Teach your children well

November 27, 2013 § 7 Comments

Tomorrow night, I’ll be running my last Girl Guide meeting. After seven years of leading Girl Guides and Brownies every Thursday afternoon and evening, no-one will be calling me Captain or Brown Owl anymore. It’s a bittersweet time for me; I’m tired and it’s time to move on, but I will miss the girls terribly.

During those seven years I’ve had the privilege of interacting with girls aged seven to 14, every week, and we’ve played games and made stuff and built things and learned all kinds of lessons from each other. But as I reflect over the time I’ve spent with them, two lessons stand out for me – two things we need to note as parents. And I include myself in that.

First, modern children just don’t get enough time to play. And I’m not talking about electronic games. I’m also not talking about games where there are winners and losers. Just games that involve running around or popping balloons or throwing balls to each other. Games that there purely for fun – no agenda, no trophy, no real skill required.

When I started, it took the kids quite some time to get their heads wrapped around the fact that the games we played had no winner. This was particularly prevalent in children from private schools, and I found this very, very sad. They honestly struggled with the concept of having fun for fun’s sake.

But once they got the idea, I couldn’t stop them. And even among the sulky tweens and teens, the request I get most often during a meeting is: “Can we play another game please?” It gave me pause, and it should make all parents think about how much fun their kids are having, about how much they actually play.

And second, I realised just how incompetent urban South African children are at basic, ordinary, everyday things. Sure, they can programme a smartphone and operate any electronic device you give them, but they can’t make a cup of tea, or thread a needle, or light a match, or wire a plug. Last week I had to show a 13-year-old how to plait. Seriously?

It’s not because they’re physically or mentally unable to do any of these things – it’s because none of them have been allowed to do those things at home. My own 11-year-old daughter has been cooking since she was eight or nine, but one of her friends told me the other day she wasn’t allowed to go near the stove – at age 11?

My Brownies (aged 7-10), by the time they left me, could make tea and coffee, lay and light a fire by themselves and cook something simple over it, sew on a button, put up a hem, and that’s just for starters. And those might not sound like huge achievements, but there’s little to compare with the look of pride on an eight-year-old’s face when she lights a fire that she’s constructed from twigs and kindling she’s gathered herself. Or on a 12-year-old Girl Guide’s face when she cooks an entire meal in a foil packet over the coals, in the rain, or wires a plug correctly for the first time. Or even irons a shirt – I’ve had to teach the girls how to iron too.

Are some of the activities dangerous? Well, yes, of course they are. But the health and safety-obsessed/helicopter parenting world many of us live in has a lot to answer for. Instead of teaching kids what the potential hazards are and how to do things safely, and allowing them to learn from the mistakes they make, we just don’t default to “don’t”. “Don’t do that – you’ll burn/hurt/cut yourself.” Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. And so they don’t.

But with the little things we learn to do in life – like make a decent cup of tea – the best way to learn is to actually do it, to experiment, to try different things, to employ some trial and error – with emphasis on the error. How else do we learn that we like more or less hot water or milk if we don’t make a few dreadful cups of tea first?

When you learn those basic life skills, you’re not just learning how to thread a needle or twist the copper wires just right to get them to fit into that stupid little hole in the plug prongs, or tighten a screw securely. You are learning a host of bigger skills: perseverance, improvisation, patience, focus, planning – all of the things that when you put them together, result in that thing that ain’t so common anymore: common sense.

And when I contemplate a future of people with even less common sense than I see displayed around me every day, I fear for our world.

So here, from me, is a challenge to teach your children at least some of the following things. And if you don’t know how to do them, then perhaps this is a good way to spend some quality time together as you learn with them.

Seven to 10-year-olds can:

  • Make tea, coffee or other simple hot and cold beverages (and I don’t mean  mixing your gin and tonic!)
  • Cook simple meals
  • Bake
  • Make a salad
  • Sew on a button
  • Put up a hem
  • Lay and light a fire
  • Make their own bed
  • Wash and dry dishes

Ages 11 and upwards can:

  • Iron clothes
  • Chop wood (11 upwards)
  • Wire a plug
  • Mend a bicycle puncture
  • Bath a dog
  • Operate a sewing machine

And once they have the physical strength required, all kids should learn how to change a tyre unassisted, and so should you. I can – can you?


Of Marmite and men

November 20, 2013 § 10 Comments

When I was little – just three or four – we still talked to our neighbours in suburban South Africa. You could still see over the wall into the garden next door and lean on the fence for a natter, while the neighbour watered their garden in the cool of the late afternoon.

Our neighbours, for a time, were the Weyers family. I don’t remember everyone in the family, but I remember at least two sons – Werner was the youngest, there was one called Hillie (presumably short for Hillebrand or something similar) and I think one more. They were typical Afrikaans boys – barefoot, slightly grubby, and knobbly-kneed in the way of young boys, with rhinoceros-hide feet that could withstand even the burn of the notorious, three-thorned dubbeltjie.

There was also one daughter – Neevra – who I thought was the mostly glamorous  girl I had ever encountered, and who scandalised my mother by using red as the theme colour for her wedding. Apparently it’s very unlucky. And then, to add insult to injury, she married someone my mother felt was unsuitable in some way.

But most of all, I remember their mother, Ma Weyers. I honestly thought that was her name for the longest time. After all, that’s what her children called her, so I followed suit. And to this day, that’s how I think of her – as Ma. It strikes me that I don’t actually know what her first name is.

Ma had salt-and-pepper wavy hair that formed a cloud around her head, and the softest, kindest voice you ever heard. I remember the slight wobble of her upper arms, the warmth of her smile, and the faded flowery apron she wore around her waist. I couldn’t say what colour her eyes were behind the silver rimmed glasses, but they were permanently crinkled in a smile.

What I remember most was how much I loved to visit Ma. In the mornings, when her children were at school, I would be hoisted over the wall into her garden. We would go into her cool, pleasantly dark kitchen at the back of the house, and sit down at the formica table with its chrome trim, and then Ma would make tea and “roof sandwiches” for me.

Roof sandwiches were a special thrill. They were simple Marmite sandwiches, but they felt like pure decadence, made as they were on white bread – a definite no-no in our household. She would cut the crusts off for me – again, unheard of at home – and then she would cut them into tiny triangles and arrange them pointing upwards, like tiny storybook roofs, just the way I liked them. Ma and I would drink our tea, and eat our roof sandwiches, and all was well in my world.

I lost contact with Ma, although I did cycle around to her new house once or twice to visit in later years. Tea and roof sandwiches were always served, even when I was 12 and 16 and 19. And I wonder sometimes if she’s still alive, if she would remember the little girl who sat in her kitchen all those years ago feeling as spoilt as if she were the Queen of England. If she would allow me, now, to make tea and roof sandwiches for her.

Because what Ma taught me was that it really is the little things that make an impression. That it’s the small acts of kindness that can make someone feel like they’re the most important girl in the world. Not caviar or champagne or chocolate – although those things can be wonderful too. Just Marmite sandwiches, on white bread, with the crusts cut off. Roof sandwiches for a little girl whose feet swung between the legs of the chair, and who truly felt that she was seen and heard for those few minutes on a weekday morning.

So sometimes, when I’m feeling a little sad, I make roof sandwiches for myself – just the way she made them – even if my feet have touched the floor for many a year now. I remember Ma and her kindness to me, and instantly, the world is a more welcoming place.

Show, don’t tell

November 13, 2013 § 8 Comments

If you go on a writing course, and if it’s any good, one of the pieces of advice you’ll get is: “Show, don’t tell.” It occurs to me that the same applies to love. And I’m not just talking about l’amour – the romantic love so many long for. I think it applies to all love.

The truth is, that love is hard work. Because if you love someone, feeling love and telling them you love them is a good start, but it’s seldom enough.

Love is expressed through action, through the tiny things you do, the generosity of the ordinary. Love is not found in grandiose gestures, but in a thousand tiny acts of selflessness that leave the object of your love feeling that they’ve been seen and heard.

Love is in the text or phone call you send just because you’re thinking of someone. It’s in the errand you run, or the help you offer when someone is frazzled, stressed or overwhelmed. Love is in the bunch of flowers you picked up at the garage forecourt, even if it’s slightly bedraggled, because you remembered that sweet peas are someone’s favourite flower.

Love is in the way you smile when someone walks into the room. It’s in the cup of tea or coffee you make when you’re making one for yourself. It’s in the single hibiscus bloom a child plucks for his mother on the walk home from school, or the chocolate you leave on a guest’s pillow when they’re bunked down on your couch in a sleeping bag.

Love is in the song or poem or note you write, however corny. It’s in the spontaneous hug, the unbidden peck on an unsuspecting cheek. The squeeze of a knee, the hand over another, the gentle hand on a forehead to wake someone.

It costs nothing, but it also costs everything. It requires that you give everything of yourself and demand nothing in return, and that you open yourself up to be hurt and rejected and betrayed.

But it’s a bit like pointing a finger at someone and three fingers point back at you – point your love out into the world and it comes back at you, multiplied in a myriad magical ways.

Whingeing whiteys

November 11, 2013 § 131 Comments

rant ahead

So, Cyril Ramaphosa said a Racist Thing. Well, boo hoo, white South Africa. Boo hoo.

Let’s just get all the other crap out of the way and then I’ll get into what I really want to say. Let me save you the trouble. I’m a libtard, I’m a fucktard, it’s not okay to polarise South African society any more than it already is, I’m a bleeding heart lefty pinko liberal, and I’m clearly as stupid as all hell. Anything else? Feel free to add your insults to the comment box.

I’m not going to debate the merits of what Cyril said, because enough of that has been done on social media, and it’s just giving the story more traction than it deserves, in my view. (And I have strong Afrikaner roots before you start on that little jaunt too.)

I am going to point out, though that it’s an election year and politicians are going to be saying stupid things left, right and centre. Strap yourselves in until the votes are counted. There will be empty promises, empty platitudes and empty heads aplenty. It’s the nature of the beast. And if you get offended by every little utterance, you’re going to get ulcers and have a stroke.

What I want to tackle is the whining from white people about racism against them. You have no friggin’ clue what it is to experience racism. Nor do I. But a lot of you (yes, I know not all of you) practise it on a daily basis without even realising it. And that’s what really gets my outrage index climbing at an exponential rate.

Let me give you some examples. You are racist when:

  • You tell me in the school car park that you couldn’t park your massive 4×4 properly because an elderly black woman was standing slightly over the parking line and “they don’t move out of the way”. Yes. True story.
  • You send out emails to all your white friends with jokes about Sipho or Jabulani’s stupidity.
  • You talk about “these people” and the mess “they’ve” made of the country.
  • You use words like zot, darkie (I’ve been guilty of that one), non-swimmers, raghead, churra, goffel, etc. And if you’re still using the k-word, even in supposed jest, then please piss off to Australia or some other godforsaken place that will have you.
  • You still talk about your “garden boy” or “girl”. And while “maid” isn’t precisely racist, it’s bloody insulting. Who do you think you are? Lord fricking Downton?
  • You call black men ‘Chief’ and black women ‘Sisi’. No, just no. Stop that right now.
  • You “can’t pronounce black names”. Really? And then you mock the newsreader for saying “cowntry” or “vowlence” on TV? Double standards much? Make the effort. The orthography (the spelling system, so you don’t have to google) of black languages is far simpler and far more consistent than English. Show some respect and find out how to pronounce people’s names. It really isn’t that hard.
  • You lower your voice to refer to someone as black.
  • You automatically assume that all criminals are non-white.
  • You tell people that you don’t go to certain places because “it’s become very black”.
  • You talk to white shop assistants like people and non-white shop assistants like they’re retarded and/or deaf.
  • You remark that Gugu or Mpho or Lebo is “such a lovely” person in that patronising tone that clearly indicates the unspoken “despite the fact that they’re black”.
  • You say “I’m not racist, but…” or “This is going to sound racist, but…”

I’ll stop now – there are examples aplenty, and I encounter this kind of thing every day and it incenses me. But here’s a newsflash in case you hadn’t noticed: South Africa is made up largely of people who are not white. I’m sorry to break it to you like this, but that’s the bald truth.

And actually, you should be rejoicing if your kids’ school, or the CBD, or your favourite shopping mall (gasp) is becoming very black. That’s what it’s supposed to be like. That is what South Africa looks like. Suck it up, princess, or go and build yourself a fortress somewhere else where the scary black people can’t get you. FFS.

And let me say one last thing. Cyril may have been wrong to say what he said. No doubt he’ll say he was quoted out of context – it’s our government’s favourite excuse. But given the institutionalised racism that still exists in this country, I’m not surprised when things like that happen, particularly during election time, and actually, I’m not even offended.

Happy talking

November 6, 2013 § 6 Comments

“I hope you wake up with a smile on your face and a song in your heart!”

That’s what I say to my kids sometimes as I tuck them into bed. And given that one of them is 11 and the other 14, I am usually met with epic eye-rolling, which is, of course, why I do it.

But that was me this morning. I bounded out of bed with the stupidest, widest grin on my face, and my head filled with words and rhythms and chords and beats and melodies and harmonies and joy. Pure joy.

Why? Because last night – as I do most Tuesday nights now – I spent a couple of hours singing songs with my guitarist friend, Joe. And we were singing songs that I had written, and they sounded awesome. And that made me happy – happy enough to still be bouncing off the wall more than twelve hours later. It’s ridiculous, and it’s wonderful and I can’t stop grinning. Writing and singing my own songs makes me insufferably, insanely, incredibly happy.

And I’ve noticed there’s a pattern – this happens every Wednesday after the Tuesday night before. I wake up ready to conquer the world. And I grin and beam and smile and sing and drive everyone around me nuts with my exuberance.

But I will not apologise. I have found my happy place.

And all I want to say today, is that you need to find yours. Because this is the best feeling in the world.

Where Am I?

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