thinking about blatant fabrications manufactures and even perpetuated by men in ties and women in power-suits. That some parents get away with what they do, always ‘in the interests of the children’, is deeply sad.
That’s how I lost my main work when this saga started three years ago;. I couldn’t get my head around the fact that this woman I loved, who, along with her father had said what a good parent I was, suddenly claimed I could not parent because I had been in an accident, resulting in a coma, in 1992, 15 years before I met her. And even then, she chose to have a second child with me three years after the first. That’s how ‘bad’ I was as a father.
The psychologist we were sent to by a mediator ruled I was a good father, and that we should share parenting 50-50. So the mother found and hired her own psychologist over the next 18 months, and changed her story – preventing the children from accessing the love that their Dad had to give. 
I’ve already seen my children;s mother before a small claims court commissioner, who said ‘madam, you stretch the levels of credulity’, while she stood in the dock and fumbled through answers she couldn’t possibly have.  But I apparently can’t even use that, according to ‘the law’, so I’ve had to abandon my need to get the children’s mother before a judge, to answer the most basic of questions, just to avoid spending my remaining savings and ending up on the streets.
I nevertheless still try through public resources, because my children will one day need to know how hard their Dad fought to be present for them, so my girl doesn’t later have to grapple with rejection issues regarding her Dad, wondering why he took only her brother to sleep at their house, and only took him on holiday.
So they both know much their Dad appreciated the joy they brought in into the world. That they were so very worth it, and that irrespective of the hurt she caused and damage she did to my career, that I wouldn’t have had them without meeting their mom. 
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Road-Tripping South Africa with My Boy (7) Part 2: Hog Hollow (The Crags) & Monkeyland

The Crags (Monkeyland) to East London

Day 2: Waking-up at Hog Hollow is always a good reason not to leave. An early riser, unfortunately or not, I often set my internal alarm by the first bird-calls of the morning, which in winter sneak through the walls well before the first rays light the leaves.  The sky opens in tandem with eyes that have been getting used to the darkness – the bedlight lamp on the headboard is way too effective, a relative floodlight that would wake my road-tripping partner, the little man who doubles as my son. The ceiling-to-floor window reveals the grey-blue outline of the Outeniqua range, the same that first captured me when I visited here over ten years ago; it’s a good way to start a day, in that happy-to-be-alive sense. ‘Ben’ stirs, has  the shower he escaped the night before, we pack and head for breakfast. “Y ou sure you don’t want to stay around here?”, I ask over a muffin while he makes friends with Matty-the-cat. “It’s a long drive”.

'Ben' loves cats. This is Matty, the Hog Hollow resident mouser, who was keen on company over breakfast. So Ben snapped a pic.

‘Ben’ loves cats. This is Matty, the Hog Hollow resident mouser, who was keen on company over breakfast. So Ben snapped a pic of us.

‘Uhuh’, comes the answer, before he takes a phone-shot of Matty joning me on my lap. Then  it’s “shhh, listen !” A drawn out ‘whooooop, whooooooooooop’ is coming from the other side of the forested ravine: Monkeyland. He wants to drive.

It should be five hours from the Crags to East London; our start is slow, with our first stop a little less than a mind-boggling five minutes after departing #Hog Hollow. #Monkeyland is a magnificent free-ranging forest home for abused and damaged monkeys, a few vervets among mostly aliens, like capuchins, gibbons, howler monkeys and lemurs, including what is apparently the highest population of ring-tailed ‘King Julian’ lemurs outside Madagascar.

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Run by the irrepressible Lara Mostert and funded by her husband Tony Blignaut, Monkeyland is large, 20 hectares of free-roaming bliss for simeans and lemurs. The guide for our group of five is the well-practised, Congolese Andy. ‘Ben”s own monkey narrative is not a positive one; he’s been told that monkeys aren’t nice, as his 19 yr-old half-brother was given a nip when he was a youngster. A little exposure is needed to allow him to create his own story, and Andy does a good job with a brief education – Ben even walks past a very funny gibbon on the suspension bridge, and a couple vervets lounging around, one of whom tries nsuccessfully to snatch his binoculars.  And then it’s on to Birds of Eden, a similar themed home to once-captive birds, from Macaws to parakeets, now in a quite speactacular, free-ranging space. Like the monkeys, unknowingly secure that they won’t ever be sold on again.


Above: My boy’, reassured by guide Birds of Eden guide Meshack, is nevertheless wary of the macaw’s beak, which as he explains to anyone who will listen, isn’t too different to that of a squid.







Road-Tripping South Africa with My Boy (7) Part 1: Cape Town to Hog Hollow (The Crags)

My share of the holidays with my 7 year-old Benjamin* was approaching, and with telephone communications with him where he lives (mostly) at his mother’s house difficult, I couldn’t really  prepare. We don’t really have the spare cash to fly anywhere, but the thought of a 13-hour drive to a best friend and his family – which includes a 9 year-old daughter – is equally daunting.

That was my thinking before we started. The trip has been over now for just over a week as I write, and it was a brilliant bonding experience. Here’s a visual precis of how it went.

Day 1. We left a day late because Benjamin’s mother had not released him on his due day for holiday with me. This is not extraneous to the topic, this is what single parenting can be like if you’re unlucky. So I had to readjust my thinking. A first night in Montagu, about two and a half hours from our Cape Town home, followed by a drive down the R62 – a South African roadtrip classic – had been the plan.

My boy with my friends’ nine year-old girl on th ebeach in East London. He developed his first crush, I was so proud of him.

This wouldve included the Cango Caves and ostriches of Oudtshoorn, and taken in the Outeniqua Pass to George, Knysna and our 2nd night in the Crags, outside Plett on the southern Cape coast. But him not being releases on the day we were meant to start called for adaptation. So we headed straight for the Crags at about 08h30, and at about 3.30 that afternoon – with food-stops and points of interest not only included, but actively encouraged (otherwise it wouldn’t be a road trip) – and pulled in to our sumptuous, very child-friendly accommodation at Hog Hollow.

The scooter in the boot is useful for a child that needs to stretch. Tiny Victoria Bay, just off the N2, outside George en route to Knysna from Cape Town. Surf spot, beach and a rare boardwalk.


We settled in with some Lego games and popcorn (already in the room) for the afternoon, before going out for a walk in the brisk and qiet country freshness.  Then went through for the sort of meal that you’d expect of a four-star establishment. The owners are good people, and run a fine establishment that was Fair Trade long before the brand was established out here. And children are so very welcome in this part of the world. The next morning would see us at the quite brilliant #Monkeyland and #Birds of Eden across the ravine, before conitnuing on our journey.

Moneyland is a brilliant facility, built and owned by a caring couple, best place to see lemurs, capuchins etc in their natural habitat.

*Benjamin, a pseudonym










The Benefit of Drawing for Young Children

One of the parenting lessons I have received is the importance of drawing and painting for young children – they are amongst the most important basic skills they will learn. It’s not just the visual exploration and adventure that aids their inquisitive, sponge-like minds, but something many first-time parents will encounter for the first time – fine motor skills.

IMG_4909The ablity to hold and master that crayon or pencil is key in mastering the fine skills of writing and drawing. So much so that it can hold back their classroom progress; the slower their writing, the longer they take to complete tasks and assignments. Not to mention that being the last to finish is never fun.


Whether boys or girls, it’s exercise that will help children develop the core muscles that enable them to accomplish these skills. Monkey bars – similar to the play going on below right, is a brilliant activity from as soon as you’re able. I used to hold my boy’s legs from about two years while he held the bars. He was a regular gibbon on the bars by the time he was five.

However it’s not something you can give up – if in a situation where they are not exposed to regular exercise that works their core and their finger and hand strength, it will be quickly lost. As they grow older, sports like rugby, cricket and baseball can help greatly. Make the effort, however tired you feel, it’s so very worth it, speaking to their development and self-esteem, while keeping them away from the TV and various devices we have attached to ourselves.

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Question Time – Yeeha !

Question Time: 4-year-olds

I relate entirely to this, as will all other parents who’ve been through, or are experiencing this phase. My boy is as curious as they come, and during this phase would fit in maybe ten ‘why’s per simple request. He’s still asking, which I believe is a good thing for his future, although thankfully thinking more before asking ‘the next one’. One moment he wants to be a scientist, the next a journalist, a pilot and (thankfully!) a marine biologist.

Encouraging curiosity can only be a good thing; while you sometimes may feel like banging your head against the steering wheel, take a deep breath and be damn thankful that your child isn’t sitting there mute and disinterested in all around him. Don’t brush off those questions, however frustrating they get, after all it’s part of your job as a parent and you did sign up for this. But as there’s no point in re-inventing the wheel,  I’ve borrowed the below snippet from a website that I find very accurate in terms of developmental milestones (link below).

“Conversations can sometimes feel like interrogations with curious, chatty 4-year-olds. A particular favorite now is the “wh” words: Where are we going, Mom? When will we get there? Who are we going to see? Why isn’t Dad coming with us?

As part of her new mental abilities, she’s getting all the connections put together. She wants to see the order of things. Another reason for the nonstop questions is that your child’s vocabulary is exploding, and she wants to practice using words to probe her world. Intellectually, she’s beginning to understand that there are reasons for things — and she wants to know what they are.

Try not to brush off questions, relentless though they may be. Keep your answers short and sweet. She doesn’t really want a long-winded scientific explanation of why the sky is blue. When you get tired of answering, ask questions back instead: “What do you think?” If you notice a persistent theme to questions that show your child is really curious about something — say, clouds — visit the library together and check out a few books that fuel the interest. Who knows where her questions may take you? At the very least, you’ll learn how to tell a cirrus from a cumulus.

‘Why is this a tomato, Auntie Alex?’ (!)


Your life now

Perseverance is an important trait to model for your child. Studies show that people who are persistent — rather than those who have high IQs — tend to achieve greater success in life. Let your child see you going the extra mile, whether it’s fixing something around the house or sticking with the same project such as a big book or a painting night after night.


Single Parenting Holidays: Joburg for Christmas again ?


So Christmas has passed and December’s approaching yet again. A little quicker than last year, which was already a little quicker than the 12 months before and so-on and so-on.

That’s what I was thinking last year in about August. Such is the calendar of a single parent battling to see his children; I was thinking this would leave me four months in which to arrange what has become the annual Cape Town–Johannesburg flight to see ageing grandparents and maintain connections with cousin, aunt and friends.

Without being morbid, the thing with the sharp end of ageing is that you don’t know which trip to see the children’s gran or grandad will be their last, so going elsewhere, like a holiday destination, doesn’t happen. Just in case. Like my Dad. He hardly got to know his grandchildren before he moved on. My son has meanwhile learnt about ageing from these visits, and is far braver than I remember being about ‘old people’ at that age.

IMG_4473Drawing with Gran.

There hadn’t been timeous agreement regarding the previous three Christmas holiday suggestions with the my boy’s mother, and again I had no option but to book flights the week before the big day; which for me and my 6 year-old pretty much cost half the price of a ticket to London.

Which, heading off on a tangent, leads me to think how our holiday expectations evolve . If not my son’s friends’ going to the proverbial family holiday house at Kenton-on-Sea or ‘Plett’, favoured holiday spots here in South Africa, my now-global school friends are taking their kids to Europe and the US for skiing holidays.

Cousin T has joined uncle pat as a firm favourite for Fynn. Sassy joined in.  IMG_1057    IMG_1213_2

In comparison, spending my share of the annual big Christmas vacation with my boy and our family down the road from Westpark cemetary in Johannesburg was ok. That’s another  reality of the single-parenting world; if you’re close to your family and not necessarily flush, horizons often don’t extend much beyond remaining families.

We enjoy the relative peace. Well I do, my boy obviously lives for the moment, and if he’s surrounded by love and his holiday animals – with a swimming pool as a bonus – he’s happy.

He loves being with his aunt and cousin. So does his four year-old sister, but unfortunately she only gets to see them on one day a year (for reasons that won’t be addressed here).

I appreciate the quiet of Jo’burg, driving avenues lined with the trees of my childhood (the Joburg-Pretoria conurbation represents the world’s largest urban ‘forest’). It reminds me too, earlier comments or morbidity aside, that the children spending quality time with their fast-ageing and generally immobile granny is also pretty key, to nurture their sense of paternal family.


And anyway, peak-season airports are hell.



Being Dad

I’m a separated Dad. Once a story belonging to others in newspapers and on TV, it is now my own tale too. I’m not particularly interesting, but as millions of single mothers and fathers around the world will relate to the experience, they may appreciate the telling of the tale as it happens.

Nothing has ever felt more important than this. Not the armed and red-eyed Somali shifta I once came across in a dusty village called Jalalaxi, nor the rabid militia pursuing the queues of bundle-toting Tutsi refugees leaving Rwanda as we drove in over the border in 94. Not even South Africa’s famed voting queues of the same year. Because, as dramatic as it may sound, ‘this’ struggle for my children’s fair access to me  is the biggest story of my lfe. Wrapped up in it is the future of two delightful beings, their happiness and emotional security.

‘Why, Daddy, why?’, said my 5 year-old on the way to creche two years ago. He was actually testing how many times he could get away with the ‘why’ word, but as we pulled onto the motorway – inbetween our machine-gun giggles at his ploy – it got me thinking. Wondering how my father would have answered that question.

This is a Daddy Story. For me, my now seven year-old boy and his four year-old sister, my greatest gifts from a person with whom I once shared love. A story of contrasts, emotional dead-wood versus big hugs and love measured by legal percentages – as told from this father’s perspective. These precious creatures are products of yet another broken home, insecurities and fragile egos. The tales of single mothers out there with there own challenges are well-told; absent fathers, alcoholics and abusers. On the other hand, there are women aplenty, mothers, who intentionally deprive their children of the often positive role-models in their fathers. Women will tell you in shocked voices of other women they know who do that. But men don’t speak about it.


 Some parenting authors and child psychologists will say it’s the children’s family history – the way their parents themselves were raised – that will to a large extent shape the way they are. There are many examples to support this, but more importantly it’s the way their parents behave in the here and now – and in the future – that will be the deciding factor in how equipped they are to deal with the world. And how they love.

This writing, with the others that accompany it, is an introduction to my love story.