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Help Me Help My Child (Nov 2006)

Past cases: November 2006

Here are the cases dealt with on Ruth’s page for November 2006.

We are fortunate in being quite well off and my 10-year-old Pete goes on and on to his friends how we can buy this and that, and have been here and there. It does not make him popular.

Of course it doesn’t. I wonder if the problem is actually the other way round. Perhaps Pete is not popular and hopes that by showing off he can impress people who then want to be his friend.

Social skills are among the hardest to learn and the most valuable. A tiny percentage of children/people have the knack of making friends wherever they go; the rest of us have to work at it. We have to learn when to listen and when to talk, when to give in and when to insist, when to let it go and when to continue. Most of us have experienced telling a story that is interrupted, and then noticing that nobody actually cares how it ends; or of seeing other people just waiting for us to finish, in order to get in something they want to say. In some schools, emotional literacy is taught as an important subject, in most schools it is assumed.

I think you need to talk to Pete about this. Wait for a quiet and gentle moment – I usually recommend bedtime as children are softer then, or perhaps when the two of you are on a journey together. Don’t raise the subject when he is with other children, his friends or brothers and sisters. And maybe start the discussion by saying how lucky you think you are to have all these opportunities. Often children feel somehow entitled to good things, and they need to be reminded that parents work hard.

The conversation will flow – you know Pete best, you will feel where it’s going. You need to give him the benefit of the doubt – if you challenge him with “Why are you always showing off? It makes you unpopular”, the conversation will stop instantly. The conversation might include whether Pete is showing off because he is proud of you and all you have achieved, or isn’t perhaps even aware that he is boasting. You might want to remind him that it’s sad for other people who can’t have all the treats he has – and how he might feel if his best friend always showed off about trips to rock concerts or skiing. You might also want to talk about taking turns in conversations so that shy people can join in. Pete is still only 10, he has a lot to learn.

Remember too that some of this might derive from a feeling that he is not very special so that he double-bluffs by boasting of the things he has done. Try to build his confidence by reminding him when you can of all the nice things about him. That you are proud of his e.g. thoughtfulness, or helping or kindness to his sister; maybe mention that you are pleased he tries hard in school, or that he’s good at swimming. Pete needs to learn the value of keeping quiet – it is more impressive to discover that someone is a brilliant saxophonist/artist/dancer, than to be told about these things again and again.

Depending on how the conversation goes, you could suggest a secret signal that you can give him when you feel he’s overdoing it again. Some children love that!

Chrissie [aged 7] is horribly bossy to the staff at home. She does not get this from us!!

This is a really difficult problem, particularly for people who are often first generation expats. I remember reading that some staff in England said it was easier working for “old money” as they knew how to behave and didn’t say “Thank you” all the time! It seems that “new money” says “Thank you” which then requires a response, while the aristocracy just kept quiet till the end, and almost pretended the staff were not there. It’s the same problem now; most new expats realise that they must have staff and value this, but don’t find it easy to manage their remuneration, time off, where they sleep, how much they should do for the children etc. The whole thing is made harder when the staff come from another country again, and are financially very dependent. Sometimes it works, sometimes it can feel difficult.

Chrissie seems to have taken to having a servant almost to the point of treating her like a slave. And because the girl is kind, and both misses her own children and desperately needs the money, Chrissie seems to be getting away with it. The girl’s duties are to look after the three children. She is supposed to prepare their food, sort out their clothes and rooms, fetch them from school and be there to play with them sometimes. Chrissie is the youngest of the three and seems to have taken to ordering the girl about in a major way.

I suggest you approach this in several ways. You are sure that you and your husband are not happy with this attitude so at least you are starting from a common stance. Talk to all three children together and clarify the girl’s duties. It would be helpful also to write down the few chores you expect the children to do, especially Chrissie, and then make sure she actually does them. I would also speak to Chrissie by herself and tell her how unhappy you are with her behaviour. Perhaps you could make a secret chart where you mark down every time you hear her being nice, and show it to her quite often – maybe she could even get a present when she has been really nice for a week!! You also need to tell your help that she should only do as you have agreed – but I doubt that that will have much effect!

Usually this is just a phase that some children go through – they enjoy the power. And as Chrissie is the youngest, perhaps she does not feel she has much power in other situations. But you are right to try and nip it in the bud now. Chrissie has to learn how to manage.

Should we send our secondary age children back to school in the UK?

This is one of those “How long is a piece of string?” questions.

If your children are happy at school, get on well with their teachers and with their friends, and are learning, then the answer would probably be no. State schools in the UK are generally rather mediocre nowadays so unless you can afford a really good public school, there is no real point in sending them home for an education. Neither will qualifications from a UK school be helpful in gaining a place at a UK university, although you may need to check that Universities you favour will accept the qualifications your school does.

British schools abroad are generally highly regarded and well-staffed. The class sizes tend to be smaller and the discipline is better than in the UK. Educationally, there is little to recommend British state schools at present when there is some confusion about the direction education should take.

So why would you be doing this? Is your family unsettled, moving from town to town or country to country? Are you planning to divorce? Do the children constantly quarrel with each other? Do you want them to get to know their UK family?

Obviously, if your family has to move several times in the foreseeable future, it might be better if you can give the children some stability, at least within their educational setting. Similarly, if the parents are intending a divorce, you may think that school could offer a measure of security. This needs very careful consideration, however, as the children could feel rejected on all sides unless you handle this very sensitively.

Sometimes it may be a good idea to separate siblings – if, perhaps you feel that one is seriously lacking in confidence and needs to develop independently. And if one of your children wants to study a subject unavailable locally, GB might be the answer. I suppose there might even be an argument if the children are presently being bullied, although then every effort should be made to sort out the problems first.

Unless there is a very good reason, I would suggest keeping your children with you. Obviously, boarding works very well indeed for some children, and many children become quite self-sufficient. Some children yearn for the chance to go to a boarding school – I read the Chalet School stories when I was young and was desperate to try jolly japes, and midnight feasts in the dorm. But for children who have a well-developed social life, friends, and are working well at school, there seems to be little reason for such a radical move.

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