Monday 28 March 2016

What legacy will a childhood leave?

In our home, we read many biographies. These days, there are some excellent resources for children of all ages (as discussed in this post on 'living books') The children love to hear of how men and women who started life as children who loved to play, grew up and did great things for the Lord. It inspires them. I'm also enjoying the autobiography of Nelson Mandela at the moment, and know that one day in the future, the boys will be challenged and inspired by much of his life (and will be able to reflect on the less praiseworthy elements, especially of his young adult life!)

One thing which has struck me is how many biographers start of describing their childhood, their memories of the first home, of their parents, of the prevailing culture and worldview within their home. Many, particularly those from previous generations, often describe a very free childhood, with hours spent playing out of doors with their friends, of exploring, imagining, creating and enjoying the simple pleasures of what was often a simple life. Many also describe discipline - of misdemeanours which were punished, and of the values and priorities of their families; in some situations the discipline may have been overly harsh, whereas in others it seemed appropriate and the evidence would suggest it achieved its end.

This has made me wonder about our current generation. This week in a prominent British newspaper was the report that many British children spend less time out of doors than the recommended minimum for prisoners. Whilst shocking, I was not surprised to read this. We lived in the UK for several years recently, and one of the most striking things was how few children we saw out of doors. We often had the parks to ourselves, and I was particularly taken aback one snowy Saturday morning when we walked several miles across two beautiful parks and saw no other children at all. I (in slight irony) posed the question on Facebook of whether children played in the snow these days, and received many replies suggesting that it was too cold for children to play outside. (Too cold? In the UK, where it rarely goes much below zero!) Similarly, discipline seems to be disapproved of; much has been written about 'positive parenting', and I am not going to discuss exactly what I think about some of that here and now, but what I would observe is the least disciplined generation of British children there has ever been. Parents feel unable to take their children into shops, or places to eat due to the risk of tantrums and poor behaviour. Schools have strict rules prohibiting discipline, and in any event, should a teacher attempt to discipline a child, it is most likely that their parent will lodge a complaint. The child is often elevated to the position of being one who controls a household!

But in seriousness, childhood has dramatically changed for the current generation of youngsters. Many are shuttled around from nursery to after school activities, and when at home, are occupied by televisions or i-pads. There is an increased emphasis on educational activities - and indeed many will justify the screen time in this respect. But the time for relationship, for imaginative play, for fresh air and appreciation of the beauty of nature seems to be ever diminishing. Many previous generations were characterised by a strong oral tradition of local and family legend, or folklore or of wisdom handed down from older to younger. Today, respect for elders is reduced and I do not know of many families where such time for listening and storytelling continues. Mealtimes were once the place where even a busy family would convene and share the events of their day; however many homes these days do not even contain a dining table, and microwave meals eaten in front of the television may be preferred.

I wonder what a child raised in such conditions would write in a biography many years hence? How would they recall their childhood? I also find myself wondering whether the plastic, superficial entertainment and endless activity without clear goals will produce a generation of clear-minded, motivated leaders who substantially impact upon society.

I could spend much time ranting about what I think may be wrong with today's society, with specific reference to the rearing of children. But others have written far more, and more eloquently on this topic. I would personalise the question and put it this way: What legacy am I providing for my children? What foundation in life? What will they remember when they are teaching their children? Are we providing the foundation and worldview required to make a difference in their generation?

What are we putting in place to give our children a strong and formative childhood? I wonder if part of the problem these days is that traditions have been lost, and few people are taking the time to consider what is really required. Rather, there is a tendency to drift, to follow the crowd and not to question, as opposed to intentional parenting.

For us, these questions partly motivate our choice to home educate. We wish to provide a diverse and rich curriculum where the children can explore and interact with history, geography, and world cultures, whilst also being equipped in the necessary language arts and mathematical skills they require. For us, Sonlight is ideal as it is structured with living books, not avoiding controversial or challenging topics, and provides the basis for much further discussion. We don't limit ourselves to the Sonlight resources - for example, my husband and I will both talk about things we have read in the evenings, of items in the news or events from our days, making these appropriate for the age of our children. By that, I don't mean we avoid discussing terrorism, war, famine or disaster, but rather we try to avoid detail or things which might be confusing for them (for example, what the motivation of a suicide bomber might be!) We want our children to be prepared to live in this world, and to understand that it is a broken and fallen place, and to be able to correctly apply Scripture into these most challenging of situations rather than living in some kind of spiritual bubble.

Secondly, we endeavour to provide the time for the children to play, and to be children. Not to always 'pounce' seeking to explain a concept, but rather taking a step back from time to time and allowing their childish imaginations to take them on adventures.

Thirdly, we prayerfully consider the use of our time - aiming for a few group activities and meet ups, but not so many that we don't have down time as a family, to read, to chat, to cook together and to sing together. Some people refer to this as 'margin' - having the space for the children to ask questions, to reflect, to spend longer on tasks rather than rushing through simply to tick off an item from a list.

My question for you today is similar: What kind of childhood would you wish your children to recall in years hence, and how do you aim to achieve this?

Thursday 24 March 2016

Quality of Written English/ Swiss Family Robinson

Have you ever noticed how the standard of English in childrens' books has declined over the past 50 years? We have many Ladybird books from the 1960s, where a rich and diverse vocabulary is employed to describe the world around us, important characters from history and a range of other topics. We have some more recent Ladybird books which are verge on the 'twaddle' so much detested by Charlotte Mason - poor quality English, restricted vocabulary and minimal content. This is just one publisher and one example. Is it any wonder that children then have a limited vocabulary and do not naturally develop the expansive skills in written and spoken English that we would require? I have had many trips to the public libraries in the UK, and have been disappointed by the selection, or frustrated by the inane, senseless storylines of some of the books, particularly those aimed at younger children.

This weekend I picked up a copy of The Swiss Family Robinson and started to read it aloud (we try to have a book that we read together as a family). I had read it as a child, but what really struck me reading it as an home educating parent was the richness of the language and the very practical descriptions of how one might survive on a desert island. The father in the story is also clearly a spiritual leader, and each day begins and ends with prayers of thanksgiving, and at intervals he corrects the wrong attitudes of his sons. I was intrigued by this, so read a bit further (using web searches). In fact the author was a Swiss pastor who wrote the story for his sons, deliberately seeking to provide practical lessons in nature and animal husbandry, but also in moral conduct and family responsibilities. Written over 200 years ago, and translated into English a little later, the language is beautiful and poetic, and my sons are captivated.

I just wanted to share this, as it was most refreshing to pick up a book which contains just about everything you could want for three young boys - adventure, survival, practical skills and ingenuity, but underpinning it all, a reverence and honour of the Lord who created it all.

PS: Just read this helpful blog on how to choose the best books for your children

Sunday 13 March 2016

Communication, technology and relationships

I wrote a little about this the other week, when I was reflecting on how people 'back home' can best be a supportive friend to those who have gone overseas. I've also often wondered about our current generation where there seem to be more forms of 'communication' than ever before - social media in its various forms (I don't even know what twitter is really for, and haven't yet discovered whatsapp, but I do use Facebook! These are probably not even the latest ones) and an increasing range of gadgets to communicate with. But do people really communicate? And if not, what are they doing, and what do they think the are achieving?

There are many cartoons drawing attention to how foolish we can become, ignoring those around us to look at a post or a message from somebody we barely know. But the sad thing is just how true this can be; I think we have all seen people (including ourselves) make some of those errors. And I know people who get quite irritable if we don't immediately answer our phones (or even worse, if we should choose to leave them behind!)

My challenge is how to maintain relationships at a distance. What is the role of Facebook? Or email? Or any of the online tools? Is there a role at all, or should we revert to sending letters which take months to arrive (if at all) and catching up face to face during the rare times we are in the same place as one another?

I think Facebook does have a role.

On the general site, I like to be able to see approximately how friends are doing, and see pictures of weddings, babies, lovely holidays and groups of friends having fun. I know there is much that such pictures cannot tell me, but I can at least see what people look like these days, and know approximately what significant life events have happened. (It can be quite awkward when, after 4 years overseas you ask after somebody to be greeted by an incredulous stare: 'Didn't you know he died last year?') Similarly, I know friends and family like to see photos of what we are up to. I also post links to charties we are involved with (such as the orphanage where my son lived for six weeks when he was a baby, or the organisation my husband works for). I also keep a small email list of people who like to receive regular short updates and send a few photos and a bit of news every couple of weeks - but I do sometimes worry about spamming people's mailboxes, and given the few replies I receive I start to wonder whether the emails are irritating. So Facebook has the advantage of being on the terms of the person looking at it - nobody ever feels spammed (or at least, I don't think they do). But I would take great care in posting anything particularly personal or sensitive there. My concern is that people (especially the younger generation, but it affects all of us who have access to the technologies) is that it is easy to food oneself that this is meaningful communication. In an age with ever increasing technology available to the majority, there are more and more people experiencing desperate loneliness. Which makes you wonder whether this 'communication' is helpful at all.

Much has been written on this. For example, the desire to see how many 'likes' a post gets, induces a neurochemical response similar to that seen in laboratory rats who are trained to do certain things to generate a positive stimulus. And of course there are issues of online safety, the overlap between the personal and the professional domains and others. This short book by Tim Chester is quite helpful in providing a balanced view of the risks.

I like the groups within Facebook. So for example, a Bible study group can have a 'hidden group' whereby a dozen people can communicate on a slightly deeper level, perhaps sharing prayer requests, challenges which they have encountered in their lives or asking specifically for help and encouragement. I am in a couple of such groups, mainly relating to church or home education, and I find this ability to be a bit more honest with a smaller group of people helpful. It is very useful to be able to ask a small group of trusted friends to pray for something. However, we are still limited to short posts, and people tend to 'like' the post and write a couple of words in reply; it is not nearly the same as really being able to sit down and talk things through.

Old fashioned (and it's funny to write that, given I went through the whole of University without using email) emails between just one friend are good, perhaps my favourite thing of all - these have the advantages of letters, but without the time delay. We can write to one another and instantly the letter is half way around the world, and can be enjoyed. But then these do take more time and effort than short general 'posts' or updates.

I know others who basically accept that they will not be able to keep up with everybody they have been friends with in every place where they have lived, and instead focus on building the relationships that are right in front of them. Rather than worrying about talking with people back 'home', they build a new friendship group in the community where God has placed them. We do try to do this, but I feel reluctant to stop trying to keep channels of communication open with people who are not physically here. Maybe that's also where Facebook can be useful; you can keep in touch superficially enough to make it easier to pick things up at some time in the future. We know where to find one another.

I am aware I haven't fully answered the question I started with, and I imagine that the use of communication technology might differ from individual to individual and from time to time. It certainly is a blessing to be able to ring home, or send photos of the grandchildren, and when I read missionary biographies from a byegone era, I realise how hard things must have been, perhaps in a particular way for the people left behind.

But I am also aware that we can convince ourselves that we are communicating when we are not! We can spend hours responding to things from people we barely know, rather than investing in a small number of meaningful relationships. And I think every Christian who uses Facebook should do so cautiously and prayerfully. I have a number of good friends who have just stopped, for a range of reasons. I miss hearing from them (!) but I also respect that choice.

How do you use social media in a positive and God-honouring way? If you are overseas, how do you keep in touch with loved ones? If you have friends overseas, how do you keep in touch with them?

Sunday 6 March 2016

Busy, but thankful

I've not managed to blog over the past couple of weeks. Instead, I have been in three different continents, am pushing some tight deadlines, and in between have tried to ensure there is stability in the home. My husband has also travelled, and we have been thankful for the working arrangements that make this kind of life possible.

Specific things which have made me thankful (and yes, I may jump around a bit - I blame a bit of fatigue!):

1) I met a good friend in a city in the USA where neither of us live. We used to live in the same country in southern Africa, but had not seen one another for eight years. Yet it was as though we had never been apart, and she brought me great encouragement and refreshment. I was very thankful that God enabled such an opportunity when travelling for work-related reasons, and it was great to start a scientific conference with some spiritual encouragement!

2) Sharing in the history my boys have been learning. They love the poem 'Paul Revere's ride'. I had the chance to run along the 'freedom trail' at sunrise and photograph some of the historic sites as they look today. I wouldn't have known anything about Boston if it hadn't been through homeschooling the boys, and they got an extra perspective through their mum being a medical academic. I like it when things work together like that!

3) I've mentioned before that our neighbours also homeschool - it has been great to see the children increasingly play together, and even share some educational activities. Dressing up and 'acting' is popular, as was pasta-making the other day! Living on a compound has some great advantages, and also some challenges at times. But right now, I find it refreshing and watching the children playing together is a highlight.

4) I'm simply overwhelmed with gratitude to the Lord who has blessed us so abundantly. I think people in the west (or as some people might term it, 'the north', or 'well resourced countries') almost like to moan and have no idea how much they have to be thankful for. Maybe when you live in a country where many children cannot afford an education, or where you know families who eat once a day or less, or when you know children who do not own a single book - then it is just humbling and overwhelming to have freedom and choice, to have shelves full of books, and the time and resources to invest in educating our children.

Your life is probably equally busy at times. What makes you most thankful? When you stop and reflect, how has God blessed you, encouraged you and provided for you?