jueves, 28 de abril de 2016

School Sucks

Seven or nine years ago I would have never believed this, but now I’m sure and I’m not afraid to say it out loud: School sucks. The only good thing about it that I can think of is that it's an environment where one is constantly tempted to bend (if not break) the rules.

Over the last few years it has come as a surprise to me to discover that the school system in the western world is worse than it used to be when I went to school. And it was already bad back then. When my children reached school age, I honestly thought they would be okay if they went to school. I was aware that parents were expected to get more involved in their children's education these days, and I thought that would suit me perfectly. I would be one of those parents who would be at the school every other day to encourage the kids who were lagging behind and challenge the ones who were bored.

That was before I found out that homeschooling was not only legal but advisable. Some of my home educator friends won’t agree with me, but in my experience the Australian government is happy about the growing number of homeschoolers. Just as long as we pretend to follow the curriculum. Which we do. Pretend. Or follow. It depends on whether youre a homeschooler, unschooler or worldschooler.

Fortunately for me and my boys, we have never had to deal with schools. They have never been to one. But most homeschoolers we know have been pulled out of school due to a bad experience. I hear the stories all the time and the courage of these parents never ceases to amaze me. I really admire these people. They are parents who believed in the system and the goodwill of the school educators, but saw their children suffer and were brave enough to change their whole lifestyle for their sake.

I also meet parents whose children are not happy in school, but they don’t know what to do about it. A friend once told me that her son begged her to homeschool him, but she said she simply could not do it: the thought of spending all day with her son was too daunting. Another mother (of six) told me that her children were generally happy in school except for one, an eight-year-old boy who also pleaded with her to be allowed to stay home. She had spoken to his teachers and they all said he did fine at school. He was not behind and did not show any sign of learning disabilities, but he threw up his breakfast every morning just before going to school (not on weekends or school holidays). The mother was worried about him, but also could not contemplate the idea of having him home all day.

And the other day I met a mother who knows how bad school is and has decided to work there to do everything she can to help. It was a school day and I was at the skate park with my boys and some other home-ed friends. A boy we didn’t know was doing some pretty amazing things with his scooter and we were all admiring his moves. He was alone, but a while later a lady arrived and sat down on a bench. By the way she was looking at him I guessed she was the mother. As I never miss the opportunity to meet more people who might be into home education, I approached her and asked whether her son was homeschooled. ‘No, he just decided not to go to school today,’ she said. And then of course she asked about my kids and our friends. At first I thought she didn’t know anything about home education because she asked the usual questions: how do they socialise, are they tested, how do you know they’re learning, how many hours a day do you ‘teach’ them, etc. I answered all the questions honestly, as I always do, making the distinction between unschoolers and homeschoolers. I had the feeling she was sussing me out before she said, ‘I work in a school,’ and after a dramatic pause added, ‘and I hate it.’ She went on to explain what she did there every day, trying to imbue some self-confidence in kids that believed themselves to be stupid because they couldn’t take in the knowledge that was shoved down their throats. Her own son’s self-esteem was starting to drop because he couldn’t memorise the history he was supposed to learn as dictated by the curriculum. Nearly every day she said to him, ‘You’re not stupid, you’re just not interested. Just go along with it and don’t worry about it. It’s not you, it’s them.’

My jaw dropped as I listened. When she finished I couldn’t help saying, ‘What a waste of time.’ She agreed emphatically: ‘That’s what school is, a great waste of time.’ I told her that this was the feeling I had when I went to school, that I was wasting my time when I could be home reading the books I really liked and had time to read only in summer. She said she hated school as a child as well and her mother used to say that these were the best years of one’s life, the primary school years. ‘That was so depressing,’ she went on saying. ‘I thought: so life gets worse than this?’ We both agreed that we would never say that to our children. I think it is a lie. Life gets better when you get more freedom, and children who are subjugated into forced education are not free. I remembered then what another mother said to her boy when he complained about school: ‘Don’t say you hate it. It’s not true. You’re just saying that because you heard it from other kids. You’d better love school now that you’re in first grade because it’s going to get worse.’

We’ve just had two weeks of school holidays. People often ask me if that makes any difference to us, who are always on holidays. Well, yes it does because my boys, who are eight and nearly ten, have been going to drama classes for two years now and join in other activities organised by and for home-ed families who follow the school calendar. So, during school holidays we also take a holiday from these activities and mix with schooled kids who now have more time to play and go to the library. I must say, I’m happy the holidays are over and we’re again interacting mostly with homeschooled children while the rest go back to their daily prison, because there is no doubt that schooled and homeschooled children are different; I’m even willing to accept that we are weirdos, and proud of it. Dealing with children who are accustomed to discipline and order and are suddenly set free can be stressful (like animals freed from a zoo). All the same, over the last two weeks Dave and Alex met new kids, as they always do, and apparently one of the questions they get asked the most is, Which school do you go to?’ to which they say, ‘I’m homeschooled.’ Alex said to me the other day that every time he says that, he gets the same reaction: ‘Wow, you’re so lucky!’ Not even once has it happened that a schooled child has said to them, ‘Oh, poor you, you don’t know what you’re missing, school is great.’ Because it is not, and we all know it.

domingo, 31 de enero de 2016

Beware of doctors with fever phobia

One day last week the kids were at the beach swimming, snorkelling and having fun with some friends when Alex suddenly came out of the water crying and complaining about a rash on his legs. He had tiny red spots which stung a lot with the salty water. When we got back home, though, they were gone. The next morning he got up with white lumpy spots on his palms. Dave had them on the back of his knees. Although they both said that they were very itchy, an hour later they had disappeared. Around midday Alex said he had a headache. He didn't have a fever or any other symptoms, so I encouraged him to drink a lot of water. In the afternoon we took our friends to Simmo's, a favourite of the kids. Alex asked for an ice cream as usual but, surprise, surprise, after just one lick he said he didn't want any more. I don't think that had ever happened before. Five minutes earlier he had been happy, but he now began to cry and complain of a headache again. He even asked me to take him to the doctor.

His request astounded me as I thought he didn't know what it was to go to the doctor. It's something we don't do because we haven't had to. We've always been pretty healthy so there's been no reason to see any doctors. Days later, when he was feeling better, I asked him why he had wanted to see a doctor. He said he didn't know. I said, 'But you didn't know what it was because you had never been before.' He said, 'Yes, I knew because I had seen it on telly.' So I asked him if the reality had been the same, although I already knew the answer because I had witnessed it, of course. 'No, it was much better on the telly,' he replied.

I would have preferred to take him home, but the children have autonomy of their own bodies, so I granted his request immediately. I thought that if he considered it was that serious, then it was. I also thought the doctor would prescribe rest and lots of fluids, which is what I would have done. She did this but that was not all.

First a nurse took his temperature and checked if he had enough oxygen in his blood with a pulse oximeter (he did). Then she asked him to jump on the scales. I later understood this was just to determine the appropriate dosage of Panadol to give him. Then the doctor came and they both bombarded Alex with questions such as: Do you have a headache? Does your tummy ache? Does the light hurt your eyes? Are you drinking a lot of water? He answered yes to everything, which made me think he was feeling pressured. He hadn't complained about his tummy to me and when I asked him later he said it didn't hurt and it hadn't at all.

Next thing we knew the nurse stuck a syringe with apparently disgusting children's Panadol in his mouth. He spat it out and cried. The nurse and especially the doctor told him in a stern way that he had to have the full dose, and they aimed the syringe at his mouth again. He spat it out once more and then I said, 'That's okay. He doesn't have to have it if he doesn't want to.' The doctor retorted, 'Yes, he does. We have to bring his temperature down.' I said, 'But it's 38.3ºC, not 39ºC.'

You see, in my opinion, you should not give Panadol or any other medication to bring down the temperature in children unless it reaches 39ºC. To have a fever is not a bad thing, it is actually good: it's your own body's way of fighting against the virus that is attacking you. The virus will eventually die from the heat. This is how I explain it to my kids. Now, if you put drugs in your body when they're not even necessary you are depriving your body from doing its job, making it lazy; this is how your immune system gets weaker. But this, of course, is just the way I see it after having done my own research. Mainstream doctors seem to think differently.

This doctor in particular dismissed me completely. They managed to force Alex to swallow some of the horrendous liquid. Then the nurse gave him some lollies for having been such a good boy (eek!). This is ironic; isn't sugar supposed to be unhealthy? Why not give him some strawberries instead? Anyway, that calmed him down even though he didn't eat them. The doctor made us follow her to her office where she listened to his heartbeat with a stethoscope and checked his throat for any signs of infection. There was nothing; he seemed healthy apart from the fever. She said that it could be one of those viruses children catch, that it could be nothing or the beginning of it, and that it could get much worse. It was a public holiday the next day but she said I could call her anyway, any time. Or, if he got worse, I should take him to hospital immediately. She also instructed me to keep giving him Panadol or Nurofren, whichever I had at home. I had neither because the bottle I'd bought in 2006 had eventually expired. She insisted about the Panadol three times, which makes me think she knew I wouldn't make him go through that ordeal again.

When we finally left I thought: What the heck just happened? Before we stepped in the medical centre I hadn't been worried at all. The children had had fevers before and I had never panicked. But now I was feeling an uneasiness that I hadn't felt before. When it comes to children, doctors live in fear of making a mistake, but shouldn't they keep their fears to themselves? Well, five minutes later, as we were driving back home, I received a call from a different doctor (who hadn't seen Alex) to inform me that if he still had a headache after having had the Panadol that would be cause for alarm. I asked Alex if he still had a headache. He said it was not so bad, so I told the doctor not to worry.

His temperature kept going up and down the next day. At times when he felt better, he got up and watched telly, but most of the time he slept. I lay down with him. When the following day I started feeling sick I knew it was the flu. Alex mentioned his headache again and I said Panadol would get rid of it if he wanted to take it, but he refused. Dave got sick as well, so the three of us were conveniently ill for three days during which we barely left the house (we went for a bike ride and nearly died from weakness). Both Dave and Alex decided of their own accord to take cold baths to bring their temperature down when it was getting too high. Mine was never as high as theirs, but interestingly enough, I think I suffered more than they did because in my case my whole body ached, whereas the children said they only had a mild headache. For two days we did nothing much apart from drinking water and sleeping. We moved from the sofa to bed and from bed back to the sofa. It felt so good to sleep so much even though I had the sensation of missing a day or two, like the time when I flew from Hawaii to the Philippines and one whole day had vanished.

jueves, 31 de diciembre de 2015

Bad words

Are words good or bad? Some parents tell their children there are 'bad' words. What do they mean by that? That the words will hurt them? Not really, because those words some people consider bad don't actually do any harm at all. By general consensus, the evil of all words is Fuck (I think it deserves the capital because in the word realm it's like Satan) and its derivatives. You know the one, also referred to by children when there are adults around as the F word. This always makes me cringe and I have to suppress the urge to yell at them: 'Just say it, you know you want to!'

Swearing to me is like TV or video games. I don't usually do it, but I have nothing against it. I don't claim any moral virtue by not doing any of these activities. I don't play chess either. Sometimes I don't finish all the food on my plate, even though there are kids starving in Japan.

I've been around people who swear all the time. It doesn't bother me, although people who use 'freaking' or 'fucking' every three words sound to me like they have a very poor vocabulary and I soon find their discourse boring. I have nothing against the words per se. When I was in college the frequency with which some people used 'like' and 'you know' irritated me just the same. Maybe it's a learning process for some people. I've noticed, for example, that my children and their friends seem to be quite obsessed with the word 'epic' and the phrase 'by the way'.

The only times swear words bother me is when they come out with anger or frustration. When I first got married I noticed my husband swore when he was angry. It made me so anxious that I asked him not to do it, especially when we had children. I understood then that it was my problem and it was related to my own childhood. To this day, my father swears when he's angry or frustrated, so, pretty much on a daily basis. When we visit, the boys imitate him and, I must admit, it's very funny to hear them swear in Spanish. It makes me laugh when they do it because they are not angry, they're just pretending to be. I don't know what my husband back then thought when I asked him not to swear because I couldn't stand it. Whatever it was, he stopped doing it. I don't think I've ever heard him swear around the children.

As a consequence of this, for years I'd been saying to my friends that Dave and Alex were so innocent when it came to swearing that they hadn't even heard the word Fuck. They certainly didn't say it, when most kids their age used it at least when they were under the radar. Most people said to me the reason was that they don't go to school. I had no opinion on that, but my friends insisted that the swearing in school is like the viruses in kindergarten: one kid brings it from home and gives it to all the others.

There is some truth in that: if you cage thirty kids in a classroom and one of them is sick or swears, there are more chances of the rest catching the virus as opposed to having thirty kids running around in the open. My children have never been enclosed in a room with thirty other kids, but they are not isolated. They interact with lots of children, both schooled and unschooled. And it turns out that unschooled and homeschooled children swear too.

Once I heard an unschooled four-year-old girl say, 'I'm so fucking sick of this!' She was just playing to make believe, and I couldn't suppress a laugh. Her mother was embarrassed, though, and apologised to me. She said, 'She gets it from her father.' I thought it was cute; it didn't bother me.

There is another unschooled child we spent a lot of time with a few months ago. He's now eight, but his swearing was already quite impressive at five. He used it for everything: when he was happy and when he wasn't. I never heard his mother swear, so I had to ask her where he got it from. The first time we met, three years ago, she told me it was from the films he watched. Later, when we had developed a close friendship, she admitted it was from her. 'I swear a lot. I do it when I'm angry, although I try not to because it scares my child. But when I'm not angry, swearing makes me feel good,' she said. When her child got angry, his swearing and insults were very hurtful, but that's a topic I will discuss another day, because at least two of my dear friends disagree with me that verbal and psychological violence is as bad as physical violence. In fact, it might be even worse. 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me' my arse. Words hurt because of the emotion they are used with.

A couple of weeks ago I was playing a board game with Dave, Alex, and one of their friends. We were all happy, but Dave got a bad roll of the dice and said, 'What the fuck!' His friend giggled and gave me a sidelong glance to check if I had heard. I had but I was so startled that thought I had misheard. 'What did you just say?' I asked truly curious. 'I'm sorry, mummy,' Dave said surprising me even more. 'Why are you sorry? No need to apologise. I just want to check that I heard right.' He admitted: 'I said what the fuck. Bill says it all the time.'

Aha! I thought. Bill (not his real name) is the eight-year-old with the PhD in swearing. But he's travelling and we haven't seen him for over two months. I wondered if Dave had been using this expression for two months without me noticing? Or even worse, had he been using it when he was sure I was far from earshot?

'There is nothing wrong with saying what the fuck,' I said. His friend looked at me with wide open eyes, but I ignored him. 'Taylor says fuck is a bad word,' Dave said. Taylor is another friend they had spent a lot of time with lately. I know his parents and I could see why he would think 'fuck' is a bad word. But if it's so bad, why are they talking about it? I said: 'Well, that's a matter of opinion. Some parents think 'fuck' is a bad word, but I don't think it is always bad. Did it hurt you when you said it? It didn't hurt me or anyone else. It made us laugh, so you used it well.'

lunes, 30 de noviembre de 2015

Are school children all right?

Last week I met someone quite interesting. Or, let's say... different. We were at the beach and our kids were happily playing. They had just met, but they were getting along so well that this person and I were both reluctant to go home, even though it was getting dark already. At last she told her children that they really must go because they still had to do homework and get ready for school the next day.

She and I hadn't exchanged a word, but at that point I couldn't help looking up from the book I was reading. She smiled at me and that encouraged me to ask the question that was fighting to leave my lips. 'Homework? Your kids go to school?'

She smiled again, this time a bit bashfully, I thought. She shrugged her shoulders and said, 'Yeah... That's what we do!'

I looked at the children. They hadn't stopped playing in the sand. They were discussing how deep the tunnel they had dug should be and the danger of it collapsing if they kept digging. They were a boy and a girl, and the two of them together with my two boys had been constructing this formidable sand fortress for well over an hour. They had all contributed something, whether it was with ideas or actual modelling. They had listened to each other and interacted in a most respectful way. The other mother and I had not intervened at all. In sum, they seemed perfectly normal children.

Yet, it doesn't happen every day that you meet someone who takes their children to school. I was curious to know why she would have chosen this path for her children, but at the same time I wanted to be careful not to sound judgemental. After some thought, I ventured to say: 'There's a family on our street who also take their children to school. We don't know them much, though. They keep to themselves. In fact, they're not even from here, they're from some other country. And very religious. They might even be fundamentalists.'

'Oh, we're not religious,' she hastened to say.

'Ah, okay.' I nodded enthusiastically to show my approval. 'Sorry for having implied that you were, but you never know these days... I've heard that in Catholic schools they tell the kids about a... god? And something like heaven and hell, eternal life, punishment... Aren't children supposed to learn rather than being indoctrinated? And then, of course, you hear these horrible stories about priests sexually abusing children. I would be terrified to send my children to school.'

'Our school is nothing like that. Religion is not even a subject, so it's great.' She was still smiling. I was relieved that she hadn't taken offence.

'A subject?' I pressed on. 'Sorry, I'm not familiar with the school system. What is a subject?'

'It's like a branch of study. What the children learn is divided into subjects, like English, Mathematics, Science, Technology, History, Geography...'

'Ah, yes, I think I've heard something about it. You mean, for example, that rather than reading a book for the pleasure of it, they have to analyse it and do comprehension tests so their teachers know they've understood? Or that instead of playing Monopoly, Lego, or multiplying on Minecraft, they must memorise times tables that they'll never use, when they can instantly get the answer using a calculator?'

'Yes, that's exactly right. After all, it is important to know what an alliteration is,' she said with a laugh, which made me think she was being sarcastic.

I smiled and muttered, 'Of course.' I was not brave enough to admit that I didn't remember what an alliteration is. After all, I'm a writer! What writer doesn't know that! I googled it later when I got home, so now I know: an alliteration is the commencement of two or more words of a word group with the same letter, as in this poem by Maria Paz Samelo:

Students studying Social Studies
Sacrificing under the sunshine
So sudden, so sad
But sharp mind shining on
They share, tiredness they spare
At last they survive!!
Shamelessly showing their
Sweet success

She hesitated a moment before saying: 'As for the times tables, yes, they do have to memorise them. You never know when they'll need to know that eight times seven is... Hang on, let me check it on my phone.' She rummaged in her bag for a few seconds. 'Ah, yes, fifty-six. I'm not very good at memorising numbers myself, but kids who don't know their times tables look really bad. They could even be bullied by their peers for this reason. What's worse, they won't pass their tests and will get bad grades.'

'Excuse me but is that even legal?' At this point, I was having trouble hiding my astonishment.


'To drill children, as opposed to letting them play, explore, question, solve problems... think critically?'

'Oh, yes, it's perfectly legal. Other types of child abuse are also permitted and even condoned. After all, it's for their own good. It's actually best if they're trained at an early age. The better their grades are, the easier it will be for them in high school.'

'You mean you plan to take them to high school as well? But they do have the option to not go to school, right?'

'Uh... No, they don't. When they're adults they can do whatever they want. But while they're still living under my roof, they must do as I say. And I say they are going to school. But it's fine, they love school!'

I nodded, still trying not to judge, but the thought crossed my mind that maybe I should contact the social services. These children could be in danger. I looked at them more closely. They didn't show any signs of abuse or self-damage. I had heard stories about schooled children who pulled out their eyelashes or harmed themselves in other ways, and I knew for a fact that some were even given drugs to keep them quiet and still. These kids, however, seemed to be all right despite their schooling. I forced myself to relax and keep asking questions.

'Aren't you worried that they will become obedient and easily influenced adults? Or that they have so little time to play? Or about what they will do when they enter the real world after having been shunned from it for so long? And what about socialisation!? Do they actually have any friends?'

'Of course they have friends. There are other children in the school.' She laughed.

'Of course. Excuse my ignorance. Schooled children are so rare that one tends to think they must be awfully isolated from society.'

'That is a myth, you know,' she said, showing a bit of defensiveness for the first time. 'There are lots of schooled children. In fact, schools are growing in popularity. They are great for parents as well, so they can have a break from the children.'

'But the children are there to listen to their teachers, keep quiet, and get good grades, not to play and socialise.'

'They still make friends. Besides, the years are conveniently divided according to age, so they don't get a bad influence from older kids. And then, there are school holidays, of course. Look at them. They didn't have any problem striking up a conversation with your kids. They are not awkward or weird just because they go to school.'

'Well, I must admit they are very polite. Do they always raise their hand before they speak? And are their first three words always Excuse me, miss?'

She laughed again. 'They do get carried away sometimes. I have to remind them that it's okay to relax at home.'

'I guess you're lucky that they're happy to comply. They could have turned out to be rebels. I heard another story about some parents who tried school for their kid. He really liked school, his parents said. But when he got home each day, he was angry and disruptive, and very disrespectful to the parents. They talked to his teachers, initially thinking that the problem might come from being schooled. But the teachers said he was great in school, so the parents concluded that he was just one of those kids who are not fit for the family environment.'

'That's interesting. What did they do? Did they adopt him out?'

'They thought about it, but that wouldn't have solved anything because they didn't think they were the problem, it was just that the kid didn't like having parents. They knew he loved school, so the answer was easy: they sent him off to a boarding school.'

'That's a good idea.'

'Yes, I guess. Each child is different.'

'Well, we should really go,' she said getting up. 'It'll be hard to get these children to do their homework now, but we must keep their teachers happy.'

'Ok. It was really nice talking to you and learning about alternative ways of educating our children. Thank you for that.'

'Any time! It was nice talking to you too.'

She urged the children one more time. They stopped playing almost immediately, said a feeble goodbye to mine, and they were gone.

martes, 1 de septiembre de 2015

Is it rude to speak a different language from the majority one?

Is it rude to speak a different language from the majority one? I don't think it is. I love languages, and I have no problem at all with people speaking their own native one, no matter where they are. It doesn't make me angry that people from other countries come to 'our' country and keep speaking their own language. In fact, I get more annoyed when I go to other countries, try to speak the languages spoken there, and as soon as they find out it's not my native tongue, they switch to English or Spanish.

This happened to me in Italy last year. I had been studying Italian for nearly a year. (A friend asked me what the hell for. Answer: studying languages is one of my hobbies.) So I got there, eager to practice and quite proud of myself at first when Italians didn't even notice I wasn't 'one of them', until after two or three sentences when the conversation got too complicated. I understood it was frustrating for them to have to listen patiently, but I finally had to put my hands on my hips and say, 'I have invested money and time to come here and practice my Italian, while you haven't moved from home. So don't you think you can use me to improve your English or Spanish when you haven't even paid a cent!'

The other day I was talking to a friend about the Catalan-Spanish situation. We grew up with it, so it's a topic that has always been present in our lives. When we were kids, Catalan was only unanimously spoken if all the other kids around spoke it. If just one kid didn't speak it, that was enough for all the others to switch to Spanish, even if that one kid understood it but simply refused to speak it. I'm not sure if this has changed among kids, but the subject arose because my friend's daughter announced to her playmates that my children are Australian and don't speak Catalan, so while they were there they all had to speak Spanish, which was the only language they all understood. Naturally, I disagreed. I would love for my kids to speak Catalan as well as Spanish and English, and as many other languages as they are willing to learn. Last year they were picking up Italian after only two days in Italy, and I know that every time we come to Barcelona they learn new Catalan words and get the gist of nearly every conversation. In my family, we speak both Catalan and Spanish and I've always encouraged my family members to speak Catalan to my kids. They usually don't. Again, because it is easier to speak the dominant language, the one everybody knows. It is the polite thing to do.

Yet, when it comes to children and languages, I think it is important to be rude. By being rude I mean speaking that other language that makes your children bilingual or multilingual and is the minority one. Since I've had children I've come to realise that even rudeness is a matter of opinion. For example, for most people not saying 'thank you' and 'please' is rude. For me, it is rude of an adult to make a child say those words when they don't even know what they mean, let alone feel them.

Before I had children I thought a lot about the language thing. Which one would I speak to them? Some people were of the opinion that the most natural thing for a mother is to speak her mother tongue to the children, and that it feels fake or forced to speak a second language to your offspring. I don't agree with this, and in fact I see every day and everywhere mothers who don't speak their native language to their children. They usually speak the majority one, to be polite and to make it easier for everyone. I wasn't going to do this; if we had been living in Spain instead of Australia I would have probably spoken English to the kids, even though it is not my mother tongue. Having had the privilege of being raised bilingual, I was determined to pass on that gift to my children. I would speak either Catalan or Spanish to them. In the end, I opted for Spanish.

Although I had studied and researched about the acquisition of languages, when they were very little I worried that, living in an English-speaking environment, the kids would some day ask me to stop speaking Spanish to them. I kept seeing examples of it. Once I met a woman from Spain with an Australian husband who told me she always spoke Spanish to her kids and took them on holidays to Spain every summer. Yet when they were teenagers the three of them asked her to speak English because they were embarrassed about speaking Spanish, especially in front of their friends. She said it broke her heart, but she couldn't bring herself to force them if they didn't want to.

Over the years, I've seen countless similar situations. Lots of my friends from different countries started speaking their first language to their kids, but they soon switched to English. In mixed couples, this was usually done so the father wouldn't feel left out. I was lucky I didn't even have to stand my point with my kids' father. His grandparents came to Australia as refugees when they were already in their forties and didn't speak any English; his mother's first language was German. Yet, it was lost in just one generation. His mother stopped speaking German as soon as she started school. He always regretted not having been given the opportunity to be bilingual. So, when I told him that for our kids to be bilingual it was important that I always spoke Spanish to them, even when he was around, he agreed and encouraged me.

I still speak Spanish to my children all the time. Nobody seems to have a problem with this. Only one person, in the early days, asked me to speak English to my kids in her presence. I offered to translate everything for her if she was that interested in knowing every little thing I had to say to the kids, but the answer was still a resolute no. I won't speak the majority language to my kids for the sake of other people. To do that would be a disservice to my children.

So, many of my friends who have 'failed' in maintaining the minority language asked me how I managed it. They also spoke their mother tongue to their kids, but the kids stopped speaking it as soon as they realised it was not what everyone else spoke. The answer is simple: You have to speak it to them all the time, even at the risk of seeming rude. As soon as you switch to English for the sake of other people, you can forget about it. Your children get the unspoken message that other people are more important, so why should they make an effort if you don't? In the case of that Spanish woman with the teenage kids, I think she must have somehow passed on the embarrassment. I've met other people in Australia who are embarrassed to speak their home language, and so they have chosen not to speak it to their children.

To finish up, I'll tell you an anecdote involving three of my friends, one Spanish, one Venezuelan, and one Australian. I wasn't there, but the three of them told me their version of the story separately, so I drew my own conclusions about what happened. The Venezuelan was friends with both of them. The Spanish and the Australian had just met. The Australian was a bit drunk and not really following the conversation between the other two. Never mind, because the Spanish and the Venezuelan were talking about something that concerned the two of them only. So, when the Australian gave his opinion, the Spanish snapped. Mean words and middle fingers followed. This happened three months ago, and although they've all talked about it many times, I only recently found out that the whole scene happened in English. So, the Spanish and the Venezuelan were speaking English for the Australian's sake, even though at least the Spanish considered that it was none of the Australian's business. She told me that the Australian shouldn't have heard what she said to the Venezuelan. Why didn't she say it in Spanish then? This to me is an example of unnecessary and even fake politeness. Which didn't end well, by the way.

When I have to talk to my children about things that concern just us, I speak Spanish to them and that's that. If I consider that other people present should be included in what I just said, then I repeat it in English. But if it's none of their business, it's none of their business, and I don't care what they think about my manners. So I usually do a lot of speaking in both languages when my kids' friends are around, but not so much when my friends are around, either because they understand Spanish anyway, or because it's just not about them!

viernes, 31 de julio de 2015

An apology to my circumcised sons

I've thought of writing an article on circumcision many times over the last three years, since I started this blog. Something always stopped me. It was shame. I'm still deeply ashamed to confess that I made a big mistake. My sons are circumcised.

I apologised to them. The first time must have been about two years ago, when Dave was seven and Alex five. I said, 'There is something I need to tell you. When you were babies, your father and I took you to a doctor and he cut a bit of skin off your penis. I think that was a wrong thing to do and I am very sorry we did it. Please forgive me.' I don't remember Alex having any reaction to that, maybe he wasn't listening. Dave was surprised but not alarmed. He asked why.

I didn't want to do it. But when we knew we were having a son, the topic immediately came up between my then husband and me. I said no. He said yes, like father like son. I avoided the subject. We didn't talk about it again until the baby was born. He asked a nurse at the hospital; he wanted it done straight away. She told us that it's not normal procedure to do it at the hospital anymore; it's a private thing nowadays, and in fact lots of parents are choosing not to circumcise their sons. She said it was actually not easy to find a doctor who would do it, but she knew one and gave us his card. I felt guilty already, by the mere act of accepting the card. She also urged us to call him in the next couple of weeks; the younger the boy the better it is to circumcise him, also less painful.

I was still saying no. I couldn't bear the thought of anyone causing pain to my baby boy. Besides, the whole concept of circumcision was very foreign to me. In Spain, where I grew up, it has never been done right after a perfectly healthy male baby is born. I have two brothers who are not circumcised. One of my cousins was, when he was eight or nine, after he was diagnosed with phimosis. Growing up I remember hearing of another case, a boy who missed a few days of school because he needed an operation on his penis. So, some boys were circumcised, but it was extremely rare. In my early twenties, I had a boyfriend who grew up in Barcelona but had moved to the U.S. when he was not quite a teenager yet. There he found that all boys were circumcised, and even as an adult he told me he wished he had been too. It was a case of peer pressure. Then I was living in the U.S. myself, and later I had another boyfriend who was circumcised. All men were. I found it quite shocking. A Canadian told me that a girl had once felt quite repulsed because he wasn't! Then I met my Australian husband and found out that here in Australia circumcision at birth was also the norm forty years ago. And he was quite happy with that. In fact, I personally didn't know any circumcised man who wished he hadn't been (later a friend told me that her circumcised husband was totally against it and he suspected that being circumcised had negatively affected his sex life).

My husband's argument was that he didn't remember having been cut. So, as far as he knew, there was no pain, which was my main concern. On the other hand, being circumcised was cleaner, and he wanted his sons to be like him. I didn't have a penis, so I didn't know. I mentioned the matter to my parents and they said we were lucky to have the option in Australia. My father thought it was best to be circumcised. My mother said that back when my older brother was little, the doctor told her she had to retract the foreskin so that it would not adhere to the glans. When my younger brother was born that was not in fashion anymore. None of us ever touched his penis. We didn't tell him off either when he did. I always take doctors' advice with a huge pinch of salt. I have so many reasons to. I don't take my boys to the doctor anyway, not unless it's a matter of life or death.

I finally agreed to go and see the doctor, although I insisted that it was only for a consultation. He explained to us that for hygienic and medical reasons it was better to be circumcised. It was also advisable to do it in infancy, and it was not painful. He regretted the trend of recent decades to not circumcise but said it was already making a comeback and predicted the rates would keep rising. He told us about the procedure, which would only take ten minutes and could be scheduled for the following week. I was still not convinced, but I finally gave in, especially because he said he would feel no pain.

I wanted to be present, and I was until the doctor injected the local anesthetic. Then I started crying, and the nurse demanded that we leave the room. We heard our baby boy crying the whole time, but he had begun as soon as I had handed him to the nurse. He didn't stop until he was back at my breast. The nurse shocked me by stroking his head and saying, 'You'll be glad when you're older. Girls will like you better.' The doctor gave me a cream that I was to apply twice a day for a week. This turned out to be easier than I thought. Then we saw the doctor again. He was happy with the way the wound was healing. That was it. I never had to worry about my son's penis again, apart from reminding him to clean it, just like his ears, his bum, and the rest of his body. We did the same to our second son, who came soon after.

Since then, I've heard a lot about the circumcision debate. One of my friends was a pretty active intactivist and she confronted me several times. She was angry at me for having given in. I grew tired of it all. It was done and I couldn't change it. But I knew that I would talk to them about it. I wouldn't pretend that nothing had happened as if they had been born this way. I would bring it up before they asked.

The third time we talked about it, only a week ago, it came up when we were reading a book about the traditional life of the people of North East Arnhem Land. We learned that boys are circumcised as an initiation ritual before adolescence. I didn't know this and was surprised. My comment was, 'Aboriginals are circumcised too? Isn't any culture spared?'

Alex asked me what that meant. I told him and they both let out a scream of horror. I said, 'You too are circumcised.' Alex started crying and asked why. I explained again that it had been a tough decision for me and that I believe I had made a huge ethical mistake. If I could go back in time I would have insisted that we wait until the boys were old enough to decide for themselves.

Alex said, 'I've seen that my penis is different from my friend's, when we go to pee at the gym toilets. His is pointy. I thought my penis was normal, not his. But now I know I don't have a real penis!'

I assured him that his penis is still real and it looks like his father's. I could have said many other things that would have made him feel better, but it didn't feel authentic to keep justifying myself, so I didn't.

He said, 'Why did you listen to him? You've been on the planet for longer and you read more books, so you know more stuff than he does.' To which I apologised again and said, 'I made a mistake. You're right and I was wrong. You know better than I did even though you've been on the planet for only seven years and you don't read as much as I do. So age and books are no guarantee of wisdom.'

After a pause in which they seemed to have calmed down, I said, 'The good thing is that I never again let anyone make any decision concerning your lives. And luckily your father has been very supportive even when he's not totally convinced.'

I really stuck to that. I became a ferocious mama bear. It all started when another nurse at the hospital tried to push me to bottle-feed my first son. She said my milk was not good enough. I did not listen to her and she was soon proven wrong. Then I had people opposing me because I co-slept with my babies, or because I didn't punish them. They said my children were controlling my life. I did not listen to them either. And, obviously, I did not listen to those advocates for schooling who feel threatened by my choice to not school my boys. Each to their own.

miércoles, 1 de julio de 2015

The World's Toughest Job

When I was thirty-two I told one of my best friends that I was ready to be a mother. Now I believe I was born to be one. She was surprised, like many other friends I'd had for years, some since we were kids. This made me think that some of my friends didn't really know me. My own mother has always known I'm one of those rare people who really understand children. I had travelled, I had fallen in and out of love, I had worked many different jobs, and I had written a couple of books. I was still doing all those things, but I had a husband and he said he was also ready to procreate. My friend told me she didn't think I was fit for the job. She said I was too much of a free spirit. To be a parent you must make sacrifices, and she didn't think I would.

She was right. I haven't made a single sacrifice. From the moment I conceived my first child, everything I've done for them was because I wanted to. Yet, I think I am fit for the job. It's the best one I've ever had. It is tough and it is challenging, but it is also the most rewarding. Previously, when working for someone, I grew bored when the job became repetitive and unchallenging. I never lasted in the same one for more than a couple of years. With my present job, that is never going to happen, of course. Even if I wanted out, it's too late now; I'll be stuck in it until death do us part. I'm grateful for that, but before I made the decision I thought long and hard about it. And I made the right decision.

I think I'm good for the job because I like and respect children, and not just my own. Children have always fascinated me, mainly because of their honesty, their lack of social bullshit. To be a good parent, I think you do have to like them. Those people who never liked children until they had their own shouldn't have had them, in my opinion.

I've always considered myself a scientist (and many other things!) in the sense that I observe and systematically study what I'm interested in. I also experiment, always making sure that I'm not hurting the subjects I'm studying, or being intrusive. If I make mistakes, or I hurt them in any way, it is unintentional. Luckily, my subjects let me know if I do! I like to study children. I became interested in child psychology in my teenage years, so I later took courses in university and have never stopped studying on my own.

Being a mother-scientist is an ever changing job. When I think I've got it all sorted, something new happens that throws me off balance. As they grow, my boys are getting more independent and needing less of me. I look back and I'm certain that the first few years were the hardest. As they expand their horizons it gets easier. But this also poses challenges. I have to keep looking into myself to do my job well. Being a mother has made me into a better person. Because I think that the best way to educate is by example, I'm always trying to do my best. The children are constantly watching me, so I take care of myself and others. This is what makes me feel good, it's why I'm here: to do something useful for humanity. As they say, I change in myself the change I would like to see in others.

Easier said than done of course. There is always the issue of control. I have said many times before that the only type of control valid for me is self-control. Controlling other people is not okay. I'm proud of myself for managing to not be a controlling parent. The kids have autonomy over their own bodies and education. I'm also a free individual and I show them that I don't let anyone control me. But now that they're older, they're not always with me. And for periods of time they live in a very controlled environment. When they were younger they wouldn't put up with it. They rebelled like all children do (they had 'tantrums'). Now they are more 'socialised', even obedient. They are condescended to, and don't seem to mind.

It makes me sad to witness this. Sometimes I prefer not to see it, so I remove myself from the situation. I remind them that they can say 'no' if someone demands them to do something they don't want to do, no matter who that person is. They tell me they're happy to do whatever it is that the controlling adult asks them to do. But I can see that this is not always true; they do it because they like that person, so they want to please them, even if they don't like doing what is required of them.

That's fine most of the time, but not always. What happens when they come out of a controlled environment like this is that they take it out on me. This is how I see the way they are treated even if I'm not around. They come back to me in a bad mood, sometimes they can even be abusive. Other times they ask me not to leave. Apparently, if I'm around other adults don't feel like they have to 'discipline' my kids: it's my job. They are not constantly told what to do, so they're more relaxed.

I do get angry when the behaviour of adult control freaks affects my relationship with my children. My first impulse is to go back to them and ask them to stop it. But I don't. This is the reality: we live in a highly coercive and manipulative society. And if I got back to the adults exerting power over my children, wouldn't that be another act of control on my part? Yes, I think so. So I just talk to the children, like I've always done. I remind them that they have options. Unlike most children, they can choose freedom. And if they don't like the fact that they have to eat when they're not hungry and not eat when they are, or are not allowed to eat certain foods, or are asked to do certain things which they don't want to do, they can always choose not to be in the care of those people. And I thank them for being always authentic and honest with me. But I also say it's not fair that they unload all of their anger on me and none on the controlling adults who are causing this behaviour.